[iDC] Toward a Post-Post-Critical Future

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Wed Sep 27 15:38:38 EDT 2006

How can we overcome global social problems if we see them as secondary
in relation to technology? How can we divorce political and
technological discourses? The technological future cannot be discussed
in terms of de-contextualized (networked) objects because they are
everything but autonomous players.   

It is equally unhelpful to create a dichotomy between two camps: those
with conformist views of technology and others who see technology as a
monster that swallows us. Marcuse as well as Foucault analyze society as
a life-draining machinery fueled by dominated people. The question about
technology is not whether "to take it or leave it." While the assembly
line was the long arm of management in 1913, today machines are powered
by networked technological systems. In 1941 the Ford Motor Company
experienced its first general strike at the River Rouge Plant and a
survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project predicts a movement
of "tech refuseniks" who live completely off the network and "will
commit acts of violence and terror against technology-inspired change"
in 2020. [1] We could link such pessimism back to the late 1970s when
Langdon Winner and Jacques Ellul ask how technology has improved human
dignity, well-being, and freedom. Marx, who is otherwise sometimes
perceived as a technological determinist, writes in Manuscripts that
"The more the worker expends himself in the work the more powerful
becomes the world of objects which he creates in face of himself, the
poorer he becomes in his inner life, and the less he belongs to
himself." (Marx, p 122)   

In the search for the potentialities of technology it is vital to go
beyond the pessimism -- optimism divide. Technology is one important
dimension of human existence that matters a great deal. We should what
offers meaning and fulfillment in this technology-rich life. At the same
it is obvious that technology will not fix everything. How can we
overcome social problems if we see them as secondary in relation to
technology? Think of the fragmentation and de-humanization of labor.
Manual labor is pushed to the global south and creative/intellectual
work is concentrated in the "developed world." Global outsourcing and
the unfulfilling work in call centers or the physically dangerous labor
in offshore sweatshops are further examples. By the same token cultural
power is centralized. In the developed world most people are "time poor"
while in "developing countries" material poverty reigns. In the United
States the workday gets ever longer. A mother with three children may
work four jobs and still not be able to pay the rent. The working poor
also belong to those 47 million Americans who cannot afford health
insurance. People are completely controlled by credit ratings and kept
in (the work) place by student loans. A friend calls this passive
aggressive capitalism. How can technology encourage people to see their
life in terms of alternatives, preferences and choices? 

Today, the intellectual horizons and qualifications behind jobs are
decreasing. Nintendo's university in Washington State delivers
just-in-time-knowledge and outright ignores the humanities. All what is
needed from the worker is a particular set of skills necessary for an
upcoming project. Such de-skilling is common practice in new media trade
schools worldwide that follow the corporate imperative that rejects
Alexander Humboldt's non-pragmatic notion of education for its own sake,
later "Americanized" at Harvard University. Education is a central
problem and in particular the global distribution of knowledge is a
burning problem. The literacy rate in the United States is lower than
that in Mexico. Initially I asked how we can overcome all these problems
if we see them as secondary in relation to technology. I do believe that
technology has a role to play in this context.

If we exclude technology from our projections and ideas for social
change and the future, if we do not even attempt to occupy the
technological imaginary, then possibilities and probabilities are
foreclosed by technological elite and their default vision of the market
and the military-industrial complex kicks in. There is more to
technology than profit, fun and power.  

"Technological development is a scene in which various competing groups
attempt to advance their interests and their corresponding
civilizational projects. Many technically feasible outcomes are possible
and not just the one imposed by the victors in the struggle." (Feenberg,
2002: 143)

Our projections should be probable and go beyond computer game visions.
The capitalist context into which most of us are socialized made us
believe that there is a somewhat "natural," transhistorical
inevitability to technological development under the banner of the
market. What are the interests of the players in the realm of the
technical sphere? Do we still realize how human values are
systematically naturalized in this process? Almost everything practical
wins and efficiency is the big common denominator. The assembly line
arguably led to the emergence of self-help, followed by
psycho-pharmaceutical fixes of the "non-functional individual,"
proposing that what is wrong is really the worker herself and not the
environment that causes her dissatisfaction, anxiety and depression.
Today, addiction to networked devices is a growing and very serious

Markets determine the development of the tools we are using and they
shape our way of life. Economical values are the payoff for human
potentialities in this society. Our life style, soaked up with
technology, directly feeds into hegemonic domination. The interests of
those in power are inscribed in the technical code, its machines and
networks. Technologies are not just tools and things because they are
not independent or isolated. They exist in relation to market
relationships; they are embedded in a web of social players, market
forces and institutions. Hegemonic interests are cemented into code and
law. Programmers and technologists mold their image of the world and
that of those with whom they work onto their creations. Therefore, the
sandbox of technological development is not neutral. "Technology is not
a destiny but a scene of struggle. It is a social battlefield, or
perhaps a better metaphor would be 'parliament of things' in which
civilizational alternatives contend. What it means to be human is
decided in large part in the shape of our tools." [2] 

Now, every place can be a work place according to the teleco Sprint.
Itunes makes sharing music harder and harder with every new version of
its products. Music files are files are pushed into more and more
proprietary formats. The BlackBerry keeps the office worker on the
global leash of the manager. Even in the doctor's office the man in the
brown suit can get accessed. His face darkens when switching on his
little portable machine to which he is addicted. Another example is the
debate over Net Neutrality showed how rational, common sense arguments
as presented by the likes of Lawrence Lessig in U.S. Congress were of
little consequence. Corporate interests and not democratic participatory
politics dictate what will happen to the Internet. Even explicit
repeated public comments by the inventor of the World Wide Web make no
difference. To make the process of technological transformation more
participatory is a worthy goal.

The networked machine has conquered time. Today, people are forced into
jobs that require workers to carry a pager (or take a pay cut if they
object). Such precarious labor processes deeply impact urban planning.
In the current capitalist system, the imperative of efficiency outscores
human fulfillment and democratic participation. Technological
development is market-driven, which signifies that the primary goal is
not to shape a better life but to make profit and gain power. "Different
worlds, flowing from different technical arrangements, privilege some
aspects of the human being and marginalize others." [3] What does our
list discussion celebrate thus far? What did we respond to and what was
pushed to the periphery?

The hopeful side of technology emphasizes mutual aid, cooperation,
collaboration, and collective intelligence and it weakens participatory
control. It is in search of novel, self-organized networked socialities.
The odd term and interesting concept of the creative industries can
become the context for thinking of an alliance of laborers (i.e. unions)
enabled by emerging technologies. 

For the techno-priesthood the future looks always glitzy; just trust
what is to come. It will all be good. But on the contrary, we should ask
what technology could do about society's desperate crisis. The tools
that we are using shape our way of life as much as the politicians who
rule our countries. The latter is crucial, as everyday laborers need to
be involved in the process of technological development. If this would
succeed even to some extend then citizens would understand themselves
more as active contributors rather than armchair passengers. 

One response to the developmental process exists on the tactical
micro-political level. Many art projects fall into this category.
Feenberg calls this the "margin of maneuver of the dominated" receiver
of technology. A small dog is biting an elephant, which makes the latter
feel more alive. Small-scale tactical interventions meet big scale
authoritarian technics, which also in Marcuse's view get readily
absorbed into the capitalist spectacle of democracy. Jacques Ellul even
believed that given the whole "ensemble of techniques" such tactical
micro-interventions are insignificant. Where does that leave us? 

Right now, effective participation in the technological design process
is not in place. In "Transforming Technology" Andrew Feenberg calls for
a politics of technological transformation and proposes widespread,
democratic participation in the process of shaping technologies. "To the
extent that we technicize the public sphere by transferring its
functions to experts, we destroy the very meaning of democracy."
(Feenberg, 2002: 9) While Feenberg does not provide concrete examples or
proposals of how to reach such participation (short of waiting for the
next round of real socialism), he is right to demand civic involvement.
The development of technology must be grounded in the actual interests
of those who will use them.    

Steve Kurtz argues in a similar manner that science, and biotechnology
in particular, should not be left to the experts. If we want to occupy
the imaginary of the field of situated technologies and networked
objects, or The Internet of Things, ways of public participation in
technical decisions need to be considered. A clear language that cuts
across disciplines is a starting point that let's "ordinary people"
understand what technologists and architects and art historians and
sociologists and artists are talking about. How can we achieve
contestation of technological ideas if we can't cut across professional
language and perhaps disciplinary hubris or even old boys clubs? At a
time of steep decline of civic participation and much increased
interaction online, what would motivate people to get involved in, for
example, contribute ideas for networked objects and situated
technologies or an Internet of Things to an online repository, thus
co-shaping this debate? How many people on this list of almost 900
people understand after 3 months of discussion what the Internet of
Things or networked objects or situated technologies stand for? (I am as
guilty of that as anybody.) Clear communication to the non-initiated
non-expert (who will adapt to these technologies) is a start to a
democratic participatory process of technological development. How else
will people get a sense of responsibility and ownership in these
developmental processes that are otherwise totally guided by corporate
interests? How can we build feedback loops for people whose life will be
changed or at least impacted by emerging technology? How can these
participants in technological life style speak up about the application
of this or that invention in their actual lives? Or, is it their fate to
merely obey technological trends?   
-Trebor Scholz

[1] http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/r/188/report_display.asp

[2] Feenberg, A. (2002) Transforming Technology. New York: Oxford
University Press. p15

[3] Ibid. p19

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