The Philosophical Side Of Technology And Society Philosophy Essay

In this essay the question about the neutrality of technology is analyzed. This concept means that a technological device is only a means to reach ends. In the philosophy of technology, there are different theories concerning this idea.

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Feenberg sustains that technology embodies certain values. His theory is derived from Substantivists philosophers such as Heidegger and Ellul, although from a different perspective. The attention is given to the technology design process, and it is sustained that who has the access to it has the power of control the society. A global access to the design process could improve the democratization.

In contrast, Determinism theory argues that technology is neutral. This position derives from the 17th century ideas of efficiency and progress. The technology is only a means to serve ends, as the industrial revolution provided goods for the humanity. The design process in these terms is scientific and objective in order to obtain the most rational solution.

The question of neutrality may be translated from an architectural design point of view, particularly nowadays that a peculiar technology, the computer, is pervading the scene. Is it just a tool or does it bring the values embodied in it? Using this example the question seems to be clearer. In fact, comparing the deterministic view of design, which has important affinities with the architectural rationalism, analogies may emerge with our contemporary immersion in the informatics. Was technology neutral on the ‘mechanic society’ during the rationalism? Assuming that it was value laden, what sort of value is embodied in it? Is it appropriate neutralizing that value? Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology may suggest how to address these questions in relation to the technology design problem. Contextualization and participation are two relevant key points, which have already appeared in different design technology and may give an important contribution to the contemporary architectural design practice.

Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology, Technology is not neutral.

From the Critical Theory of Technology, technology is defined as not neutral. This means that a particular device implicitly embodies ends. This aspect of technology may reveal implication of the use of technology as Computing in Architecture.

Feenberg published the Critical Theory of Technology in 1991. The position of this theory was built around a combination of technology issues and Social Constructivism theory. From this point of view, technology is seen as neither neutral nor autonomous. Moreover, it has political implications in terms of accessibility, power, control and communication (Feenberg, 1999:1). Considering technology as value-laden implies that every general device implicitly contains its own morals. For example, a gun itself, because it is generally designed for killing people, includes this action in its shape. The end is embodied in the means. This characteristic of Feenberg’s theory derives from Left Dystopianism and Substantivism theories developed since 1960s. However, considering the autonomous characteristic of technology, it is possible to find a relevant difference between Substantivism and Left Dystopianism. In fact, the first theory sustains that technology dominate us and progress can only aggravate the human condition. This point of view, defined as ‘Essentialist’ (Feenberg, 1999:3), is refused by Left Dystopianism and Feenberg’s Theory. In fact, they share the idea that technology dominates society, although society can control technology. Furthermore, a correspondence exists between this view and a certain common-sense, which qualifies technology as a means to satisfy any need. However, the difference is that they consider as technology over than the single device also all the system which includes means and ends.

Feenberg’s (2005: 47) Critical Theory of Technology is articulated in different points. First of all, it explains the relationship between technology and finitude. Humans act in a system in which they are included. Considering the feedback of technological development, this may be defined as a two side phenomenon between an operator and an object. If this last is a human, it becomes an exercise of power. A society organized around technology implies that technical power is its principle. As a consequence this causes unfair treatment between who designs technology and who is excluded from it, who suffers its undesirable effects. A second point is related to the design process, which ought to be composed by a first part called decontextualization in which the problem is specifically and functionally studied and then a further part for the contextual ethical and aesthetical integration. In the third point, not only efficiency and rationality are evocated, but also the necessity for a plurality of interest involved in the design process. In order to obtain this, the design has to be coherent with technical codes written by sociologists and reinforced by people interests. In the last point, the Marx’s problem of ‘Impersonal Domination’ is defined and transformed in ‘Operational Autonomy’. This is about the freedom of the owner to make its own interests without caring of the views of the subordinate actors and the community. It is necessary to oppose to this by revealing the loop to the technical actors and actuating more efficient recontextualizing strategies.

Considering Feenberg’s theory from an architectural design perspective, which is not plausibly considered as a mere technical act, it seems not to contribute to its improvement. In fact, this process, in most of the cases, starts from contextual parameters and embodies in the built environment values which are based on the architects subjective interpretation. However, it is even subject to technological implications. From this point of view, Feenberg’s theory shows its fundamental contribute, particularly considering the contemporary pervasion of the computing in the architectural design field. Assuming computer-aided design as not neutral means, the implication is that it brings its own value on it and, as a consequence, in the built environment.

Determinism, Technology is neutral.

Since technology was discussed in Diderot’s Encyclopedie, it has been treated as a neutral means (Feenberg, 1999:1). At that time, the focus on the progress for humanity made the necessity of a philosophical explanation less important. Later, on the 19th century, Marx and Darwin’s theories legitimated this progressist view, which was named ‘Technological Determinism’. The idea is that technical progress is an advancement for the human beings. Moreover, this philosophical idea influenced the architecture from that period with the advent of rationalism.

Bimber (1990: 333) defined three characteristics of the technological determinism. The first is named ‘Norm-Based Accounts’ and is derived from J. Habermas’s definition. In his interpretation, technology may be considered autonomous and deterministic when its advance is not based on ethical norms and the objective of efficiency substitutes the debates about alternatives. The second characteristic is defined ‘Logical Sequence Account’, based on G.A. Cohen’s view; technology evolution causes cultural changes and the society has to adapt to it. This point is also criticized by Feenberg (1999:77), who named it as ‘Determination by the base’. In addition, R. Miller added that the change is valid independently from the background culture. Furthermore, R. Heilbroner argues that this process is also historically predetermined. The third characteristic is defined as ‘Unintended Consequences Accounts’. The technology effects are impossible to be anticipated and controlled.

Feenberg’s (1999: 2) analysis of the technological determinism agrees on these points. In fact, this philosophy considers technology as neutral and autonomous. From the political point of view, it is possible to discover a relevant implication: is politic a branch of technology or is technology political? Feenberg defines the first hypothesis as ‘Technocracy’: public debate is replaced by technical expertise. In contrast, in regard to the second point of view, which is part of the Substantivism philosophy, technology is more than a neutral tool, as it embodies certain values. However, they share a common point, both theories claim that it is impossible to control the progress. In agreement with this, Ellul stated that “Technique has become autonomous” (1964: 6). Moreover, on Feenberg’s analysis, technological determinism has affinities with a common sense which is part of the instrumentalist theory. For both theories, technology is neutral; the means and ends are separated. In constrast, Instrumentalists claim that humans have a choice when using technology.

Technology defined as neutral has different implications in the architectural design. Historically, the rationalism was an example of such an approach of technology in architecture. In that period, efficiency and functionality were the basis of the aesthetic sense for that avant-garde designers. Technology was considered as the means to reach the functional perfection. Nowadays, considering the contemporary computer support to the architectural design from a deterministic point of view, we ought to assume that its advantage is only driven by efficiency and rationality, saving time and reducing labour. In fact, most tools are developed to make them as productive as possible, in order to model each aspect of a building. From this perspective, it is seen as an instrument which does not affect our design. It is just a power tool designed for an even increasing and uncontrollable necessity of rational efficiency. Is it only this what technology brings in contemporary architecture?

Feenberg’s theory and Determinism applied to architectural design

In order to consider the neutrality of technology, Determinism and Critical Theory of Technology are viewed in two opposite sides. The debate may be translated in the architectural design sphere considering the use of computer-aided design. Is it a neutral tool necessary for rational efficiency or has it an embodied value? The concept of neutrality analyzed by Feenberg might represent a plausible solution. “Neutrality generally refers to the indifference of a specific means to the range of possible ends it can serve” (2005: 54). Considering technology indifferent, though, it is equivalent to avoid the discussion about a possible controversy. In fact, contemporary progress is not only limited by our knowledge, but also by the power system which prejudice this knowledge and its applications. It favours specific ends and obstructs others (Feenberg, 2005: 54).

Aufbau/Bauhaus: Logical Positivism and Architectural Modernism

An evidence of the fact that technology applied in architectural design has implications far from neutral is the advent of rationalist architecture. That problem was similar to what is happening today with the computing pervading architecture. At that time, the new technologies were related with construction and urban planning and perceived as neutral means and autonomous, as in the technological determinism. The attempt was to drive architecture through efficiency, rationalization and functionality.

Galison (1990: 709) matched the early history of one of the main generators of the rationalist architecture, the Bauhaus, and some philosopher from the logical positivism, who participated to the school. The Logical Positivism is contemporary with the technological determinism, and it shared the idea of autonomy neutrality of technology. In this analysis, he found common points between the Bauhaus thought and the logical positivists. They were drawing images of scientist mechanization, according to the view of modern methods of production. “This process of interiorization took many forms, but above all the Bauhausler and Vienna positivists of the late 1920s espoused a neutral stance modeled on their image of technology.” (Galison, 1990: 750). There was a claim to be ‘apolitical politics’, ‘ unaesthetic aesthetic’ and ‘ unphilosophical philosophy’. These three points, driven by scientific principles, were supposed to be the image of a new way of life, although it failed. In fact, the different politic parts of Bauhaus gave different meanings to the technology, converting it on the ideological ground. From this point it is possible to deduce that technology could not guarantee the neutrality. Clearly Bauhaus products were not only efficient-based designed.

Thinking About Design

In Feenberg and Feng’s article (2008:105) an example of Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology applied to the design problem is given. The discussion starts considering the intentionality problem, which is the quantity of control or constraint that the designer has in the design process. The analysis shows two levels. The first is defined as strong intentionality; the designer has complete control of the product. On this level, the design is seen as instrumental and technical. On the second level, defined as weak intentionality, the designer is more constrained. This position is near to the Social Constructivism thought. However, the designer as a social subject, is also influenced by society and its formation. There is nothing absolutely rational, even in a rational design. From this point of view, the design is clearly not neutral. An example is the refrigerator design process. First of all, engineers work with basic components, in order to make each element working and combining them in a way that the device can store cold. In this phase, each component is decontextualized and studied as a simple element (primary instrumentalization). Supposing that the product of this design is the best storing cold machine ever, is this enough? Feenberg argues that this is not sufficient to complete the design. In fact, other questions such as the size of the device may be answered in mere contextual social terms rather than technical (secondary instrumentalization). In this phase, the evaluation of alternative may bring human values in the device. Moreover, a good refrigerator may be equipped with an ozone-free system without loosing its functionality. This is an example of involving different interests on the design practice.

Beyond engineering

The concept of value laden technology is particularly evident in the software design. However, as Feenberg sustains, there is a necessity of humanizing technological design to develop democratic participation.

In this article, Rieder and Schafer (2008: 159) focus on the fact that in the last decade there had been an increasing interest in technology considered as cultural force. This fact, manifested in the software production industry, was due by the fact that software is written like a text and works as a machine. Furthermore, it may be easily shared without loss for the giver, and continuously improved in an infinite loop of testing. These characteristics are very different from traditional engineering, considered as neutral and objective problem-solving, at the level that software production might be defined as disorganized and confusing. Moreover, cultural problems, rather than technical, become the main focus of software design (Rieder, Schafer, 2008: 164).

A particular interest field which materializes Feenberg’s idea of democratic inclusion is the Open Source software project. The characteristic of this emergent practice, favoured by the deeper development of the Internet, is the production and the sharing of free software, which can be improved and shared by the users. This practice is totally different from the traditional engineering view, in fact “open source is the collaborative and auto-organized design process which does not strive to separate the social and cultural aspects of technological creation from the task of designing and writing code” (Rieder, Schafer, 2008: 167).

Bridging technical design software and culture may be possible by looking at it from different perspectives. From the humanity’s discourse, technology seems to be as something external and independent. Historically, this caused a different process of symbolization rather than the one observed in literature and art. The reasons for the designer to think about the ethical and political position towards his work will not be sufficient if the technology would not be understood as a social symbol and as a political activity (Rieder, Schafer, 2008: 168). From the technological point of view, only recently there has been an understanding of how influent a particular device is in a social context, to the point of representing a way of being. Including a large number of participants in the design may enlarge its cultural dimension and match the different interests. Open source community is an example of this inclusion. However, there is still not enough exchange between technical departments and humanities. From the political point of view, the issue will be addressed when there will be an understanding of writing software as a citizen participatory decision. The government, as an arbiter, has to protect the coder communities from the established commercial actors.


The neutrality problem of technology has been addressed analyzing the Deterministic view and the opposite Feenberg’s Critical Theory of Technology. From the fact analyzed, the second theory seems to go beyond the first philosophy, favoured by the observation of the larger effects of the determinism on the society. However, despite the deterministic view of technology seems to be outdated, it still influences our culture. This was particularly evident in the first computer-aided design practice, considered by most of the designer as just a neutral tool, necessary only for an efficient purpose. In contrast with this idea, the consciousness of values embodied in the informatics may address the problem deeper and reveal insight on it, particularly if the level of freedom and control of a different cad tool is analyzed. From this position, who designs the tool decides what is possible or impossible to do with it. Translated in Feenberg’s theory, this is an exercise of power of the class of software designer over the class of software users. In order to go further, there must be an acceptance of the value-laden theory of technology, so that the exercise of power is revealed and questioned. Collaborative production and individual contribution such as open source software is the solution. The tool is personalized, improved and shared with all the communities. In these terms it is a democratic design, there is an involvement of many different interests in it. Moreover, while it brings more freedom, it is necessary to acquire skills for programming software. This may be dangerous in the architectural design process because, as it is seen as not neutral, it may bring its own values. In order to control it, Feenberg suggests the process of integration between coding and architectural design: decontextualization, contextaualization, technical code and participation.