Technology is a highly contentious concept. Of course, theorizing technology and its complex relationship with democratic politics is not an easy riddle. For instance, as Andrew Feenberg (1999: 11-12) critically observes, although constructivist sociology has interpreted particular technologies in new ways, the central modern questions are hardly addressed today in terms of the general problematic of technology. Nevertheless, the various intellectual efforts of theoretically representing the technological project could be approximately categorized into three main perspectives: technology as an evaluating subject, technology as an evaluated object, technology as a text.
Arguably, it is possible to champion a fourth perspective over the above, suggesting a critical discursive conception of technology (that is, technology as a critical discourse) and, therefore, a generative interplay between epistemology, ontology, and ethics (knowledge, reality, and critique). This strongly signifies the constant co-emergence and co-evolution of technology and politics, the uninterrupted mutual shaping between things and ideas, nature and society, machines and transformative democratic action. To paraphrase Karl Marx, both human and non-human beings make their own history, in a reciprocal way.
But let's briefly see the three main perspectives, and add up a comprehensive fourth one. In the first perspective, what is mostly emphasized involves the actual and potential effects of technology on the social. More specifically, the emphasis is often put on the autonomous technological agential capacity over work, its political organization and social structuring. However, within the position of technological determinism, advocated by some forms of Marxism as well as some forms of liberalism, no analytic attention is paid on the multiple factors that, in the first place, shape the various technologies (before they have effects). In other words, what is overlooked here refers mainly to the social influence upon the course of technological development.
In the second perspective, the so-called sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) is applied to technology in order to empirically demonstrate the significant impact of underlying social and political forces. The role of the great individual inventor (of technological products) is now strategically located in social context. According to this social determinist position, technology, rather than being something autonomous, neutral or logically given, involves complex processes of social and cultural construction. Yet, the phenomenon of the interpretive flexibility of technology is not stressed enough.
In the third perspective, technology obtains textual properties. As Keith Grint and Steve Woolgar (1995) conclude, although essentialism is somehow avoided in the second perspective, a new form of essentialism enters from the back door. So, treating technologies as texts helps us point out the contingent and radically uncertain (undecidable) character of the processes of both designing (writing) and using (reading) technological products. Technological texts, like all cultural texts, are not inscribed with meaning, guaranteed once and for all by the particular intentions of production. On the contrary, they are dynamic, multi-accentual and permanently negotiable. Meaning is always a potential site of ideological conflict, a major terrain of incorporation, agency and multiple resistance, where hegemony (Antonio Gramsci) is to be won or lost.
Nevertheless, a fourth perspective can possibly represent technology in a more adequate manner. Championing the metaphor of the discourse over the metaphor of the text (or the metaphor of the narrative), we are facilitated to creatively escape from the excessive emphasis on reading and interpretation, on rhetorics and textuality (that is, from a sort of idealist textual reductionism). This helps us find a sensitive balance between the rhetorical and the material, the textual and the contextual, the linguistic and the non-linguistic aspects of technology. Utilizing the combinatory characteristics of the Foucauldian concept of discourse, a fruitful space of possibility (Martin Heidegger) is opened up for a critical discursive theory of technology, where knowledge is articulated with social practices, facts meet values, and technical standards co-emerge with normative criteria.
This might also be a small step towards a new, normatively oriented technological citizenship, against the increasing neo-liberal global inequalities. That is, a reflexively dialogical, modular and empowered citizenship, respectful of differences, capable of promoting social learning (John Barry), progressive social change and polymorphous cultural resistance, the active participation of all citizens in the technoscientific processes and the development of a stronger and more cosmopolitan civic culture, as well as the generalized defense of the rights of the individual based on the common principles of tolerance, liberty and equality.
In such a techno-political view (Douglas Kellner), democratization and the radical reconstruction of technology are vitally interconnected. More activist approaches to technology are indeed more productive and useful than any pessimistic (technophobic) diagnosis reducing it to a mere instrument of domination and oppression. The "it could be otherwise" clause of liberal intellectual inquiry must remain central to our current critical theoretical efforts.
Feenberg, A. (1999) Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge.
Grint, K. and S. Woolgar (1995) On Some Failures of Nerve in Constructivist and Feminist Analyses of Technology. Science, Technology and Human Values, 20(3): 286-310.
About the Author
Charalambos Tsekeris graduated from Brunel University (2000) and earned his doctoral degree in Sociology from Athens Panteion University (2006). He is a member of the Greek scientific group Intellectum and a researcher on the complex relationships between technoscience, culture and politics. E-mail: email@example.com