[These notes were the basis for a presentation at Xerox PARC in 1996]

Summary Remarks on My Approach to the Philosophical Study of Technology

Andrew Feenberg

1. Hermeneutic Constructivism. Technology is not the product of a unique technical rationality but of a combination of technical and social factors. The study of these factors must include not only the empirical methods of social science but also the interpretive methods of the humanities in order to get at the underlying meaning of technical objects and activities for participants. Meaning is critically important insofar as technical objects are socially defined. What it is to be an automobile or a television is settled by social processes that establish definitions of these objects and grant them specific social roles. Technology itself cannot determine the outcome of these processes. Rather, conflicting worldviews shape alternatives and so the results cannot be understood without a grasp of how worldviews come to be concretized in technology. These problems of meaning have been insufficiently considered in technology studies. It has been my contribution to emphasize them as the specific contribution of the humanities.

2. Historicism. In recent years technology studies has benefited greatly from the adoption of a historicist approach derived from the work of Thomas Kuhn in the history of science. Instead of regarding technological progress as a deterministic sequence of developments, we have learned to see it as a contingent process that could lead in many different directions. I have applied this approach to several important issues in technology. My work shows how the illusion of neutrality and autonomy of the technical professions arises from the way in which they construct their history. Historical studies show that public opinion has had deep impacts on the direction of technical development. But insofar as lay attitudes make a difference, their influence is embodied in new technical standards which, with time, appear to have arisen spontaneously from technical rationality. Thus professionals tend to meet each new lay offensive as a challenge to their autonomy, which they greatly over-estimate, when in all likelihood they will succeed in assimilating its consequences in the future as they have the consequences of previous public interventions in the past. I also study a variant of this problem in relation to the supposed tradeoff between ideology and technology. What I find is that technical development is far more flexible, far more able to internalize popularly supported values than is usually imagined.

3. Technical Democracy. 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. With few exceptions technical issues do not interest the public enough to become "issues" in the usual sense of the term. 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. Such movements can be interpreted as democratic in broad terms insofar as they involve democratic agency in the public sphere. I have further enlarged discussion in this field to cover what I call "reappropriations" of technology by users, i.e. transformations of existing technology through innovative usages. I argue that 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.

4. Meta-Theory of Technology. There have been many attempts in philosophy to define the essence of technology and to distinguish the specific difference of modern and premodern technologies. I have argued that these various theories are unilateral and fail to grasp the full complexity of their object. I distinguish two levels of technical "instrumentalization" and define eight different aspects of these two levels. At the primary level technology reifies its objects, i.e. decontextualizes them and manipulates them. At the secondary level various compensations are introduced to recontextualize technical objects once again, for example, by providing them with ethical and aesthetic dimensions. In premodern technology these two levels are distinguishable only analytically. They become  to some degree institutionally separate in the development of modern technology. Various different configurations of the levels and their constituents define distinct technological rationalities. On these terms it is possible to develop a constructive critique of the culture of technology in our society and to imagine an alternative. This scheme also enables me to embrace important aspects of the contributions of a variety of thinkers such as Heidegger, Habermas, Latour, Borgmann, and others.