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Inside the machine – taking stock of technology today

In an essay titled “Looking backward, looking forward” — in the volume, Globalisation, Technology and Philosophy (Tabachnik and Koivukoski, editors; SUNY, 2004) — Andrew Feenberg takes stock of where humanity has come from, where we are now, and where we are heading in an increasingly technologised environment.

He compares two important, but divergent novels, both of which represent imaginative responses to the state of the society that the writers were living in at the time of writing their respective books — Edward Bellamy’s utopian sci-fi novel of 1888, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, and Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World of 1932. The two novels depict widely divergent worlds, of course. Bellamy’s novel is set in a socialist utopia, which — judging by the book’s best-selling status — embodied what Feenberg calls “the hope in a rational society for several generations of readers”.

Perhaps it was because Bellamy’s utopia, while collectivist, displays a dual character: part of its imagined social structure is organised along scientific-technical lines, but the other part makes provision for individual personal fulfillment — essentially (something similar to what Marx envisioned), a society where technological advancement would create ample leisure time for individual “Bildung” in the arts and sciences (something recently resurrected by Peter Joseph in the third Zeitgeist movie, Moving Forward). Appositely, Feenberg remarks on the historical irony, that the kind of socialism/communism that emerged in the Soviet Union only a generation after the appearance of Bellamy’s novel, did not allow for this benign combination of technological rationality and personal enrichment, where social collectivism is posited (in the novel) as the precondition of a high degree of individualising development. Quite the contrary, according to Feenberg: “But this bipolarity is precisely what did not happen in the twentieth century under either socialism or capitalism. Instead, total rationalisation transformed the individuals into objects of technical control in every domain, and especially in everything touching on lifestyle and politics.”

Huxley’s dystopic vision, on the other hand, articulated a vision of a hyper-rationalised society where human beings are mere functionaries of a mechanised world. Instead of Bellamy and Marx’s hope, that humans would be freed by a technology that they have mastered, Huxley’s novel depicts a humanity that has become “mere cogs in the machine”. (Feenberg does not mention that Huxley’s novel also contains interesting insights into eco-friendly approaches to “waste disposal”, as well as a powerful critique of such a thoroughgoing mechanisation of society via the eyes of those characters that prefer the “outside” to instrumentalised society.)

This pessimistic conception is echoed by much of twentieth century thought on society and technology, from Max Weber to Martin Heidegger and Herbert Marcuse, except that in the latter’s work — apart from an endorsement of Heidegger’s view, that humans have become mere “resources” for a technological mindset — there is also a hope for a new kind of “technology of liberation”, which would leave the integrity of humans and of nature intact. Feenberg regards this as still being a “worthy”, but “receding” goal.

These “dystopian philosophies of technology”, Feenberg points out, had a remarkable influence during the 60s and 70s, as shown in the technophobia of the 1960s, which was further fuelled by the war in Vietnam and the “arrogance of technocracy”. What started out as a literary and theoretical critique of modernity, turned into a populist movement where technology became a political issue for the New Left. Feenberg reminds his readers that the French May events (worker and student rebellion) was “an anti-technocratic movement, as hostile to Soviet-style socialism as to advanced capitalism”.

The 1960s movements were anti-technocratic, motivated by dystopian convictions, but as the 20th century wore on, such dystopianism made way for a new kind of utopian thinking. Feenberg makes it clear that, in contrast to Bellamy and Huxley’s hope — or despair — indexed use of technology in their respective visions of the future, the new utopian projections of “bioengineered superhumans” are not very credible, in so far as they generally amount to mere “horrific speculation”.

However, these flimsy creations have been counterbalanced by scholarship predicated on the irreversible immersion of humanity in a technological world, and focusing on the social implications of technology. Among such “posthumanist” scholars Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour are probably best known for their enthusiastic embrace of a kind of “cyborg” (cybernetic organism) future in which humans have accepted technology and promote its “benign” development.

Shrewdly, Feenberg observes that these writers’ influence would not have been what it is today had it not been for the internet affording millions of people first-hand experience of technology-enabled social interaction. Remarkably such networking has undermined dystopian sentiments, and not surprisingly, given the way its apparently “non-hierarchical and liberating” interactivity counteracts the loss of individuality that occurred in the face of the earlier mass media of the 20th century. Here was a technology that encourages initiative rather than being inimical to it, and enabled even those who may feel otherwise alienated in large, impersonal cities, to participate in (virtual) social interaction.

But although he shows a thorough awareness of the social advantages of the “information highway”, Feenberg simultaneously cautions against the McLuhanesque expectation of a world-village utopia in which everyone will not only work from home, but do everything comprising social life from behind their computer — in a sense, this is just a more “refined” version of humans being assimilated to machines. In an era when “the public” has become so large and unwieldy that it cannot, as in former times, gather on the “agora” or town square for participative political deliberation, the political potential of the internet lies, for him, in its capacity to contribute to the creation of a “technical public sphere”, however difficult that process might be.

Importantly, the fact that the internet cannot be conclusively controlled by those in power, but provides ample opportunity for resistance against “strategic” control, points, for Feenberg, to a step beyond dystopianism as well as posthumanist technophilia: “The dystopians did not anticipate that, once inside the machine, human beings would gain new powers they would use to change the system that dominates them. We can observe the faint beginnings of such a politics of technology today.” This essay by Feenberg appeared in 2004. He would probably agree that the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt testify to the growth of such a politics.