Andrew Feenberg’s Ten Paradoxes of Technology
‘Should we accept or reject technological advances?’ seems to be a recurring question of our era. Professor Andrew Feenberg (Simon Fraser University, Vancouver) in his book ‘Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited (2002)’ declared this to be a false dilemma: there is no need to choose sides for or against technology — there are many possible technologies and many different paths towards progress.
For Feenberg most of what we know about technology is wrong due to our erroneous conception of it as something separate from us, although it has various social, environmental, and economic consequences on our lives.
In a paper he presented in 2009 (Ten Paradoxes of Technology) he pointed out ten technological paradoxes in the way we perceive technology today:
1. The paradox of the parts and the whole.
Technology is meaningful only within the context of its environment and its relationships. We mistakenly believe that technology can stand alone.
2. The paradox of the obvious.
The obvious parts of technology are imperceptible and we tend to notice only its effects.
3. The paradox of the origin.
Behind every technology, there is a forgotten past. Technologies seem to be disconnected from their history in their daily function.
4. The paradox of the frame
The efficiency of a technology does not explain its success, but its success is the reason for its efficiency. We need to study the circumstances of its success to understand its reasons.
5. The paradox of action
For every action, there is a reaction. We mistakenly think that technical action has no effect and tend to ignore the side effects of technology and the changes it causes in the environment and in society.
6. The paradox of the means
The means are the end. The technologies we own symbolize who we are and our social status can be determined by the technologies we use.
7. The paradox of complexity
Simplification makes things more complicated. When we use a technology, we forget the context into which it was created and tend to ignore its possible effects.
8. The paradox of value and fact
It becomes increasingly difficult to isolate technology from the reactions of the people who use it. Seemingly there is a conflict between technology and the experience of its use, but in reality, they are complementary — instead of engaging in a debate for or against a technology, it is possible to improve it by integrating the experience gained from its use.
9. The paradox of democracy
The feedback from society to technology constitutes the paradox of democracy: there are social groups formed by technologies that bind them together but in turn, they transform the technologies that formed the group. Neither society nor technology can be perceived separately because neither has a fixed identity or form.
10. The paradox of conquest
Technology enables man to conquer nature, which is a paradox, given that man himself is a part of nature. Exploiting nature allows man to oppress other people or to be oppressed by his actions through their results, as is the case with pollution.
Although the principles of the ten paradoxes may not seem clear at first, the secondary effects of technology on society and our environment are more than evident today. Recent examples: global warming from fossil fuels, plastic pollution, the use and misuse of nuclear energy.
Although these examples give a clear image of the damage that the unhindered use of technology may cause, they only tell half of the story. The recent debate on the use of nuclear energy can give us an indication. Within the European Union there is an ongoing discussion about its use — Germany in 2011 voted a law to phase-out of Nuclear power by 2022 while France has opted to build more nuclear reactors to become carbon neutral by 2050.
Nuclear technology was initially hailed as the answer to all energy needs and its use went on without the proper study of possible mishaps — the most striking recent example being the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In 2012 the National Diet of Japan Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission (NAIIC) concluded that the accident could have been prevented and that the company operating the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), failed to apply standard safety measures. The International Atomic Energy Agency also mentioned lax management by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, pointing that the ministry faced a conflict of interest as being in charge of both regulating and promoting nuclear energy.
On the other hand, recent extreme fluctuations in energy prices showed that the total exclusion of nuclear energy as an energy source without priorly ensuring an adequate supply from renewable and other energy sources, could cause important problems in energy supply, as the renewable sources of energy cannot yet guarantee a steady supply to satisfy growing global energy needs.
These conflicting interpretations of the use of nuclear power show that we need a deeper understanding of the context of technology and its effects on the environment and society but that we also need to incorporate into the planning process the experience gained from its use. More hybrid solutions are required, taking into account all aspects (positive and negative) of the effects caused by the use of technology. The solution to today’s complex problems can never be reached by dichotomous thinking — either for or against something.
In Feenberg’s own words: “Everywhere technology reveals its true nature as it emerges from the cultural ghetto in which it was confined until recently… This is the occasion for the radical change in our understanding of technology. The institutionalized abstractions of the corporations and the technical professions are no longer the only standpoint from which to understand technology.”