Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Depoliticized Technology, Repoliticizing Technology

"Technology" is a verb masquerading as a noun.

Behind every conjuration of a technological thing, always there are the vicissitudes of complex, fraught, unpredictable processes: of invention, of investment, of research, of testing, of publication, of education, of marketing, of application, of distribution, of appropriation.

"Technology" is always a shorthand, and it is crucial to translate that shorthand back into longhand before we affirm or resist particular claims or aspirations that depend on this term for their force. "Technology" as an idea has come to be radically depoliticized, so much so that even when people sometimes speak of politics and technology they will speak in terms of "the politics surrounding technology" or of a dangerous "politicizing of technology" as if politics were an invasive alien organism impinging on something that is inherently non-political.

When we use the word "technology" we need to speak of it and to mean by it something like the collaborative recourse to technique in the effort to solve shared problems and facilitate shared aspirations.

Too often people use the word "technology" to mean instead something like the use of implements by some (sometimes a small minority) to disregard, control, marginalize, oppress, exploit others (sometimes a large majority). This is what people often really mean when they claim to be "anti-technology" in a general way.

Too often people use the word "technology" to mean instead something like the use of technique to circumvent the difficult, contentious, time-consuming process of doing justice to the diversity of needs, perspectives, and aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders to shared concerns (through elite decision making by nonaccountable professionals, or through the mass-mediated manufacture of consent, and so on). People who "oppose technology" in a general way often mean by this opposition to decry this kind of elitism or conservatism. But it is interesting to note that this is also what many people often really seem to mean when they claim to be "pro-technology" in general way, usually because they think certain questions of general concern are too complicated or happening too quickly to be addressed by all of their actual stakeholders or sometimes simply because they are temperamentally averse to stakeholder politics and seek out what they imagine to be less contentious spheres governed by "facts" rather than "values."

In both of these cases, "technology" marks an effort at depoliticization: whether outright anti-political or assertively apolitical, "technology" discussions have come to function too often to direct our attention to the particularity of technique while removing the complexity of dissent from consideration, function too often to focus on the generality of promises while distracting us from the specificity of consequences, wider, longer-term, unintended impacts, or from actual distributions of cost, risk, and benefit.

We need to confront this depoliticization through the discourse of "technology" with an insistent repoliticization of "technology."

While it is not enough simply to repoliticize it to achieve a desired democratization of "technology," you can be sure that a depoliticized "technology" will never be a democratic one. Democracy is the idea that people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, and depoliticization always functions to remove decisions made by some from contestation by the many who have a stake in them.

Behind every conjuration of a technological thing, remember, are the vicissitudes of complex, fraught, unpredictable processes: And always decisions, always decisions are being made. Who are the decision makers? What considerations preoccupy them? Who is impacted by these decisions?

Never permit the discourse of "technology" to lodge itself in the salesman's pitch, in the fetishized delineation of technical capacities or the promissory evocation of desired outcomes. Citizens do not settle for the status of customers when there are decisions being made on matters of concern that affect them.

Once again, when we use the word "technology" we really need to mean by the term something like collaborative recourse to technique in the effort to solve shared problems and facilitate shared aspirations.

2 comments:

De Thezier said...

Great post! More please.

jfehlinger said...

> Too often people use the word "technology" to mean
> instead something like the use of implements by some
> (sometimes a small minority) to disregard, control,
> marginalize, oppress, exploit others (sometimes a large
> majority). This is what people often really mean when
> they claim to be "anti-technology" in a general way.

"What we call Man's power [over Nature] is, in reality,
a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not,
allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers
manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as
much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he
is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. . .
From this point of view, what we call Man's power over
Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men
over other men with Nature as its instrument."

-- c. S. Lewis, _The Abolition of Man_
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition3.htm