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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 852-854

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Book Review

Questioning Technology

Questioning Technology. By Andrew Feenberg. New York: Routledge, 1999. Pp. xvii+243; figures, notes/references, index. $113 (hardcover); $37.99 (paper).

The direct and forceful title of Andrew Feenberg's Questioning Technology seemed to promise a wonderfully useful text for my course on engineering and society, a book emphasizing specific questions about the effects of technology, providing extensive consideration of specific technologies as both social products and social influences. The preface, in which Feenberg writes that the "fate of democracy is . . . bound up with our understanding of technology" (p. vii), seemed to bear out that promise. Then I glanced through his list of references, and began to wonder at the absence of titles I consider indispensable as background for questioning technology. As I read on, my hopes were deflated: Feenberg does not address specific technologies in a manner that I find pedagogically useful. What, then, does he aim to do? Does he succeed? Is it worth the reader's trouble?

Feenberg's thesis is that "social dimensions of technological systems belong to the essence of technology" and that a "radical reconstruction of modernity" can enable "democratic intervention into technical affairs" (pp. 17, 14, 8)--that is, "democratic control over the direction and definition of progress" (p. 5). This, he suggests, is necessary to prevent such social abuses [End Page 852] of technology as the New York expressways that, by making underpass clearances too low for buses, limited beach access to those who could afford cars. Such issues deserve serious attention, and serious proposals for other ways of managing social choice.

This is a theoretical work. Feenberg occasionally sketches an actual situation or makes a concrete suggestion for establishing democratic control over technological development and implementation, as when he briefly considers the American nuclear power industry. But more often he reviews and criticizes the relentlessly abstract positions of a few narrowly selected philosophers like Heidegger and Habermas, while making only passing references to much more relevant commentators such as Lewis Mumford and Langdon Winner--and, as I have suggested, totally ignoring others arguably indispensable for developing effective grounds for questioning technology.

The meagerness of Feenberg's references to Winner is especially puzzling, since he places Winner at the head of a list of authors representing the "tradition" to which he says Questioning Technology belongs; surprisingly, Feenberg does not cite Winner's Autonomous Technology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1977) at all. References to Rosalind Williams's Notes on the Underground (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990) are conspicuous by their absence; nor is there mention of Ivan Illich's Toward a History of Needs (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978) and Tools for Conviviality (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973). Feenberg's discussion of popular influence on computerized communications is illuminating, but relatively trivial and myopic because he is unaware of the revolutionary tendencies set forth in Kevin Kelly's Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1994). Someone focusing on the "social dimensions of technological systems" ought to be familiar with David E. Nye's Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990). But Feenberg doesn't mention it. He aims to reveal what one commentator terms "the philosophical roots of modernity," and to understand the meaning of progress, but his only reference to Francis Bacon is a brief quotation from an anthology of English philosophers, though Bacon is the fountainhead of the modern project, mapping out the path that industrialization actually followed. At the very least, Feenberg should have consulted Robert K. Faulkner's Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1993).

Why is modern technology a problem, and how can we solve the problem? According to Feenberg, technology is a problem because it has developed under capitalism, and the solution is socialism, specifically "substituting control from below for bureaucratic control from above" (p. 224). This is perhaps a better idea than merely distributing more equally the material output of the system, but how can we realize it? And how will...


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