Université catholique de Lille, « Introducing Andrew Feenberg », le 20 juin 2019

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Du fait qu’elle est en anglais, je ne pensais pas vous proposer ici les notes de mon introduction à l’oeuvre d’Andrew Feenberg que j’ai proposée à Lille mercredi dernier en sa présence. Mais comme je viens d’en faire ma réponse à un commentateur, je la reproduis ci-dessous dans une présentation mieux formatée. Ce n’est pas un article publiable, ce sont des notes.

Workshop with Andrew Feenberg
Université catholique de Lille, June 20, 2019

Introducing Andrew Feenberg, by Paul Jorion

“Andrew Feenberg (born 1943) is an American philosopher. He holds the Canada Research Chair in the Philosophy of Technology in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. His main interests are philosophy of technology, continental philosophy, critique of technology and science and technology studies” (Wikipedia)

Philosopher Andrew Feenberg has taken in earnest Marx’ precept “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” In this he has been walking in the footsteps of his master Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) and in accordance with the Frankfurt School as a whole.

Democratic control of progress

Examining in particular the impact of technology on society Feenberg claims that “The exclusion of the vast majority from participation in decisions about [the design of technology] is profoundly undemocratic” and calls for the democratic transformation of technology.

It is the merit of the Parisian students of May 1968, says Feenberg, to have claimed that “progress shall be what we wish it to be”.

What is the issue, how did it come about, what can we do and what are the prospects of a democratic control of progress?

“Values” vs. “facts”

Technology is in one particular way, being determined by “facts” that engineers are taking into account. Society wants often technology to be different than as moulded by engineers, due to the unpleasant “everyday experience” of either users or more often of “innocent bystanders”, i.e. collateral victims of side-effects which were undetected or deliberately ignored for being regarded as irrelevant. For instance, that a particular industry is polluting, while the civil society, « ordinary folks » want it to be clean out of health concerns.

“Everyday experience” of technology leads ordinary folks to remind of “values”, as opposed to “facts”.

Does remedying the fact that technology is prone to neglect its negative imprint require the advent of communism? “Not necessarily”, says Feenberg.

But take another example: the logic of capitalism leads to extinction, young people in particular wish that not to take place. Does that require the advent of communism? Maybe. The advent of some alternative to capitalism in any case.

The “underdetermination” of efficient protest

A democratic control of technology will not take place without a wake-up call eliciting awareness, and as a follow-up, a lucid assessment of what needs to be done and how to proceed.

It is the merit of Feenberg of having scrutinised meticulously how different strands of philosophy and of philosophy of science have so far examined the co-evolution of technology and protest against the “everyday experience” of technology. And by that, suggesting how to unite all valuable perspectives into an integrated whole. Doing so Feenberg has made it clear that although there is good in the many different approaches, an enlightened and critical synthesis may be better than every one of them.

But does that mean that Feenberg sees efficient protest as a technical issue that, as engineers maintain, has therefore one best solution, or, in the vocabulary of technologists, is there a “global optimum” of efficient protest as a technical issue, as opposed to a number of “good” solutions, i.e. local optima?

Indeed “In applied mathematics and computer science, a local optimum of an optimization problem is a solution that is optimal (either maximal or minimal) within a neighbouring set of candidate solutions. This is in contrast to a global optimum, which is the optimal solution among all possible solutions, not just those in a particular neighbourhood of values” (Wikipedia).

Neither Feenberg nor philosophers use such a mathematical idiom. Feenberg along with constructivists labels the existence of technological local optima, “underdetermination”. Don Ihde calls them, the “multistability of technology”.

Feenberg assumes that technological solutions are “underdetermined”, meaning that many apply, as is made clear by the fact that democratic control can lead to an entirely new approach to an issue that engineers had initially tackled in one particular way. That may mean however moving, from a purely technical standpoint, from a global to a local optimum, or even to a sub-optimal solution, i.e. in terms of measurable efficiency defined one way or other.

A phenomenological point of view

In surroundings where engineers work in a world made out of “facts”, and ordinary folks, in a world of “values”, says Feenberg, what democratic control seems to amount to is that once and for all “values” overcome “facts” as these are amenable to different ways of looking at them as is evidenced by the seemingly technical underdetermination of artefacts.

This may sound to an outsider to that field of studies as the way a phenomenologist would look at things, but a phenomenologist only – and this might be where the influence of Heidegger on Marcuse and of Marcuse in turn on Feenberg remains traceable.

I would personally argue though that there is a different way for looking at things implying in particular that technical underdetermination of artefacts might be an optical illusion, and that what appears to be so might be due to a number of factors, such as two different types of rationality at work (of ends and of means) entering in conflict, and technical specifications being as a rule too narrow in scope, i.e. ignoring collective effects, which Feenberg clusters with other considerations under “social requirements”.

Let me expand on this.

The rationality of ends and the rationality of means

Two types of rationality have dominated historically the Western world: the first one was defined by Aristotle twenty-five centuries ago, the second dates from the 1870s. The first one is that of logical rationality, the second is that of economic rationality.

Logical rationality supposes that starting from established truths it is possible to discover new truths deductively as the conclusion of a syllogism.

Established truths are of three types according to Aristotle: a common agreement based on the evidence of the senses, definitions, which are true by convention, and conclusions of prior valid syllogisms.

In the syllogism, from two propositions connecting each two terms, and where there is a third common term to them, it is possible by bringing together the other two terms, the so-called extremes, to produce a new truth, as the conclusion of the syllogism.

Logical rationality is especially apt at helping to develop a rationality of ends. Having defined a goal to meet, it is possible to establish deductively how to meet that goal (Aristotle’s « final cause »).

Economic rationality is of an entirely different nature. It was defined concurrently in the 1870s by Stanley Jevons in Britain, Carl Menger in Austria and Léon Walras in France. Used by an individual, it aims at allocating optimally scarce resources according to subjective utility. The same principle applied to a business results in a reduction of costs and the boosting of profits.

Economic rationality is especially apt at developing a rationality of means.

Needs to be emphasised however that economic rationality arises within a social background preventing it from being purely objective.

Indeed, profit may at first glance look like another of those “facts” which are only one way, but examined from closer, being the difference between sales price and costs, it is determined within sales price and within costs by the power balance between sellers and buyers, of which supply and demand is one objective ingredient no doubt but as I have been able to show on numerous examples from traditional economies to financial markets (see Jorion, Le prix, 2010) supply and demand is only one of several factors determining that power balance. As suggested already by Aristotle in his time, it is foremost the surrounding political system that constitutes the framework determining the power balance between buyers and sellers that gets enacted in a sale (the power balance also between lenders and borrowers in a different context).

Starting at the end of the 19th century, the Western world has thus been able to resort concurrently to two types of rationality. Because it requires financing, technology has been ruled almost exclusively by a rationality of the economic type, i.e. a rationality of means. Meanwhile, ordinary folks have continued to operate according to a rationality of ends. They aspire that a state of happiness and an absence of concerns prevail and will determine what is welcome and what is intolerable in that particular perspective.

I’m tempted therefore to translate Feenberg’s contrast between “facts” and “values” into that idiom of “rationality of means” vs. “rationality of ends”.

The financiers of technological innovation

Who are the sources of financing for technological innovation? For centuries already the financiers of technology have been the market and the military.

It is by buying or refraining from buying new products that ordinary folks decide about the life or death of a new item. Consumers may be victims of the markets but they are also complicit. They are the victims of advertisement and consumerism but may be complacent towards propaganda under its different guises.

Since armed conflict remains « the continuation of politics by other means », all armies are caught in an arms race for offensive or defensive purposes. Once an innovation has been made by the military it will diffuse in society as a whole as soon as defence secrecy about it has been lifted.

It is difficult to envisage that any time in the future democratic control might be exerted on military initiatives. Should any ethics committees be set up by the military, it would still be impossible for ordinary folks to have any say in their behind closed doors decision-making.

Therefore, these two sources of financing independently and combined imply that technological development will keep taking place in a semi-autonomous way, whatever the amount of democratic control that may appear in the future. As a consequence it would be sound for civil society to assume the existence of a « it will take place in any case » principle and regard it as a manifestation of the cunning of reason in need to be deciphered at all times to maintain an awareness of “what the f*** is going on?”.

The ambiguities of “social requirements”

Concurrently, ordinary folks do not constitute a united front: some of them will like parts of the new technology while others hate them, the divide being most often between eager consumer and innocent bystander.

Take for instance roundup, originally a product of the Monsanto firm, now of Bayer. Agriculturalists love it as it boosts profit, innocent bystanders – who don’t buy the product but are harmed by it, hate it. When ordinary folks claim: “We’re at war with lobbies!”, that is precisely what they mean to say: “We’re innocent bystanders of the collateral damage occasioned by other people who are the collaborators of the villains, siding with the enemy”. This underlines the lack of a united front of ordinary folks, as they may stand on both sides of a war against particular technological devices.

When Feenberg talks of “social requirements” he seems to me to conflate a number of elements that I believe should be carefully distinguished:

  • – the artefact’s user wish list
  • – the innocent bystander’s complaints about collateral damage
  • – all other particularities of human societies having an impact on technology (e.g. through pricing as mentioned above)

Users vs. “innocent bystanders”

The artefact’s user wish list is one of the elements in a new product’s specifications or “specs”. What determines otherwise the specs are the objective properties (i.e. physical, chemical) of the components put together in order to manufacture the artefact according to its functionality determined by its finality.

Users’ requirements find their way into the artefact through so called “use-cases”: “Use case analysis is a technique used to identify the requirements of a system (normally associated with software/process design) and the information used to both define processes used and classes (which are a collection of actors and processes) which will be used both in the use case diagram and the overall use case in the development or redesign of a software system or program. The use case analysis is the foundation upon which the system will be built” (Wikipedia).

Needs to be stressed about the innocent bystander’s complaints about collateral damage, that ordinary folks are not necessarily wise and that when they succumb to a craze like anti-immunisation, it is up to technologists and other authorities to stand firm.

Now for innocent bystanders, the fact is that there is no commercial need for them to be involved as being part of the picture in any way, as their views are indifferent to the transaction between buyer and seller and may seem to be a game-spoiler only. Which is the place of course where protest justifiably moves in.

The shortcomings of specs

But there is more to specs’ shortcomings than the victims of unexpected consequences: specs as a rule fail to take into account the collective dimension of social life. What specs take care of considering what would happen if everybody would buy the product? Such aspects are nobody’s concern.

What if all travel agents offer that you get to the top of Mount Everest for cheap? That’s what we’ve seen recently (May 2019), with congestion at the top of the peak on particular days, leading to casualties. It is left to the Nepalese agency delivering climbing permits to contingent them.

Who cares for the fact that if nuclear reactors only fail once every 5,000 years, when you have 443 nuclear reactors at the surface of the planet it means one major accident every 11.8 years on the average – which is not far from what has been observed (Three Mile Island 1979; Chernobyl 1986; Fukushima 2011)?

Who cares for the fact that the specs of Fukushima’s reactor envisaged both the risk of a major earthquake and of a tsunami, but not both together, although everyone knows that earthquakes may cause tsunamis?

The universal and the particular

Feenberg writes: « Neither daily experience nor natural science has the last word » (Technosystem p. 14), adding « … we cannot choose between the two ontological principles – science and experience – that operate in our civilisation and culture. We must learn to live with the ambiguity. Truth is always subtly eccentric with respect of the real » (ibid.).

This refers to the well-known contrast in Aristotle between the universal and the particular. «  But it might be thought that the science we seek should treat rather of universals; for every definition and every science is of universals and not of infimae species », he claims most famously in Metaphysics (Book XI, 1). The essence of the entity, or better said, the entity « in potentia » (dynamis) resides in the stylised scientific (« analytical ») representation, as opposed to the entity « in actu » (energeia) in an actual worldly instantiation. There is a gap indeed. Science tells of Man generally speaking while divination such as astrology, popular science such as popular psychology, psychoanalysis, tell us about particular instantiations.

« Applied science » as in non-empirical (i.e. not by trial and error) technology can therefore only deal with the sensible world in a « generally speaking » sort of way.

In La transmission des savoirs (1984) Geneviève Delbos and I were interested in the discrepancies between scientific views and views of practitioners in two sectors we had studied through participant observation: traditional salt-making by evaporation in salt ponds, and craft fishing. Geneviève studied the reason for the lack of interest of salt-makers for the pèse-sel (salinometer) a scientific instrument measuring the salt-density of brackish water, and myself, the adamant claim by fishermen that there are two distinct blue lobster species.

The lack of interest for the salinometer is due to every single salt-pond unit (« oeillet » a 64 square meter surface) behaving idiosyncratically in terms of salt production because of the multiplicity of factors deciding of crystallisation: wind direction – and eddies, particular quality of the clay bottom, presence of different varieties of algae (phyto-plancton), animalcules (zoo-plancton) in the water, etc.

The claim by fishermen for two different species of blue lobsters derives from their observation of two distinctive types of behaviour in the animals: gregarious and roaming for smaller lobsters (with a « clean » shell due to constant movement), the so-called « coureurs », i.e. « runners », and solitary and static for larger lobsters (with a « dirty » shell do to seaweed and barnacles attached), the so-called « grottiers », i.e. cave-dwellers. Fishermen specialized in the catch of one of the two types they distinguish but not of both as the fishing technique involved is different: strings of 40 lobster-pots for runners and individual pots dropped at a specific location for cave-dwellers.

In both cases, clinging to the scientific « universal » view would have led to sub-optimal economic behaviour.

Paul Ehrlich vs. Barry Commoner

The ecological concept of « carrying capacity » of its environment for a particular species allows to characterise aptly the difference in approach of Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner.

Each biological species entertains a particular relationship towards its environment: the latter needs to be able to sustain the former. A species dies when it transgresses the carrying capacity of its environment.

Faced with the threat of transgression, Ehrlich recommends reducing the pressure on the carrying capacity, while Commoner propounds finding ways for expanding the carrying capacity.

Both approaches are of course equally valid. Humankind has consistently resorted to both, the former through planned parenthood, migration, infanticide, war, the second through clothing, heating, green revolutions, etc.

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2 réflexions sur « Université catholique de Lille, « Introducing Andrew Feenberg », le 20 juin 2019 »

  1. It is the merit of the Parisian students of May 1968, says Feenberg, to have claimed that “progress shall be what we wish it to be”.

    Mon Dieu, qu’est il arrivé à Dany Kohn Bendit ? plus un mot de ce genre dans sa bouche. Faire entrer la démocratie dans l’entreprise, dans l’initiative technologique ! pas question !

    1. Vous ne devriez pas tirer sur une ambulance.
      Du point de vue morale, c’est pas charitable.
      Et puis ce tombereau des has been est tellement chargé -plein à ras bord- que même sans le vouloir vraiment, vous êtes sûr de faire mouche.

      Soyons résolument optimiste. Laissons derrière nous les spectres du passé.

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