How well do we understand technology? Introducing Feenberg’s Ten Paradoxes of Technology

drops on a mesh screen

The palm of one fell on the trunk. ‘This creature is like a water-spout’, he said. Another touched the elephant’s ear, and to him the beat was like a fan. Yet another rubbed against its leg, claiming it like a pillar… Just like the story of the elephant and the blind monks, our ability to understand technology, its meaning and impact, depends on how well we understand its essence, its complexities and interactions of the parts and the whole.

Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark
are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.

If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together, we could see it.
— Rumi, Masnavi “Elephant in the Dark”

Yet, the nature of technology, and how it is inter-tangled with society, politics, economy and ecosystem makes it challenging to understand all its intricacies. As Andrew Feenberg points out in “Ten paradoxes of Technology”, our own expectations and perceptions of what technology is and how it behaves also blinds us to its effects [1.] By analyzing these paradoxes, I hope to give a better sense of how we can improve our technology design and development processes.

Andrew Feenberg is Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Technology at the Simon Fraser University School of Communication. He has been developing the critical theory of technology with the premise that we can reconstruct and reconfigure technology to fulfill human needs. However, to channel technology’s development to benefit society he calls for the democratization of technology to enable social design for its transformation. I find Feenberg’s insights refreshing as his philosophical training coupled with his hands-on technology development experience on distance learning and online education gives him a unique perspective into technology. Here are his paradoxes:

  1. The paradox of the parts and the whole
  2. The paradox of the obvious
  3. The paradox of the origin
  4. The paradox of the frame
  5. The paradox of action
  6. The paradox of means
  7. The paradox of complexity
  8. The paradox of value and fact
  9. The paradox of democracy
  10. The paradox of conquest

Just like the elephant story, one can’t fully internalize the effect the bicycle had in shaping social attitudes towards women and the women’s rights movement in the 1890s. As an example of social construction of technology (SCOT), the bicycle came to embody the sprit of change and progress for women, and with it came freedom; freedom of movement and freedom from the restrictive clothing of the Victorian area. It also challenged the view that machinery and athletic activity only belonged in a man’s world [2.] As the paradox of the parts and the whole states, the effect of technology and technology transfer is nondeterministic; society and context gives meaning to the technology itself. Observed from the evolution of the bicycle, with the introduction of the “Safety Bicycle” (today’s common diamond frame), the opinions on women’s participation in the activity drastically changed. Today, we celebrate women racers, while in 1892, Cycling magazine in London condemned them [2.] Yet, our tendency is to believe technologies can stand alone, even when the mother nature demonstrates otherwise, such as with the impact of an invasive plant to an ecosystem [4.]

5Cs you can buy anywhere around the world: coffee, cigarettes, coke, condoms and car parts; I  still recall Timothy Prestero’s insights [5.] Even with well-intentioned acts, we often ship unsupportable and unusable technology to developing worlds. The paradox of the obvious, what is most obvious is most hidden, reminds us the need for diversity and perspective to see beyond the obvious, and Timothy Prestero’s TEDxBoston talk is full of these insights when it comes to designing technologies with the output in mind [3.]

The paradox of the origin reminds us that behind every rational decision, there is a forgotten history driven by a chain of choices and constraints. Created in the 1870s to speed up typing by reducing the typewriter jams, QWERTY is now the dominant format given the established infrastructure of keyboards and training. Is it efficient? The paradox of the frame tells us that all technologies need to be efficient at some level, but it is the adoption process that determines the factors that lead to its success, not the efficiency of the technology.

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” — Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

The paradox of action indicates that we don’t recognize the impact that the technology has on us and that we are blinded to its effects: 1) casual side effects of technology, 2) changes in the meaning of our world, and 3) changes in the meaning of our own identity. Again, the evolution of the bicycle highlights how entangled our world views can be with our technologies. The paradox of the means extends on this: the means are the end, they are one and the same. As the identity of women evolved through the history of bicycles, this meaning and identity became the most important effect of technological change over the bike’s purpose: freedom.

As we simplify our technologies, the complexity grows — that is the paradox of complexity. Think about the latest cars with ‘push-button’ start… As our vehicles became more technologically advanced, we have lost our sense of craftsmanship and thereby the joy that comes from taking care of our gadgets. The accelerated product release cycles, waiting for the next set of features to show up in our gadgets is creating an endless cycle of waste. If we wish to reduce personal consumption, we need to look at ways to change the relationship man has with his tools and gadgets.

Who owns our data? And how does privacy fit into this equation? These are some of the questions that we are arguing about today. It is those values that will become inherent in the technologies we design tomorrow. At the same time, as our technological creations change the meaning of our world, our values will evolve and in turn will be incorporated into our technical creations. That is the paradox of values and facts. And this co-creation is the democratic paradox: the public is constituted by the technologies that bind it together, but in turn it transforms the technologies that constitute it.

Given all this, are we really the conquerers looking to rebuild mother nature in our own image? Feenberg reminds us that the human beings are natural beings and the concept of conquest is inherently paradoxical. What we do to nature are also things that we do to ourselves. The effects of the paradox of conquest are clear with climate change, and what one can see as the sometimes violent payback of mother nature.

“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” — Werner Heisenberg

So, how well do we understand our technologies and their impact? These ten paradoxes are not just a philosophical foundation, but they need to be a part of our  self-reflective process and orientation during the technology design and development cycle. Through this understanding, we can extend on our current practices so that:

  • We look to bring diversity and diverse perspectives into our design process from its conception;
  • We recognize the values and biases we are operating under and be mindful of the meanings we attach to our creations;
  • We record our organizational knowledge — not just decisions, but also the context and constraints that led to our design decisions;
  • We acknowledge the global effects of our technology, and risk assess beyond its local impacts;
  • We understand the challenges of technology transfer, and risk assess to reduce adverse effects;
  • We challenge ourselves to understand the unintended side effects of simplifying complexity;
  • We build and continue to extend our own philosophical approach to technology creation;
  • please add your list here…

You can watch and download Feenberg’s “Ten Paradoxes of Technology”.

Timothy Prestero’s TEDxBoston 2012 talk: “Design for people, not awards”

[1] Andrew Feenberg “Ten Paradoxes of Technology” and video
[2] The Importance of the Bicycle to the Early Womens Liberation Movement by CrankedMag
[3] Timothy Prestero TEDxBoston 2012: “Design for people, not awards”
[4] Impact of invasive species by NOVA
[5] 2010 Why Design Now? Conference on USTREAM
Jodi Dean and Andrew Feenberg Debate the InterWeb

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