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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-HzJ_Jkqa2Q

Designerly Ways of Theorizing

Here’s an attempt to visually theorize designerly learning environments as dynamically assembling in-interaction-with ways of knowing as doing as being as having as playing as emoting as worlding as ? (a wildcard to expand the space of the possible). Definitions are in development for the thoughtfully selected gerunds, which I believe represent the most important elements to attend to in designing learning environments.

Where’s teaching? It’s the innovative pedagogical practice of the theoretical diagram you are looking upon.

What’s learning? Learning is adaptation, assemblage or growth along a trajectory of participation that is recursively and radically in relation to knowing as doing as being as having as playing as emoting as worlding as ?-ing within a rich reality, complex and techno-cultural system.

Why discourses of power and labour? It is important to consider how designerly learning environments are created and perpetuated through discourses of power and labour (refer to the green arrows) as mediated by subjects, objects and artifacts, in-interaction-with ways of knowing, being, having, playing, emoting, worlding and ?-ing…


The Amazing Machine

OK Go: This Too Shall Pass. Rube Goldberg Machine version. Check it out!!




Freedom Lies

There was a young man who said, “Damn.
I begin to perceive that I am
A creature that moves
In determinate grooves.
I’m not even a bus, I’m a

There was an old man who said, “Cuss
I must choose between better and wuss.
By rulings of Fate,
I must keep myself straight.
I’m not even a tram, I’m a

One of my favorite old limericks. From the tram’s perspective, the bus appears “free”. But from the view of the bus, the innocence of the tram appears blessed with “freedom”. Like the bus and tram’s distorted thoughts of being free, people often imagine that freedom is coming around the next corner, once we accomplish “this” or once we take care of “that”. We stop living in anticipation for the freedom we’ll have once we’ve figured out our personal problems, paid off all our debts, finished our schooling and are finally caught up on life at large – as if one oh so desirable day we will finally be free and happy to just be. Wrong! How you live each and every day is how you live your life. Don’t wait to “be free” cuz life will pass you right on by.

The Pendulum of Being

I stand corrected! The motivation for my past post, “Technology is not the problem. We are.” is such that I’m tired of how technology is the all-too-often/convenient scapegoat for the evils of our world. Swinging the “pendulum of being” in the opposite direction, however, offers a similarly limited and reductionist way of understanding. I’m guilty as charged for taking an overly-simplistic approach to thinking. I’ll try again….

Humans and technology have a very complex and co-constitutive relationship of mutual inter-dependence: as we make our technologies, they then make and shape who we are. We cannot fully understand our selves, others and shared worlds without knowledge of technology. Simultaneously, the more we want to learn about technology, the more we need to understand about being human.

Historically speaking, humans and technologies were generally distinguishable from each other. At present, however, technology is more like an extension of life, and it is far less clear to determine what it means to be human and what it means to be technology. For example, we can make prosthetic arms with skin that is sensitive to touch, we can create life by cloning and genetic manipulation, machines have intelligence, robots have emotions, and I often hear phrases like “all reality is virtual reality,” “I couldn’t live without my <insert technological device>,” “my whole life is on my computer,” and consider the human technology ofglobal consciousness.”

If we think of technology as an extension of life, then this brings forth more questions:

  • Are we human beings or human technologies? Hybrids?
  • Are those with cyborg capabilities the new “survival of the fittest”?
  • Are humans the “old machines” the outdated, unwanted, good-for-nothing technology?
  • Are humans on the trajectory of devolving into the life-sustaining body of technology (which cannot yet reproduced itself)? Our future humanity merely existing as a dispassionate standing reserve of human energy, a meaningless resource just waiting to be technologized?

While humans seem to consistently have the same flaws throughout history, what about the character of technology? Technology’s driving and demanding ways of relentless competition, calculative efficiency and optimized/maximized potential is evolving exponentially, at speeds and scales to the likes of which humans have never ever experienced before…. Our petal-to-the-metal, high-pressured, high-speed way of living reflects the human will to technology (technology fueled by human volition). Consider, for example, how it took several million years from the first chipped stone tool to the smelting of iron. It took just a mere 1000 yearsfrom the first iron to the hydrogen bomb. And in only a few decades, we have created the most energy-dense of all things in the universe (to our current knowledge), the thing that has more energy flowing through it (per gram, per second) than even a star… What is this thing? It’s the PC chip.

Humans (arguably steadfast over time in terms of character strengths and flaws) are part of this technological acceleration, this force that is MUCH greater and MORE dynamic than our species. The rise-progress-disaster-demise of past civilizations serves as a historied projection of the past upon the future, warning that technology is like a dangerous child that the human family has let loose on our planetary home… As the pendulum of being swings, we’re seeing the consequences of human technological evolution all around us. Technology is not the problem. Humans are not the problem. It’s a family matter and the issues are relational. //PJ

Technology is not the problem. We are.

Recently I was interviewed by The Experimental Engagement Manifesto (an investigation into how to motivate, engage and inspire people to do good). One of the questions was: “What surprizes you about people?” The first answer that came to mind was “I’m surprized by how people suffer so much and are unable to be happy.”

Upon second thought, what causes this suffering and lack of happiness? Why are our media full of tragic stories about liars, cheaters, stealers, murderers, corrupters, bullies, and abusers (drugs, sex and other self-destructive habits)? Why can’t we get along with others? Even our own families and friends betray us. Our shared world is full of poverty, AIDS, sickness, self-hatred, anger, hypocrisy, injustice, pollution, garbage…

We are unequivocally out of control. We are putting dangerous demands on all natural systems, especially the air, water, earth and our very being (the elements of life as we know it). How long can this go on before our civilization crashes? The 20th century marks a time of “runaway-train” growth in human desires, human population, human self-centeredness, human addictions, human consumption and human waste… The 21st century marks a “milieu technique,” the digital age, the unleashing of the powerful force of technology upon our people and our planet. Is technology humanity’s saving grace or its suicide machine?

Kevin Kelly is an expert on Technology’s Epic Story. He argues that technology is the cosmic force that gives humanity the potential for difference, diversity, options, choices, opportunities, possibilities and freedoms:

“The origins of technology was not in 1829, but was actually at the beginning of the Big Bang, and at that moment the entire huge billions of stars in the universe were compressed. The entire universe was compressed into a little quantum dot, and it was so tight in there was no room for any difference at all. After the Big Bang, what we have is the potential for differences, diversity, options, choices, opportunities, possibilities and freedoms. Those are all basically the things that technology bring us.”

While Kevin Kelly is enthusiastic about technology, which he defines as an extension of life, others view technology as a death sentence. Technology is, in many ways, today’s convenient scapegoat for human evil and human suffering (kids are playing too many violent video games, grown-ups are manipulated by media, family togetherness has been replaced by the tv, toxic waste is destroying the biosphere, genetically modified foods are causing cancer, etc.). We are scared and we want someone or something to be accountable. We blame technology (digital /nano /cybernetic /information /other) as we are unwilling to blame ourselves for not knowing how to solve our problems and for not knowing how to control ourselves. Technology is not the real source of the world’s suffering. WE ARE. The problem is in us. And thanks to the internet, our problems are staring us right in the face, in full-on illumination, demanding that we notice that which we don’t want to see (problems which were always and already present). Ironically, we want to accuse technology for what it reveals rather than forcing ourselves to contend with what it makes known.

Each time civilization repeats itself, so it is said, the price goes up. All past civilizations wore out their welcome from nature and collapsed (the stone age, bronze age, golden age, iron age and other ages). Maybe the invention of civilization is the problem? In this Digital Age, are we repeating our past patterns of progress, disaster and demise? Is our fate is in our hands, our minds, our hearts or our technologies?

How do we control ourselves, stop human suffering and live happily ever after?


Le Penseur

Ever wonder what technology is thinking? Search Google Images to find:

[Le Penseur 1] “I exist because you made me”

[Le Penseur 2] “I am this space and its metal”

[Le Penseur 3] “I am what I am because of you”

[Le Penseur 4] “I know not of my existence except when you use me”

[Le Penseur 5] “I am here because you need me”

[Le Penseur 6]I am you and you are me”

// Credit to my good friend Barbara C. for textual technological thinking excerpts.

Bushpunk Technology

What happens when technological ingenuity is combined with the enthusiastic do-it-yourself African culture?


Read about the inspired awesomeness of these Bushpunk Technologists:

In this photo: 3 Masters of Innovation & their Inventions

Meet Barbie the Pink Computer Engineer!


Amazing, it only took until 2010 to get a Barbie with a laptop! Though I’ve never met a professional woman (or any woman) who wears funky pink glasses to coordinate with her shiny pink computer, smart phone and wrist watch, Barbie designers flagrantly boast that they: “worked with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to ensure that accessories, clothing and packaging were realistic and representative of a real computer engineer.”

Not only does Geek Chic Barbie have an official fact sheet, to further experience the reality of being a computer engineer, the doll comes with a special code to unlock exclusive online game content on Barbie’s Digital World. I wonder if Blondie has one of those reality-probing holes in her body (like in the Matrix)? Barbie could use a real-life-lesson in the beauty of being a whole woman (not a wide-eyed, hollow-headed objectification of the over-sexualized and stereotyped female figure) in a technologized world where hot pink laptops do not win the popular vote.

Like it or not, however, Barbie is a popular culture icon and a role model for girls. According to Mattel, 90% of girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie doll and BarbieGirls.com has 18 million registered users worldwide. As Nora Lin, President, Society of Women Engineers affirms:

“All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers — like girls — are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination. As a computer engineer, Barbie will show girls that women can turn their ideas into realities that have a direct and positive impact on people’s everyday lives in this exciting and rewarding career.”

Barbies new slogan: “I can be…”

Avatars Fear to Tread

Avatar: what a thought-provoking movie about consciousness, energy, being, believing, seeing, touching… embracing the wilderness of “being-in-creation” and “being-in-the-more-than-human-world.” An Imax 3D experience that juxtaposes human greed and the artifices of techne with nature’s nourishing, all-renewing and all-restoring energies.

The storyline in Avatar is simple, rather the same-old-same-old story of colonization and exploitation that has occurred countless times on earth, and now on the fertile world of Pandora. Pandora is breathtaking with “floating” Hallelujah Mountains, bioluminescence in its flora & fauna, and a collective consciousness existing within the neural network of the forest. The Na’vi, the dominant species, have a radical respect for the equality of all sentient life forms, ecological awareness, spiritual virtues and a deep sacredness. My Avatar does not fear to tread in this elysian mental paradise.

A sad, sad contrast to the hungry, greedy, overpopulated, sick, ambitious and competitive matrix in which humans dwell and where “Angels Fear to Tread” (G. Bateson & M. C. Bateson, 2004, Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred). Why do we suffer so? Why are we unable to live responsibly, compassionately and lovingly? Why do we overfill our hearts and minds with self (and stuff for self) such that we have no room to love anyone/anything else? The seductive entrapments of narcissism, consumerism and hedonism keep us incessantly busy “looking after #1” such that we simply have no time to be still, no desire to listen… and no ability to see.

Upon second thought, we get glimpses of awareness in movies that cost over $300,000,000 to make with a further $150,000,000 for marketing and promotion to ensure that “we see”. With over $2 billion in revenue (so far), Avatar’s commercial success indicates that we are (at least) looking whilst being entertained. Ironically (or tragically) we need theatre tickets, surround sound and 3D glasses “to see” what it means “to be”.

We are one human family living together in a shared earthly home: it’s not mine nor yours, but ours. Mother Nature, Father God, sisters, brothers and sentient others: “I see you.”