Notes for Andrew Feenberg Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited

Key concepts: associated milieu, democratic rationalization, suboptimization.

Related therorists: David Noble, Gilbert Simondon.

1 Introduction:
The Varieties of Theory
Technology and the End of History

Part I. From Marxism to Radical Critique
2 Technology and Transition
Marxist Perspectives on Labor and Technology
Exploitation or Domination

Labor Process Theory 1

Three Critiques of Technology

Labor Process Theory 2

David Noble believes numerically controlled machine tools triumphed because they reduced need for skilled labor on shop floor, and management ideology drove innovation: refutes instrumentalist neutrality of technology.

(49) Managers found the prospect of gaining total control so attractive that a consensus quickly formed in favor of the digital systems, long before these were proven and even after it had become apparent that they could not offer all the promised cost savings and productivity increases.
(49) [David] Noble's argument refutes the instrumentalist notion of the neutrality of technology by displaying the actual workings of a major choice that defies conventional economic and technical logic. Instead, Noble demonstrates the powerful role of what he calls “management ideology,” which orients development toward the technical alternative that promises to enhance managerial power regardless of its social consequences and even despite significant economic liabilities.

Critique and Transition

Contradictions of the Transition
The Concept of Ambivalence

From Social to Political Revolution

Rethinking the Transition

The Limits of Marxism

3 The Bias of Technology
Means and Ends

Reject instrumentalist theory of technology because subjects and means are intertwined; due to bias of technology towards particular hegemony, all action tends to reproduce the hegemony.

(63) If this is true, sociotechnical transformation cannot be conceived in terms of instrumental categories because the very act of using technology reproduces what is supposed to be transformed. Hence the well-known limitations of liberal management techniques such as job enrichment and quality circles. This is the paradox of reform from above: since technology is not neutral but fundamentally biased toward a particular hegemony, all action undertaken within its framework tends to reproduce that hegemony.

Marcuse and Foucault

Technological Rationality


Dystopian Paradoxes



The Technical Code

Double Aspect Theory

Capitalist metagoal is reproducing operational autonomy through technical decisions; technical code of capitalism.

(76) Capitalism is unique in that its hegemony is largely based on reproducing its own operational autonomy through technical decisions.
(76) Capitalist social and technical requirements are condensed in a “technological rationality” or a “regime of truth” that brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalist hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code.

Technical code required because science and technique can be used otherwise, especially through tactical responses until ruling hegemony strategically encoded; clear examples developed by Lessig concerning code as law.

(79) a technical code is needed to bind applications to hegemonic purposes since science and technique can be integrated to serve different hegemonic orders. That is also why new technology can threaten the hegemony of the ruling groups until it has been strategically encoded.

Formal Bias

Technological Figurations

Struggles over control as tactical responses in margin of maneuver of the dominated; multistable, ambivalent system tilting between capitalist and socialist poles of power as ideal-types.

(87) Struggles over control of technical activities can now be reconceptualized as tactical responses in the margin of maneuver of the dominated.
(87) In sum, modern technology opens a space within which action can be functionalized in either one of two social systems, capitalism or socialism. It is an ambivalent or “multistable” system that can be organized around at least two hegemonies, two poles of power between which it can “tilt” (Ihde, 1990: 144). From this standpoint the concepts of “capitalism” and “socialism” are no longer mutually exclusive “modes of production,” nor is their moral significance captured in the manichean conflict between a prisonlike society and the individual in revolt. They are, rather, ideal-types lying at the extremes of a continuum of changes in the technical codes of advanced societies.

Part II. The Ambivalence of the Computer
4 Postindustrial Discourses
The Ambivalent Computer

Automation and Ideology

Computer is an ambivalent technology because it can be used to further enforce control or foster flexibility so that worker adaptability becomes central (Hirschhorn and Zuboff).

Availability of computer for alternative developments feeds both Winner mythinformation and actual development in FLOSS.

(96) Although Hirschhorn and Zuboff do not blame capitalism for the problems they discuss, their critique of the high cost of authoritarian management generally parallels that of Marx. They show that the computer is an ambivalent technology available for alternative developments. Automation increases management's autonomy only at the expense of creating new problems that justify workers' demands for an enlarged margin of maneuver. That margin may be opened to improve the quality of self-directed activity or it may remain closed to optimize control. As Zuboff writes, “Technological design embodies assumptions that can either invite or extinguish a human contribution” (Zuboff, 1988: 182).

Computers, Communication, and Artificial Intelligence

The Myth of Artificial Intelligence

Computer-Mediated Communication

Heidegger discussion group arose unexpectedly in VAX Notes community originally designed for networked project groups by engineers seeking deeper cultural insight for more realistic design approaches.

(100) Here, then, is an unsuspected aspect of computer work. The contradiction between automatism and communication built into computer practitioners' daily experience offered a certain margin of maneuver that they were able to use to modify their social insertion and activities. One of the many VAX Notes conferences was especially symptomatic of these contradictions: a discussion of Heidegger's philosophy. A leading design engineer and his coworkers started the conference because they had lost faith in their rationalistic assumptions about human beings. Heidegger's phenomenology of human action seemed to promise an escape from their naïve engineering culture toward a more realistic approach to designing interfaces and equipment (Whiteside and Wixon, 1988).

Toward a New Paradigm

The Paradox of Self-Organization

Ontological Designing

Leave AI for new paradigm machines for acting in language from Winograd and Flores; rise of collaborative technologies.

(106) Winograd and Flores argue that computers are not automata, artificial intelligences, but “machines for acting in language” (Winograd and Flores, 1987: 178). AI needs to lower its sights considerably if this is true. . . . It makes more sense to compare expert systems to word processing than to treat them as mental prostheses.
(106) This view leads to a revalorization of communicative functions of computers. A new field of “collaborative technologies” has emerged to adapt computer programs to the needs of work groups. . . . The social and technical dimensions of computerized activity are integrated here in a way that recalls Hirschhorn's communication theory of automated machinery and Zuboff's discussion of the textualization of work.

Ontological designing is also political.

(107) The design of computers is thus humanly significant as well as instrumentally important, for “in designing tools we are designing ways of being” (Winograd and Flores, 1987: xi). Winograd and Flores call this “ontological designing.” . . . That discourse, I would add, is also political.

The Myth of Automatism

Technology and Finitude

5 The Factory or the City: Which Model for Online Education?
Technology and Modernity

The Meanings of the Internet

As Plato pointed out, arguments arise for substituting interaction with technology of intellectual exchange.

(116) In short, Plato holds that the technology of writing has the power to destroy the dialogic relationship that ought to join teacher and student.
(116) Ironically, Plato used a written text as the vehicle for his critique of writing, setting a precedent that we continue to follow in present-day debates about educational technology: many of the most vociferous attacks on Web-based media circulate on the Internet (Noble, 1997).
(116) However, while Plato's condemnation of writing was unfair, he alerts us to a real issue: whenever a new educational technology is introduced, arguments emerge for substituting interaction with the technology for the process of intellectual exchange.

Automating Education

Informating Education

Conclusion: The Future of Educational Technology

Part III. The Dialectics of Technology
6 Beyond the Dilemma of Development

The Dilemma of Development
The Thesis of Convergence

Technological Determinism

Determinism is dominant view of modernization: technical progress is fixed; social adaptation fits underlying technical necessity.

(138) The dominant view of modernization is based on the deterministic assumption that technology has its own autonomous logic of development. According to this view, technology is an invariant element that, once introduced, bends the recipient social system to its imperatives.

Nondeterministic position that prevailing hegemony affects technical and social criteria of progress; technology changes based the social institutions.

(143) Thus, technology does not pose an insuperable obstacle to the pursuit of “humanistic” values. There is no reason why it could not be reconstructed to conform to the values of a socialist society.

Ethics and Economics

Suboptimizations are unrealized potentialities as judged from next stage.

(146) In economic terms, unrealized potentialities appear as vast suboptimizations, systematic underemployment of major resources, as judged from the standpoint of the next stage. These suboptimizations are due to the restrictions placed on technical and human development by the dominant economic culture. Only a new culture that shifts patterns of investment and consumption can shatter the economic premises of the existing civilization and yield a better way of life.
(147) This approach to the concept of progress opens up a nondeterministic way of thinking about the connection between economic and cultural change. The generalized concept of suboptimization explains how powerful ideological motivations can anticipate a new economic order and aid in bringing it into being, even if it be through means that would be evaluated as uneconomic on the terms of the existing system.

The Transition to Socialism Revisited
Indicies of the Transition

Phenomena indicating transition to socialism and civilizational change.
(148) The transition to socialism can be identified by the presence of phenomena that, taken separately, appear economically irrational or administratively ineffective from the standpoint of capitalist technological rationality, but that together initiate a process of civilizational change.
(148) A contemporary list of measures capable of setting in motion such a process [transition to socialism] would include extensive (if not universal) public ownership, the democratization of management, the spread of lifetime learning beyond the immediate needs of the economy, and the transformation of techniques and professional training to incorporate an ever wider range of human needs into the technical code.

Reformulation hinges on conditions for requalification of labor force; democracy as productive force for shaping innovative as twist on traditional Marxism.

(149-150) The reformulation hinges on the cultural and technological conditions for the requalification of the labor force. . . . But where traditional Marxism assumed that workers would be guided by objectively ascertainable interests in transforming technology, I will argue that democratic control of technically mediated institutions is a condition for generating an interest in a new direction of technological progress. In other words, democracy itself is a “productive force” of a new type, shaping innovation in a future socialist society.



(151) an expanded role for knowledge, skill, and democratic participation rather than state control of industry defines a comparably significant difference between socialism and all present-day modern societies, including communist ones.
(153) The socialist labor process will be based on a synergism of the demand for skilled labor and the growth of human powers of leisure.


Education essential to democratization.

(153) Clearly, education is essential to democratization. Social ownership must extend beyond machines, buildings, and land to include the monopolized knowledge required for the management of industry.

What happened to the personal computer and FLOSS revolutions?

(155) It is true that the arc of cultural advance has nowhere been prolonged to the point where it generated major technological alternatives, but that possibility casts a shadow over current arrangements and refutes technocratic complacency and resignation.


Soviet rationalizations.

Compare rationalizations to FLOSS projects, noting attempts to promote innovation in capitalist firms.

(157) Workers were offered a means of claiming authorship and receiving bonuses for useful ideas. To promote worker participation in innovation, 'complex brigades' of workers, engineers, and others were assembled to draft blueprints, test solutions, and refine original ideas. Several mass organizations mobilized large voluntary support networks to help worker-innovators overcome the bureaucratic obstacles to success.
(158) There are interesting similarities between these experiments and attempts to promote innovation in certain large, high-technology capitalist firms.

Socialism and the Middle Strata

Technical and administrative middle strata workers must take on more managerial roles; organizational change and broad education required to help deep democratization.

(159) Managers' actual authority must be accommodated to the gradual enlargement of workers' margin of maneuver. This deep democratization implies significant changes in the structure and knowledge base of the various technical and administrative specializations.
(160) the middle strata are defined by their
place in organization rather than by an economic function. The fragility of their social identity is due to the instrumental character of the organizations that support it. In the modern world, these owe their existence to their legitimacy as determined by legal or economic criteria that can change at a moment's notice.

7. The Critical Theory of Technology
The Critique of Scientific-Technical Rationality
Modernity and Critique

Pippin definition of modernity as affirmation of autonomy against traditional authorities.

(162) Modernity is the affirmation of autonomy against every traditional or social authority (Pippin, 1991).

Reason and Domination
(165) Critical Theory attacks capitalism by attacking its forms of rationality.
(168) asking what it means that formal systems are generally available for applications biased to favor domination.
(169) Despite, or rather because of, its neutrality as between potentialities and utilitarian values, formal reason is biased towards the actual, what is already realized and available for technical control.

Toward a Successor Technoscience?

Nonontological critical theory grown from Marcuse potentiality but avoiding equivocating natural science, rationality and capitalism; compare to Malabou.

(170) Marcuse's theory of potentiality implies a participatory epistemology and a holistic ontology.
(175) A nonontological formulation of a critical theory of technology is possible on terms that leave natural science out of account. I believe this is the best way to counter the undifferentiated defense of technoscience in the writings of the many philosophers and social theorists who see a threat to rationality as a whole in any critique of technology.

Instrumentalization Theory
Two Types of Instrumentalization

Secondary instrumentalizations at intersection of technical and social actions; compare to Spinuzzi and Latour.

(177) Secondary instrumentalizations lie at the intersection of technical action and the other actions with which technique is inextricably linked insofar as it is a social enterprise. . . . But capitalism has a unique relation to these aspects of technique. Because its hegemony rests on formal bias, it strives to reduce technique to the primary level of decontextualization, calculation, and control.

The Dialectic of Technology

Capitalism short circuits dialectic of technology by technical managerial control of labor force creating obstacles to secondary instrumentalization.

(177) The dialectic of technology is short-circuited under capitalism in one especially important domain: the technical control of the labor force. Special obstacles to secondary instrumentalization are encountered wherever integrative technical change would threaten that control. . . . Although the actors may rationalize the technologies they employ, the larger system in which these technologies are embedded [e.g., nuturing or aesthetic practices] resists rationalization and does not fall under the norm of efficiency.

Four reifying moments of technical practice: decontextualization and systematization, reductionism and mediation, autonomization and vocation, positioning and initiative.

(178) four reifying moments of technical practice





Enlarging margin of maneuver in socialist trajectory.

(183) Capitalist management and product design aims to limit and channel the little initiative that remains to workers and consumers. Their margin of maneuver is reduced to occasional tactical gestures. But the enlargement of margin of maneuver in a socialist trajectory of development would lead to voluntary cooperation in the coordination of effort. . . . In modern societies collegiality is an alternative to traditional bureaucracy with widespread, if imperfect, applications in the organization of professionals such as teachers and doctors.

Technological Holism
Recontextualizing Practice
(184) Health and environmental considerations, the enrichment of work and industrial democracy, must all be internalized as engineering objectives. This can be accomplished my multiplying the technical systems that are brought to bear on design to take into account more and more of the essential features of the object of the technology, the needs of operators, consumers, and clients, and the requirements of the environment.
(185) The underlying problem is the reified separation of labor, consumption, and social decision-making in all modern industrial societies.
(185) Because technology is designed in abstraction from these so-called soft values, including them at a later stage has highly visible costs. These costs appear to represent essential trade-offs inscribed in the very nature of industrial society when in reality they are side effects of a reified design process.

The FOS development model is a good example of an alternate to the reified, default design process.

(186) it will take technical progress to reform the technology inherited from capitalism.


Simondon concretization.

(186) That progress can be theorized in terms of Gilbert Simondon's concept of the “concretization” of technology (Simondon, 1958: chap. 1). Concretization is the discovery of synergisms between technologies and their various environments. . . . In the course of technical progress, parts are redesigned to perform multiple functions and structural interactions take on fundamental roles. These integrative changes yield a more “concrete” technical object that is in fact a system rather than a bunch of externally related elements.

Simondon associated milieu is exactly what a computer operating systems and networks seek to embody.

(186-187) The most sophisticated technologies employ synergies between their various milieus to create a semiartificial environment that supports their own functioning. Simondon calls the combined technical and natural conditions these technologies generate an “associated milieu.” It forms a niche with which the technology is in continue recursive causal interaction.

Organic concreteness when technology generates environmental conditions, complementing rather than conquering nature and overcoming reified heritage of capitalist industrialism.

(187) The higher level of “organic” concreteness is achieved where the technology itself generates the environmental conditions to which it is adapted, as when the heat generated by a motor supplies a favorable operating environment.
(187) The idea of a “concrete technology,” which includes nature in its very structure, contradicts the commonplace notion that technical progress “conquers” nature. . . .
The passage from abstract technical beginnings to concrete outcomes is a general integrative tendency of technological development that overcomes the reified heritage of capitalist industrialism.
(188) The argument shows that socialist demands for environmentally sound technology and human, democratic, and safe work are not extrinsic to the logic of technology but respond to the inner tendency of technical development to construct synergistic totalities of natural, human, and technical elements.

Feenberg, Andrew. Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.