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Critical Theory of Technology: Big Idea Series #2

Daniel R McCarthy:

As with any topic, the place where we start in our thinking about technology and society shapes where we will end up. Our intellectual sources of inspiration, the examples that implicitly or explicitly structure our thinking, the time period which we focus on, each of these starting points in the study of technology and society lend a level of path dependency to the answers we produce. This is unavoidable, of course – we have to start somewhere – but acknowledging this is crucial in remaining historically aware and reflexive

In the interests of reflexivity, then, let me start by noting where I am now. I am working within a University, in an Anglophone colonial-settler country, Australia, whose populace has just returned a conservative government for another three-year term. These words are typed on a standard QWERTY keyboard, an object which forms a classic case study in the social shaping of technology. I am using Microsoft Word as my preferred/default word processor, operated on a Dell laptop computer, connected to the networks that comprise the global Internet. I have designed none of this hardware or software; how it was designed, why it was designed in the manner it was, the economics and politics and cultures behind these material artefacts, none are immediately apparent from the simple act of typing up a blog post. Phenomenologically, these things are simply givens.

Within this brief, and, I must admit, rather dull accounting of my academic forces of production, central problems of the relationship between technology and society are set. As an analogy for human beings overarching relationship to technology, and as a starting point to introduce the Critical Theory of Technology, this seems about as appropriate as any other; as E.P Thompson noted in The Poverty of Theory, philosophers desks are often the objects around which epistemologies are built.

First, and most importantly, our generic relationship to technology is captured in the QWERTY keyboard. I may not like this keyboard layout (for arguments’ sake – I am entirely indifferent as it happens) but this is the way in which keyboards are designed, and I have no input in this process. QWERTY was the result of cost pressures in the late 19th century market for typewriters. Here, we see how technological artefacts and systems structure our lives, a simple form of determinism best captured by Marx’s famous aphorism from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852):

Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’

A simple point but an important one. Marx highlights the limits to human agency that we experience as an unavoidable condition of our existence. A classic Irish joke makes the same argument. An English tourist is driving through the Irish countryside looking for a famous tourist destination. Stopping a local at the side of the road, he asks for directions, to which the Irish local replies ‘Well, if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.’ Here, of course, is where we have to start – here in our actually-existing world, with its limits and opportunities, with its QWERTY keyboards. Recognizing these historically imposed limits imposes a realism on our thought, preventing excesses of idealism and utopianism.

Two further points emerge from this desk reflection. The first relates to the process of design, always embedded within an existing set of social, cultural, and political structures. As suggested, I did not create these technologies, Dell and Microsoft did, and they did so with particular purposes in mind. Their designs are created within the limits and pressures exerted by market forces; nevertheless, they have exercised agency in the process of making these technologies. I have not, and chances are that you have not, exercised any agency in the technologies you have used to access this piece. The power to design new technological objects is unevenly spread throughout human societies, defined by laws, social norms, and backed by the state. So, while all human beings experience a lack of agency as a generic existential condition, not all human beings exercise equal power in making and remaking human society over the course of their lives.

However, and this is the second wrinkle, there is nothing in our experience of material objects that discloses this unequal distribution of power. Our everyday experience of technology conveys the determining quality of objects but does not convey how technologies are designed and diffused throughout human societies. As a result, we often misrecognize the power of technological objects, fetishizing their role in shaping history. We fetishize technology when we attribute power to material objects that they do not possess.

Critical Theory takes on the challenge of charting the distance between our common-sense view of technology as natural and ahistorical and the conditions of its production. This approach details the power structures which unequally distribute the right to create, design and maintain technological systems; in this it focuses on the distribution of ownership through private property rights. These politically established and historically enduring rights define whom has the right to design technological artefacts. They set the boundaries between the political and the economic and set the limits of democracy in our societies. At the broadest level, the Critical Theory of Technology produces a map of social power, an account of which actors are creating our futures, and a normative desire to redistribute the right of design to realize democratic and egalitarian ends. Critical Theory interrogates the values embedded within existing technologies, examining how they shape our current political horizons. In critiquing technology, more overt forms of ideology are pinned down, and more subtle forms revealed. This requires a detachment from our everyday experience of objects.

Take the family car. When we drive, we rarely abstract from the experience of moving from A to B in our cars to consider the limitations, and affordances, cars provide. Once we analytically detach from our everyday experience to examine the material values embedded within the car it becomes possible to see that my Ford has been formed by specific structures of social power, embedding dominant gender norms in its chassis. Similarly, in the United States, values of individualism and liberty have shaped the socio-technical infrastructures of American car culture. These materially embedded values – concisely encapsulated in this beyond parody Dodge Challenger commercial – reproduce a fossil fuel based liberal capitalist society. American cars embody classic notions of individual liberty, the sanctity of the private sphere, and a specific construction of nature as a social space ‘out there’. At the same time, of course, cars are commodities, and their creation is driven by the need for profit within a competitive marketplace. Market pressures force Ford and General Motors to pursue cost efficiencies in building cars, but these are realized by a male-dominated design industry.

Rather than simply ‘following the actors’, a three-fold movement thereby takes place in Critical Theory, in which we start with the concrete world of our everyday experiences, proceed through abstraction to gain a wider perspective, before finally returning to describe our concrete starting points in richer detail. It becomes apparent that we can differentiate between my laptop designed as something I can use to type this post, laptops as commodities created to make money for their owners, and laptops as material-cultural objects expressing specific cultural values. For the Critical Theory of Technology, its starting points are also its endpoints, recognized in their full complexity for the first time.

Daniel R McCarthy is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He recently edited the book Technology and World Politics: An Introduction.

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