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Critical Constructivism: An Exposition and Defense

Andrew Feenberg

Since publishing Critical Theory of Technology (Feenberg 1991), I have gone on to develop a specifically political philosophy of technology which I now call “critical constructivism.”

That approach is based on a number of intellectual traditions, including the Frankfurt School, Heideggerian phenomenology, Marxist labor process theory, and Science and Technology Studies (STS).

This eclectic combination of sources recognizes both the empirical specificity of technology and the general crisis of our technological civilization exemplified by such issues as climate change. Critical constructivism thus addresses the study of specific designs and the public controversies they provoke, while at the same time reconstructing aspects of the Heideggerian and Frankfurt School critiques of instrumental reason. The early Frankfurt School is the major influence. It contrasts a “one-dimensional” scientism with the potentialities revealed in everyday experience on the basis of which resistances arise. Critical constructivism “de-ontologizes” these philosophies of technology, capturing their critique of rationality while affirming nevertheless the value of modern science and technology. The task is to conserve their valid insights, made evident by the crisis, without losing modernity itself. Social constructivism plays an essential role in my appropriation of this tradition, but I endeavor to overcome its underestimation of structural features of modern society.

I have presented my approach in many books and articles (see bibliography). Several books and special sections of journals have been devoted to the analysis and critique of my work.[1] Various misunderstandings recur in these commentaries. I will respond here to some of these criticisms in a new way in the hope that a more fruitful discussion can result. In order to achieve maximum clarity, I have refrained from directly addressing criticisms, kept references to a minimum, and reduced my principal positions to schematic arguments. Since I am often accused of favoring one side of a dilemma I attempt to transcend, I have formulated some of the supposedly contradictory propositions explicitly to show how I reconcile them. My goal in this paper is not so much to convince as to clarify my positions on the key issues I have discussed in my work.[2]

Why Marx?

A Marxist scholar once told me that “Everyone believes 90% of Marxism; the Marxists are those who also believe the other 10%.” Who can doubt Marx’s most important discovery, the central role of the economy in history and social life? But the other 10%, socialism as democratic control of the economy, is still highly controversial. Two principal arguments challenge it: the inefficiency of planning, and the “imperatives” of modern technology. The latter argument holds that the management of technology is fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

This claim has itself been challenged in recent years. The constructivist notion of “actors” has liberated the study of technology from technological determinism and its vaunted imperatives. (Pinch and Bijker 1987). No longer is it acceptable to deduce social consequences from a reified notion of technology, presumed to follow a unique track based on strict scientific principles. We now believe that there exist alternative technological choices and designs, and that they may have different social impacts. And we also believe that many different social actors pursue an interest or ideology by attempting to influence those choices and designs. No technological imperatives exclude a more democratic organization of the economy bringing additional actors into the design process.

This is an important methodological advance, but differences in power between actors are not easily explained within the constructivist framework. Foucault challenged the role of power as an explanandum by reducing it to the play of disciplinary techniques. Actor Network Theory attempts to reduce power to an ever receding list of networked actors. Power would explain nothing but instead would be explained by the number of effective associations actors are able to mobilize in the networks they organize (Latour 1984).

These strategies aim to avoid positing a substance of power separate from its manifestations. That is convincing as far as it goes but it fails to solve the problem in the most important case. That case is the influence of capitalism on the design and development of technology. Capitalism is a social structure that conditions actors’ access to power. As such it is not reducible to techniques or associations. While I cannot argue the case for a structural account of capitalism here, that is the conclusion of most social science since Smith, Ricardo, and Marx, down to Piketty. Can structure be incorporated into social theory without reifying power once again?

The reaction against Marxism lies in the background of the constructivist rejection of  power as an explanatory factor. This has less to do with Marx’s own work than with the dominant interpretation of Marxism which emphasizes political economy and class struggle. Given the extent of government intervention in the market and the disinterest in revolution among workers, that version of Marxism has lost much of the support it once enjoyed.

The “post-Marxists,” Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, rejected the centrality of class domination (Laclau and Mouffe 1985). They retained the idea of antagonism but in the context of symbolic differences rather than economic interests. That new approach was congruent with an increasingly diverse radical politics.

But it is becoming increasingly clear that an account of capitalist power is still necessary to address its role in three of the great crises of our time: the climate crisis, the issues surrounding the threats to liberty of current applications of information technology, and the declining faith in science which disarms society in the face of the other two crises. Each of these crises is rooted in the exorbitant exercise of capitalist power over the evolution of the technical system.

* The fossil fuel industry exercises such overwhelming power that so far no amount of scientific evidence of climate change is able to overrule its continuing domination of the energy system.

* The Internet, which once enhanced public debate, has come under the control of a few large corporations and is increasingly incorporated into the propaganda apparatus of corporations and governments.

* Neo-liberal deregulation and tax policies, and the extension of simulacra of market rationality into every corner of social life have generated inequalities of wealth and power that have provoked a dangerous reaction against rationality as such. The post-modern decline of the “Grand narratives” of freedom and progress in the face of total rationalization has given way to a return of narrative in the form of dystopian conspiracy theories (Feenberg 1995: chap. 6).

Despite changes in the economy and much criticism, Marx’s Capital is still relevant to the understanding of these crises, but it takes some work to extract the useful insight without falling back into class essentialism. Although Marxists often denounce the personal power of capitalists, Marx himself viewed the capitalist as a mere agent of anonymous structures. He situated the capitalist as a dominant technological actor in relation to two determining structures: the irresistible pressures of the market and the resistance of the labor force. Given the relatively untrammeled power of the capitalists of Marx’s day, this theory was sufficient to explain the rapid progress of technology accompanied by such negative phenomena as the deskilling of labor and the exhaustion of the soil.

Marx did not need to attribute a particular ideological bias to the capitalist, or personality defects such as greed, nor even a personal economic interest to explain the outcome because these structural factors compelled capitalists to perform in a specific manner or disappear from the scene. In sum, the structures determine the conditions of possibility of effective action under capitalism regardless of the motives of an actor situated in the dominant economic position. Hence Marx called capitalism a system of “impersonal” domination. Only other structures would make possible different and more humane forms of effective action associated with what Marx called “socialism.”

Despite many changes in the organization of capitalist societies, Marx’s idea that technology is shaped by the distribution of power can still form the basis of a structural approach to current crises. The role of leadership, the split between conception and execution, the control and incentive systems, the forms of psychological manipulation designed to keep subordinates on task, and other similar features of the division of labor have substantive impacts on technological choices and designs. These considerations can be generalized to take account of the harms caused by technologies affecting any social group that, like workers, has no direct access to decisions that affect them.

Marx’s contribution for us today is thus his discovery of the political in the technology rather than opposing politics and technology as value and fact, ideology and rationality, or any of the other binary oppositions that flow from a discredited technological determinism. In what follows I will show how the Marxian politics of technology plays out in the various aspects of critical constructivism.

Technology and Political Theory

In the 19th and early 20th centuries bodies of experts were constituted, serving within the administrative structures of modern institutions. Close association with management insured the congruence of technical systems and disciplines and the priorities of capitalist enterprise. Business had the freedom to dismiss hazards suffered by workers and communities, and this dismissive attitude was echoed all too often in science and technical disciplines. Technical disciplines evolved in which the hazards were ignored or minimized. Many scientifically undecidable matters were routinely biased in favor of business (Fressoz 2012; Bensaude-Vincent 2013). Government agencies that relied on the science and deployed the technology were little better.

Thus in addition to the unequal access to the wealth of enterprise, subordinates under capitalism suffered an excessive exposure to the discommodities of the technology that produced that wealth. This situation persisted so long as the mass of the population was silenced and in any case too uneducated to engage in a democratic dialogue with experts. That is no longer the case. The heritage of industrialism is now challenged in the public sphere. In this situation political conflict over technology is inevitable.

Political theory has not shown much interest in technology even as the world around us is ever more technified. Surely it is past time to end this state of affairs and to integrate technology into political theory. But the task is not easy. It is necessary to navigate between three apparently contradictory propositions:

* First, Non-Determinism. Technological development is not deterministic, characterized by essentialist “imperatives” that inevitably prevail everywhere at every stage, but is socially constructed.

* Second, System Convergence. The actual development of technology under both capitalism and (really existing) communism reproduces the power of capitalists and managers.

* Third, Rationality. Technical choices are generally, if not always, made on “rational” grounds, that is to say, in response to criteria of efficiency and knowledge held in technical disciplines.

The first and second propositions appear to be incompatible. The convergence between capitalism and communism seems to imply that technological development imperatively requires authoritarian control, otherwise why would such control characterize most development in different social systems over long periods? A whole literature in social science has been based on the notion that technology is responsible for system convergence. In that case, the first anti-deterministic proposition must be false. If, on the contrary, the first proposition is true, if technological development is not deterministic, why do successive waves of technological innovation in different societies yield similar structures of control?

The third proposition holds that most technological decision-making has a rational basis in one or another technical discipline. These disciplines are properly called “rational” because they are evidence based and logically elaborated, in contradistinction to tradition, prejudice, and personal or literal authority. Rationality on these common sense terms has nothing to do with “pure reason.” This needs emphasizing since the notion of rationality is confounded in some academic circles with an idealized form that is an easy straw man for relativistic arguments. Critical constructivism is not embroiled in that contentious debate which concerns the truth of natural science rather than the design of technical systems and artifacts.

The third proposition appears to contradict the first since rational technical disciplines are everywhere similar. Perhaps the rationality of technical decisions explains why convergence is observed, as the second proposition claims. To resist this conclusion, Marxists usually condemn the irrationality of capitalism and promises freedom in a future rational society. Not rationality but irrationality–the intrusion of particular capitalist interests–would be responsible for domination. Other Marxists, critical of Soviet communism, attribute convergence to different forms of irrationality, capitalist and bureaucratic, leading to the same result.

Critical constructivism proposes an explanation that preserves the non-deterministic thesis of the first proposition despite system convergence and the rationality of management choices. The similarity between capitalist and communist management methods can be explained by the fact that the Soviets did not elaborate an independent technology and corresponding management methods but simply adopted technologies and methods developed under capitalism in the West. The technology then functioned as a vector of cultural diffusion (Fleron 1977). The fact that the disciplines and artifacts travel so successfully from one social environment to another is not due to the absence of social influences on design but rather to their transmission through the disciplines and artifacts themselves.

This explanation pushes the question back a step to the origins of capitalism and the invention of its systems of control. Labor process theory proposes a convincing explanation for the authoritarian outcome: the deskilling of the workforce. Deskilling is embodied in technology which, as Marx argued, materializes the intellectual content of production formerly held in the minds of craftsmen. The new technologies introduced by the capitalist owners cheapen, pace and control the work. This insures that the work gets done even by an unmotivated labor force with no stake in the success of the firm. It also deprives workers of the cultural capacity to contest for power (Noble 1984).

Technological development would thus be contingent on a social cause as proposition one holds, while also following a convergent trajectory wherever capitalist technology is employed, in conformity with proposition two.

According to my third proposition, this social cause is neither ideology nor interest but technical considerations that are rational but also biased by the conditions of capitalist competition and control. This is suggested by the Weberian “rationalization” thesis, in the form in which it was taken up by Lukács in the theory of reification and developed further by the Frankfurt School in the critique of instrumental reason.

Weber describes the “disenchantment” of modern societies. Whereas anthropology finds an indiscriminate blending of symbolic associations and technically valid insights in the artifacts of premodern societies, capitalism relies on formal technical disciplines that eschew all symbolic reference. Industrial machinery is stripped of symbolic associations, unlike the technical means employed in those earlier social formations. Here truly, “form follows function.” The only social norm that appears to survive the disenchantment is efficiency, ruthlessly pursued by capitalism under the pressure of competitive markets. Weber extends his thesis to bureaucracy which helps to explain what happened in the Soviet Union. But this approach risks collapsing back into determinism as it seems to have for Weber himself.

The problem now is to explain convergence while recognizing the insights of rationalization theory without contradicting proposition one, non-determinism. A political theory which met these requirements would have to find the cause of convergence in a structural feature of rational technical systems. For that a new concept of power is required.

Operational Autonomy

Marx’s discussion of cooperative labor in the early chapters of Capital offers a suggestive starting point. Marx points out that cooperation increases productivity. On the large scales favored by capitalist enterprise, those gains can only be achieved through formal leadership, conscious coordination. Management must now be included in the division of labor and it acquires not only the technical function of coordination but also the power to confiscate the value added by cooperation and to impose machine designs that enhance and perpetuate its control (Marx 1906, chap XIII).

Thus Marx does not attribute authoritarian management to technology but rather the reverse. He divides the workforce into a cooperating mass, eventually assembled around machinery, and a directing center, able to exploit its unique position in the division of labor.

Generalizing from Marx’s comments, we can conclude that there are different ways of organizing the cooperative activities which characterize modern societies. I distinguish three such ways as ideal types, that is, as distinct theoretical models which clarify the ambiguous realities of actual social life in which mixed modes are more common than pure forms.

* Control from above imposes coordination without reciprocal responsibility to subordinates.

* Those subordinates exercise democratic control, or control from below where they select the coordinator of their activity.

* And finally, one must add a third form not discussed by Marx: collegial control, in which subordinates in possession of complex skills retain considerable autonomy and the formal right to advise those who coordinate their activities.

These ideal types can be explained in terms of the standard distinction made in organizational theory between policy, operations and control. Policy is the overriding purpose of the organization, while operations involve deployment of the means of action serving that purpose; control consists in the procedures which bring operations into conformity with policy.

In the capitalist enterprise, the operational level, control from above, is exercised under a policy that simply reproduces the operational norm of efficiency in a specific context. This is possible because capitalist property has no obligations, for example to workers or the community, on the basis of which a policy might be formulated other than financial success. In a sense, then, policy is irrelevant, cancels out. The managers need only attend to the tasks associated with the smooth functioning of the means at the disposal of the enterprise to achieve its policy goal. In practical terms this results in shareholders and boards of directors routinely abdicating authority to management, so long as the firm meets financial targets. I call this the “operational autonomy” of management. It is a formal characteristic of enterprise in the sense that it specifies procedures without also specifying a separate substantive goal.

In Marxian terms, the point would be that the task of the enterprise is the production of exchange value; the use values it also produces are a byproduct of that activity. The production of exchange value stands under the norm of efficiency as understood under capitalist conditions. It appears neutral insofar as it presupposes no substantive value. The substantive values served by the enterprise are what matters to consumers, not producers. Nevertheless, the neutrality of capitalism is not absolute but is relative to the division of labor. This has consequences for machine design as we will see.

In the case of public institutions a substantive policy must legitimate the activities of the organization. This differs from business which is ruled by the conditions of the market rather than a policy. By “substantive,” in contrast, is meant a goal embodying a specific value or effect defined by or for management and realized through the means at its disposal. The substantive policy goal of schools, for example, is education, as defined by standards of some sort, and the school administration and teachers are responsible for achieving that goal to the satisfaction of the government that funds them.

In such cases, a technical discipline or system of rules provides the procedures under which the policy is implemented. The organization is based on explicit values, but it carries out its mission through apparently neutral means. The split between values and means resembles the similar split between use value and exchange value insofar as a certain indifference often characterizes the implementation of the mission of the organization by its agents. Just as the capitalist need not care about the value realized by the product, so bureaucrats, teachers and others working in public institutions may follow the standard procedures while indifferent to the nominal value presiding over their work. The extent of this indifference varies with the system of control.

Where professionals carry out the policy of the institution, collegial forms of control have traditionally prevailed. Schools, for example, used to rely on teachers’ expertise. As professionals, teachers were considered competent to judge student outcomes in conformity with the educational mission of the institution. To a greater or lesser extent, periodic consultations between the administration and the leaders of the teaching staff insured consensus around specific policy goals and personnel decisions. A general commitment to the value of education is presupposed by these arrangements.

However, under neo-liberalism, the policy goal of education is redefined in terms of quantitative measures such as test scores and rankings that imitate financial objectives in form. Once such measures are in place, collegial administration can be replaced by the operational autonomy of an empowered bureaucracy. Then the work of the institutions exhibits the effects of the division of labor, much like a business enterprise. The consequent demoralization is well known. This is increasingly the pattern not only in schools but throughout the society. Its effect is to submit individuals in nearly every aspect of their lives to the impersonal power of rational systems, against which they rebel in a variety of ways, some constructive, others destructive or even self-destructive where resistance is tainted with irrationality.

The concept of operational autonomy focuses attention on the reproduction of management power through technical choices, and the substantive consequences of control from above. That situation determines choices that affect all members of the organization and the community in which it is situated. It is not just unfair from a democratic perspective for managers to act without consulting those whose lives are affected by their decisions, it is also detrimental to concrete concerns of those individuals. From the standpoint of those in control, a limited number of rational technical solutions will appear viable. The excluded solutions might include desirable ones from the standpoint of subordinates that would be viable under the different condition of control from below.

It could be objected that machine design in the post-Fordist economy is no longer based primarily on deskilling. But this does not alter the logic of the argument, which is concerned not only with specific designs such as the assembly line but with an overall pattern of development that centralizes power in a managerial elite.

The case for operational autonomy having substantive consequences is obvious with the Internet. Centralization of power in a few large corporations has stimulated a sequence of technical innovations designed to harvest personal data. The prevalence of surveillance and targeted advertising is directly attributable to corporate control. The design of the major sharing platforms is organized around and reinforces operational autonomy despite the democratic potential of the Internet. Where once the free expression of opinion on the Internet counter-balanced the mass media, its successful colonization by these corporations has made much of it into just another propaganda apparatus. Privacy advocates call for a return to the decentralized structure that characterized the system before it was dominated by Google, Amazon and Facebook (Feenberg 2019).

The substantive impact of the locus of control is also clear in the relations of business to the surrounding community. Where management is free to ignore externalities suffered by the community, efficient technical solutions may have dire consequences for the larger social unit within which the enterprise is situated. If consulted, the community would likely choose different solutions, for example, less polluting ones. Indeed, communities routinely go to court to oblige local businesses to respect the environment.

In sum, decision-making based on criteria of rationality and efficiency is not truly neutral. Furthermore, democratization is not a merely procedural desideratum but is bound up with substantive ends.

Democratization

The rapid technological change characteristic of modern societies since the 19th century has a wide variety of causes and consequences. Because critical constructivism focuses specifically on the role of operational autonomy, it is concerned with those aspects of change related to the power dynamics in the technosystem. The issues involved, for example, environmentalism and privacy, are certainly not the only important ones, but they have had an increasing impact and therefore deserve attention and study.

Struggles over technology have impacts at both the level of substance and procedure. On the one hand, negative experience with technologies and technical systems is articulated critically in the public sphere. The publics excluded in the past seek now to undo the substantive harms of inherited designs. This is most visible today with respect to pollution which business ignored throughout most of its modern history. Today business is constrained by public opinion and regulation to take account of the health of communities affected by its wastes.

On the other hand, each new constraint on business diminishes its operational autonomy to some degree. Extrapolated to the limit, this procedural consequence would yield a truly democratic technical system. Short of that goal, the business system is constrained to better serve substantive public interests in one or another domain.

The question of democratization of technology is contentious. Technical disciplines promise universal benefits and the very notion of rationality includes an appeal to the reason of all members of the human species, without differentiation or qualification. The claims of expertise cannot be ignored but experts, like all human beings, make mistakes and overlook harms and desirable potentials of the artifacts and systems they design and operate. In principle they serve the public in performing their duties in accordance with rational principles, but experts act in a specific context. Where they are employed by capitalist firms, their application of technical knowledge is governed by criteria determined by their employer. The firm itself bears no responsibility not imposed by law and regulation beyond the making of a profit. The exclusion of workers and communities from participation in technical decisions means that some considerations relevant to human wellbeing will be overlooked. As I will argue in the next section, that exclusion also biases technical designs and the technical disciplines themselves. This is why an exclusive emphasis on the ethical responsibilities and opportunities of technical designers is no solution to contemporary problems.

Technical democratization in capitalist societies involves the recovery of the overlooked considerations under pressure from the public. The demand for democratization is a claim for the extension and formal recognition of these contributions of non-experts, not a rejection of the role of expertise. The widened range of actors consulted in democratic decision-making has the potential to introduce considerations overlooked by capitalism, but this is not inevitable. History reveals the many useful interventions of users and victims in the redesign and regulation of technology, but democratic publics have also been known to make bad decisions. Nevertheless, historical experience with dictatorship and democracy inclines one to prefer the latter. The notion of technical democratization simply extends this preference to the technosystem.

Public demands may be articulated in a variety of forms, but almost always a posteriori, after a technology is released into the public domain. For example, consumers may complain about the danger of a product or boycott it. Workers may demand protection from the hazards of technology at the workplace. Hackers may modify a technical system. Communities may hold firms or government agencies legally responsible for pollution. Demonstrators may advocate new technical policies around issues such as energy.

In any case, the interventions have several salient characteristics:

* First, Punctuality. They are punctual and occasioned by a specific technical issue which co-constructs a concerned public.

* Second, Discursivity. They are formulated discursively in a complex hybrid language.

* Third, Innovative Dialogue. They appeal to experts to make design changes in accordance with the relevant technical knowledge.

In sum, technical democratization involves a dialectic of social struggle culminating in an Aufhebung, a new technical design that incorporates a wider range of interests.I call this a change in the “technical code,” the ideal type that describes the intersection of social and technical requirements.

The first point, registering the punctual nature of public action, indicates an important distinction between the usual democratic procedures and public interventions in technical decisions. Since electoral politics rarely addresses technical issues, discontented citizens often act through other means. Furthermore, electoral politics is organized by local jurisdictions that often do not correspond with the technical networks in which citizens are enrolled. These networks create latent publics that may be activated and become manifest as a result of a scandal, breakdown or change in attitude or opinion in society at large. Once manifest, the new public will exist for a time in the public sphere through punctual actions such as a demonstration, boycott, lawsuit or messaging campaign aimed at political representatives.

The discursive form of these public interventions has a peculiar character that is without precedent in other domains. Typically, technical issues are addressed in a hybrid discourse which combines elements of scientific and technical language with ordinary language. What we might call the “Aristotelian” quality of ordinary language is superimposed on objects properly described in scientific or technical terms.

In Aristotle’s world, things have stable essential properties which resist change and those properties include potentialities that are normally realized in the course of development. Modern common sense remains largely Aristotelian in this sense. Values and facts coexist in everyday discourse in a way that is usually inadmissible in scientific and technical languages. That discourse is teleological and so alien to modern natural science and the technical languages of expertise, but useful for articulating everyday experience, including experience with technical artifacts.

The public perception of environmental harm is based on unscientific but intuitively obvious notions such as the “health” of a river or forest, preferred to a fish kill or dead trees. Never mind that from a purely scientific standpoint there is no reason to prefer the one to the other, such indifference is irrelevant in the world of lived experience which operates according to other principles. Those principles include an aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of nature, sympathy for creatures that resemble us humans, prudence when it comes to intervening in natural processes, and concern for the long term future in which our children will live.

In practice, respect for potentialities is translated into scientific-technical language in order to engage the technical systems of a modern society in preservation and repair. The operational significance of the popular notion of harmony with nature is revealed as traditional appeals are de-ontologized and reformulated in terms of scientific-technical solutions. There is no need to defend the idea of harmony on metaphysical grounds; it is an experiential norm that has scientific-technical correlates. Indeed, there is no natural condition to be restored. The way lies forward to nature, not back to it. The ideal of harmony is now based not on return to a pristine past, but on the imagination of a livable world science and technology can help to create.

The third point, which concerns the interaction of lay and expert, shows that the barrier between that common sense and modern science is not absolute. Consider the example of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The presence of lead in the municipal water supply became known through a combination of direct observation of color and smell and through testing by a scientist who aided the community. The scientist was able to give the residents a cause and a name for their foul water: “lead.” But lead as he tested for it, if not in his personal understanding, was simply an element on the periodic chart with a specific atomic weight, valence, etc. To the members of the community, lead was a threatening invader and a symptom of racial discrimination.

The same object, “lead,” crossed the boundary between science and everyday understanding. It had two different lives, a scientific life as an element and an “Aristotelian” life in which it played the role of threat to “normal” human development, that is, to the realization of human potential, specifically the potential of the growing brains of the city’s children. This is an extension of the concept of “boundary object” in a new direction (Star and Griesemer 1989). It has a corresponding formulation in Critical Theory. As Marcuse put it, there are not only “mathematical truths,” but also “existential truths” of nature (Marcuse 1972, 69).

The movement for a response to climate change illustrates these conclusions. It depends to an unprecedented extent on science and technology. Individuals do not interpret their experience of the weather in common sense terms alone, but also by reference to scientific studies. This is happening despite the prevalence of industry propaganda that contradicts the science.

Bridges can be built between lay and expert around concepts such as “health” and “security.” The effect of those bridges is to translate values into facts, discursively formulated demands into technical specifications. In this way what may appear “irrational” from the narrow standpoint of the prevailing scientific-technical rationality, enters the design of its applications and shapes a rational future.

Bridging concepts enable communication across the boundary between discourses. This is the significance of the third point in the description of public interventions into technology. These interventions aim to communicate the existence and seriousness of a problem by showing it to be a matter of public concern. They are incomplete halves of a dialogue that must proceed between the public and the experts who represent its interests in technical fields.

The concept of “translation” describes this situation. The public translates scientific and technical concepts into everyday language in order to articulate a discontent, and bridging concepts make that discontent comprehensible to technical experts who then translate it into specifications of a modified technical system or artifact. The complete circuit drives technical development forward from one iteration to the next.

The picture drawn here of technical democratization may seem overly optimistic. It is often said that the public lacks the qualifications to make judgments about technology. There are in fact cases in which truly dangerous ideas prevail, as for example, the anti-vaccination movement. Rejection of science threatens the very idea of democracy which cannot function in a modern society without a public capable of interacting productively with the experts who operate the systems on which the society depends. For democracy to function, the public need not submit unquestioningly to expertise, but its challenges must uncover actual problems capable of solution, rather than rejecting rationality in favor of wild conspiratorial tales.

While the anti-vaccination movement and similar attacks on science suggest reasons for caution, the story of Flint’s drinking water resonates with far more extensive and significant public interventions. The environmental movement has had huge impacts on industry and continues to drive change, especially in the field of energy production. Many of the early changes are now standard technical procedures, their source in public protest forgotten. What might be called a “technological unconscious” covers over the traces of the movements that initiated those changes as their consequences are inscribed in technical specifications.

The successful translation of public demands leaves the impression that more visible phenomena such as the anti-vaccination movement are emblematic of public interventions in general. A proper history of the many engineering, environmental and medical problems corrected in part through public action would provide a different picture. That picture would confirm what we already know in principle, namely, that technical experts and the disciplines on which they base their actions are not perfect, but need periodic correctives.

How important are these considerations on democratization in the larger scheme of things? The argument for democratization of technology has been criticized for over-emphasizing the “binary” distribution of power between managers and experts on one side and subordinates and lay people on the other. Presumably, the fact that they engage in dialogue shows power to be irrelevant, and in any case there are many other sources of technical change. But this argument ignores the inheritance of operational autonomy and its continuing impact. Technical traditions based on an earlier industrial world in which workers and communities were silenced are not easily overthrown. And there are businesses today that profit from their autonomy with dire public consequences. Think Exxon, Purdue, Volkswagen, Boeing…

It is also said that the model of political conflict is inappropriate for technology. It is true that neither a fight to the finish nor compromise describe typical technical developments. Something more interesting and complex occurs where public demands are translated into technically rational designs. I have discussed this in terms of Gilbert Simondon’s concept of “concretization,” a specific type of technical innovation relevant to democratic intervention (Simondon 1958; Feenberg 2017c). Concretizing innovations overcome conflicts over technology between social groups with different agendas by combining their goals in new designs, a new technical code. For example, the electric car combines the seemingly opposed demands of environmentalists and commuters.

But the fact that technical controversies are often resolved by innovations or redesign does not mean politics is irrelevant. Sometimes the dialogue between lay and expert can only get off the ground through compelling political testimony that may appear antagonistic, even though its intent is fundamentally communicative and aims not at victory or compromise but at innovation. The obstacles capitalism places in the way of that communication should not be underestimated. Hence the essential role of politics.

Instrumentalization Theory

A formally biased device or system cannot be fully explained by an internalist account focused on its causal mechanisms and functions. Such an account leaves out the relation to the social context within which the mechanisms and functions are situated. That relation has consequences for design and a political dimension and so requires an account of the device or system as a social phenomenon.

Technology is deeply implicated in the social where its design is specifically adapted to customs or the demands of social actors. In this case, the technical object may be conceived as a monad, reflecting in its design the world in which it participates. The design shows the traces of that world in purely technical forms. Thus the technical specification of an artifact, when properly interpreted, reveals its world. Just as we deduce the average height of people in earlier times from the height of the chairs and tables that survive them, so can the many adaptations of technologies to their context be traced in their design.

What I call the “instrumentalization theory” aims to provide a general framework for understanding the sociality of technology. This is problematic because the hard mechanical details of technical specifications do not seem to mix well with the soft stuff of social conventions and values. The engineering department and the philosophy department do not communicate! In devising the instrumentalization theory I attempted to reconcile them.

I represent their supposed incompatibility in two propositions.

* First, technical thought, action and artifacts have specific characteristics involving control of nature through causal mechanisms.

* Second, technical thought, action and artifacts reflect social and cultural meanings and values.

Once again an understanding of the theory requires a strategy for evading an apparent contradiction.

The instrumentalization theory may remind those familiar with Actor Network Theory of the concept of enrollment in a network. It reiterates the two fold operation of “association” through simplification of the object to isolate specific causal properties, and delegation through which it embodies norms that grant meaning and script users’ behavior (Callon 1987; Latour 1992). The instrumentalization theory follows this pattern but rather than developing the implications for networks it identifies the principal operations involved in association and delegation. This is a phenomenology of technical action based on what I have called a “double aspect” theory of technology. It addresses the correlated structure of technical objects and subjects at both the causal and cultural levels. This focus has enabled me to recover the critique of instrumental reason, familiar from the Frankfurt School, for the empirical study of technology.

Until recently I called the simplifying characteristics the “primary instrumentalization” and those involved in delegation, the “secondary instrumentalization.” Initially I identified two primary instrumentalizations on the side of the object, which I called “decontextualization” and “reduction.” These characteristics describe the separation of natural objects from their environment and the stripping away of useless features. Think for example of cutting down a tree and removing its branches and bark to make lumber.

Decontextualizing operations such as these are what is meant by “instrumentality” in the Frankfurt School. They are considered critically insofar as they are assumed to describe a violent world relation. But while these relations are certainly essential to anything we consider technical making, and while they do indeed have a violent potential, they cannot stand alone but only make technical sense when informed by a social content described in the secondary instrumentalization. Again, my initial exposition identified two correlated secondary instrumentalizations, recontextualizing the object in the sociotechnical network to which it belongs and providing it with social meaning. It is at this level that certain trees are singled out to be felled and such things as the width and thickness of the boards are determined, qualifying them as “lumber.”

Later expositions complicated this initial picture and also emphasized the analytic character of the distinction between the two instrumentalizations. By this I mean that the two instrumentalizations are not separate processes but aspects of a single process. In the lumber example, the “secondary” recontextualizations and meanings are not subsequent to the cutting down of the tree and the stripping of its branches and bark, but rather are present from the very start in the legal and material requirements of the construction system with which the production of lumber is associated. The primary operations are thus determined by the secondary ones and cannot be initiated separately.

This was not clear in my earliest expositions of the theory because I argued that capitalism eliminated secondary instrumentalizations. This formulation implied that the two types of instrumentalization were separate, when in reality capitalism merely eliminates many traditional secondary instrumentalizations while substituting new ones.  

The ambiguity in the early versions of the theory led to problems, aggravated by my terminological choice. I never intended the terms primary and secondary to signify a temporal relation but that is exactly how many readers interpreted them. Once this interpretation of the instrumentalization theory was broached, it became extremely difficult to recover my actual meaning. I tried to do so in Transforming Technology (2002), a revised version of my first book, but the misinterpretation recurred again and again. Finally in Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason (2017), I abandoned my original terminology and substituted “causal functionalization” and “cultural functionalization.” I do not know yet if this will lay the issue to rest.

My mistake was overlooking how my terminology would be read against the background of the common sense instrumentalism prevalent in Western culture. The impression that there is a real distinction between causality or function and culture or meaning arises from the notion that causal mechanisms have a basis in nature whereas social meanings are merely conventional. Presumably, this would explain why a machine that works in New York can be made to work similarly in Peking despite the cultural and social differences.

This suggests a resemblance between technology and science, which claims universality beyond merely local differences with more justification. The resemblance gives rise to both technocratic arguments and dystopian critique. If technology is independent of society, it may offer an alternative to ideological contention or an iron cage obliterating human individuality and freedom. A whole series of binaries flow from this original binary of the technical and the social.

That binary itself has a social cause. A totem pole is a communication medium, as is a television, but only the latter can be described as a complex causal mechanism without reference to its social insertion. It is the rise of modern technical disciplines, modeled on natural science, and the complex artifacts they make possible that seems to justify the separation of the technical and the social. The differentiation of these disciplines is an institutional reality with immense consequences, but it is misinterpreted when the role of bias is ignored.

Technical specifications reflect the values of the social world in which they are situated. Values enter in two ways. Technical disciplines are bearers of values introduced at earlier times. The values are not present explicitly, qua values, but are incorporated into underdetermined aspects of the discipline. Values also appear in contemporary discursive formulations as explicit desiderata for design. Anyone can offer such evaluative suggestions, the marketing department, an engineer, political protesters, even university professors. Some of these discursively formulated values end up in revised designs.

Most criticism of the instrumentalization theory has been motivated by the misunderstanding discussed above. But there is another line of criticism that does not depend on it. It is argued that the instrumentalization theory leaves no room for the agency of things, by which is meant the active contribution of “non-humans.”

In fact the instrumentalization theory recognizes the agency of things without using that vocabulary, but it also recognizes the specificity of the technical as the predominance of the human over the non-human. The technical subject stands in a manipulative relation to its objects. That relation is distanced and lacks the prominent role of reciprocal interaction found in human relations. Typically, the actions of the technical subject change the world far more than the world changes the subject. But interaction with the objects does occur, if not in the short term and to the same extent as in other cases such as human relations. The instrumentalization theory recognizes three types of non-human agency.

First, the technical actor’s identity is shaped by his or her association with technology. Subject and object co-construct each other, as one says in a later terminology. The carpenter is a carpenter through the practices and tools of the trade. Technology shapes the capacities of the technical subject. Second, the world of the subject and what it is to be a subject in that world are shaped by the available technology. Third, unintended consequences of technology such as pollution may come back to haunt the actor. In such cases, it is only necessary to enlarge the context in space and time to discover the connection. On the terms of Actor Network Theory, non-humans are active agents pursuing “anti-programs” countered in turn by public resistance in what I call the “feedback relation” to technology (Feenberg 2020).

The fact that I do not describe these relations as “co-constructions” is not significant, but it is true that my emphasis has been elsewhere. I reconstruct the culture-critical notion of technological domination in terms of the theory of operational autonomy. Operational autonomy explains the generalization of technical control of human beings in modern societies. Most modern management and technology is designed to suppress the agency of both human beings and things, to reduce them to objects of technical control. The passivity of these manipulated objects is a desired condition rather than a theoretical violation of a supposed universal agency. A realistic look at modern technology does not have to deny agency to recognize that it is purposefully reduced in many technical arrangements and processes. Recognition of the varieties of agency is important for the theory but should not blind us to the realities of the prevailing technical system.

Consequences

The study of technology in philosophy and the social sciences is politically relevant today as never before. Much discussion in these fields turns on refuting cognitive errors such as the notion that nature can be “conquered,” or that a “great divide” isolates human beings from nature. While it is useful to refute erroneous views, a focus on beliefs tends to put the onus on the human species. Cognitive errors do not explain the power structures that are actually responsible for the civilizational crisis we are living today.

Perhaps the massive entry of young people into the climate change movement will make the role of technical politics clear. That movement has unleashed a radical subjectivity oriented toward potentialities and long term considerations heavily discounted by orthodox economic thought. This is a subjectivity with a different sense of time and politics from the prevailing one. The protesters demand a new technical code of industry. Their testimony aims ultimately at major structural changes, not the sort of minor reforms compatible with a continuation of neo-liberalism. Capitalism is challenged once again, as it was by the labor movement in the 20th century, to adapt to a new type and level of social constraint.

Business has enjoyed a free ride so far as the environment is concerned throughout the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Capitalism’s margin of maneuver has been gradually eroded by regulation in the public interest. But never before has it confronted a political demand to completely overhaul such basic technology as the energy system. In the past fundamental changes in the technical code of industry took place at a pace governed by business. Today it is the whole system that must change in what, from an economic perspective, is the equivalent of overnight.

In this context philosophical reflection on technology must inform political thought. The old disciplinary divisions in which technology was left to the technologists no longer make sense. Critical constructivism offers theoretical resources for addressing the crisis. The core issue concerns the nature of rationality as it is manifested in the technology that supports the social world. Uncovering the bias of that rationality is the critical task of the study of technology today.

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[1] For example, see the criticisms and my replies in Veak 2006; Arnold and Michel 2017; Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 17:1 (Winter 2013); Thesis Eleven 2017, Vol. 138(1). See also Kirkpatrick 2020.

[2] For a recent summary of the theory, see my contribution to the fourth edition of the Handbook of Science and Technology Studies (Feenberg 2017b), republished as chapter 2 in (Feenberg 2017a).