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Dimension of Philosophy of Technologies
Critical Theory and Democratization of Technologies

Ubiquity, Volume 2008 Issue June | BY Arun Kumar Tripathi 


Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

Philosophy of technology promises the possibility of an understanding of technology that may be important not only to public policy but also in helping to conceptualise intellectual approaches to the study of technology and, indeed, to shaping new fields of knowledge and research. Philosophy of technology may also have a role to play in relation not only to structuring a largely disparate and inchoate field but also more directly in teaching and learning about technology (Peters, et. al 2008).

Philosophy of technology promises the possibility of an understanding of technology that may be important not only to public policy but also in helping to conceptualise intellectual approaches to the study of technology and, indeed, to shaping new fields of knowledge and research. Philosophy of technology may also have a role to play in relation not only to structuring a largely disparate and inchoate field but also more directly in teaching and learning about technology (Peters, et. al 2008).

Evan Selinger and Berg Olsen in their Preface of the book Philosophy of Technology: 5 Questions (Automatic Press/VIP, 2007) argue that the philosophy of technology is a special region of inquiry. On the one hand, it is continuous with other philosophical topics. For example, practitioners of the philosophy of technology defend their research by appealing to both instrumental and intrinsic justifications-that is, they emphasize how their analyses clarify what it means to be human, and portray alternative visions of how humans and non-humans can relate to each other. In many instances, an activist component is present: visions of the good life are articulated, marginalized voices are represented, and issues of participation and shared governance are explored.

Whereas Robert Scharff in his Philosophy of Technology (see Scharff 2005) argues that until the late twentieth century, technology was not a widely attractive philosophical topic. Even today, certainly in North America and to a somewhat lesser extent in the UK, Scandinavia, and the rest of Continental Europe, the philosophy of technology is still typically regarded as either a small and not especially prestigious area of specialization or an interest most appropriately handled in an institute or program outside of philosophy, "the reasons for this situations are partly historical."

It is no doubt that recently philosophy of technology is gaining recognition as an important field of philosophical scrutiny (Irrgang 2008). Scott Ruse essay1 addresses the import of philosophy of technology in two ways, first as a place of technology within ontology, epistemology, and social/political philosophy, where Ruse argues technology inhabits an essential place in these fields. Second, Ruse discusses how modern technology, its further development, and its inter-cultural transfer constitute a drive toward a global "hegemony of technology". The crux of the Ruse argument is that the technological impulse within humanity insinuates itself into nearly every aspect of human existence. The structures of the state, the economy, and culture, are each framed by this impulse. In the final analysis, it is argued that only a thorough examination of the intimate connection between humanity and technology can lay the foundation for a comprehensive philosophy of human existence.

Scott Ruse in his important essay discusses the two topical thinkers, Don Ihde and Andrew Feenberg to explore the import of philosophy of technology by elucidating a number of levels of approach that must be explored and integrated if we are to understand the ramifications of technology. Ultimately, Ruse says, the justification for philosophy of technology is beyond both pragmatic and utilitarian reasoning. Instead, Ruse argues that any philosophy of technology that simply ignores this essential element of the human condition is fundamentally flawed and intrinsically incomplete (Scott Ruse 2005).

We human beings rely on what we make in order to survive, to thrive and to live together in societies. Sometimes the things we make improve our lives, and sometimes they make our lives worse. Technological devices shape our culture and the environment, alter patterns of human activity, and influence who we are and how we live. Philosophy of technology is a critical, reflective examination of the nature of technology as well as the effects and transformation of technologies upon human knowledge, activities, societies and environments (Umwelt). The goal of philosophy of technology is to understand, evaluate and criticize the ways in which technologies reflect as well as change human life individually, socially and politically. It also examines the transformations effected by technologies on the natural world and nonhuman life and the ecospheres. The assumption underlying the philosophy of technology is that the devices and substances we make and use transform our experience in ways that are philosophically relevant. That is, technology not only enlarges and extends our capacities and effects of changes in the natural and social worlds but also does so in ways that are interesting with respect to fundamental areas of philosophical inquiry. Technology poses unique practical and conceptual problems of epistemology, metaphysics, moral philosophy, and political philosophy. The task for a philosophy of technology is to analyze the phenomenon of technology, its significance, and the ways that it mediates and transforms our experience in the lifeworld (Irrgang 2008).

Coming from the school of critical theory in Frankfurt (where Jürgen Habermas, Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and Horkheimer have studied), Andrew Feenberg proposes the solution to the problems of philosophy of technology from the political perspectives. Currently Feenberg is the productive philosopher in the area of technology and politics (From a European perspective German philosopher of technology Bernhard Irrgang in his work on Technology as Power: Towards a Political Technology argues for a revision of Critical Theory in the Philosophy of technology)1 . Feenberg does not hesitate to lay bare the skeleton of his argument in clear and helpful charts in Questioning Technology. Over the course of more than two decades, Andrew Feenberg has established himself as an important representative of a new generation of critical theorists. Consistently insightful and articulate, Feenberg has developed a trenchant critique of technological culture that has taken as its point of departure the humanistic Marxism of his mentor Herbert Marcuse. In his book Questioning Technology (Routledge, 1999); Feenberg presents what is arguably his most successful attempt to date to construct a major revision of the critique of technology advanced by Marcuse and other "first generation" critical theorists, as well as by their "second generation" heirs, such as Habermas (See Feenberg 2005 and for a critical discussion of Feenberg's Critical Theory of Technology see Robert Scharff (2006) 'Redeeming' Technological Culture).

Feenberg argues against both essentialism and determinism - to put forward a political theory of technology which embraces the social dimensions of technological systems, including their impact on the environment and workers' skills and their role on the distribution of power. Feenberg wants to encompass the technical dimension of our lives and to provide a social account of the essence of technology which enlarges our democratic concerns. On technical democracy, Feenberg reminds us - that a technological society requires a democratic public sphere sensitive to technical affairs. But it is difficult to conceive the enlargement of democracy to technology through procedures such as voting. Nevertheless, local publics do become involved in protests over technical developments that concern them. Hence the widespread recourse to protests and public hearings in domains such as environmentalism - we are witnessing the slow emergence of a technical public sphere but that it has been largely overlooked because of its unfamiliar concerns and fragmented form.

In the 90s, Feenberg authored three books [Feenberg's (1999) Questioning Technology is, perhaps, the most comprehensive introductory texts in philosophy of technology. It is the third book in a trilogy dealing with technology, including Critical Theory of Technology (1991) and Alternative Modernity (1995)] that established him as one of the leading scholars in a rapidly developing field, and he is one of the few to delineate a theory for democratizing technological design. He has demonstrated the shortcomings of traditional theories of technology and argued for what he calls "democratic rationalization" where actors intervene in the technological design process to shape it toward their own ends. In this book, the contributors analyze foundational issues in Feenberg's work, including questions of human nature, biotechnology, gender, and his readings of Heidegger, and they also examine practical issues, including democratizing technology, moral evaluation, and environmentalism. Technology is a highly contentious concept, Of course, theorizing technology and it's a complex relationship with democratic politics is not easily an easy riddle, as Tsekeries argues recently in Ubiquity (cf. Tsekeries, Charalambos. Technology as Politics, Ubiquity Vol.8, Issue 37 (September, 2007- September 24, 2007). Further Tsekeries argues that 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. Not only I agree with the hyopothesis of the Tsekeries article, moreoever I would like to add towards Feenberg's outstanding and bold initiatives towards democratizing technology vs. technology as politics (which is also often coming under sharp criticism).

Democratic rationalization occurs when ordinary people "intervene in the design process in the defense of the conditions of a meaningful life and a liveable environment." In this light, Feenberg rejects extreme standpoints on technology. He opposes "substantivism"(Ellul, Heidegger, and Weber) for claiming the only way to deal with the dominance of technology is to oppose it. Same for "essentialism"(Borgmann), which says technology has an immutable essence outside history and is beyond our intervention. He also rejects technocratic determinism, which always sees the latest stage of technological development as inevitable and leading us straight to freedom and happiness.

Instead, Feenberg proposes "constructivism." This approach and its accompanying "innovative dialogue" affirm "the social and historical specificity of technological systems, [and] the relativity of technical design and use to the culture and strategies of a variety of technical actors." Technology is thus neither neutral nor autonomous but ambivalent: It is always open to "alternative developments with different social consequences." Feenberg seeks a radical democratic politics, a transformation whereby the "social control of technology will eventually spread and be institutionalized in more durable and effective forms."

"... It is true that advanced societies enroll their members in ever wider technical networks which ... do indeed constrain behaviour significantly. But absolute opposition to technology leaves no room for practical criticism and reform. Even as technology expands its reach, the networks are themselves exposed to transformation by the individuals they enroll. Human beings still represent the unrealized potential of their technologies. Their tactical resistances to established designs can impose new values on technical institutions and create a new type of modern society. Instead of a technocracy in which technology everywhere trumps human communication, we may yet build a democratic society in which technical advance serves communicative advance." (128) "... unexpected struggles over issues such as nuclear power, access to experimental treatment, and user participation in computer design remind us that the technological future is by no means predetermined. The very existence of these struggles suggests the possibility of a change in the form of technical rationality. They prefigure a general reconstruction of modernity in which technology gathers a world to itself rather than reducing its natural, human and social environment to mere resources. The goal would be to define a better way of life, a viable ideal of abundance, and a free and independent human type, not just to obtain more goods in the prevailing socioeconomic system." (224-25) See Andrew Feenberg, Questioning Technology (London/New York: Routledge, 1999).

The most effective way to silence criticism is a justification on the very terms of the likely critique. When an action is rationally justified, how can reason deny its legitimacy? Feenberg concerns with critical strategies that have been employed for addressing the resistance of rationality to rational critique especially with respect to technology. Foucault addressed this problem in his theory of power/knowledge. It explores Marx's anticipation of that approach in his critique of the "social rationality" of the market and technology. Marx got around the silencing effect of social rationality with something very much like the concept of under determination in his discussion of the length of the working day. There are hints of a critique of technology in his writings as well. In the 1960s and '70s, neo-Marxists and post-structuralists demanded radical changes in the technological rationality of advanced societies. Soon technical controversies spread, primarily through the influence of the environmental movement. The concept of underdetermination was finally formulated clearly in contemporary science and technology studies, but without explicit political purpose. Nevertheless, this revision of the academic understanding of technology contributes to weakening technocratic rationales for public policy. A new era of technical politics has begun. (Cf. Feenberg, Andrew. Marxism and the Critique of Rationality: From Surplus Value to the Politics of Technology." Forthcoming). In brief, Feenberg's intention is to respond to the silencing of critique by invoking rationality. He asks: "When an action is rationally justified, how can reason deny its legitimacy?" If it's rational to receive a good in exchange for money, how could there be anything wrong with our capitalist society?

Ruse comments that the ways in which technology is embedded in society is thoroughly discussed in Andrew Feenberg's Critical Theory of Technology, where Feenberg is claiming that any given technology is ambivalent (Ihde and Irrgang) to the impact of its social uses until it is incorporated into the "technological code" of the culture. In other words, technological innovation can actually threaten technological hegemony until it can be encoded. Ruse argues that the thrust of Feenberg argument is that any sort of technological rationality as a totalitarian force determining society can not be said to be technological in nature. It seems Feenberg's approach recognizes the tendency of technology to produce hegemony (it institutes a habit), but maintains that this process is not technological in nature. Whereas Ruse hypothesis is that technologies are polyvalent both within and across cultural contexts. Don Ihde would say technologies are multistable; means technologies are different in different cultures (technologies are embedded in the cultural-historical contexts). They have no fixed identity, but only get defined in their context of use. Technologies have to be interpreted and appropriated by their users in cultures in order to be more than just lying around. Peter-Paul Verbeek argues that this multistability of technologies makes it very difficult to predict the ways which technologies will influence human Actions (Verbeek 2005). Whereas Ruse maintains that despite the fact that the introduction of a new technology may be ambivalent to technological hegemony, it in no way threatens the hegemony of technology (Scott Ruse 2005).

Feenberg finds a way around this silencing of critique in Marx's method (clearly distinguished from the content of his theory), which anticipates Foucault's power/knowledge formulation. The nascent concept of underdetermination in Marx emerged more fully in contemporary science and technology studies, despite its apolitical aspect. According to Feenberg "this revision of the academic understanding of technology contributes to weakening technocratic rationales for public policy. A new era of technical politics has begun."

Recently Feenberg (by recalling his pleas discussed in Questioning Technology on Technical Democratization) put the best way on how the phenomenon of democratizing technology "would be" possible and if we assume, it happens then what will be its consequences, as we all know technology has the Janus-Face. In the book "Five Questions in Philosophy of Technology" edited by Evan Selinger and Jan Berg Olsen, Automatic/VIP Press (2007), Prof. Feenberg has answered the issues on "practical socio-political obligations follow from studying technology from a philosophical perspective": [Andrew Feenberg writes] the main obligation philosophy of technology teaches are responsibility for our own creations and for the consequences of our own actions. We know we should take such responsibility in personal affairs, but what about our relation to nature and to society? Most of our institutions and received ideas tell us the natural world is a vast grab bag and garbage dump for which we have no responsibility at all. As for society, we are told that our responsibilities begin and end with paying taxes and voting. These are catastrophic errors. Technology is a collective project of society as a whole and can only be brought within the scope of our ethical obligations through a wide variety of political interventions, including protests, boycotts, and active collaboration with experts around new visions of the technical future. This is the reason why Feenberg is most concerned with the implications of technology for democracy, a subject that is still largely overlooked. Technologies form the framework of our lives but they are designed with little or no democratic input. This is a serious failure of our institutions, Feenberg says, it must be addressed by reforms in education, the media, the corporations, law, and the technical professions (pp. 55 - 62, Feenberg 2007).

Later in the same book, Feenberg writes that idea of democratizing technology has many sources. Perhaps the two most important philosophers to advocate this idea were Marx and Dewey. Marx believed that worker control of the factory could transform modern society and the technology on which it is based. Dewey also hoped for wider citizen participation in technological decision-making. Here is the critique; neither [Marx nor Dewey] had significant examples of democratization to point to. Furthermore, technological determinism was far more popular than their democratic position until quite recently. Indeed, Marx was understood as a determinist for generations. In recent years this has begun to change due to democratic interventions into technology by users and victims and frequent calls for alternative technologies from scientists and technical experts in fields such as environmental protection and medicine (Feenberg 2007). On the one hand I believe Feenberg is very clear when he says that it is time to develop a democratic philosophy of technology to explain and further this important change in the very idea of politics, whereas on the other hand I think he is fully aware of its implications.

In order to address practical questions in philosophy of technologies, philosophers such as Hans Lenk, Walther Zimmerli, and Bernhard Irrgang have been developing a hermeneutic understanding of both technology and ethics. The structures of technological practice, professional activity, and everyday life, together with the background of an implicit technological knowledge, are the basis of collective technological action in a cultural context. The meaning of a technology does not necessarily have to be linguistically articulated in order to be present in a culture. The ways technological practices themselves structure actions include different forms of meaningfulness. This leads to a kind of existential pragmatics of technological action and its models of representation (Corona and Irrgang 1999). Such an approach provides a recursive and reflexive assessment of technological actions. But the impacts of any interpretation of technological actions must also prove successful in psychological, sociological, technical-historical, and cultural-historical terms (Irrgang 2001, 2002). At the same time, reflective modernization depends on the continued existence of such institutions as universities and research centers even as they are altered by globalization.

Reflective modernization must also distinguish the self-understandings of scientific and technical professionals from the external descriptions of their roles. The traditional epistemological foundation for a social role description has been the notion of science as knowledge, but technological science is not another science. A metatheory of the technological sciences is needed to determine the relation of these various disciplinary formations and to search for unity within the technological sciences. A related question concerns the relation between disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary technoscientific knowledge. Epistemological and professional distinctions ultimately interact with practice-orientated and institutional differentiations in an integrated technology-reflective culture (Irrgang 2003, 2006, 2007).

In the words of Andrew Feenberg, Philosophy of technology has come a long way since Martin Heidegger and John Dewey. Feenberg further argues that Philosophy of technology is marginalized in the profession with the result that philosophy itself has become ever more marginal to the culture. Unfortunately, for reasons social scientists ought to examine, most discussion of technology in the social sciences is politically toothless. Andrew Feenberg is gratified that the debate breaks the rules and addresses the philosophical and political implications of real world issues (p. 207, Veak. Ed. Democratizing Technology: Andrew Feenberg's Critical Theory of Technology, SUNY, 2006).

In end I would say that we might make even grander claims for philosophy of technology. Just as economic growth theory now postulates an endogamous model where technology is considered as a factor intrinsic to development, in society and education the notion that technology is an autonomous system operating neutrally has come under increasing scrutiny. Rather than considering technology as something separate from daily life and from society at large, philosophers and sociologists now contemplate the way in which technology structures our institutions and impacts upon all aspects of our existence.

1 Ruse, M. Scott. Technology and the Evolution of the Human: From Bergson to the Philosophy of Technology, Essays in Philosophy A Biannual Journal Vol. 6, No. 1, January 2005.

2 See Bernhard Irrgang: Technik als Macht: Versuche über politische Technologie

3 For a discussion of Feenberg on technology from the pragmatic perspectives, see Larry A. Hickman. From Critical Theory to Pragmatism: Feenberg's Progress in Democratizing Technology: Andrew Feenberg's Critical Theory of Technology, SUNY, 2006. For a fruitful exchanges between Feenberg (Pragmatism and Critical Theory of Technology) and Hickman (Revisiting Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture) see Techne essays at and


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Source: Ubiquity Volume 9, Issue 22 (June 3 - 9, 2008)


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