Exploring Technical Code and Critical Theory of Technology


In my previous post, I explored design principles and introduced the technical code from Andrew Feenberg. I emphasized the importance of awareness of technical codes in our design and development processes: through this recognition, we can start questioning our assumptions, challenge norms and rethink how to reconfigure existing political, economical and social structures. Today, I will share a few publications that further examine the concept of technical code as well as the critical theory of technology.

To recap, critical theory emphasizes that technologies are not defined in an abstract realm unto themselves. They are designed and incorporated within a larger framework of social, cultural, and economic values:  “the choice between alternatives ultimately depends neither on technical nor economic efficiency, but only the ‘fit’ between devices and the interests and beliefs of the various social groups that influence the design process” (Feenberg.)  Technical code is the background of values, assumptions, definitions and roles that guide technological design; it defines a framework of technical decision making within which certain choices appear rational (Hamilton & Feenberg.)

These articles are interesting and thought provoking on their own, while providing various summaries and views on critical theory of technology and technical code. Enjoy!

Technical Code and the Social Construction of the Internet by Flanagin et al. (2010)

Flanagin et al. explores the technical design decisions and values which influenced the Internet’s evolution. Their analysis reveals a decentralized interoperable architecture that would enhance an individual’s democratic participation, while also providing mechanisms for constraining this collaboration and freedom. Closing with arguments from Lessig, they emphasize that we are at a crossroads for choosing what values will be built into the internet.

“Lessig therefore advocates actively using laws to control the basic architecture of the internet because, left unchecked, the internet is likely to experience ‘the opposite of its architecture at its birth. This invisible hand, pushed by government and by commerce, is constructing an architecture that will perfect control and make highly efficient regulation possible’ (Lessig, 2006: 4). According to him, ‘code’ is thus crucial to consider under any future scenario because it will present the greatest threat to both liberal and libertarian ideals, as well as their greatest promise. We can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to protect values that we believe are fundamental. Or we can build, or architect, or code cyberspace to allow those values to disappear. (Lessig, 2006, p. 6, emphasis in original)” — Flanagin et al.

The Technical Codes of Online Education by Hamilton & Feenberg (2005)

Hamilton & Feenberg summarize the ongoing debates in the development of technology relating to online education. They discuss conflicting values and priorities that impede its development and propose two opposing views: an industrial model of information production and a commercial model of information marketing and consumption; or capabilities that can support new forms of mediated communication for human interaction.

“But it is precisely this latter potential that opens the computer up for appropriation within pedagogical (and political) frameworks other than the delivery of information commodities, and so raises the possibility of directing the technology, and online education as a movement, away from a formal replication of teacher functions in a strategy of automation and deprofessionalisation. Networked learning can be based on the computer’s relational rather than its representational capacities. The assumption that online education is equivalent to the organisation, presentation, and delivery of information ignores a vital impact of the convergence of telecommunication and computing, namely, the creation of an environment for social interaction between geographically and temporally distant users. While this might seem an obvious point, it has great significance for the politics of online education” — Hamilton & Feenberg

Through their analysis of early experiments in educational computer conferencing, Hamilton & Feenberg pose the crucial philosophical and political questions: what does the technology stand in for in the educational process, how is it involved in delegating functions across that process, and how is a field of social interests delineated to encourage one iteration over other possible ones?

Incorporating Critical Theory of Technology into Educational Leadership: Examining the Technical Codes of the Open Journal System by Gratham (2009)

Gratham examines how technology has impacted educational technology leadership and briefly applies technical code analysis to Open Journal Software to uncover its underlying assumptions and values. With references to Foster’s approach to leadership, and reviews of Feenberg’s critical theory of technology, the paper provides a plausible framework for analyzing educational technologies.

Articulating alternatives: Biotechnology and genomics development within a critical constructivist framework by Vroom, Ruivenkamp & Jongerden (2007)

Through the review of abstract theories of technology, critical theory of technology and technical codes, the authors explore ways to incorporate human agency into technological development, and build a critical constructivist framework to purposefully design technologies for less developed countries. In the process, they explore the political nature of technology development: ‘to what extent are technologies ideological or political, in the sense that they are able to structure or mediate social relations in a specific context?’, and ‘to what extent is a reconstruction of these ideological or political aspects of technologies possible?’ 

In their explorations, they touch various topics, including challenging the notion of farmers or other end-users as ‘consumers’ of technology. They highlight that by acknowledging them as innovators themselves, farmers take on a more powerful and empowering role.

“The previously elaborated notions of technical code and the political dimensions of technology imply that we cannot restrict ourselves to choosing the most appropriate technology from a list of available technological solutions, by whatever methodology. The critical constructivist framework introduced here therefore strongly argues for technological innovation as part of endogenous development processes. Concretely, this may involve challenging social relations that are introduced by a further scientification of agriculture, challenging the conceptualization of agricultural problems in terms of genetics, challenging reductionist and monofactorial approaches to problem solving of complex problems and challenging the idea that adopting increasingly restrictive regulatory frameworks to accommodate increasingly complicated and risky technology is inevitable.” — Vroom, Ruivenkamp & Jongerden


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