Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Parliament of Things

Technology is a scene of social struggle, a parliament of things on which civilizational alternatives contend.
--Andrew Feenberg
In the wake of CES, I've had a lot of conversations that go something like, "Have you seen the new X? It can do A, B, and C!"  Proponents list off the functionality that X can do, and haters point out what it cannot do (D, E, and F, which Y does). The conversation centers around a particular gadget and its abilities. Rarely does it enter into the sphere of what X should do.

When you start talking about possibility (should) rather than actuality (is), you quickly slide into the realm of philosophy. Many technophiles avoid philosophy due to a faith that technology will solve all problems--we just need more of it. Ignoring philosophy might seem to be the more realistic and safer thing to do. Socrates was, after all, condemned to death.

An early blog post
But this so-called 'realistic' viewpoint actually ignores how technology happens, and in two ways, according to Andrew Feenberg, a professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University. First, technologies developed for one purpose are often used to do other things. That is, their meaning is socially determined. It's not hard to find examples of this. The architects of the Internet could never have guessed in the 60's what it would look like today. It's to their credit that their design could be repurposed in many ways, from lolcats to the Arab Spring. Similarly, Johannes Gutenberg, who simply wanted to spread the word of the bible with his invention of movable type, could not have dreamed of the social upheavals--including the Reformation and the French and American revolutions--made possible by the new printing press.

Second, people determine what technologies should be developed. Feenberg calls this the cultural horizon of technology. There is nothing inevitable about the course technology takes. If many technologies are developed to kill and exploit people--whether the atomic bomb or the ludicrously expensive F-35--that's because a small group of people and interests tend to decide what is researchable. If many technologies are developed to automate repetitive tasks, that is because of the price that we, as a society, put on efficiency. Hence the continuing importance of IT departments and the automation of manufacturing.

There are thus two ways that societies shape technology: in what gets researched and developed (their cultural horizon), and in how technologies are put to use (their social meaning). Both sides constitute the 'parliament of things', as Feenberg calls it (note: this is not the same as Latour's use of the same term). If we don't like our current technologies, we need to democratize the funding of research and have conversations about what kinds of technology we want. Funding for technology research typically occurs in two ways: through markets and through the government. Both are controlled by our votes, both literal and metaphorical. We also need to talk about the uses to which technologies are put, such as by enforcing norms or changing social practices.

$1 trillion for a plane

If this all sounds a bit idealistic, consider a couple of examples of the democratizing of technology. Feenberg notes that many regulations which were bitterly fought eventually came to be seen as obvious, including child labor laws in turn of the century America. It was argued that the inefficiencies labor laws would introduce in the labor system would be prohibitively costly, yet it's hard to imagine what the 20th century would have looked like without them.

And, of course, the government is not the only tool we can use to change the course of technology. In the last ten years, journalism has raised awareness about 'cyberbullying', so that parents can talk to their children and teachers to their students about appropriate uses of social media. Social media can be regulated by governments, as in the case of recent changes to privacy law, but they can also be monitored by societies themselves.

So, what do you want technology to do for you?

-Andrew Feenberg's Ten Paradoxes of Technology


  1. Really nice post. Here's a cool (if relatively trivial) example of people working through the possibilities of technology--discussing their philosophies of GPS watches.

    These GPS systems are also a great example of shifting cultural horizons of technologies--who would have thought that space satellites would get people off the couch and running?

  2. Nice example! It's an interesting problem. On the one hand, I agree with Feenberg that we should democratize what gets researched. But, on the other hand, technologies get used for so many purposes other than those they were created for that the point almost seems moot. Many people argue for war research and NASA funding, because it leads to technologies that have many other applications, from microwaves to nuclear power plants. There is a lot of truth in this, even if the direct applications are not always so palatable. Seen the Navy's new rail gun?


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