Alternative Modernity by Andrew Feenberg: reviewed by Douglas Kellner

Andrew Feenberg, Alternative Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. pp. xi and 251

ISBN 0-520-08986-3

In Alternative Modernity, Andrew Feenberg continues his efforts to produce a critical theory of technology which develops philosophical perspectives to help us understand the immense importance and impact of technology within the contemporary world. His studies undertake to explore the impact of technology on diverse regions of human life and culture, and to interrogate both major theories concerning technology and some other cultural responses to the development of Western technology, including science fiction, dystopic film, and Japanese culture. In particular, Feenberg uses a reconstructed version of the Frankfurt school critique of technology, building on his own earlier Critical Theory of Technology (1991). But he also draws on French postmodern theory, as well as Japanese theory and various cultural texts, to analyze Western modernity and to explore multicultural alternative modernities. His goal is to counter dystopic and technophobic visions of modernity, while showing some positive uses of technology to advance human emancipation and some alternative attitudes to and conceptions of technology and Western modernity.

Feenberg’s major focus and distinctive position within current debates on technology is emphasis on democratic potential for the social reconstruction of technology. Feenberg rejects both neutralist positions which see technology as a mere instrument of human practice, amenable to any and all projects and uses, and determinist notions which see it as a instrument of domination in the hands of ruling elites whose very construction determines the uses, limits, and applications of technology. Instead he sees technology as a contested field where individuals and social groups can struggle to influence and change technological design such that the very construction of technology is subject to democratic debate and contestation.

Thus, Feenberg develops a dialectical approach to technology that perceives both negative and positive uses and effects, seeing technology as an always contested field that can be reconstructed to serve human needs and goals. Consequently, he develops a position that neither falls into a naive technological optimism, or prey to rigid technological determinism and technophobic attacks on technology. He also succeeds in combining the articulation of theoretical and cultural perspectives on technology with concrete studies of the use of medical technologies to fight AIDS, French Minitel and Videotext systems, and Japanese critiques of technology and conceptions of alternative approaches to modernity.

Feenberg, the Frankfurt School and Postmodern Theory

Feenberg makes the interesting point that dystopic forms of media culture promoted a critical space to view technology with suspicion in the aftermath of World War Two and the unleashing of the atomic bomb in Japan at the end of the war (41ff.). Popular film, music, and discourses reflected public distrust and fear of big technology that was producing immense weapon systems, new forms of nuclear energy, and a technological society that was changing the very face of the social world while also, we were to learn later, threatening the integrity of the natural environment and even survival of the human species.

This climate helped generate a serious and positive reception of critiques of technology by theorists such as Heidegger, Weber, and the Frankfurt School which went against the celebrations of technology in the dominant ideology of the day. Feenberg himself roots his theoretical perspectives on technology in the work of the Frankfurt School and pays homage to his teacher Herbert Marcuse in the opening chapter of his book. Marcuse took up the challenge of providing a critical theory of society in an age of affluence, arguing that technology, supposedly the source of wealth and affluence, was also a source of social domination and cultural poverty that was not meeting basic human needs for peace, freedom, individuality, and happiness (19ff). Yet technology for Marcuse provides the potential to provide a better life for all if it in reconstructed, made accessible to the public, and aimed at the fulfillment of human needs, and not such systemic imperatives as domination, profit, and perpetuating the status quo.

Yet Feenberg believes that Marcuse did not go far enough in linking the reconstruction of technology to social reconstruction and operated on too abstract a philosophical plane that needs concretion and further development and he takes this challenge as his own project. Feuerbach appreciates that Marcuse makes technology a political issue, subject to debate and contestation, and that it is a key constituent of the contemporary world, thus linking social theory and critique with theorizing and reconstructing technology. Feenberg, however, wants to develop what he calls ‘interactive strategies of change’ which involve the interaction between state and corporate interests, scientists and technical designers and engineering, and the public in a complex process of negotiation and contestation over the construction and design of technologies (34ff). He argues that conceiving of technology in this way opens it up as a field of negotiation, debate, and struggle over its design, effects, and ends that help democratize technology.

Rejecting dystopic positions that would simply reject and negate technology tout court, Feenberg argues that it is more productive to focus on the reconstruction of technology rather than its vilification. He claims that post-1960s struggles have put in question absolute faith in science and technology, and the individuals and institutions which develop and implement it. With a public questioning technology, demanding changes, and in some cases carrying them out, technology is thus more flexible, transformable, and amendable to democratic debate and reconstruction than previous theories had indicated. As examples — which will be fleshed out in separate studies later in the book –, Feenberg suggests the ways that French consumers transformed the Minitel Videotext system from an information data base to an interactive system of communication articulating popular desires and needs; the ways AIDS patients and women undergoing childbirth insisted on alteration of pre-existing medical systems; and on the ways that the Japanese appropriated Western technology to mesh with their own traditions and cultural and social system. In all of these cases, technology is seen as subject to contestation, reconstruction, and democratic participation which directs it to serve human and social needs and not just hegemonic societal interests.

The subtitle of Feenberg’s book is ‘The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory’ and he best fleshes out this dimension of his project in a chapter that engages the ‘technocracy thesis’ (75ff) and throughout the book will attempt to reconstruct the Frankfurt School and blend its perspectives with other theoretical traditions such as French postmodern theory and Japanese multicultural theory. Given Rorty’s successful marketing of the notion of the ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy, the notion of the ‘technical turn’ may, however, be misleading as it suggests an increasing tendency toward more technical philosophy — a trend certainly evident today, but not one that Feenberg would endorse. Instead, he means a turn to see the fundamental importance of technology, technique, and the technical in the contemporary society and the need to develop critical and social interactionist perspectives toward this ‘technical turn,’ drawing on the most advanced theory and philosophy.

Feenberg develops his perspectives on the technical turn by criticizing the classical positions of the Frankfurt School on technology as domination (in particular Adorno and Horkheimer and Marcuse), considering Habermas’s critique of the earlier Frankfurt School positions and development of his own theories, and then engaging Axel Honneth’s critique of Habermas and further development of the Frankfurt School, followed by Feenberg’s moving beyond Honneth toward his own perspectives. The classical perspectives of the Frankfurt School toward technology, Feenberg believes, are too pessimistic and totalizing, seeing technology largely as an instrument of domination. Habermas in turn adopts a more instrumentalist view of technology, seeing it as an instrument of technologically rational action that serves instrumental ends. Yet Habermas also sees technological rationality colonizing the life-world, invading areas where communication and social interaction should prevail, and thus ultimately for Habermas, in Feenberg’s reading, the pessimistic Frankfurt School perspectives on technological domination continue to prevail (76f).

Yet Habermas wants to counter the hegemonic modes of technological rationality and instrumental reason with a notion of communicative rationality oriented toward an ‘ideal speech situation’ in which norms of rational debate and consensus would govern concerns about technology as well as other issues of public importance (78f). Feenberg believes that this is a step in the right direction, but takes up Axel Honneth’s critique that Habermas’s conception of consensus and the ideal speech situation is too much of an ideal-type social myth that does not adequately take into account the issue of power and constraints on rational consensus in the contemporary world. Honneth in turn proposes that ‘social struggle’ is the form of action taken in contests over social norms, institutions, and power, and thus develops syntheses of Habermas and Foucault that would combine analysis of power, resistance, and rational debate in adjudicating social and political issues and conflicts.

Feenberg is also sympathetic to Honneth’s critique of Habermas’s notion of ‘system,’ which following Parsons, Luhmann, and systems theory presents social systems as reified and depersonalized (81). Feenberg, by contrast, wants to operate with a richer notion of the social and of organization which sees institutions as complex conglomerates of rules and regulations, bureaucratic procedures and interests, technical imperatives, and norms and practices, all subject to contestation, debate, and reconstruction. While Feenberg is sympathetic to Bruno Latour and social constructionists who see technology and institutions as constructions imposed upon the public which dictate thought and behavior (84), and himself introduces a notion of ‘implementation bias’ that dictates how technology is constructed and used, he wants to make these biases and constructions subject to debate, struggle, and reconstruction, thus opening up society and technology to social transformation.

Indeed, one of the most valuable elements of Feenberg’s work is precisely the way he links social transformation with technical transformation, theorizing both society and technology as contested fields open to social contestation and change. He also makes clear that there can be no meaningful talk of social reconstruction unless there is consideration of changing technology, of transforming its design, uses, and practices, thus linking social change with the reconstruction of technology. Feenberg is keenly aware of the central role of technology in contemporary society and that to understand and change society requires understanding and transforming technology.

Appropriating/Expropriating/Reconstructing Technology

While I am highly sympathetic to Feenberg’s project and find his writings extremely useful for philosophy and social theory today, I worry that he underestimates the power of technology as a force of domination and veers too far toward an overly optimistic stance. While he rightly criticizes the classical Frankfurt School for being too pessimistic and frequently totalizing in their assault on technology and seeing it largely as a force of domination, he perhaps downplays the extent to which technology does serve as instruments of domination by societal elites. My own view is that in today’s world we should see technology as both a force of emancipation and domination, holding onto the most negative critiques that we play off against the most utopian possibilities. From this perspective, it appears that Feenberg plays down too much the negative aspects of technology and is too optimistic concerning positive uses and the possibility of reconstruction.

Feenberg counters pessimistic and dystopic perspectives that technology cannot be changed, that it is the fate of the modern world to live in an ‘iron cage’ of technological domination (Heidegger and Max Weber), with some cases studies that indicate that technology can be reconstructed to fulfill human needs and is subject to democratic debate and transformation. As examples, Feenberg indicates how AIDS patients struggled for experimental drugs, the change of government and medical AIDS policies, and (96ff) successfully challenged and transformed medical and government policy and practice. This case also provides for Feenberg examples of how the functional imperatives of medicine treat patients as mere objects, suppressing the “caring” treatment of medicine with emphasis on “curing.” AIDS patients, however, forced the medical system to address their concerns and to modify their practices accordingly.

Feenberg also devotes two chapters to the French Minitel/Videotext experiment to show how individuals have creatively appropriate existing technological systems for their own purposes and in fact restructured technology (123-66) and technical systems. The French telephone system initially provided a Minitel telephone/computer apparatus to each customer free of charge that would allow individuals to tap into data bases to get weather and railway information, news bulletins, and other forms of information. It was intended to help enable the French to interact in a high tech exchange value and thus to aid the process of French modernization.

In practice, however, individuals hacked into bulletin boards which were reconfigured to allow message posting, and eventually split-screen on-line communication and chatlines that enabled diverse forms of social interaction and connection. This expropriation shows how individuals could reconfigure technology to serve their own purposes which may have been at odds with the purposes of those who designed the technology, as when the French used Minitel to engage in interpersonal discussion, to facilitate sexual adventures, or to promote political projects, rather than just to consume officially-provided information.

Both the AIDS and the Minitel examples show how technological systems that were devised by elites according to technical and functional requirements could be resisted by groups involved in the systems and reconfigured to better serve their own needs. Both appropriation of technical knowledge and tools for purposes opposed to their original design and implementation, and the expropriation and reconstruction of technologies and technical practices to serve countergoals and values, show that technology is more complex, flexible, and subject to contestation and reconstruction than in many existing theories and critiques of technology. It suggests the need for more multilayered theories of how technologies are introduced, implemented, and developed, and subject to subversion and reconstruction.

Moreover, as Feenberg argues in conclusion, restructuring technology and promoting technological creativity can serve as a figure for the reconstruction of society and one’s way of life:

Technological creativity is a form of imaginative play with alternative worlds and ways of being. A multicultural politics of technology is possible; it would pursue elegant designs that reconcile several worlds in each device and system. To the extent that this strategy is successful, it prepares a very different future from the one projected by social theory up to now. In that future, technology is not a particular value one must choose for or against, but a challenge to evolve and multiply worlds without end (232).

Some Critical Concerns

In the final chapters, Feenberg delineates some Japanese perspectives on ‘alternative modernity’ based on a reading of the philosopher Nishida and reflections on the game of Go, which embodies values different than the Western ones of success and competition. Feenberg’s point is that alternative social constructions of modernity are possible that construct different sorts and uses of technology, subjected to differing cultural traditions and aesthetic sensibilities. Thus, Nishida envisaged a Japanese modernity which combined Western modernity with Japanese cultural traditions, so that technology would be embedded in cultural and everyday practices and subject to Japanese values and aesthetics. Such a synthesis of art and technology concretizes the call for a merger of these domains by Marcuse in his conception of a new technology. For Feenberg, such conceptions relativize the Western concepts of technology, modernity, and rationality, and show that other alternatives conceptions are available. These perspectives point to a diversity of types of technology and social organization, thus breaking with the unitary and universalizing model of Western modernity and modernization theory.

In a co-edited book from the same period of Alternative modernity, Feenberg sketches out a conception of ‘subversive rationalization’ which points to technological design and advances opposed to hegemonic forms of technology in contemporary Western societies. While Feenberg’s valorization of alternative expropriations and reconstructions of technology, of opening technologies and technical systems to debate and contestation, and to theorizing how technology can be used to serve human needs and enhance human life rather than the interests of dominant social powers is of immense importance, I have some concluding concerns. Although it is no doubt possible to challenge systems of technological domination, to reconstruct technologies, and to guide how technology will be constructed and implemented, it is also the case that technological organization of the workplace and the capitalist corporation, the state and its bureaucracies, the medical establishment, as well as the University and other institutions, are structured to a large extent by systems of technological rationality that are extremely difficult to transform and reconstruct, and even to contest.

Feenberg is certainly right that we should overcome simplistic and one-sided views of technology as either inherently an instrument of progress or of domination, but he underplays the ways that technology is currently used as an instrument of domination and how difficult it is to resist, restructure, and use for social reconstruction. From this perspective, the more pessimistic arguments of the Frankfurt School make clear the immensity of the challenge of social transformation and the power of the dominant societal forces that create technology in their own interests. Although Feenberg emphasizes how capitalist imperatives and biases enter into the design, construction, and implementation of technology, he downplays the extent to which capital, the state, and dominant institutions themselves construct technologies in their own interests and resist alternative technologies and reconstruction.

Yet Feenberg’s more activist and optimistic perspectives are more productive and useful than gloomier prognoses that only see technology as an instrument of domination. It is both useful and correct to see the social constructedness of technology and modernity and the importance of devising alternatives. Social transformation clearly requires reconstruction of technology and it is Feenberg’s merit to demonstrate both that technology is a product of social design and construction and that transforming society to make it more democratic and responsive to human needs requires reconstructing technology.

Douglas Kellner,

University of Texas/University of California at Los Angeles

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