Review of Eduardo Beira and Andrew Feenberg (Eds.) (2018). Technology, Modernity and Democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg

London and New York: Rowman & Littlefield. 173 pp. ISBN 9781786607218 (Paperback)
  • Petar JandrićEmail author


Andrew Feenberg Essays Philosophy Technology Modernity Democracy 

This Is a “No Stairway to Heaven” book

A few years ago Marcel Anders of Classic Rock Magazine asked Led Zeppelin’s famous singer Robert Plant: “What do you think about the rumours that keep popping up about a Led Zep reunion tour in 2018?” Plant replied: “It shows you that people have nothing else to write about, obviously. And that’s kind of sad. (…) It’s like there is nothing new and exciting out there any more, when in fact there is. So stop living in the past. Open your ears and your eyes. It’s not that difficult, is it?” (in Anders 2017). Andrew Feenberg is definitely not one of these people who are stuck in the same old song. With his two recent books, Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg (Beira and Feenberg 2018) and Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason (Feenberg 2017), Feenberg strikes a well-rounded balance between the past, present, and future. While his new works remain firmly situated in the philosophical tradition of Frankfurt School, they create a whole-rounded image of Feenberg’s philosophy of technology developed in earlier works such as Critical theory of technology (Feenberg 1991) and Questioning Technology (1999) and present fresh and exciting new insights. These days, Andrew Feenberg produces some of the most mature and sophisticated works in his career.

In another interview Robert Plant says that, for at least 20 years, he did not like Led Zeppelin’s No.1 hit “Stairway to Heaven” (Ledzepnews 2018). And he was far from the only one. Legend has it that some years ago, after listening potential guitar buyers playing one horrible version of “Stairway to Heaven” after another, an anonymous music shop employee nailed a “No Stairway to Heaven” sign on the wall. No one knows when or where the legend was born, but these days Google Images return a stunning collection of 1130 “No Stairway to Heaven” images and objects such as ceramic cups, t-shirts, and signs of all shapes and hues. There is even a company specialized in “No Stairway to Heaven” paraphernalia! I am not sure whether one could find an exact equivalent of “Stairway to Heaven” in Feenberg’s work, although Critical theory of technology (Feenberg 1991) and Transforming technology: A critical theory revisited (Feenberg 2002) seem like good candidates. However, I always found B-side songs just as interesting as No.1 hits, and I always found Andrew Feenberg’s lesser-known works and essays just as challenging as his widely read academic monographs. Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg is his “No Stairway to Heaven” book which brings together a collection of Feenberg’s lesser-known or B-side works published during the past decade or so. Addressing complex philosophical themes in an easy-flowing writing style of academic essays, Technology, modernity and democracy is a special treat for those wishing to understand Feenberg’s thinking beyond the academic “golden standard” of philosophical monographs.

What This Book Is: Philosophy of Technology Between Cyclotrons and Nuclear Reactors

The first part of the book, “Philosophy of technology,” starts with a short story of Feenberg’s life. Raised by a prominent theoretical physicist, he “grew up surrounded by scientists and their apparatuses,” amongst cyclotrons and nuclear reactors, and has “always known that science was a human activity” (13). After a brief overview of his life during 1960s and his thinking during the events of 1968, Feenberg briefly introduces three case histories which “have in common a polarity between a technocratic and a democratic logic” (17). Reflecting on motives behind his early works, Feenberg writes:

These experiences brought me to the realization that most of the Marxism I had learned as a student did not apply to the world in which I was living. Toward the end of the 1980s I decided to write a book in which I would settle accounts with my past beliefs. This became Critical Theory of Technology which I published in 1991. The book was written on the cusp of the breakdown of communism. In fact the page proofs came back with a request that I eliminate “USSR” except as a historical reference. I had made the transition from Marxism to philosophy of technology just as the Communist world disappeared. (29)

Feenberg moves on to introduce the six concepts to formulate his critical approach: “rationality, participants interests, technical codes, operational autonomy, formal bias of technology, and underdetermination” (35). In the next section he presents a philosophy of technology which “draws on what we have learned in the last thirty years.” As “it turns out that most of our commonsense ideas about technology are wrong,” he has “put his ten propositions in the form of paradoxes” (37). After this ten-bullet tour de force summary of decades of philosophical work, Feenberg moves on to the eternal question: what is philosophy of technology?

Before I begin, I would like to clear up a common misunderstanding: philosophy of technology is not a branch of philosophy of science. Science and technology share a similar type of rationality based on empirical observation and knowledge of natural causality, but technology is concerned with usefulness rather than truth. Where science seeks to know, technology seeks to control. However, this is by no means the whole story. (55)

The second part of the book, “Technical Citizenship,” starts with a topic of Feenberg’s lifelong interest: the relationship between technoscience and democracy. He attacks rejection of “any distinction of principle between science and technology” and replaces it by a nuanced approach: sometimes science and technology will reach a point of intersection and merge into successful technoscience, and sometimes science will be reduced to a handmaiden of technology. He examines cases of democratizing technoscience, such as the example of AIDS patients’ active participation in scientific development of treatment, and concludes:

Without giving up their claim to knowledge, but in full awareness of their fallibility as participants in social life, experts in science and technology must now interact with the public and learn from it how best to serve. The fuller integration of science, technology and society we are witnessing is not a fluke but a fundamental institutional change. (76)

However, public participation is only a part of the story, as “most technical work is now situated in the context of capitalist enterprise. This has dramatic consequences we are only beginning to fully understand.” (77) Therefore, while “the field of science and technology studies has broken barriers to the understanding of science and technology as social phenomena” (78), “fundamentalism becomes a serious threat” and “we must find a better balance between the critiques of science and technology” (79).

Seeking that balance, Feenberg asks: “is there something we could call technical citizenship, and if there is, what is its relation to political citizenship?” (82). He introduces Max Weber’s theory of rationalization and shows that “we need a generalized rationalization theory that follows Weber in affirming the importance of calculation and control, but drops his insistence on bureaucracy as the only rational form of administration” (89). On that basis, he develops the concept of democratic intervention which bends “the bars of the ‘iron cage’ to allow in the effects of reflection on experience and creative initiative” (90). Importantly, Feenberg firmly rejects the primacy of pure and value-neutral technical rationality and balances it with the concept of everyday rationality. “In sum, neither technical rationality nor everyday rationality are complete in themselves; they form halves of a fragmented whole. Anything that promotes the interaction of these divergent ways of understanding the world is progressive.” (93) In its dystopian project, modernity reduces cultural meaning to instrumental action. However, the resulting split between function and meaning typically results in the loss of the richness of meaning and philosophy of technology now asks “how can meaning be restored in the context of a civilisation based on a paradigm of rationality for which only causes and functions are real.” Feenberg “attacks” this question using excellent examples from the development of computers and computer networks, and comes up with an important conclusion that “innovation is thus not just the discovery of new uses but also of new worlds in which those uses emerge” (112). More generally, the evolution of modern technology takes place through the interaction between function and meaning. Modern societies separate these aspects, yet they are in constant interaction. “We live increasingly in a social world in which the meaning-generating activities of the individuals interact with technical disciplines and artefacts” (113), and we need to reformulate our democratic public life accordingly.

The third part of the book, “Heidegger and Marcuse,” situates Feenberg’s conclusions in the legacy of these important thinkers. Heidegger’s work is extensively used in discussions, but Feenberg’s teacher Marcuse always seems to “win”. Removing Marcuse’s revolutionary pathos, and using the Heideggarian “‘leap’ from function to meaning (Bedeutsamkeit)” (125), Feenberg concludes: “We now know in what that resistance consists: the struggle for democratization of the institutions of a society based on technical rationality” (125). Finally, Feenberg deals with the concept of reification.

Reification crystallizes the fluid process of social relations in the form of “thinghood,” that is, as institutions and facts subject to the economic laws. But unlike in the case of natural science, the reification of social processes actually creates its objects. True, science “constructs” the objects of cognition through experiment and theory, but the reification of society is not primarily cognitive; it is performative. It establishes meanings that determine practical relationships and generate self-reproducing functional systems. The capitalist market is a clear example: because individuals perceive themselves as buyers and sellers and act accordingly, markets emerge governed by economic laws, which in turn validate the reified self-understanding of the individuals. (129)

Reification implies a worldview, firmly opposed by Heidegger and Marcuse, that the world is composed of “law-governed things subject to theoretical representation and technical manipulation” (131). Looking for ways of reaching beyond one-dimensionality (135), Feenberg finds a common ground between Heidegger and Marcuse: “we cannot return to specified essences of the sort that guided the Greeks. (…) A different model is needed that is neither premodern nor modern in the usual sense of the terms.” (142) Following that thought, Feenberg concludes the book by pointing towards new ways of developing Frankfurt School philosophy of technology for the future:

Heidegger and Marcuse proposed radical critiques of technology that go far beyond the clichés with which we are familiar. Their formulations open up a space for fruitful reflection even if we cannot find satisfactory solutions in their work. That task is left to us. We have an advantage: a far richer experience of technical politics than was available to these precursors. Perhaps out of this experience will come constructive responses to the challenge to modernity they raised so provocatively.

What This Book Is Not: Reviewer’s Modest Call to Action

In my recent book of interviews, I asked Paul Levinson about mispredictions and failures of Marshall McLuhan. Paul answered:

I am glad you asked that question because it reflects this dangerous attitude in the academic world. Somehow, when you look at someone’s work thoroughly – whether you are reviewing a book, or talking about a thinker – if you cannot identify problems, then you are apparently not a careful critic or a thinker. But sometimes, when you look very deeply into a person’s work, you find only helpful things and no problems whatsoever…

I do have some differences regarding McLuhan's work – around two kinds of dimensions. (Levinson in Jandrić 2017: 267)

My critique of Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg (Beira and Feenberg 2018) develops along the lines of  Levinson’s critique of McLuhan. I think that the book is a beautiful example of good philosophy, and I do not have even the slightest need to engage in nit-picking battles about details which could perhaps be written in slightly different ways. However, while Feenberg’s work has been instrumental in development of my own thinking, I do want to point toward some differences and points for discussion.

First I want to discuss Feenberg’s approach to philosophy. There is no doubt that Andrew Feenberg is amongst today’s leading figures, if not the leading figure, in the Frankfurt School tradition of philosophy of technology. He has studied with Herbert Marcuse, participated in May 1968 events in Paris, and influenced development of whole fields such as critical posthumanism (Jandrić 2017: 206). Also, there is no doubt that “Feenberg is very skilled at marshalling examples and case studies to illustrate his theoretical and political arguments” (Kellner 2017: 275). However, in our postdigital reality, where “we are increasingly no longer in a world where digital technology and media is separate, virtual, ‘other’ to a ‘natural’ human and social life” (Jandrić et al. 2018: 893), and where “the digital is integrated and imbricated with our everyday actions and interactions” (Feenberg 2019), perhaps it could be useful to engage a bit more with theory and practice of digital systems. Could today’s philosophy of technology perhaps benefit from a deeper engagement with insights developed in other disciplines such as computer science or cybernetics? To borrow from another interlocutor of mine,

I think that we need to get out of the prioritizing of the hedgehog model of digging the same hole and owning it, without completely denying the model or its value. The hedgehog approach has enormous value, but I think that we need a little bit more of the interstitial connecting tissue approach, the fox approach, where you find a way to jump from one thing to another and connect them to things that happen in the world. (Wark in Jandrić 2017: 123)

Second, Feenberg’s critique of modernity does not sound very contemporary. While the world is facing huge advances in artificial intelligence, deep learning, nanotechnology, and biotechnology; related social challenges such as technological unemployment; and practical questions from ethics of cloning to responsibility for traffic accidents involving self-driving cars; Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg (Beira and Feenberg 2018) discusses examples such as Minitel (communication technology that has been obsolete for decades) and AIDS (disease which is these days more or less under control). While I do believe that history is the teacher of life, and while I have always appreciated a good historical example, it would be amazing to read Feenberg’s take on some of these pressing issues of today.

Third, democracy is a process of collective decision-making. Digital technologies have brought about significant changes in our understanding of collectivity (local-global, national-transnational etc.) and the nature of collective we-think and we-decide processes (e.g., peer-to-peer, crowd wisdom) (see Jandrić 2017). In the age where non-human agents (such as search engines and Twitter bots) can significantly influence human opinion, and in the age of unprecedented relativization of truth (in various forms such as anti-intellectualism and post-truth), democracy faces some radically new challenges (Fuller and Jandrić 2018; see also MacKenzie and Bhatt 2018). Feenberg’s philosophy is a big inspiration to people who deal with similar challenges. For Siân Bayne, for instance,

Andrew Feenberg’s work (i.e. Feenberg 2003) has been really influential in relation to thinking where the social and the material worlds come together – where the human teacher’s agency comes up against the workings of data to conduct another, and different, kind of teaching which is neither human not machinic but some kind of gathering of the two. (Bayne in Jandrić 2017: 206)

Building on Bayne’s thought, I would really be interested to learn a bit more about this collapse of social and material worlds in relation to democracy.

Feenberg’s work offers a sound philosophical base, which can easily be applied to any of these questions. Yet, instead of reading someone else’s applications of Feenberg’s philosophy to issues such as artificial intelligence, technological unemployment, self-driving cars, post-truth, and collapse of social and material worlds in relation to democracy, I would very much like to hear about these problems directly from Feenberg. Having said that, I fully understand the absurdity of critiquing unwritten texts. Therefore, this section should not be understood as a critique of Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg (Beira and Feenberg 2018). Instead, it is merely a humble attempt to expand Feenberg’s work into directions of my own interest and a modest call to action.

B-Side Book for the Top of the Charts

It is impossible to appreciate nuance and complexity of Led Zeppelin’s music by listening only to “Stairway to Heaven,” and it is impossible to understand width and depth of Andrew Feenberg’s philosophy by reading just one book. However, if I had to recommend only one Led Zeppelin song to someone who has never heard of the band it would still be “Stairway to Heaven”, and if I had to recommend only one book written by Andrew Feenberg, Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg (Beira and Feenberg 2018) would be near the top of my list. Feenberg’s A-side works, such as Technosystem: The Social Life of Reason (2017), definitely provide more focused argument and deeper engagement with his philosophy of technology. Yet, I find it fascinating to look at Feenberg’s works in relation to their historical context and author’s personal trajectory; his lists of concepts and propositions sum up decades of engagement in deep philosophy in a few pages; and his analyses of rationality and reification are amongst the best that can be found in academic literature.

During the past years I have read thousands of pages written by and about Feenberg; a few years ago, I had the privilege to interview him in person (see Jandrić 2017). To various extents, all I have ever read and heard from Feenberg seems to be echoed in Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg (Beira and Feenberg 2018)—in a succinct, contextualized, and easy to read manner. This collection of Feenberg’s B-side writings is indeed one of his most mature books. As such, it joins the long historical line of B-side songs which had the potential to become more popular than their A-side counterparts such as “We Will Rock You” by The Queen, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones. The comparison between Andrew Feenberg, The Queen, and The Rolling Stones is well deserved—they are all, in their respective fields, true classics. And while we would sometimes want our classics to engage a bit deeper into urgent questions of today, their late works are more likely to solidify their main contributions and build firm shoulders for generations to come. With Technology, modernity and democracy: Essays by Andrew Feenberg (Beira and Feenberg 2018), Andrew Feenberg builds some of the strongest shoulders available in contemporary philosophy of technology, and I am sure that these shoulders will be used by many generations to come.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zagreb University of Applied SciencesZagrebCroatia

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