- Democratizing Technology: Andrew Feenberg's Critical Theory of Technology
This is an anthology of ten essays engaging the work of Andrew Feenberg, primarily his Questioning Technology (1999) but more generally his philosophy of technology. Tyler Veak's introduction rightly suggests that the breadth of approaches taken by the different authors gives the book a loose organization. Indeed, some take so broad a view that their essays seem merely occasioned by Feenberg's work. This looseness would be a fault, ultimately, were it not for two factors that I shall discuss below. [End Page 519]
Part 1 is more or less oriented toward the philosophical underpinnings of Feenberg's theory. There is a divide in philosophy of technology between so-called substantivist and social-constructivist approaches. Substantivism—for instance, Martin Heidegger's view—holds that there is an essence of technology that must be understood in order to comprehend and critique our technological world. Relatedly, critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse and Jürgen Habermas also take substantivist positions, accounting for technology as an objectified form of instrumental rationality. Social-constructivism maintains that technology has no essence of its own in contradistinction from the social and political sphere. Technology represents social forces, but it also contributes to constructing those very forces. Feenberg's contribution to philosophy of technology attempts to bridge the gap, or to take the best from both substantivist and constructivist approaches.
The essays in part 1 crisscross this conceptual territory. Trish Glaze-brook and Larry Hickman both give brief accounts of Feenberg's work before seemingly setting it aside in pursuit of their own agendas. While there may be some apparent similarities between Feenberg's critical theory of technology and ecofeminism (Glazebrook) or John Dewey's account of technology (Hickman), it is not immediately clear how such discussion advances understanding of technology or of Feenberg's theory. More critically pointed are the essays by David Stump, Simon Cooper, and Iain Thompson, all of whom take issue with some aspect of the formation of Feenberg's theory. Stump claims Feenberg is (intriguingly) both too much of a social constructivist and too much of an essentialist, despite the usual polar opposition between these approaches. Cooper suggests that Feenberg's theory is blind to the effects of "posthuman" technologies. Thompson criticizes Feenberg's account of Heidegger's essentialism and argues that, without it, criticism is not grounded. The impression they give overall is very nearly that Questioning Technology is a sort of Rorschach blot for philosophers of technology.
Part 2 focuses on the ramifications of Feenberg's critical theory for politics and for social and economic life. Feenberg's work emphasizes the public good of democratizing design and implementation of technology to turn technological development toward goals other than accumulation of capital and power—for example, the public appropriation of the French Minitel system or the efforts of HIV/AIDS activists to drive medical research to be more responsive to the needs of patients. Feenberg's call for democratizing technology has a certain kinship with William Sullivan's push for democratization of the medical field and education: both operate with a conception of democracy that values the process of open and participatory deliberation as being itself a public good. Gerald Doppelt argues that Feenberg's theory lacks a clear account of democracy because it seems to [End Page 520] lack a standard or aim. This criticism is echoed in Albert Borgmann's somewhat ironic suggestion that democratizing technology may have the unfortunate result that people will want technologies that are nondemocratic. Paul Thompson, Andrew Light, and Edward Woodhouse close out the critical portion of the volume with extensions of Feenberg's analysis. Thompson offers an account of commodification as an additional critical tool. Light considers the implications for environmental policy, and Wood-house applies Feenberg's view to specific examples of corporate decision-making to inquire into what it would mean to make these more democratic.
What makes this anthology more than a loose collection is Feenberg's...