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Review: Andrew Feenberg, Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason

Review: Andrew Feenberg, Technosystem. The Social Life of Reason, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017.

Our modernity is not just a question of values such as equality of individuals, of fair social organization, nor of speeches and communication.

It is also a question of objects, systems and procedures and how they shape our gestures and behaviours: social imperatives are less and less assured by political and juridical mechanisms, and ever more by technical constraints. Consequently, our modernity is a question of rationality, one which is at the same time technical and social and which steers technical developments, but also the logic of administration and market. The three of them constitute what Andrew Feenberg names technosystem. It is around that notion he continues the elaboration of his critical constructivism to provide us with the intellectual and practical means to address our technologies and what we call progress.

These assertions as such are not new in the work of the author. But one can feel a new emergency appearing in Feenberg’s preoccupations. Freedom, autonomy, ecology, were already urgent matters. Still, the philosopher is worried about a phenomenon which, if not new, seems to become prevalent, that is the relativism of values. Historically, contemporary philosophy of technics had to answer the opposite trend: only one truth existed when one comes to question technology and efficiency. That was the time of technocracy and determinism. Social constructivism, amongst others, contributed to invalidate the idea that technology could follow only one path. It showed how technical rationality is a myth and how technical solutions result from confrontations, interpretations and choices. What is could have been different, and our bikes, computers, railroad systems, axes or refrigerators, are contingent, as are our administrative and economic procedures.

Part of Andrew Feenberg’s work consists in reintroducing the concept of domination of the Critical Theory inside social constructivism (chapter 2). Too academic, too open to notion of contingency and fluidity, social constructivism as such is unable to help us to think phenomena of alienation and the specificity of our times. But there is something more which need to be done now because contingency is no more an academic concept. That is not new either, but it seems it becomes a common political and economic tool. Not only objects are contingent: truth itself tends to be an outdated notion. The tobacco industry understood that some time ago, but works of researchers about agnotology, climate change negationism, American administrative use of Kafkaesque alternative facts and social networks dilution of facts, made urgent to answer the question of relativism.

Here stands the work of Andrew Feenberg, on a very thin line between a determinism which would deprive us of any possibility of action, and a total relativism which has the same consequence: it makes us unable to contest any technology or path of development. That is why, while using the lessons of social constructivism and of the actor-network theory, Andrew Feenberg expresses his dissatisfaction towards the principle of symmetry. This extension of the neutrality principle towards the losers and the winners of scientific controversies calls to treat the same way society and nature: in other words, we must use the same language to describe all the members of the network, humans and non-humans. Thus, the distinction between intentional act and causal action is blurred (47) and we find ourselves unable to judge any social conflict: if the only meaning of nature is the one the network establishes, no protestation can refer to another meaningful sense of nature (50). It is a common reproach to the actor-network theory to underline how it places all actors on the same level, as if they were all equally powerful, and how it extends a methodological neutrality into a moral and political one. Andrew Feenberg goes further: he considers the theory is biased in favour of the winners for they are the one deciding what is a relevant meaning.

Yet the actor-network theory, as social constructivism, stands on a assertation political philosophy must address: politics is not only about “‘the affairs which go among’ men and women”, but also about “the ‘world of things’ that ‘relates and separates’ them”, insists Andrew Feenberg quoting Hannah Arendt (166). But Hannah Arendt, as much of the contemporary political philosophy and political theory, failed to acknowledge the place of technology and the role of the technosystem. Rawls never mentioned the technosystem. Neither did Habermas who is harshly criticized by the author: how can one discuss a coordination of actions which does not use language without mentioning technology (44)?

Because it ignores such a dimension of our modernity, political thought cannot analyse rationality as a source of domination and discrimination. Here, Andrew Feenberg investigates further a point he established in previous books: it is necessary to make a difference between substantive and formal bias. The former is well-known and is based on non-rational judgements, such as prejudices or emotions. To discriminate somebody because of the colour of its skin is obviously a substantive bias. The formal one is more complex and less conspicuous because it is based on reason. An “historical and contextual analysis” (24) is thus necessary to uncover it. One should not confuse this analyse with the affirmation that a rational order has a non-rational origin. If so, how could we explain longevity of capitalism, asks Feenberg? Somehow it must have a rationality and that is what must be examined.

Thus, the formal bias is in fact “the discriminatory effects of rational order” (24), a domination effect which is not the result of the beliefs of individuals but the result of the rational working of the system. It is the consequence of equal procedures. Rousseau’s presentation of the social contract in the Second Discourseis one example. Marx’s analysis of the market is another one: market is based on equal exchange and on reciprocity. Yet the surplus value, produced by the difference between how much wealth the worker produces and how much he is payed, leads to a state of domination. It is not because of a prejudice or a theft for labour is payed. It the result of rational principles of capitalism.

Formal biases are a consequence of the problematic distinction between fact and value. Rationality is supposed to be free from value. However, it is now well-established that rationality is biased with values and that what Feenberg calls the “design code” of technologies is the consequence of confrontation and interpretation, and not of a process leading to the most rational and the only one solution. For example, technical code of capitalism is deskilling and mechanization. Using references to Marx and Foucault, Andrew Feenberg explains transformation of rationality has to make room to subjugated knowledges, that is to say the experience and interests of those who are dominated by the formal biases of sociotechnical networks. To discuss and contest the technosystem is to discuss its rationality and its incarnation into technical codes.

However, such a contestation needs to be based on something stable. This is why the assertion of early STS that rationality does not exist is not satisfactory for Andrew Feenberg. Here is the core of his book: what we need is a normative theory of technology. To construct one, he draws on the works of Gilbert Simondon, a French philosopher of technology, and Herbert Marcuse. It is good news to see references to Gilbert Simondon in an American book. His work on technology is one of the most accurate that exists and furnishes a solid base to help thinking the specificity of technology. Yet Simondon is widely unknown in the United States. Here, his notion of concretization provides a normative way of technical evaluation, the one which misses in STS: concretization is a higher integration of the different parts of a technical object. A car air cooling system is more integrated than a water cooling one because, in the first case, the cooling is united with the functioning of the motor. Such an engine is more likely to last, a goal which, for technical objects as for all things, is the main one.

How can concretization be useful for a normative theory? Exploring the question of the determinism one can read in the work of Simondon, Andrew Feenberg shows the development of a technology can take different paths of concretization. And the notion of “associated milieu” (72) allows to assess how technical objects interact with humans. The associated milieu is the working environment the object needs, such as electricity for an electrical appliance. Humans can be part of this environment and, consequently, it is possible to develop the political implications of the theory of Simondon, assessing if the relation between technologies and humans is an alienation. To explore further this relation, Feenberg refers to the notion of potentiality he finds in the work of Marcuse. A potentiality is not a telos, neither it is a fixed identity: it is one way of overcoming tensions through an historical process. The use of imagination and of a reason informed by the sensitive receptivity of humans, as the one Marcuse describes in his Essay on Liberation, provides us with tools to orient this process. More details to clearly establish how the historical dimension of the process allows us to escape sheer naturalism while being normative may be needed, but the notion of potentiality is promising.

This is where Andrew Feenberg turns to Hannah Arendt and how she used the Kantian notion of reflective judgement. Whereas the determinant judgement goes from rules to cases, the reflective judgement makes the opposite. Kant used it to explain aesthetic judgments, but Arendt saw the relevancy of it for political field. Feenberg explores in chapter 7 how it makes possible to articulate subjective and objective rationality to account the rationality of public protests again the technosystem. Most of the time indeed, protestations do not start with a determinant judgment – which is more an expert position – but with experiences and injustices lay people take as examples (164). Using Albena Azmanova’s theory of public debate and specifying his instrumentalization theory (153, 177 and 179), Andrew Feenberg shows how cultural and technical aspects interact. This interaction is the space where a political action can arise inside the technosystem because it is always possible to transform our perception of an object or its context. That is why Andrew Feenberg, using the words of Don Ihde, calls to a “gestalt switch” (115): change must come from an internal revision of the technosystem based on a redefinition of the relation between fact and value and of the place of experience, not from some external limitation.

While reflective judgement accounts for experience and imagination through the process of construction of a subsumptive concept and leads to innovation, is this notion able to account for the objective part of technical problems? Solutions are not totally contingent for we must make with objective properties of objects. The analyse of the nature of function undertook in chapter 5 overcame this objection. Feenberg denies the conclusion of the dual-nature theory which claims that function is a hinge between physical properties and use of the objects. Such an assertion forgets this objective side, from “the causal relations identified in causal disciplines” (138) to economic choices of development, are culturally and socially informed. Thus, functionality is not “some combination” of “subjective idea” and “material fact”, but “a social process” (160) where both are in interaction from the beginning of the relation between thought and matter. And if social process there is, political action is possible.

However, a striking point which regularly appears through Feenberg’s argumentation, as he discusses different theories and authors, is how much the material dimension of human relations has been forgotten by most of the political thought. Yet, all along the reading, we can see what political thought would gain to refer to technology and technosystem. For example, Axel Honneth’s assertion that normative advances are irreversible may be explained not only by collective social memory, but by the “social, legal, economic, and technological arrangements” (192) which took it in charge. Or reflection about communautarism could use some insights from the notion of technosystem and how it can provide an identity (172).  Finally, how to think colonization without any reference to technology and technosystem when we face situations where they have been adopted while Occidental norms and values have been ruled out and appear only as legitimation discourses (196)?

To face technosystem and its consequences, it is necessary to confront its kind of rationality and to reassess the notion of progress to perceive its realization may not mainly appear through policy, legal and moral measures (190). From Simondon’s notion of concretization, Feenberg draws a local concept of progress, oriented towards a closure of a debate around a technical phenomenon which would allow to suppress formal biases by inclusion of subjugated populations. It is then possible to keep the idea of progress while separating it from the idea of a direction of history, thus avoiding relativism or foundationalism. For it is the challenge we must confront: to question modern rationality without disarming reason and normativity.