Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Playing with Utopias

Andrew Feenberg makes an important claim in his book "Between Reason and Experience: essays in Technology and Modernity" that ours is not the only technological society that is possible. To believe that it is can be construed as a technological deterministic position - Feenberg charges Heidegger (particularly) with this (and since he was a student of Marcuse, who in turn was a student of Heidegger, he at least has some pedigree for saying this).

Technology was a dominant concern in Heidegger's career, from the early "Being and Time" through to the late essays "The question concerning technology" and "Building Dwelling Thinking". The late works argue that the essence of technology is 'enframing' and that man is bound by a technological world as the "setting upon that sets upon man", and that the only escape is a mystical retreat to poetry and art.

To what extent is Feenberg right? To what extent is there merit in Heidegger's position?

Feenberg's book is essentially about the relationship between abstraction and experience, and the role of technology in that relationship. It is really a book about where politics sits in the unfolding of this relationship. These are themes very close to my own preoccupations (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/technology-abstraction-and-experience.html). Feenberg advocates a critical approach to technology as a way of engaging political discourse in the technological realm. I find that this theme has echoes in Ulrich Beck's work too.

What may be wrong in Heidegger, and (interestingly may also be wrong in the technological work which is Heidegger-inspired, such as Winograd and Flores) is that the view of technology is fundamentally irrealist. Heidegger, after all, was a phenomenologist. To him, individual experience was to be privileged. It should also be said that much 2nd-order cybernetic work is also phenomenological in this way - it's all about the individual-biological perception. As I have argued in the past, this kind of methodological individualism has social and political implications. Adorno, whose project of Negative Dialectics was essentially a competing project to Heideggers, dismissed Heidegger's work as being fascist- no doubt sticking the knife in with some relish following Heidegger's inexcusable war record! But individualism can lead to fascism - it can lead to the denial of the reality of the social. And with the denial of the reality of the social goes the denial of the possibility of building a better world.

This is where I find common ground with Feenberg. I believe that work with learning technology is precisely about exploring what a better world might be like. It is a process that Ronald Barnett wrote about a couple of weeks ago in the Times Higher: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=422221: Universities are about creating the conditions for the experimentation with 'feasible utopias'.

However, whilst Feenberg concerns himself with technology, I would argue that just as important is teaching and learning. Technology is experiential, it allows us to escape from abstraction, but so is teaching. Indeed, it is precisely in the combination of technology and pedagogy that the "feasible utopia exploration project" can be undertaken - not one in favour of the other.

There is a deep social need for this to take place. Just at a time when the institutions we originally established for the purpose of free exploration of ideas begin to marketise, professionalise and determine narrow purpose for themselves (much narrower than in their original form), so something new needs to happen which  opens things up again. Neither technology nor pedagogy are restricted to the University. But finding new ways of exploring feasible utopias - either within or outside universities - needs to become a major political priority.

The alternative is slavery to the fate that Heidegger described. Yet we will only become slaves if we believe that we are in the best of all possible worlds.

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