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Transforming Technology, Andrew Feenberg

This is a philosophical book about technology and its relationship with society. The author explains/argues that there are two main sets of theories about this topic: “instrumental theory” and “substantive theory”. The former considers technology as a tool, that can be used for different (and possibly opposed) purposes: technology is a neutral thing, it can be used to achieve both “good” things and “bad” things. Hence it is independent also in relation to politics, for example with respect with socialism and capitalism. This independence derives from the view of the “rational” nature of technology, that (like science) being rational is universal and not socially or politically related. For this reason, technology is seen as an improving factor, that increases efficiency in every era, society and country.

As a contrast to this, the substantive theory views technology as shaping human society and expanding in every possible space. Not only is it not neutral, but it fosters a further adoption of even more technology. The result is that technology becomes a cultural system that takes over humanity, technology becomes autonomous. (Jaques Ellul, whose book “The technological system” we reviewed, is one of the proponents of substantive theory).

Feenberg is proposing to the reader a third way: the “critical theory”. With the point of departure in some interpretations of various Marxist ideas, he wants to propose a new version of socialism that doesn’t focus on central planning nor on national production, but rather focuses on the relationship between technology and human beings. Feenberg intent to show how a re-design of technology permits the realization of a more socially equal civilization. The main points in his theory are:

  • Technology is not neutral (similar to substantive theory)
  • Technology is not a unique object (different from substantive that considers all technology artifacts as parts of a unique system)
  • Technology shapes our society and is not just an independent factor (different from instrumental)
  • But it doesn’t create an environment where technology is the end (different from substantive)
  • We can use the same technology in many (and opposed) ways (similar to instrumental)
  • But technological artifacts embody in their design the purpose for which they are built. Hence we have to design technology in the right way, considering our desired social achievements. There is a part of technology that is general (neutral), but its instantiation is always biased toward a certain purpose. This is maybe  the most original part, and recalls Marx’s idea that machinery is designed to control workers, and its division of labor helps to use unskilled workers that hence are interchangeable.

Within this perspective for example the Soviet Union only addressed a central production planning with state-owned capital, that was still perpetrating a capitalistic condition on the workers (let alone the absence of personal freedom, that can in no way be defined as marxist). Since technology was not re-designed with new social purposes embodied in it, workers were still subject to control from above and unsatisfying working conditions, more generally missing of the socialist goal of self-fulfillment.

Using critical theory a new direction for civilization is possible: defining new social values as central values, in substitution to current economic values, makes possible to design a new set of technologies that embody those new values and perpetrates them. The idea of efficiency or of optimization (necessary for the use of technology) has not to be abandoned: the new technology is still maximizing something, but this something is not “profit”, it is the new set of values considered as more important.

Feenberg describes his ideas starting from the analysis of previous marxists theorists, whose interpretation of Marx’s thought and consequent development are often different and sometimes opposing each other.  Through this analysis he comes to the formulation of the critical theory resumed above. Subsequentially he discusses the role of computers: machines that can be ambivalent and either be used for democratic or controlling ends. He asserts that the networked computer, used for communication, as opposed to the use of computer for automation, can be a democratic tool. I can only agree with him, and remark how different was the view of Ellul in this regard (The Technological System, already reviewed).

Feenberg also thinks that networked computers can be used for distance learning, a service that can improve culture and democracy provided that it is not used only as a cost-cutting strategy and that the teaching system does not try to channel communications between students in a rigid, bounded and mediated way.

An important topic discussed next is the “convergence theory”: it asserts that different civilizations will converge in culture,society and lifestyle under the push of technological development (Ellul was saying so about western capitalism and soviet communism). This implicitly implies a technological determinism in which innovation can follow only a well determined path in every culture, region or civilization.

Feenberg believes that both technological determinism and convergence theory are wrong. It is always possible to express different values in designing technological artifacts and hence the technological development will diverge for societies that design their artifacts differently. Moreover, since artifacts influence the society in which they are used, different designs will make also their respective societies diverge.

The view on technology given by Feenberg seems to me reasonable and nearer to the truth in respect to substantive and instrumental theories.  Ellul’s substantive view, even if brilliant in capturing some aspects of technology, is less realist and more exaggerated.  Instrumental theory is simplistic and doesn’t capture the effects that technology has on society.

This book enlightens topics that rarely are visible to our eyes. It should be read by anyone that has a naive concept about the influence that technology has on humans, and by anyone that is convinced that policy making does not include the technological design and details.

A further consideration on this book is that, while the author does a great job analyzing different marxist positions, I see no need of proposing the “critical theory” as a marxist-derived theory of technology. In fact, even if the author’s personal path follows from socialist roots, his findings are of general usage and can be used both to describe technology outside of marxist categories and to improve workers conditions also outside any socialist-flavoured economic system.

Andrew Feenberg

Transforming Technology – A Critical theory Revisited
Oxford University Press 2002,
ISBN 0195146158

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  • Annie Theewis 03 Sep 2016

    When did you publish this review?

  • Ruggero Rossi 03 Sep 2016

    It has been published on 8th August 2012 .

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