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Paperback | $23.00 Short | £30.95 | ISBN: 9780262514255 | 284 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 2 b&w illus.| April 2010
 

Essential Info

Between Reason and Experience

Essays in Technology and Modernity

Overview

The technologies, markets, and administrations of today's knowledge society are in crisis. We face recurring disasters in every domain: climate change, energy shortages, economic meltdown. The system is broken, despite everything the technocrats claim to know about science, technology, and economics. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that today powerful technologies have unforeseen effects that disrupt everyday life; the new masters of technology are not restrained by the lessons of experience, and accelerate change to the point where society is in constant turmoil. In Between Reason and Experience, leading philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg makes a case for the interdependence of reason—scientific knowledge, technical rationality—and experience.

Feenberg examines different aspects of the tangled relationship between technology and society from the perspective of critical theory of technology, an approach he has pioneered over the past twenty years. Feenberg points to two examples of democratic interventions into technology: the Internet (in which user initiative has influenced design) and the environmental movement (in which science coordinates with protest and policy). He examines methodological applications of critical theory of technology to the case of the French Minitel computing network and to the relationship between national culture and technology in Japan. Finally, Feenberg considers the philosophies of technology of Heidegger, Habermas, Latour, and Marcuse. The gradual extension of democracy into the technical sphere, Feenberg argues, is one of the great political transformations of our time.

Inside Technology series

About the Author

Andrew Feenberg is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology at the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of Critical Theory of Technology, Alternative Modernity, Questioning Technology, Transforming Technology, and Heidegger and Marcuse.

Table of Contents

  • Between Reason and Experience
  • Inside Technology
  • edited by Wiebe E. Bijker, W. Bernard Carlson, and Trevor Pinch
  • Janet Abbate,
  • Inventing the Internet
  • Atsushi Akera,
  • Calculating a Natural World: Scientists, Engineers and Computers during the Rise of U.S. Cold War Research
  • Charles Bazerman,
  • The Languages of Edison’s Light
  • Marc Berg,
  • Rationalizing Medical Work: Decision-Support Techniques and Medical Practices
  • Wiebe E. Bijker,
  • Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change
  • Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, editors,
  • Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change
  • Wiebe E. Bijker, Roland Bal, and Ruud Hendriks,
  • The Paradox of Scientific Authority: The Role of Scientific Advice in Democracies
  • Karin Bijsterveld,
  • Mechanical Sound: Technology, Culture, and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century
  • Stuart S. Blume,
  • Insight and Industry: On the Dynamics of Technological Change in Medicine
  • Pablo J. Boczkowski,
  • Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers
  • Geoffrey C. Bowker,
  • Memory Practices in the Sciences
  • Geoffrey C. Bowker,
  • Science on the Run: Information Management and Industrial Geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920–1940
  • Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star,
  • Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences
  • Louis L. Bucciarelli,
  • Designing Engineers
  • Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe,
  • Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy
  • H. M. Collins,
  • Artificial Experts: Social Knowledge and Intelligent Machines
  • Park Doing,
  • Velvet Revolution at the Synchrotron: Biology, Physics, and Change in Science
  • Paul N. Edwards,
  • The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America
  • Andrew Feenberg,
  • Between Reason and Experience:
  • Essays in Technology and Modernity
  • Herbert Gottweis,
  • Governing Molecules: The Discursive Politics of Genetic Engineering in Europe and the United States
  • Joshua M. Greenberg,
  • From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video
  • Kristen Haring,
  • Ham Radio’s Technical Culture
  • Gabrielle Hecht,
  • The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II
  • Gabrielle Hecht,
  • The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, New Edition
  • Kathryn Henderson,
  • On Line and On Paper: Visual Representations, Visual Culture, and Computer Graphics in Design Engineering
  • Christopher R. Henke,
  • Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power: Science and Industrial Agriculture in California
  • Christine Hine,
  • Systematics as Cyberscience: Computers, Change, and Continuity in Science
  • Anique Hommels,
  • Unbuilding Cities: Obduracy in Urban Sociotechnical Change
  • Deborah G. Johnson and Jameson W. Wetmore, editors,
  • Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future
  • David Kaiser, editor,
  • Pedagogy and the Practice of Science: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
  • Peter Keating and Alberto Cambrosio,
  • Biomedical Platforms: Reproducing the Normal and the Pathological in Late-Twentieth-Century Medicine
  • Eda Kranakis,
  • Constructing a Bridge: An Exploration of Engineering Culture, Design, and Research in Nineteenth-Century France and America
  • Christophe Lécuyer,
  • Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High Tech, 1930–1970
  • Pamela E. Mack,
  • Viewing the Earth: The Social Construction of the Landsat Satellite System
  • Donald MacKenzie,
  • Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance
  • Donald MacKenzie,
  • Knowing Machines: Essays on Technical Change
  • Donald MacKenzie,
  • Mechanizing Proof: Computing, Risk, and Trust
  • Donald MacKenzie,
  • An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets
  • Maggie Mort,
  • Building the Trident Network: A Study of the Enrollment of People, Knowledge, and Machines
  • Peter D. Norton,
  • Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
  • Helga Nowotny,
  • Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future
  • Ruth Oldenziel and Karin Zachmann, editors,
  • Cold War Kitchen: Americanization, Technology, and European Users
  • Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch, editors,
  • How Users Matter: The Co-Construction of Users and Technology
  • Shobita Parthasarathy,
  • Building Genetic Medicine: Breast Cancer, Technology, and the Comparative Politics of Health Care
  • Trevor Pinch and Richard Swedberg, editors,
  • Living in a Material World: Economic Sociology Meets Science and Technology Studies
  • Paul Rosen,
  • Framing Production: Technology, Culture, and Change in the British Bicycle Industry
  • Richard Rottenburg,
  • Far-Fetched Facts: A Parable of Development Aid
  • Susanne K. Schmidt and Raymund Werle,
  • Coordinating Technology: Studies in the International Standardization of Telecommunications
  • Wesley Shrum, Joel Genuth, and Ivan Chompalov,
  • Structures of Scientific Collaboration
  • Charis Thompson,
  • Making Parents: The Ontological Choreography of Reproductive Technology
  • Dominique Vinck, editor,
  • Everyday Engineering: An Ethnography of Design and Innovation
  • Between Reason and Experience
  • Essays in Technology and Modernity
  • Andrew Feenberg
  • Foreword by Brian Wynne
  • Afterword by Michel Callon
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • ©
  • 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email special_sales@mitpress.mit.edu.
  • This book was set in Stone Sans and Stone Serif by Westchester Book Group.
  • Printed and bound in the United States of America. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Feenberg, Andrew.
  • Between reason and experience : essays in technology and modernity / Andrew
  • Feenberg ; foreword by Brian Wynne ; afterword by Michel Callon.
  • p. cm.— (Inside technology)
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-51425-5 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Technology—Philosophy. 2. Technology—Social aspects. 3. Civilization, Modern. I. Title.
  • T14.F429 2010
  • 601—dc22
  • 2009037833
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • Contents
  • Foreword by Brian Wynne ix
  • Preface xvii
  • I Beyond Dystopia
  • 1
  • 1 Democratic Rationalization
  • :
  • Technology, Power, and Freedom 5
  • 2 Incommensurable Paradigms
  • :
  • Values and the Environment 31
  • 3 Looking Forward, Looking Backward
  • :
  • The Changing Image of Technology 47
  • II Critical Constructivism
  • 63
  • 4 Critical Theory of Technology
  • :
  • An Overview 67
  • 5 From Information to Communication
  • :
  • The French Experience with Videotex 83
  • 6 Technology in a Global World 107
  • III Modernity and Rationality 125
  • 7 Modernity Theory and Technology Studies
  • :
  • Reflections on Bridging the Gap 129
  • 8 From Critical Theory of Technology to the Rational Critique of Rationality 157
  • 9 Between Reason and Experience 181
  • Afterword by Michel Callon 219
  • Notes 227
  • References 235
  • Index 247
  • Foreword
  • Brian Wynne
  • Andrew Feenberg’s work exploring the various conundrums and openings in the inter-relations of science, technology, and democracy, has been one of the few bodies of thoroughgoing philosophical work that has consistently engaged in constructive struggle with sociology of scientific knowledge and technology, or what is more well-known as science and technology studies (STS). Indeed using a constructivist approach that STS has pioneered often in the teeth of mainstream philosophical complaint, Feenberg has produced many original insights showing how endemic ambiguities, incompleteness, and differences of meaning or purpose in social constructions of technology, all of which call for negotiation and flexibility, and which are in short,
  • political
  • , are routinely reduced to and enacted as matters of expert discovery and “fact.” However his main contribution has not just been critical in this sense. He has patiently built a considerable body of philosophically informed work that identifies the foundations of an authentic democratic politics of technology—or as STS prefers it, of
  • technoscience
  • —as an increasingly urgent replacement of the manifestly bankrupt “unpolitics,” that technoscience is claimed to play.
  • For these reason alone, I treat it as an honor to have been asked to write a foreword to this book of essays. In laying down some enlightened challenges to STS, Feenberg also joins with it in demolishing some of the most sacrosanct edifices of modern global capitalism’s pervasive infiltration of science, rationality, and innovation. This infiltration has involved the mutual construction of science and politics in “given” but silently selective trajectories of technological innovation—and of correspondingly reductionist regulation and risk assessment—all promoted in the name of science.
  • In Feenberg’s own words in his introduction to chapter 9:
  • In modern times the new mechanistic concept of nature shattered the harmony between experience and scientific rationality. . . . The world split into two incommensurable spheres: a rational but meaningless nature and a human environment still rich in meaning but without rational foundation. In the centuries since the scientific revolution, no persuasive way has been found to validate experience or to reunite the worlds despite the repeated attempts of philosophers from Hegel to Heidegger. This is not just a theoretical problem. . . . Once the lessons of experience no longer shape technical advance, it is guided exclusively by the pursuit of wealth and power. The outcome calls into question the viability of modernity.
  • Thus common democratic life-world experience needs to be reconnected with the differentiated worlds of abstracted and
  • interested
  • instrumental expert reason (and power), so as to explore through a genuine democratic—and global—politics, the possible social-technical directions and distributions of innovation.
  • It goes almost without saying that complex and usually distributed but highly coordinated modern technologies, once established, lay down both material and imaginative pathways and constraints that themselves effectively delimit what may be seen as possible future developments. However as Feenberg shows—in excellent intellectual and political company here—this does not or should not be allowed to lead to the logical non sequitur, namely the long-discredited but perverse and persistent theology of technological determinism. Langdon Winner (1977) showed how this false theology inadvertently leads to the widespread and disempowering cultural idea that technology is “out of human control.” In these essays (cf. chapter 2) Feenberg emphasizes, with due critical edge, how even what is a widely influential, perhaps the still-dominant “environmentalist” approach to urgent contemporary environmental challenges, has led itself into the same technological determinist cul-de-sac. It has done this by suggesting that environmental sustainability demands reversion rather than democratically imaginative and distributed social and technological innovation, against the concentration and concomitant exclusion—in knowledge, and in knowledge-ability, as well as in technology and resources—that global state-sponsored capitalism demands. Feenberg describes this still-influential conservative account of environmental realities as the “trade-off theory”—which posits that we must choose between environmentalism and industrialism.
  • Feenberg rightly criticizes economics for having powerfully encouraged this technological determinist falsehood, at least by default. One of the very few economists to have challenged this determinist account of technological innovation has been Brian Arthur (2009). As the UK-based Economic & Social Research Council’s STEPS Centre research programme describes it (www.anewmanifesto.org), economics of innovation has always focused on how to achieve
  • more
  • innovation, and
  • faster
  • ; but having declined to follow STS’s lead and enter into technology or science as social (and economic) worlds in themselves, economics has black-boxed them as “mystery variables.” Therefore it has never been able to ask informed questions of a more expressly and honestly normative kind, about what are the unrecognized flexibilities in the forms of technology we could live, and
  • which are the directions
  • in which technology should be developed for democratic, sustainable global societies?
  • These questions entirely correspond with Feenberg’s agenda. However where he has been somewhat reserved and ambiguous about the extent to which the same applies to scientific knowledge, I would be more forthright, and suggest that for a considerable time society has been selectively directing not only technology but also (perhaps less directly so) scientific knowledge-inquiry and production—notwithstanding that lasting basic scientific understanding of nature has developed and accumulated alongside this more selectively applications-imagining, techno-scientific research activity.
  • I would thus add a further question here to Feenberg’s enriching intellectual and political perspective. Even where serious environmental challenges are recognized for what they are, the pervasive technological-scientific obsession tends strongly to distort the imagination of societal responses in the direction only of (sophisticated)
  • technological
  • innovations. This often also means a selective focus on only big-technology, concentrated science-intensive responses; which often itself means production-side, as distinct from “demand-side” thoroughly social (or social-led technical) innovations. This concentrating syndrome, in science, technology, and innovation, can be argued to be an intrinsic function of modernity per se; but it can also be seen as a function of modern capitalism’s requirement for concentration as a condition of surplus value extraction, in a knowledge-based economic era. Human and social innovations that might reduce turnover and processing of nature, while bringing positive environmental and cultural consequences, are increasingly excluded from dominant societal imaginaries, in favor of only concentrating technological “solutions.” Smashing this deep trajectory and instigating in its place distributed and diversely grounded, pluralistic and hybrid reason-informed innovation cultures would be an alternative democratic modernity.
  • Feenberg argues, from a sympathetic position, that STS is an essential resource in this possible liberation; but he pleads for its adoption of a more ambitiously normative standpoint in order to make this historic contribution. His disappointment with STS is that for all its important work showing the multiple indeterminacies of technological development, and the corresponding unseen flexibilities for other innovation directions, it has shied away from modernity theory as such, including neo-Marxism. As he sees it, STS has thus risked inadvertent collapse into anti-modernity regression, or post-modernist solipsism, rather than as Feenberg wishes for, a full-frontal struggle for modernity’s democratic cosmopolitan soul, including its increasingly constitutional and crucial
  • technological
  • dimensions. As with much STS work, he illuminates the historically suppressed democratic opportunities in science and technology here, pointing to the ways in which democratic social values and needs can impinge on technological imaginations, choices, and designs, by bringing reason and modern processes of social rationalization into more deliberately constructive encounters with democratic life-world experiences and meanings in all their grounded diversity. His case study (chapter 5) of the French collective experiment with Videotex and Minitel is a classic in this respect. This emphasis on the essentially arbitrary character of the technological-social constitutions into which we find ourselves “locked” by political artifice, resonates fully with STS, and with cutting-edge economic work on innovation (Arthur 2009)
  • In this explicitly committed philosophical exposition drawing with critical discrimination on inter alia
  • Heidegger, Weber, Marcuse, Adorno, and Habermas, Feenberg leaves some intriguing ambiguities as to how he understands the key agent here—science. To what extent is science also subject to the same democratic considerations which Feenberg brings to technology and its directions and limits—and possibilities? Perhaps this ultimately difficult question can be answered by default—attempt the revisions and political-economic innovations with respect to technology which Feenberg advocates, and science will look after itself? It has in any case always been imbued with its own “social” and “cultural,” even while operating in its differentiated specialist ways from society and politics at large. The prevailing demand for the awesome extent of proliferating science funding to provide a quid pro quo of beneficial social-economic impact, only intensifies the political economy of promise of which scientific research is the central currency. Untutored and unaccountable imaginations of future societal pay-offs, needs, and priorities, shape material scientific and technological commitments and learning trajectories, just as they preempt and starve others that could have been pursued. A democratization of such guiding imaginations, something Feenberg thus-far only alludes to, would also be an important research and collective experimentation agenda for a democratic technology politics and philosophy to pursue. Epistemic profiles in scientific research culture—for example, precision and control (thus concomitant silent externalisations) prioritized as “good science” over comprehensiveness and scope; or a focus on what is manipulable and buildable, hence exploitable within current theoretical horizons, rather than “what lies beyond” current knowledge—are technical
  • but also social
  • issues. They are properly amenable to social debate and influence; and they have social consequences.
  • Thus the role of science as it has come to play such a crucial defining role in capitalist idioms of “knowledge economy” and the fractured and insecure social relations so produced, has become increasingly to act as gatekeeper of democratic imaginations of possible change. Furthermore, in both its social scientific (economistic and rational choice models) and natural scientific forms, it has also become a powerful author of dominant understandings of human relations and potentialities, subordinated as these are to unduly narrow science-defined but normative policy and commercial models of “innovation,” and “rationality.”
  • How
  • far, and in what ways a proper democratic politics of technology and innovation would reshape what we know as science, even in its so-called pure, basic form, remains an open question. But we can say with some confidence that a deliberate democratic
  • (re)design
  • of that science would be futile; better perhaps to leave the boundaries between technology and science alone, and let science reach its own accommodations, its own normatively weighted imaginations, and its own epistemic cultures, once we have achieved more democratically mature, open and dynamic forms of technology.
  • A final issue, which perhaps Feenberg will illuminate in future work, pertains to this imagination of a democratized technology, not only in relation to scientific knowledge and its non-neutral normative power, but in relation to human life-worlds themselves. He talks of the systematic reductionism involved in the “primary instrumentalizations” of technical choices, codes, and designs, before these encounter the further social worlds of users and reactions, where in his terms, “secondary instrumentalizations” or redesigns, occur. He then valuably analyzes and exemplifies the opportunities for democratic reshaping which such life-world experience and values can and do bring to bear on the technologies (and their technical codes and standards) in question. This is valuable, and opens many doors both for STS scholars, and also for practical democratic initiatives. The questions that remain here, concern how a democratic and environmentally sustainable innovation may have to encompass not only new technological directions and designs influenced by more enlightened normative commitments, but also new social directions which de facto require
  • less
  • technological activity, thus less resource-concentration and inequity, and less environmental “turnover” consumption, and destruction. It appears to remain a challenge to Feenberg’s democratic technology theory, as to how democratic enhancement could also potentially encompass, and maybe require, diminished aggregate technological activity, as an
  • increase
  • of social welfare. This may also be a place where Latour’s attempt to reconstruct the very categories of modernity, nature, and culture, an attempt which Feenberg criticizes, have some useful purchase. The most obvious examples here would be lifestyle and social-relational changes in response to climate change and excessive greenhouse gas emissions, which would reduce energy consumption, as distinct from solely production-side technology changes or redesigns. It is not clear, in other words, how democratic technology innovation could, when appropriate, disinvent
  • itself
  • , as technology, in the interests of a better and environmentally sustainable and just democracy? Especially in a globalized world where we cannot see or feel the distant impacts of our own local actions—and where the favourite response to almost every issue we face seems to be to consume more—this becomes a more urgent kind of question.
  • Feenberg’s important conceptual move to reemphasise meanings, as distinct from functions (to which he rightly notes, they are typically reduced by philosophers—and I would add, social scientists—as much as by technical experts), seems to offer some constructive room for response here. It is past time to wrest the authorship of public meanings from science, which has been handed this role by cumulating political default of the late twentieth century, back into democratic responsibility. Hannah Arendt (2005) recognized this default, and the risks to democracy that this exaggerated, subtly different form of dependency of modernity upon science could inflict. I look forward to future work addressing those challenges, not only by philosophers, STS analysts and others working in tandem, but also by democratic political practitioners, inside and outside our existing political institutions.
  • References
  • Arendt
  • ,
  • Hannah
  • .
  • 2005
  • .
  • The Promise of Politics
  • .
  • New York
  • :
  • Schocken Books
  • .
  • Arthur
  • ,
  • W. Brian
  • .
  • 2009
  • .
  • The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
  • .
  • New York
  • :
  • Free Press
  • .
  • Winner
  • ,
  • Langdon
  • .
  • 1977
  • .
  • Autonomous Technology
  • .
  • Cambridge, MA
  • :
  • MIT Press
  • .
  • Preface
  • Technical creation involves interaction between reason and experience. Knowledge of nature is required to make a working device. This is the element of technical activity we think of as rational. But the device must function in a social world, and the lessons of experience in that world influence design.
  • In premodern societies technical development was shaped by experience through craft traditions that combined many different registers of phenomena: religious prohibitions, practical lessons, taste, and age and gender roles. Technique was channeled into paths compatible with the local religious beliefs and customs in which the lessons of experience were conserved. Craft also combined knowledge of nature seamlessly with what the community had learned about the disruptive potential of technical achievements. Although some major failures occurred, for example, the gradual deforestation of much of the land bordering on the Mediterranean, on the whole this technical activity was compatible with stable societies that reproduced themselves more or less unchanged for generations.
  • The modern world develops a technology increasingly alienated from everyday experience. This is an effect of capitalism that restricts control of design to a small dominant class and its technical servants. The alienation has the advantage of opening up vast new territories for exploitation and invention, but there is a corresponding loss of wisdom in the application of technological power. The new masters of technology are not restrained by the lessons of experience and accelerate change to the point where society is in constant turmoil.
  • Not only is the role of experience in technical affairs reduced, but even where it still has impacts they are frequently invisible. Technology is perceived as autonomous, and technical disciplines present the effects of past social influences as purely rational specifications. Many technical standards depend on taste, but we are hardly aware of their source until we visit a country with different standards. No technical logic presides over differences in such things as domestic architecture, lighting, the normal height of tables and chairs, the placement of items on the automotive dashboard. Other standards change as health or environmental concerns are articulated and as legislation regulates industrial processes. Soon we forget the origin in public demands of the new methods and devices.
  • Even medical procedures evolve under the impact of experience. Consider the huge variations in obstetrics from one time and place to another. Not so long ago husbands paced back and forth in waiting rooms while their wives gave birth under anesthesia. Today husbands are invited into labor and delivery rooms, and women encouraged to rely less on anesthetics. The result of scientific discoveries? Hardly. But in both cases the system is medically prescribed and the feminist and natural childbirth movements of the 1970s that brought about the change forgotten. A technological unconscious hides the interaction between reason and experience.
  • This unconscious masks another important aspect of the modern institution of technology. In traditional societies social identities are stable since the social world is stable. But modern societies construct and destroy worlds and their associated identities at the rhythm of technological change. The extent of the dependency of social groups on the technological underpinnings of their world suddenly becomes visible at the moment of collapse but then quickly fades from view again. This is most obvious when changes in technology eliminate skilled crafts or restructure organizations. Worlds change with technology, and soon the orphaned identities remain alive only in the memories of the victims.
  • Still more obscure are the processes that generate temporary groups alarmed at new technological risks, but they are becoming more and more important to the future of technologically advanced societies. Take the exemplary case of Love Canal. The inhabitants of this upstate New York neighborhood discovered that their illnesses were caused by a new element in their world, a toxic element boiling up from the waste dump on which their houses were situated. This discovery about the world was also a self-discovery: these neighbors had suddenly become actors in a host of new relationships to scientists, the government, and the corporate author of their misfortune. Understanding of the world and identity go hand in hand. Both are fluid in modern societies, and both are intertwined with technology.
  • These examples illustrate the social character of technology. The idea of a pure technological rationality that would be independent of experience is essentially theological. One imagines a hypothetical infinite actor capable of a “do from nowhere.”
  • 1
  • God can act on his objects without reciprocity. He creates the world without suffering any recoil, side effects, or blowback. He is at the top of the ultimate practical hierarchy, in a one-way relation to his realm, not involved with things and exposed to their independent power. He has nothing like what we call “experience.”
  • Modern philosophy takes this imaginary relation as the model of rationality and objectivity, the point at which humanity transcends itself in pure thought. But in reality we are not gods. Human beings can act only on a system to which they themselves belong. This is the practical significance of embodiment and implies participation in a world of meanings and causal powers we do not control. Finitude shows up as the reciprocity of action and reaction. Every one of our acts returns to us in some form as feedback from our objects. This is obvious in everyday communication where anger usually evokes anger, kindness evokes kindness, and so on.
  • The technical subject is finite too, but the reciprocity of finite action is dissipated or deferred in such a way as to create the space of a necessary illusion of transcendence. We call an action “technical” when the actor’s impact on the object is out of all proportion to the return feedback affecting the actor. But this appears to be true only from a narrow view of the process. In a larger context or a longer time frame there is always plenty of feedback. This is certainly the case with causal impacts such as pollution. Identities and meanings are also at stake in technical action.
  • For example, we hammer in nails, transforming a stack of lumber into a table, but we are not transformed. All we experience is a little fatigue. This typical instance of technical action is narrowly framed here to highlight the apparent independence of actor from object. In the larger scheme of things, the actor is affected by his action: he becomes a carpenter or a hobbyist. His action has an impact on his identity, but that impact is not visible in the immediate technical situation where big changes occur in the wood while it seems that the man wielding the hammer is unaffected.
  • This example may seem trivial, but from a systems point of view there is no difference of principle between making a table and making an atom bomb. When J. Robert Oppenheimer exploded the first bomb at the Trinity test site, he suddenly recalled a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “I have become death, shatterer of worlds.” In this case the similarity between technical labor and divine action is all too clear. Technology appears to make possible a partial escape from the human condition. But Oppenheimer was soon attempting to negotiate disarmament with the Russians. He realized the shatterer could be shattered. Presumably Shiva, the god of death, does not have this problem.
  • Without wishing to return to traditional arrangements, we can nevertheless appreciate their wisdom, based as they were on a longer-term view of the wider context of technology than we are accustomed to today. Tradition was overthrown in modern times and society exposed to the full consequences of rapid and unrestrained technical advance, with both good and bad results. The good results were celebrated as progress, while the unintended and undesirable consequences of technology were ignored as long as it was possible to isolate and suppress the victims and their complaints. The dissipated and deferred feedback from technical activity, such unfortunate side effects as pollution and the deskilling of industrial work, were dismissed as the price of progress. The illusion of technique became the dominant ideology.
  • The philosopher Martin Heidegger understands this illusion as the structure of modern experience, the way in which “being” is revealed to us. While objects enter experience only insofar as they are useful in the technological system, the human subject appears as pure disincarnated rationality, methodically controlling and planning as though external to its own world. In this book I relate what Heidegger calls the “technological revealing” not to the history of being but to the consequences of persisting divisions between classes and between rulers and ruled in the many technically mediated institutions of modern societies.
  • These divisions culminate in a technology cut off to a considerable extent from the experience of those who live with it and use it. But as it grows more powerful and pervasive, technology has consequences for everyone that cannot be denied. In the final analysis it is impossible to insulate technology from the demands of the underlying population. Feedback from users and victims of technology eventually affects the technical codes that preside over design. Early examples emerge in the labor movement around issues of health and safety at work. Later such issues as food safety and environmental pollution signal the widening circle of affected publics. Today these interactions are becoming routine, and new groups emerge frequently as “worlds” change.
  • In the literature of technology studies, this is called the “co-construction” of society and technology. The examples cited here show how technology and society “co-construct” each other in ever tighter feedback loops, like the
  • Drawing Hands
  • in M. C. Escher’s famous print of that name. I want to use this image to discuss the underlying structure of the technology-society relationship.
  • Escher’s self-drawing hands are emblematic of the concept of the “strange loop” or “entangled hierarchy” introduced by Douglas Hofstadter in his book
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach
  • (Hofstadter 1979, 10–15). The strange loop arises when moving up or down in a logical hierarchy leads paradoxically back to the starting point. Relationships between actors and their objects, such as seeing and being seen or talking and listening, are logical hierarchies in this sense. The active side stands at the top and the passive side at the bottom of these hierarchies.
  • In the Escher print, the paradox is illustrated in a visible form. The hierarchy of “drawing subject” and “drawn object” is “entangled” by the fact that each hand plays both functions with respect to the other (Hofstadter 1979, 689–690). If we say that the hand on the right is at the top of the hierarchy, drawing the hand on the left, we come up against the fact that the hand on the left draws the hand on the right and so is also located at the top level. Thus neither hand is at the top, or both are, which is contradictory.
  • As I have described it here, the relation between technical reason and experience is an entangled hierarchy. Social groups form around the technologies that mediate their relations, make possible their common identity, and shape their experience. We all belong to many such groups. Some are defined social categories, and the salience of technology to their experience is obvious. Such is the case with factory workers, whose organization and employment depend on the technology they use. Other groups are latent, unconscious of their commonalities until disaster strikes. The inhabitants of Love Canal may have been indifferent neighbors, but when toxic waste was discovered in the land they inhabited they were alerted to a shared danger. As a conscious collective, they recruited scientists to help them understand it and made demands on the government. Such encounters between the individuals and the technologies that bind them together in groups proliferate with consequences of all sorts. In every case, social identities and worlds emerge together and form the backbone of a modern society.
  • 2
  • Once formed and conscious of their identity, technologically mediated groups influence technical design through their choices and protests. This feedback from society to technology is paradoxical. Insofar as the group is constituted by the technical links that associate its members, its status is that of the “drawn” object in Escher’s scheme. But it reacts back on those links in terms of its experience, “drawing” that which draws it. Neither society nor technology can be understood in isolation from each other.
  • Hofstadter’s scheme has a limitation that does not apply in the case of technology. The strange loop is never more than a partial subsystem in a consistent, objectively conceived universe. Hofstadter evades ultimate paradox by positing an “inviolate level” of strictly hierarchical relations above the strange loop that makes it possible. He calls this level “inviolate” because it is not logically entangled with the entangled hierarchy it creates. In the case of the Escher drawing, the paradox exists only because of the unparadoxical activity of the actual printmaker Escher, who drew it in the ordinary way without himself being drawn by anyone. Escher, as Hofstadter presents him, appears as a kind of God in relation to his own artistic output, uninvolved in the contradictions of the world he creates.
  • But there is no equivalent of this “Escher” in the real world of co-construction, no inviolate god creating technology and society from the outside. All the creative activity takes place in a world that is itself created by that activity. Only in our fantasies do we transcend the strange loops of reason and experience. In the real world, there is no escape from the logic of finitude.
  • The nine chapters of this book concern various aspects of the technology/experience nexus. They introduce the main themes of critical theory of technology, the approach I have developed over the last twenty years. Critical theory of technology draws on insights from Heidegger, Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and constructivist sociology of technology. Each source contributes elements toward a better understanding of the relation between reason and experience.
  • This first part explores the dystopian critique of technology that arose as “progress” became identified with bureaucracy, propaganda, and genocide in the twentieth century. Scientific-technical rationality so dominates dystopia that no room is left for freedom and individuality. But this vision is fading as the paradigmatic technology of our time shifts from the industrial behemoths of the previous century to the new information technologies, especially the Internet. The Internet is not a finished product but is still in process. User initiative has played a major role in transforming its design. The environmental movement also gives rise to democratic interventions into technology. These two movements promise an end to dystopia if only we can find a way to protect and develop their liberating potential.
  • The second part presents methodological applications of critical theory of technology. The case of the French Minitel illustrates the social shaping of technology. An early domestic computer network, the Minitel system was subverted by hackers and transformed from an information utility into a communication medium. This part also focuses on the relationship between national culture and technical development, with Japan as an exemplary case. The discussion concerns the impact of globalization on Japanese modernization and the philosophical theories that accompanied it before World War II.
  • The third part treats the themes of this book at the philosophical level. Modernity and technology are indissolubly linked, but the disciplines that ought to collaborate in studying this connection have so far failed to communicate with each other. The core issue concerns the understanding of rationality as it is institutionalized in modern technologies and social systems. Understanding these peculiar modern institutions requires rethinking the connection of reason and experience. That process has already begun where it is most urgent, in relation to environmental issues. Philosophical reflection can contribute to this trend. The concluding chapter argues for informing expertise with the wisdom gained by living with technologies and their impacts. In a modern context, this cannot be accomplished by tradition but requires a more democratic technological regime. The gradual extension of democracy into the technical sphere is one of the great political transformations of our time.
  • The following chapters of this book are revised from previously published articles:
  • “Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Democracy,”
  • Inquiry
  • (Sept.–Dec. 1992).
  • “From Information to Communication: The French Experience with Videotex,” in
  • Contexts of Computer-Mediated Communication
  • , ed. M. Lea. (Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1992).
  • “Looking Forward, Looking Backward: Reflections on the 20th Century,”
  • Hitotsubashi Journal of Social Studies
  • , vol. 33, no. 1 (July 2001).
  • “Modernity Theory and Technology Studies: Reflections on Bridging the Gap,” in
  • Modernity and Technology
  • (MIT Press, 2003).
  • “Technology in a Global World,” in R. Figueroa and S. Harding, eds.,
  • Science and Other Cultures: Issues in Philosophies of Science and Technology
  • (Routledge, 2003).
  • “Critical Theory of Technology: An Overview,”
  • Tailor-made Bio-technologies
  • , vol. 1, no. 1 (April–May 2005).
  • “Between Reason and Experience,”
  • Danish Philosophical Yearbook
  • , vol. 42 (2008).
  • “From the Critical Theory of Technology to the Rational Critique of Rationality,”
  • Social Epistemology
  • , vol. 22, no. 1 (2008).
  • Acknowledgments
  • Many people have helped me in various ways to produce the essays collected here. I would like to thank Yoko Arisaka, Michael Benedikt, Catherine Bertho, Alison Cassells, Jean-Marie Charon, Gerald Doppelt, Arne Elias, Anne-Marie Feenberg, Simon Glynn, Marc Guillaume, Alastair Hannay, Douglas Kellner, Clive Lawson, Andrew Light, Marie Marchand, Tom Misa, Steven Moore, Robert Pippin, Hans Radder, Mayuko Uehara, and Tyler Veak.