Critical theory of technology and STS
György Markus: In Memoriam
The Critical Theory of the early Frankfurt School promised, in Adorno’s words, a ‘rational critique of reason’. Science and Technology Studies can play a role in the renewal of this approach. STS is based on a critique of the very same technocratic and scientistic assumptions against which Critical Theory argues. Its critique of positivism and determinism has political implications. But at its origins STS took what Wiebe Bijker called the ‘detour into the academy’ in order to institutionalize itself as a social science. It adopted empirical methods, developed case histories, and limited its scope, avoiding politically controversial issues. Its latent political critique has become explicit in recent years as STS has responded to the rise of technical politics by broadening its concerns. Its wide scope converges with the equally encompassing Critical Theory. Together, STS and Critical Theory offer a new concept of politics.
This paper examines Andrew Feenberg’s radical democratic politics of technology in relation to the context of Ecuador’s free and open software movement. It considers the articulation of this movement via the government sponsored activist project FLOK Society (Free/Libre Open Knowledge Society). Based on an ethnographic study (2015–16), which included interviews with FLOK Society coordinators, the paper discusses how such government-activist collaborations, may be useful in expanding Feenberg’s notion of technical politics and the nature of representation in the technical sphere. More specifically, the paper looks at the political shaping of technology, in relation to concepts about ‘the Good Life’, or ‘Buen Vivir’ in the case of Ecuador, and its drive toward a knowledge economy, based on the concepts of ‘Buen Conocer’ and ‘Bioconocimiento’ (Good Knowing and Bioknowledge). The paper argues that certain premises held by Feenberg concerning technical politics, democracy and populism in particular may need to be reconsidered in light of developments in Ecuador.
Mark R Johnson, Jamie Woodcock
This paper examines the varied cultural meanings of computer game play in competitive and professional computer gaming and live-streaming. To do so it riffs off Andrew Feenberg’s 1994 work exploring the changing meanings of the ancient board game of Go in mid-century Japan. We argue that whereas Go saw a de-aestheticization with the growth of newspaper reporting and a new breed of ‘westernized’ player, the rise of professionalized computer gameplay has upset this trend, causing a re-aestheticization of professional game competition as a result of the many informal elements that contribute to the successes, and public perceptions, of professional players. In doing so we open up the consideration of the aesthetics of broadcasted gameplay, how they reflect back upon the players and the game, and locate this shift historically and culturally within the last two decades of computer games as a creative industry, entertainment industry, a media form, and as an embodied practice.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Bitcoin emerged as an alternative monetary system that could circumvent political and financial authorities. A practice in libertarian prefigurative politics, Bitcoin demonstrates the capacity for online subgroups to creatively appropriate internet-based technologies to enact alternative futures. Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology clarifies this capacity and outlines the significance of agency in technical action. As technology mediates many social relations, it has a significant role in the reproduction of social power. Technological agency is therefore a crucial site of resistance in which users can form alternative, democratic rationalizations of technology. Yet are such instances of agency intrinsically democratic? In analysing this aspect of Feenberg’s theory, this article argues that Bitcoin represents a ‘popular rationalization’ of technology – a creative appropriation of technology that empowers some groups while lacking the ethical justification necessary to be considered democratic.
This paper examines the relationship between identities and the bicycle as portrayed in films. The analysis finds that taking the viewpoint of the bicycle emancipates the bicycle from being subjected to closure, as the constructionists would have it, and thus articulates the differences with which the bicycle can communicate to its rider. The paper examines the bicycle as depicted in three films: Premium Rush (Davis Koepp, 2012), A Sunday in Hell (Jørgen Leth, 1977) and Life on Earth (Abderrahmane Sissako, 1998). It engages with the concept of ‘interpretative flexibility’ and the development of the bicycle, as examined by Wiebe Bijker and others, and argues that the interpretative flexibility of bicycles does not cease just because the high-wheeler was abandoned and the ‘safety’ bicycle was universally accepted. The fight for the role of the bicycle continues and the bicycle is subject to constant transformations in order to reconstruct it according to human needs. Andrew Feenberg’s modified constructivism is applied to re-examine the technical development of the bicycle, claiming that technology is dependent on specific social structures as well as human agency. The paper argues that just as social structures are negotiable and unfixed at any point in time, the bicycle too is never neutral but remains negotiable and unfixed. Consequently, since the bicycle constantly ‘speaks’ back to the user, there is never closure in the technical development of the bicycle. Drawing on the writings of Bruno Latour and the Deleuzian idea of assemblages, the bicycle and its rider are considered as an organic entity that is constantly forged and un-forged. Understanding the rhetoric of the bicycle machine helps the convergence of a bicycle becoming with becoming a rider, marking the bicycle as equal to its rider. Viewed in this way, the hierarchy of agency collapses and a crystallization emerges out of the rider and bicycle entwinement.
This article interrogates Andrew Feenberg’s thesis that modern technology is in need of ‘re-aestheticization’. The notion that modern technology requires aesthetic critique connects his political analysis of micro-contexts of social shaping to his wider concern with civilization change. The former involves a modified constructionism, in which the motives, values and beliefs of proximal agents are understood in terms of their wider sociological significance. This remedies a widely acknowledged blind-spot of conventional constructionism, enabling Feenberg to identify democratic potential in progressive agency at the scene of technology design. Feenberg argues that the aesthetics of naturalistic modernism may serve as a bridge between such interventions and cultural transformation. Referring to developments in design culture, especially as this relates to the human-machine interface on digital artefacts, the article suggests that this part of Feenberg’s argument has been falsified. This kind of aesthetic modernism is hegemonic in contemporary design and it has not brought about significant progressive advance. In conclusion, the article suggests a different approach to aesthetic critique that is based on difference rather than wholeness, and on the principle that there is no inherent correspondence of aesthetic standards and ethics in technology design.
In these replies I address criticism of my work on the grounds that I adopt a ‘humanist’ approach, underestimate the aesthetic potential of contemporary video games, overlook the role of the nation-state in resisting technological imperialism, fail to appreciate the risks of reactionary appropriations of technology, and introduce an extrinsic and dubious aesthetic value into the philosophy of technology. In the course of responding to these criticisms, I reiterate several of the basic claims of critical theory of technology.
György Markus: In Memoriam
John Rundell, David Roberts