Wednesday, April 29, 2009


According to Mark Poster, philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg has a long history engaging with both the theory and the practice of new online cultural formations. As Poster tells it, Feenberg was experimenting with forms of distance learning in the nineteen eighties by using distributed conferencing to teach about the Frankfurt School and poststructuralism at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute where Poster said Feenberg once instructed “elites” such as “actors,” “generals,” and “executives.”

Feenberg’s talk today about a “Democratic Internet” covered a broad swath of utopian and dystopian thought about human agency in relationship to technology. He began with Bellamy’s “neat path to utopia” that imagined an industrialized society structured by technical mastery and morality that was both “collectivist” and highly differentiated, since cultural creators could also accumulate “subscribers” that would allow them to opt out of the main workforce, and the voluntary matching of labor to demand would allow individuals time for self-improvement. Unlike capitalist and communist societies, Feenberg argued that Bellamy’s utopia was “bipolar” in fostering both Bildung and scientific, technical reason.

In contrast, Feenberg said that Huxley’s Brave New World showed his cognizance of future media manipulations that Bellamy couldn’t imagine in his utopia of freely adopted lifestyles and political choices. However, for Feenberg the definitive dystopian philosopher of the twentieth century was Heidegger, who saw the “revealing” of craft labor being supplanted by the “enframing” of modern technologies. As a Marcuse specialist, Feenberg noted the Heideggerian influences on his subject’s thinking, which incorporated Marxism to oppose “intrinsic” modes of living with “extrinsic” ones in which people become raw materials, although the possibilities for technologies of liberation still exists. Long before the popularization of Foucault in the academy, Feenberg traced new attitudes of skepticism about rational, technical projects in the Heideggerian technophobia and distrust of big government of the counterculture.

Later, Feenberg argued that the dystopians were supplanted by Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, and their ilk, who denigrated the earlier critiques of modernity as nostalgic. I didn’t think that Feenberg’s grouping of Haraway, who grapples with the Cold War’s mixed legacies, or Latour, who makes deliberative processes the focus of much of his work, with celebratory “posthuman” thinkers is especially precise, but his argument against this trend in thinking was otherwise persuasive.

In light of recent user revolts, such as those involving Facebook's agreements about ownership and authorship, Feenberg reminded his audience of Langdon Winner's characterization of "technology as a form of constitution," although Feenberg defined it as being "more like a code of laws." For Feenberg, the question was how do new technologies represent their users, particularly now that such representation is no longer tied to one's geographical location, as it was in the pre-industrial past.

Given how most participants in technical networks were unorganized, Feenberg acknowledged that Dewey's fears of potential threats to community were not completely unwarranted, and he noted the continuing value of Habermas's distinction betweeen system and lifeworld. However, he noted how the lifeworld/system binary breaks down in the informational age. For example, the telephone network is a system that manifests particular structures of power, frameworks, and procedural rules, and yet it is used for communicative purposes to enhance intimacy and human contact.

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