Notes for Andrew Feenberg “Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom”
Key concepts: constructivism, cultural horizon, determination by base, dystopianism, hegemony, indeterminism, social meaning, technical code, technological determinism, unilinear progress.
Related theorists: Wiebe Bijker, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Marx, Marshal McLuhan, Trevor Pinch, Max Weber.
I The Limits of Democratic Theory
Democracy overshadowed by corporate and military leaders in control of technical systems, requiring technical and political change.
So far as decisions affecting our daily lives are concerned,
political democracy is largely overshadowed by the enormous power
wielded by the masters of technical systems: corporate and military
(652) Yet today we do not appear to be much closer to democratizing industrialism than in Marx's time.
(652-653) The qualification concerns the role of technology, which I see as neither determining nor as neutral. I will argue that modern forms of hegemony are based on the technical mediation of a variety of social activities, whether it be production or medicine, education or the military, and that, consequently, the democratization of our society requires radical technical as well as political change.
(653) I will argue that technology is not just the rational control of nature; both its development and impact are intrinsically social. I will then show that this view undermines the customary reliance on efficiency as a criterion of technological development.
II Dystopian Modernity
McLuhan declares it dystopian modernity in which technology has reduced humans to sex organs of machines, foreshadowing the horrifying apocalyptic portrayal of cocooned somnambulists populating vast server farm power supplies in the Matrix.
My title is meant to reject the dichotomy between rational hierarchy
and irrational protest implicit in Weber's
(653) As Marshal McLuhan once put it, technology has reduced us to the “sex organs of machines.”
Flaw of dystopianism is equivocating technology in general with the specific technologies that developed in the West under capitalism.
(653) I will concentrate on the principal flaw of dystopianism, the identification of technology in general with the specific technologies that have been developed in the last century in the West.
III Technological Determinism
Determinism founded on assumption that technology resembles science and mathematics, independent of social world, only social for its purposes served.
(653) Determinism rests on the assumption that technologies have an autonomous functional logic that can be explained without reference to society. Technology is presumably social only through the purpose it serves, and purposes are in the mind of the beholder. Technology would thus resemble science and mathematics by its intrinsic independence of the social world.
Theses of unilinear progress and determination by base present decontextualized, self-generating technology.
(654) These I will call the thesis of unilinear progress, and the the
these of determination by base.
(654) social institutions must adapt to the “imperatives” of the technological base.
(654) These two theses of technological determinism present decontextualized, self-generating technology as the unique foundation of modern society.
Constructivists include Hayles, Sterne, du Gay along with Pinch and Bijker argue underdetermination of scientific and technical criteria.
(654) Recent constructivist sociology of technology grows out of new
social studies of science.
(654) Constructivism argues that theories and technologies are underdetermined by scientific and technical criteria.
(654) Two sociologists of technology, Trevor Pinch and Wiebe Bijker, illustrate it with the early history of the bicycle.
Looks at changing attitudes over length of workday and child labor to illustrate indeterminism.
(655) For now, let us consider the remarkable anticipation of current
attitudes in the struggle over the length of the workday and child
labor in mid-nineteenth-century England.
(655-666) This example shows the tremendous flexibility of the technical system. It is not rigidly constraining but, on the contrary, can adapt to a variety of social demands.
Technology parliament of things where civilizational alternatives contend, making indeterminism political.
(656) In a society where determinism stands guard on the frontiers of democracy, indeterminism cannot but be political. If technology has many unexplored potentialities, no technological imperatives dictate the current social hierarchy. Rather, technology is a scene of social struggle, a “parliament of things,” on which civilizational alternatives contend.
VI Interpreting Technology
Social meaning and cultural horizon are hermeneutic dimensions of technical objects.
(656) Technical objects have two hermeneutic dimensions that I call their social meaning and their cultural horizon.
Decontextualized temporal development of object under functionalist view fails to note contestations and unpredictable attitudes crystallizing and influencing design changes that forms their social meaning; the latter evident in computers, for example his own study of the French videotex Teletel system.
The functionalist point of view yields a decontextualized temporal
cross-section in the life of the object. . . . But in the real world
all sorts of unpredictable attitudes crystallize around technical
objects and influence later design changes.
(656) These facts are recognized to a certain extent in the technical fields themselves, especially in computers.
(657) I have studied a particularly clear example of the complexity of the relation between the technical function and meaning of the computer in the case of French videotex.
(657) Those applications, in turn, connoted the Minitel as a means of personal encounter, the very opposite of the rationalistic project for which it was originally created. The “cold” computer became a “hot” new medium.
(657) What the object is for the groups that ultimately decide its fate determines what it becomes as it is redesigned and improved over time. If this is true, then we can only understand technological development by studying the sociopolitical situation of the various groups involved in it.
VII Technological Hegemony
Hegemony is form of domination so deeply rooted it seems natural, distribution of social power with the force of culture behind it.
(657) As I will use the term, hegemony is a form of domination so deeply rooted in social life that it seems natural to those it dominates. One might also define it as that aspect of the distribution of social power which has the force of culture behind it.
Modern hegemonies of rationalization as modern cultural horizon based on power of technological design.
The term “horizon” refers to culturally general assumptions that
form the unquestioned background to every aspect of life. . . .
Rationalization is our modern horizon, and technological design is
the key to its effectiveness as the basis of modern hegemonies.
(657) Marcuse shows that the concept of rationalization confounds the [Weberian] control of labor by management with control of nature by technology.
Marcuse rationalization confounding managerial control of labor should be traceable in design of production technology; machine design mirros back operative social factors: now do with history of computing.
If Marcuse is right, it ought to be possible to trace the impress of
class relations in the very design of production technology, as has
indeed been shown by such Marxist students of the labor process as
Harry Braverman and David Noble.
(658) Machine design mirrors back the social factors operative in the prevailing rationality.
VIII Double Aspect Theory
Social meaning and functional rationality are double aspects of technical object; bias of technology is material validation of cultural horizon.
(658) The argument to this point might be summarized as a claim that
social meaning and functional rationality are inextricably
intertwined dimensions of technology. . . . they are “double
aspects” of the same underlying technical object, each aspect
revealed by a specific contextualization.
(658) Once introduced, technology offers a material validation of the cultural horizon to which it has been pre-formed. I call this the “bias” of technology: apparently neutral, functional rationality is enlisted in support of a hegemony.
(658) So long as the contingency of the choice of “truth” remains hidden, the deterministic image of a technically justified social order is projected.
Calls for Foucaultian recontextualizing critique of contingency of truth to uncover horizon.
(658) The legitimating effectiveness of technology depends on unconsciousness of the cultural-political horizon under which it was designed. A recontextualizing critique of technology can uncover that horizon, demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices.
IX The Social Relativity of Efficiency
Syntheses are needed instead of dilemmas presented by trade-off model; design as ambivalent cultural process instead of zero-sum game.
(659) The trade-off model confronts us with dilemmas—environmentally
sound technology vs. prosperity, workers' satisfaction and control
vs. productivity, etc.--where what we need are syntheses.
(659) Design is not a zero-sum economic game, but an ambivalent cultural process that serves a multiplicity of values and social groups without necessarily sacrificing efficiency.
X The Technical Code
Beginning of technology regulation in United State for steamboat boilers.
(659) Steamboat boilers were the first technology regulated in the
(660) What a boiler “is” was thus defined through a long process of political struggle culminating finally in uniform codes issued by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Technical code of the object mediates the process; illusion of technical necessity when code is cast in iron into the product, especially to Lessig on legal codes embedded in software.
(660) What I call the “technical code” of the object mediates the process. That code responds to the cultural horizon of the society at the level of technical design. . . . The illusion of technical necessity arises from the fact that the code is thus literally “cast in iron,” at least in the case of boilers.
Lack of interest opening the black box leads to treating code as fixed input.
(660) In theory one can decompose any technical object and account
for each of its elements in terms of the goals it meets, whether it
be safety, speed, reliability, etc., but in practice no one is
interested in opening the “black box” to see what is
(660) The code is not varied in real-world economic calculations but treated as a fixed input.
Technical standards define portions of social environment, now becoming clear from software studies (Kitchin and Dodge).
(661) Technology is thus not merely a means to an end; technical design standards define major portions of the social environment, such as urban and built spaces, workplaces, medical activities and expectations, life patterns, and so on.
XI Heidegger's “Essence” of Technology
Heidegger realized ambition to control being subordinate to larger ontological dispensation.
(661) His originality consists in pointing out that the ambition to
control being is itself a way of being and hence subordinate at some
deeper level to an ontological dispensation beyond human
(661) Form is no mere question of attitude but takes on a material life of its own: power plants are the Gothic cathedrals of our time.
Flaw in high level of abstraction in Heidegger reflected in blindness of IBM over Nazi use of punch card technology.
(661) Unfortunately, Heidegger's argument is developed at such a high level of abstraction he literally cannot discriminate between electricity and atom bombs, agricultural techniques and the Holocaust.
XII History or Metaphysics
Modern technology could gather its multiple contexts as Heidegger did philosophically if under different organizational forms; autonomy of the enterprise is the culprit, not a metaphysical condition.
Holds out hope of recovering traditional technical values and organizational forms: try with Heideggerian study of electronic devices.
(662) Given a different social context and a different path of
technical development, it might be possible to recover these
traditional technical values and organizational forms in new ways in
a future evolution of modern technological society.
(662) Indeed, there is no reason why modern technology cannot also “gather” its multiple contexts, albeit with less romantic pathos than jugs and chalices.
(663) It is the autonomy of the enterprise that makes it possible to distinguish so sharply between intended and unintended consequences, between goals and contextual effects, and to ignore the latter.
(663) The narrow focus of modern technology meets the needs of a particular hegemony; it is not a metaphysical condition.
XIII Democratic Rationalization
Democratizing technology a problem of initiative and participation more than legal rights, setting stage for critical programming studies to go beyond being a good stream by augmenting produser so working code becomes common interface to machine textualities, rather than expending all spiritual energy in interface enjoyment of communication.
(663) What does it mean to democratize technology? The problem is not primarily one of legal rights but of initiative and participation.
Importance of incorporation into technical networks to resist and influence a positive aspect of dividual; his examples are Minitel and AIDS patient networks, which focus on communication.
(663) As these controversies become commonplace, surprising new forms
of resistance and new types of demands emerge alongside them.
Networking has given rise to one among many such innovative public
reactions to technology. Individuals who are incorporated into new
types of technical networks have learned to resist through the Net
itself in order to influence the powers that control.
(664) Yet the demand for communication these movements represent is so fundamental that it can serve as a touchstone for the adequacy of our concept of politics to the technological age.
Requires technological advances made in opposition to dominant hegemony; floss quintessential.
(664) I call this “democratic rationalization” because it requires technological advances that can only be made in opposition to the dominant hegemony.
Goal of socialist societies to design different technologies under different cultural horizons recycled in micropolitics of networks operating within confines of capitalist economies.
(664) The implication that socialist societies might design a very
different technology under a different cultural horizon was perhaps
given only lip service, but at least it was formulated as a
(664) Technology can support more than one type of technological civilization, and may someday be incorporated into a more democratic society than ours.
Feenberg, Andrew. “Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power and Democracy.” Technology and the Human Condition: A Philosophy of Technology Reader. Eds. R. Scharff and V. Dusek. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. 652-665. Print.