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  1. Critical Theory of Technology
  2. Andrew Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology - PhilPapers
  3. Critical Theory of Technology

Technological Models for Map Sharing. The Doctoral Context. The Use of Mapping in Literature Review. Visual Mapping in e-Portfolios. Andy Coverdale. Submitted to my supervisors February Ammendments in red 1. Critical Theories Whilst most commonly linked to the original members and subsequent followers of the Frankfurt School, the term critical theory has come to represent a range of evolving critical perspectives which offer diverse meanings and interpretations. Critical theories generally share a social and cultural analysis with an activist component based largely on the critique of oppressive and dominant economic and political forces, they have a desire for social justice and equality, and a need to represent marginalized perspectives Tripathi, The term is also associated with the loosely connected though distinct field of literary criticism and theorists such as Roland Barthes.

The Frankfurt School of critical theory is associated with a number of early neo-Marxist members of the Institute for Social Research, founded in Ingram and Simon-Ingram describe early critical theory as a form of utopian philosophy rooted in German idealism and cultural criticism combining Freudian and Marxist ideas. Critical theorists seek to challenge and destabilize knowledge which is seen as definitive and unitary. Instead, knowledge is seen as fundamentally pluralistic and incongruous, subject to multiple and sometimes contradictory perspectives.

They believe that knowledge even the most scientific or technical is historical and broadly political in nature, shaped by human interests and motivations. Critical theory forms of critique are founded on the critical philosophy of Kant, and subsequently Hegel and Marx. Hegelian critique is characterised by challenging one-sided, idealist and reductivist positions. In doing so it seeks to develop more holistic and complex dialectical perspectives that articulate connections and contradictions in an attempt to conceptualize the totality of a given field.

Ideologies are often closely associated with social, political and economic interests. Myths emerge when ideological positions and arguments become integrated into common understanding and discourse. Myths are frequently encapsulated in catchphrases or buzz-words or -phrases. Critical theory challenges what is frequently taken for granted socially and culturally; asking questions of things that are otherwise considered to be common sense or self-evident. According to McCarthy , suggests critical theory frequently emphasizes the practical over the theoretical. In an attempt to establish an analytical framework, Friesen proposes a number of key stages to adopting a critical approach: Identifying ideas or claims that are presented as obvious, inevitable, or matter-of-fact in dominant bodies or sources of knowledge Scrutinizing these ideas or claims in the context provided in other more marginal knowledge forms or sources Revealing through this scrutiny that behind dominant claims and ideas lay one or more politically charged and often contradictory ways of understanding the issue or phenomenon in question Using this underlying conflict as the basis for developing alternative forms of understanding and point to concrete possibilities for action 2.

Critical Perspectives on Education Whilst relatively few educators and fewer still educational technologists have explored critical theory as a primary approach of inquiry, critical perspectives are evident in a range of educational and related disciplines such as critical pedagogy, curriculum studies, feminist pedagogies, media and communications studies and critical sciences.

Kellner claims that a critical theory of education must be rooted in a critical theory of society, and should be central to social critique and transformation. The application of critical theory in education generally rejects idealist, elitist, and oppressive elements of pedagogy, frequently taking the critical viewpoint that modern schooling is largely curriculum-driven and fragmented by discipline, having abandoned older, traditional moral and ethical pedagogical practices. In developing a critical theory of education, Kellner constructs a democratic and multicultural reconstruction of education to meet the challenges of a global and technological society.

His approach is radically historicist, since social and economic conditions and educational needs are constantly evolving; interdisciplinary, involving a critique of academic disciplines and their fragmentation; and transdisciplinary in connecting multiple perspectives from different domains. German Bildung Tradition A dialectical approach to an idealist notion of education [more…] Marx and Engels Systematic criticism of an established hegemonic discipline of bourgeois education and a call for expanded public education for the working class. John Dewey Deweyean education is fundamentally experimental and pragmatic theory should emerge from practice , but is also based on progressive, egalitarian and democratic ideals.

Frankfurt School Habermas states educational systems inhibit learners from reaching levels of maturity that foster communicative, democratic, or responsible learning. Marcuse critiques education as a reproduction of existing dominant and oppressive systems, and introduces alternative institutions and pedagogies to promote Paulo Freire The work of Paulo Freire, particularly in Pedagogy of the Oppressed Freire, , has been very influential in the critical-education field. His work explores the development of learning processes through critical, emancipatory and dialogical pedagogies, which reject dominant views and values, and promote radical social transformation and empowerment.

Ivan Illich Ivan illich ; gained international recognition writing about both education Deschooling Society and technology Tools for Conviviality ; both of which have, in recent years, been noted as being remarkably prescient of the internet, the emergence of social computing Kop, , and the Open Source movement Leadbeater, In Deschooling Society, Illich presents a postindustrial alternative model of education within a broad social, political, economic and ecological framework.


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Allan and Carmen Luke The Lukes argue that the majority of educational systems, curricula and pedagogies still in use were designed for the production of an outmoded labour system that does not represent contemporary economic, social, and cultural environments. They emphasize marginality, heterogeneity, and multiculturalism, and introduce critical theories of gender, race, and sexuality.

Feminism Feminist theories of education draw upon classical feminism for example, Mary Wollstonecraft as well as poststructuralist critique. Marcuse produced a largely dystopian account of technocracy in the s in his analysis of a technocratic society. Heidegger's existentialist critique of technology demonstrates an inevitability of technology imposing order on the world. Ellul demonizes technology in his substantive view. Harry Braverman's analysis of the labour process to show how technologies such as the production line are often installed not for purely technical reasons but to facilitate the control of capital and management over workers.

Hans Lenk, Walther Zimmerli, and Bernhard Irrgang have been developing a hermeneutic understanding of technology and ethics. Latour, and post-humanism e. Haraway, Instrumental Theory is the most widely accepted view of technology, especially prominent in the social sciences and dominant in governmental policy. It views technologies as socially and politically neutral i. The neutrality of technology is usually attributed to its rationality and the universality of the truth it embodies. Substantive Theory is a minority view which denies the neutrality of technology, but views technology as constituting a new type of cultural system; an environment and a way of life that is innately good or bad.

Feenberg and other critical theorists such as Ellul, Ihde and Irrgang maintain that technology is neither neutral nor autonomous but ambivalent. Ambivalent technology is distinguished from neutrality by the role it attributes to social values in the use and the development of technical systems. He revises previous critiques of technology from critical theorists such as Marcuse and Habermas to construct a new formulation of the critical theory of technology that seeks to understand the complex social character of technology.

Feenberg proposes the social and historical specificity of technology to put forward a political perspective which embraces its social dimensions Tripathi, Another key critical theorist on technology, Don Ihde , explains how people experience both embodiment and hermeneutic relations to technology. Non-neutrality is most evident in the former, where bodily perception is extended by the use of tools through the effects of either amplification or reduction. Hermeneutic relations occur when the technology represents the quality or value of an object without the people perceiving that quality directly.

In both relations, technology mediates experience, and through this mediation, it alters the experience of the phenomena. In this process of materialization, a piece of technology becomes value-laden with a practical purpose. In other words, technology is not a thing in itself but is inherently a process of social, historical and political cultures. Feenberg recognizes the tendency of technology to produce hegemony i. Instead, he suggests there are three interconnected codes; the code of power, the code of capital, and the code of technology. It is capitalist technology, or rather the technological code within capitalism which dominates.

Convivial tools free individuals from dependency and cultivate autonomy and sociality. Critical Perspectives on Learning Technologies Critical theory remains largely unrecognised and underutilized in areas of practical research on the usability of ICTs or of their use in educational institutions Friesen, Koetting points out that educational technology is generally theoretically rooted within a scientific, behaviorally based model of rationality based on an empirical view of knowledge.

Feenberg devotes Chapter 5 of Transformng Technology to discussing online education. He draws on his critical theory of technology with his experience as a participant in the early development of online education, to emphasise the relevance of critical theory to educational policy. He sees learning technology initiatives as polarized around two alternative conceptual technological models of postindustrial education. Essentially, one views technology as a medium of automation and the other as a medium of communication.

It emphasises freedom and variety over efficiency, and encourages the flourishing of new ideas. Learning technologies may be deployed to make education productive through a technocratic commodity, delivered to students in bite-sized modules. Or they may also be used to open up the education process as part of a profoundly liberatory project which aims to distribute information resources previously accessible to the privileged few.

In taking a dialogic approach, he stresses educational technology of an advanced society should be shaped by educational dialogue rather than the production-oriented logic of automation. Automating Education Feenberg applies the automation metaphor to education to describe the reduction and substitution of traditional, skilled, teacher-led educational tasks, methods and artefacts by technological means. Whilst education technologies invoke postindustrial virtues of student-centred affordances such as flexibility and individualisation, Feenberg argues the main driver for automating education is financial.

In response to shifting economic conditions in Higher Education, such as the growth of the non-traditional student population e. Automated versions of online education have perpetuated existing transmission models of learning Feenberg, Automation separates out informational content from process and simply extends the economies of scale associated with the distribution of written materials into the wider range of media supported by the Internet Agre, Downes suggests the main characteristics for online networks to support knowledge development are that they are diverse, open, autonomous and connected.

However, his emphasis on the local should not necessarily be seen as an indicator of his limited technological perception, but also that he recognised the importance of human agency which communities afford over networks as a learning system; a distinction Wenger emphasises with distributed Communities of Practice.

He emphasizes the complementarity of human and computer capabilities, suggesting that whilst learning technologies may be suited to operational tasks, teachers are best suited at managing the complex and unpredictable activities and communication process in the classroom.

E-learning literature increasingly perceives the role of the tutor as facilitator Salmon, , whilst in a connectivist learning environment, it may become further marginalised or even obsolesced Siemens, Critical educators such as Freire and Feenberg are critical of the diminishing of critical engagement by the tutor and believe it is essential that teachers continue to have a directive role.

These two levels are analytically distinguished.

Critical Theory of Technology

No matter how abstract the affordances identified at the primary level, they carry social content from the secondary level in the elementary contingencies of a particular approach to the materials. Similarly, secondary instrumentalizations such as design specifications presuppose the identification of the affordances to be assembled and concretized. This is an important point. Cutting down a tree to make lumber and building a house with it are not the primary and secondary instrumentalizations respectively. The theory is complicated, however, by the peculiar nature of differentiated modern societies.

Some of the functions of the secondary instrumentalization do get distinguished institutionally rather than analytically. Artists may thus work on the product in independence of engineers to some degree. The artistic activity remains technical and presupposes a primary instrumentalization, but the emphasis on aesthetic qualities of the artifact differentiates it from ordinary technical work in modern societies. This partial separation of the levels of instrumentalization encourages the false belief that they are completely distinct.

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This obscures the social nature of every technical act, including the work of engineers liberated from aesthetic considerations, if not from many other social influences, by their corporate environment. Analysis at the first level is inspired by categories introduced by Heidegger and other substantivist critics of technology. However, because I do not ontologize those categories, nor treat them as a full account of the essence of technology, I believe I am able to avoid many of the problems associated with substantivism, particularly its anti-modernism.

Analysis at the second level is inspired by empirical study of technology in the constructivist vein. I focus especially on the way actors perceive the meanings of the devices and systems they design and use. But again, I am selective in drawing on this tradition. I do not accept its exaggerated and largely rhetorical empiricism and its rejection of the categories of traditional social theory. Instead, I attempt to integrate its methodological insights to a more broadly conceived theory of modernity. Philosophy of technology demystifies the claims to rational necessity and universality of technical decisions.

In the s, the constructivist turn in technology studies offered a methodologically fruitful approach to demonstrating this in a wide range of concrete cases. Constructivists show that many possible configurations of resources can yield a working device capable of efficiently fulfilling its function. The different interests of the various actors involved in design are reflected in subtle differences in function and preferences for one or another design of what is nominally the same device.

Social choices intervene in the selection of the problem definition as well as its solution. Technology is socially relative and the outcome of technical choices is a world that supports the way of life of one or another influential social group. On these terms the technocratic tendencies of modern societies could be interpreted as an effect of limiting the groups able to intervene in design to technical experts and the corporate and politics elites they serve. Constructivism presupposes that there are many different solutions to technical problems.

Some sort of meta-ranking is therefore necessary to choose between them. In determinist and instrumentalist accounts, efficiency serves as the unique principle of meta-ranking. But contemporary technology studies contests that view and proposes that many factors besides efficiency play a role in design choice.

Efficiency is not decisive in explaining the success or failure of alternative designs since several viable options usually compete at the inception of a line of development. I have attempted to draw out the implications of this thesis for contemporary politics. I argue that the intervention of interests does not necessarily reduce efficiency, but biases its achievement according to a broader social program.

I have introduced the concept of "technical code" to articulate this relationship between social and technical requirements. A technical code is the realization of an interest in a technically coherent solution to a problem. This is what it means to call a certain way of life culturally secured and a corresponding power hegemonic.

This account helps to understand the nature of real world ethical controversies involving technology.


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  • Often these turn on the supposed opposition of current standards of technical efficiency and values. I have tried to show that this opposition is factitious, that often current technical methods or standards were once discursively formulated as values and at some time in the past translated into the technical codes we take for granted today. This point is quite important for answering the usual so-called practical objections to ethical arguments for social and technological reform.

    For many of critics of technological society, Marx is now irrelevant, an outdated critic of capitalist economics. I disagree. I believe Marx had important insights for philosophy of technology. He focused so exclusively on economic production because production was the principal domain of application of technology in his time. With the penetration of technical mediation into every sphere of social life, the contradictions and potentials he identified in technology follow as well. In Marx the capitalist is ultimately distinguished not so much by ownership of wealth as by control of the conditions of labor.

    The owner of a factory has not merely an economic interest in what goes on within it, but also a technical interest. By reorganizing the work process, he can increase production and profits. Control of the work process, in turn, leads to new ideas for machinery and the mechanization of industry follows in short order. This leads over time to the invention of a specific type of machinery which deskills workers and requires management.

    Management acts technically on persons, extending the hierarchy of technical subject and object into human relations in pursuit of efficiency. Eventually professional managers represent and in some sense replace owners in control of the new industrial organizations. This is what Marx qualifies as the impersonal domination inherent in capitalism in contradistinction to the personal domination of earlier social formations.

    It is a domination embodied in the design of tools and the organization of production. In a final stage, which Marx did not anticipate, techniques of management and organization and types of technology first applied to the private sector are exported to the public sector where they influence fields such as government administration, medicine, and education.

    The whole life environment of society comes under the rule of technique. In this form the essence of the capitalist system was transferred to socialist regimes built on the model of the Soviet Union. The entire development of modern societies is thus marked by the paradigm of unqualified control over the labor process on which capitalist industrialism rests. It is this control which orients technical development toward disempowering workers and the massification of the public. I call this control "operational autonomy," the freedom of the owner or his representative to make independent decisions about how to carry on the business of the organization, regardless of the views or interests of subordinate actors and the surrounding community.

    The operational autonomy of management and administration positions them in a technical relation to the world, safe from the consequences of their own actions. In addition, it enables them to reproduce the conditions of their own supremacy at each iteration of the technologies they command. Technocracy is an extension of such a system to society as a whole in response to the spread of technology and management to every sector of social life.

    Technocracy armors itself against public pressures, sacrifices values, and ignores needs incompatible with its own reproduction and the perpetuation of its technical traditions. The technocratic tendency of modern societies represents one possible path of development, a path that is peculiarly truncated by the demands of power. I believe technology has other beneficial potentials that are suppressed under the capitalism and state socialism that could emerge along a different developmental path. In subjecting human beings to technical control at the expense of traditional modes of life while sharply restricting participation in design, technocracy perpetuates elite power structures inherited from the past in technically rational forms.

    In the process it mutilates not just human beings and nature, but technology as well.

    Andrew Feenberg, Critical Theory of Technology - PhilPapers

    A different power structure would innovate a different technology with different consequences. Is this just a long detour back to the notion of the neutrality of technology? I do not believe so. Neutrality generally refers to the indifference of a specific means to the range of possible ends it can serve. If we assume that technology as we know it today is indifferent with respect to human ends in general, then indeed we have neutralized it. Alternatively, it might be argued that technology as such is neutral with respect to all the ends that can be technically served.

    However, I do not hold either position. There is no such thing as technology as such. Today we employ this specific technology with limitations that are due not only to the state of our knowledge but also to the power structures that bias this knowledge and its applications. This really existing contemporary technology is not neutral but favors specific ends and obstructs others.

    The larger implication of this approach has to do with the ethical limits of the technical codes elaborated under the rule of operational autonomy. Most fundamentally, democratization of technology is about finding new ways of privileging these excluded values and realizing them in the new technical arrangements. A fuller realization of technology is possible and necessary. We are more and more frequently alerted to this necessity by the threatening side effects of technological advance.

    The very success of our technology in modifying nature insures that these loops will grow shorter as we disturb nature more violently in attempting to control it. In a society such as ours, which is completely organized around technology, the threat to survival is clear. What can be done to reverse the tide? I argue that only the democratization of technology can help. This requires in the first instance shattering the illusion of transcendence by revealing the feedback loops to the technical actor.

    The spread of knowledge by itself is not enough to accomplish this. For knowledge to be taken seriously, the range of interests represented by the actor must be enlarged so as to make it more difficult to offload feedback from the object onto disempowered groups.

    Critical Theory of Technology

    But only a democratically constituted alliance of actors, embracing those very groups, is sufficiently exposed to the consequences its own actions to resist harmful projects and designs at the outset. Such a broadly constituted democratic technical alliance would take into account destructive effects of technology on the natural environment as well as on human beings. Democratic movements in the technical sphere aim to constitute such alliances. Related Information. Close Figure Viewer.

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