University of Oxford

Ten Paradoxes of Technology



Andrew Feenberg

Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology, School of Communication

Date: Feb 11, 2010

Abstract

Though we may be competent at using many technologies, most of what we think we know about technology in general is false. Our error stems from the everyday conception of things as separate from each other and from us. In reality they belong to an interconnected network the nodes of which cannot exist independently qua technologies. What is more we tend to see technologies as quasi-natural objects, but they are just as much social as natural, just as much determined by the meanings we give them as by the causal laws that rule over their powers. The errors of common sense have political consequences in domains such as medicine and environmental policy. In this talk I will summarize many of the conclusions philosophy of technology has reached reflecting on the reality of our technological world. These conclusions appear as paradoxes judged from our everyday perspective. Here is the list of paradoxes discussed in the talk:

1. The paradox of the parts and the whole: The apparent origin of complex wholes lies in their parts but in reality the parts find their origin in the whole to which they belong.
2. The paradox of the obvious: What is most obvious is most hidden.
3. The paradox of the origin: behind everything rational there lies a forgotten history.
4. The paradox of the frame: Efficiency does not explain success, success explains efficiency.
5. The paradox of action: In acting we become the object of action.
6. The paradox of the means: The means are the end.
7. The paradox of complexity: Simplification complicates.
8. The paradox of value and fact: Values are the facts of the future.
9. The democratic paradox: The public is constituted by the technologies that bind it together but in turn it transforms the technologies that constitute it.
10. The paradox of conquest: The victor belongs to the spoils.
Bio

Andrew Feenberg is Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, where he directs the Applied Communication and Technology Lab. He has also taught for many years in the Philosophy Department at San Diego State University, and at Duke University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, the Universities of California, San Diego and Irvine, the Sorbonne, the University of Paris-Dauphine, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and the University of Tokyo. He is the author of Lukacs, Marx and the Sources of Critical Theory (Rowman and Littlefield, 1981; Oxford University Press, 1986), Critical Theory of Technology (Oxford University Press, 1991), Alternative Modernity (University of California Press, 1995), and Questioning Technology (Routledge, 1999). A second edition of Critical Theory of Technology appeared with Oxford in 2002 under the title Transforming Technology. Heidegger and Marcuse: The Catastrophe and Redemption of History appeared in 2005 with Routledge. Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity is scheduled to appear with MIT Press in June 2010. Dr. Feenberg is also co-editor of Marcuse: Critical Theory and the Promise of Utopia (Bergin and Garvey Press, 1988), Technology and the Politics of Knowledge (Indiana University Press, 1995), Modernity and Technology (MIT Press, 2003), and Community in the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). His co-authored book on the French May Events of 1968 appeared in 2001 with SUNY Press under the title When Poetry Ruled the Streets. With William Leiss, Feenberg has edited a collection entitled The Essential Marcuse published by Beacon Press. A book on Feenberg’s philosophy of technology entitled Democratizing Technology, appeared in 2006 with the State University of New York Press. In addition to his work on Critical Theory and philosophy of technology, Dr. Feenberg has published on the Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro. He is also recognized as an early innovator in the field of online education, a field he helped to create in 1982. He led the TextWeaver Project on improving software for online discussion forums under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education of the US Department of Education. For the latest web based version of this software, see http://www.geof.net/code/annotation/. Dr. Feenberg is currently studying online education on a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

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