Andrew Feenberg: Questioning Technology

October 12th, 2004 | Category: Interviews

Andrew Feenberg“Technology marches on, over you or through you, take your pick.” — Stewart Brand

As technology marches on, who, besides alarmist Luddites, is keeping tabs on the changes it’s bringing about? One such person is philosopher Andrew Feenberg — and he does it with a philosophical pedigree that no one else can claim and from a critical stance that no other can maintain. His many books on the subject illuminate numerous aspects of technology’s ever-increasing influence that are so often overlooked in similar texts, yet he maintains an even keel: Andrew uses and embraces technology, so his critical perspective comes from the fray, not the forest.

Let the brief interview that follows serve as an introduction to Andrew’s philosophy of technology. His work deserves focused attention from a wide readership.

Roy Christopher: How does your approach to the philosophy of technology differ from others in the field?

Andrew Feenberg: The main difference is my background in Frankfurt School Critical Theory. I seem to be the only person trying to synthesize that tradition and contemporary technology studies. This leads me in a rather different direction than most of my colleagues, some of whom rely more on Heidegger, others on Dewey or democratic political theory.

RC: Heidegger has been seeing a resurgence of interest and has become the philosopher of choice among many web theorists (e.g., Michael Heim, David Weinberger , etc.). You’re currently working on a book about his philosophy. What does Heidegger have to teach us about our relationship with technology?

AF: Heidegger approached technology in two different ways at different stages in his career. His early work was influenced by Aristotle’s notion of techne and emphasized everyday practical involvement with things in what he called a “world.” His later work focused on the devastating impact of modern technology, its power to “de-world.” There are important things to learn from both these approaches although I do not believe Heidegger is sufficiently concrete and socially aware to make his own theories do the work of a real critical theory of technology.

RC: Marshall McLuhan has seen a revival as well. Who else would you say deserves renewed attention?

AF: I studied with Marcuse and I certainly think his work deserves attention. McLuhan is interesting too, of course, but I am rather skeptical of his theory of sense ratios. Dewey is also important for us today. The most neglected important figure is Gilbert Simondon, whose work has influenced me.

RC: You’ve been involved in researching and developing tools and strategies for online education since the early 80s. What still needs to be done in this area?

AF: The major problem as I see it is the poor quality of the asynchronous discussion forums available to teachers and students. These forums have barely evolved since the old Newsgroups of the 1980s. We need education specific designs that will enhance and facilitate learning. All the effort of designers of current learning management systems went into making the presentation of materials and administrative tasks easier or more attractive, and the part that involves human contact, the web forum, was ignored. This testifies to a deplorable attitude toward education.

RC: What are your aims with the TextWeaver project?

AF: To produce a web forum that is appropriate for education.

RC: Is there anything else on which you’re working, or other areas of interest that you’d like to bring up here?

AF: I am doing a lot of photography now. I have an exhibit at Simon Fraser, where I am currently teaching. The catalogue [PowerPoint document] is on my web page.

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