Monthly Archives: August 2010

10 Paradoxes of Technology

Andrew Feenberg tells that most of our ideas about technology are… wrong!

He questions the counter-intuitive nature of what we know about technology and points out that paradox may very well be intrinsic to technology. He distinguishes ten technological paradoxes, in the hopes they will cease being paradoxical and become the new common sense. Paradoxically, however, when we come to the crossroads of “true and false” understandings of technology, we have to “go both ways” so we are better equipped to control the consequences of our actions as human powers increase through technology.

Here are some of my notes and reflections on Dr. Feenberg’s talk:

1. Paradox of the parts and the whole

We fail to realize the dependence of the parts upon the complex whole to which they belong. To put it another way, technology does not have meaning without relationships, environment and context. To put it yet another way, consider Heidegger’s puzzling question whether birds fly because they have wings or have wings because they fly? Humans can no more abandon technological development than birds can abandon flight.

2. Paradox of the obvious

What is most obvious about technology is also what is most hidden. For example, fish do not know they are wet as they are so perfectly adapted for the niche environment they exist in; neither do humans think much about the air we breathe; neither do we think very carefully about the technologies we take for granted. When we watch a movie, we lose sight of the screen as a screen, just as we have many experiences of technology in which the obvious withdraws from view.

3. Paradox of the origin

Behind everything technological there is a forgotten history. Technologies seem to be disconnected from their past as they appear self-sufficient in their everyday functioning. We have little idea where technologies come from, how they developed, what decisions were made to determine unique features, etc. Consider the lighted exit signs in a theatre: we see the glowing letters, but we are blind to the story behind their origin.

4. Paradox of the frame

Efficiency does not explain success; success explains efficiency. While all technologies must be more or less efficient, what explains why specific technologies are present in our milieu technique (chosen from among many possible alternatives)?

5. Paradox of action

Feenberg applies the Newtonian reciprocity of action and reaction to human/technology behaviour to find that: in acting, we become the object of action. This is the illusion of technique that blinds us to three paradoxes of technical action: 1) causal side effects of technology; 2) changes in the meaning of our worlds; and 3) transformation of our identities.

6. Paradox of the means

The means are already the end. Obviously means and ends are related, but Feenberg’s point is that they are “one and the same” over a wide range of technologies. Possession of the means is an end in itself because identity is at stake in human relations to technology: the technologies we own symbolize the kind of people we are and social status is in part determined by the technologies we use.

7. Paradox of complexity

Simplification complicates! As technology is already decontextualized (separate from its natural connections and conditions), recontextualization is not always successful. Awareness of context is a matter of concern as there are all-too-many examples where the decontextualizing and recontextualizing processes of technical objects result in unexpected problems. Technologies suitably adapted to one world may consequentially disrupt another world.

8. Paradox of value and fact

While it may appear that technical knowledge (fact, truth) and everyday experience (values, desires) interact separately, Feenberg finds them to be complimentary. Values are not opposite of fact: values are the facts of the future. This overall dynamic of technological value and fact completes the paradox of action: “what goes around comes around”.

9. Paradox of democracy

Society and technology are co-constituted in an “entangled hierarchy”. Society and technology cannot be understood in isolation from each other because neither has a stable identity nor separate form. Consider Escher’s self-drawing hands (where each hand is drawing the other).

10. Paradox of conquest

Feenberg’s paradox of conquest can be succinctly stated by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “the victor belongs to the spoils”. Technologies enable society to conquer, exploit and oppress nature (and other beings), but paradoxically, these actions often come back to haunt a society despoiled by its own violent assault (pollution, environmental toxins, etc.)

Now is the time for radical change in our understanding of technology!

View Dr. Feenberg’s talk online: