Feenberg (2017). Critical theory of technology and STS.

Feenberg, A. (2017). Critical theory of technology and STS. Thesis Eleven, 138(1), 3–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/0725513616689388

“Science and Technology Studies … STS …” (p 3)

“The major critical theorists, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse, argued that we live in a technocratic society with a culture colonized by technical rationality.” (p 3)

“There are three main types of interventions: first, controversies, which include protests, boycotts, litigation, online petitions, and so on; second, creative appropriations such as hacking in which technologies are repurposed for different uses than those intended by their creators or owners; finally there are various sorts of participatory dialogue between lay and expert actors. These democratic interventions have enlarged the public sphere (Feenberg, 1999: 120–1).” (p 4)

“… STS investigates everything except the sources of its own success.” (p 5)

“Science is no longer viewed as a neutral resource, above the fray of competing social interests, but is recognized as a social institution influenced by public debate (Latour and Weibel, 2005; Jasanoff, 2004; Wynne, 2011; Chilvers and Kearnes, 2016; Callon et al., 2011).” (p 5)

“The central insight of critical theory, that rationality has become a cultural form, remains of great interest.” (p 5)

“STS proposes that technical decisions and designs are underdetermined by purely technical considerations. STS argues for the role of social groups, ‘actors’, in interpreting the meaning of technological artifacts. Assigning one or another meaning influences design choices.” (p 5)

“… actor-network theory (Latour, 1992).” (p 6)

“Participant interests are articulated in programs and anti-programs. Programs consist in the dominant actors’ designs for the network. They are able to organize a large portion of the nodes around their intentions, but it would be an elementary mistake to imagine that their program coincides with the entire network. Other nodes become active around consequences of network participation that the dominant actors fail to foresee and control. Where these uncontrolled nodes are human beings, they may propose intentional anti-programs that conflict with the dominant program.” (p 6)

“The dominant program is materialized in actual technologies through designed-in values and purposes. The dominant actors thus always have the ‘facts’ on their side. The anti-program may be confined at first to discursive expressions such as protests and demands articulating values different from those of the dominant actors. The subordinate actors’ demands usually appear to be unrealistic, ideological, in the face of the ‘facts’.” (p 6)

“… technology is ideological (Marcuse, 1964: 11).” (p 6)

“The great contest between Western democratic capitalism and the ‘totalitarian’ alternatives –- fascism and communism –- was over and the West had won. This was the ‘end of ideology’; all significant social problems were treated as occasions for technical interventions based on the advancing social and natural sciences.” (p 7)

“Marcuse claimed that technological rationality had become a new legitimating ideology, replacing the outmoded notion of free markets. His critique had three main elements. First, he argued that the mass media and individual consumption were powerful integrative forces. They had successfully reduced the resistance of the proletariat to capitalism. Second, he showed that technological rationality had become a cultural form, a kind of a priori of experience that redefined social conflicts as technical problems. … Third, Marcuse argued that technological designs such as the assembly line conform to the requirements of top-down control and reinforce the capitalist system. He claimed that a redesigned technology under socialism would embody different values.” (p 7)

“Marx believed that workers, as technological insiders, could modify the technological foundations of society. There is thus in Marxism a notion of imminent resistance to the given technical system.” (p 8)

“We need a rational critique of reason that validates the rationality of actual resistance to alienated technical arrangements. There is every reason to believe in the existence of that alternative rationality. Its validity has been proven over and over as democratic interventions succeed in placing problems on the agenda and forcing their resolution.” (p 8)

“The legitimating power of the dominant rationality stems from its implicit claim to represent humanity in general. Critical theory must refute that claim and demonstrate the social relativity of rationality as it is applied in the real world. This requires a method for showing the bias of rational disciplines, systems and artifacts.” (p 8)

“Marcuse argued that advanced capitalist administration is characterized by the systematic substitution of manipulation for coercion.” (p 10)

“But there is an inherent tension in a democratic legitimation of capitalism. The appeal to democracy undermines the centralized technical power that seems to be essential to capitalism.” (p 10)

Selected References

  • Adorno T (1973) Negative Dialectics, trans. Ashton EB. New York: Seabury.
  • Callon M, Lascoumbes P and Barthe Y (2011) Acting in an Uncertain World, trans. Burchell G. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Chilvers J and Kearnes M (eds) (2016) Remaking Participation: Science, Environment and Emergent Publics. London: Routledge.
  • Feenberg A (1999) Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge.
  • Jasanoff S (2004) The idiom of co-production. In: Jasanoff S (ed.) States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge, 1–12.
  • Latour B (1992) Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In: Bijker W and Law J (eds) Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 225–258.
  • Latour B and Weibel P (eds) (2005) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Marcuse H (1964) One-Dimensional Man. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  • Wynne B (2011) Rationality and Ritual: Participation and Exclusion in Nuclear Decision-Making. Washington, DC: Earthscan.
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