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Andrew Feenberg retires from the School of Communication
By Emma Keeler-Dugas
As a child of the Atomic Age, professor Andrew Feenberg spent his childhood surrounded by technology at the Physics Lab where his father worked. His exposure to technology led to a career spanning over four decades, becoming the Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology, creating the first online education program, and one of the leading philosophers of technology in the world.
Later this month, he will retire from Simon Fraser University after 13 years with the School of Communication.
During the early years of his career, Feenberg’s worked and studied with environmentalist Barry Commoner and philosopher Herbert Marcuse.
“These and many other philosophers and sociologists argue that modern society is organized around instrumentally rational systems and technologies. This unique form of organization is said to have various perverse consequences, summed up in the lament over the reduction of the individuals to cogs in the social machine. Perhaps because of my childhood background, I never succumbed to the despair characteristic of these modernity theorists. I always believed science and technology to hold more promise than threat,” says Feenberg.
While working in California, Feenberg worked alongside groundbreaking technology advancements in clinical research and online education.
During his time working with the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, Feenberg and his team created the first online education program.
“At the time computers were seen as impersonal and even threatening and computer networking was unknown to the general public. Our program made innovative use of the existing computer technology and computer networks,” says Feenberg.
As professor at San Diego State University, he helped design an ethically appropriate system of clinical research with the Center for Neurologic Study. The new system organized patient meetings to talk through treatment and educate patients.
“We were far ahead of our time but this has become a commonplace approach. Medical institutions engaged in clinical research now frequently work with patients rather than treating them as mere objects of study,” says Feenberg.
Feenberg continues to lead in his field. With several published books on philosophy of technology translated in six languages, Feenberg frequently gives talks in North and South America and Asia and held a six-year term as directeur de programme at the College International de Philsosphie in Paris, France where his work is widely respected. In 2019 Feenberg received the Society for Philosophy and Technology Lifetime Achievement Award.
Reflecting on his time at Simon Fraser University, Feenberg said his fondest memories at the School of Communication was working with his first group of students in his Applied Communication and Technology Laboratory.
“I did not demand that they pursue my research objectives. They were free to work on any subject that related to research on communication technology. At the time I arrived technology was not seen by many in the School as a legitimate subject, so the students banded together to open a new territory with my help. We organized a conference to show the School the interesting work that could be done studying technology, and later published the proceedings as a book, Reinventing Technology. This was for me a sort of temporary utopia.”
“My advice to young researchers is to follow your own path rather than fashion,” says Feenberg.