Monday, October 20, 2008

Notes on Norman's Design of Everyday Things

Notes on Donald A. Norman The Design of Everyday Things


(vii) Far too many items in the world are designed, constructed, and foisted upon us with no understanding - or even care - for how we will use them. Calling something a “Norman door” is recognition of the lack of attention paid by the maker to the user, which is precisely my message.

Would we dare apply Norman's arguments to the creation of texts? He criticizes his choice of titles.

(viii) The problems sound trivial, but they can mean the difference between pleasure and frustration. The same principles that make these simple things word well or poorly apply to more complex operations, including ones in which human lives are at stake. Most accidents are attributed to human error, but in almost all cases the human error was the direct result of poor design.

This seems like a generalization designed to suit his purpose; are the majority of automobile accidents really the result of poor design? The admission, then, is that we routinely engage in risky behavior due to the poor designs in our environment that we cannot really avoid.

The Hidden Frustrations of Everyday Things

The Book Title: A Lesson in Design

(x) I talked with book buyers and clerks. My editor was correct: I needed to change the word “psychology” to “design.” In titling my book, I had been guilty of the same shortsightedness that leads to all those unusable everyday things!

Lessons from DOET

(x) the appearance of the device must provide the critical clues required for its proper operation - knowledge has to be both in the head and in the world.

(xi) The device must explain itself. Even the location and operation of the controls require a conceptual model - an obvious and natural relationship between their location and the operation they control so you always known which control does what (in the book I call this a “natural mapping”).

(xiv) Appropriate, human-centered design requires that all the considerations be addressed from the very beginning, with each of the relevant design disciplines working together as a team.

Technology Changes Rapidly; People Change Slowly

(xiv) in selecting examples, I deliberately kept away from high technology, looking instead at everyday things, things that have been around a while. High technology changes rapidly, but everyday life changes slowly.

(xv) Each time a new technology comes along, new designers make the same horrible mistakes as their predecessors. Technologists are not noted for learning from the errors of the past. They look forward, not behind, so they repeat the same problems over and over again.


(xvii) Humans do not always err. But they do when the things they use are badly conceived and designed. Nonetheless, we still see human error blamed for all that befalls society.


(xix) A major argument in POET is that much of our everyday knowledge resides in the world, not in the head. .. People certainly do rely upon the placement and location of objects, upon written texts, upon the information contained within other people, upon the artifacts of society, and upon the information transmitted within and by a culture. There certainly is a lot of information out there in the world, not in the head.



You Would Need an Engineering Degree to Figure This Out

(2)(figure 1.1) Carelman's Coffeepot for Masochists. The French artist Jacques Carelman in his series of books Catalogue d'objets introuvables (Catalong of unfindable objects) provides delightful examples of everyday things that are deliberately unworkable, outrageous or otherwise ill-formed.

The Frustrations of Everyday Life

(4) The correct parts must be visible, and they must convey the correct message. With doors that push, the designer must provide signals that naturally indicate where to push. .. The vertical plate and supporting pillars are natural signals, naturally interpreted, without any need to be conscious of them. I call the use of natural signals natural design.

(5) Other problems concern the mappings between what you want to do and what appears possible.

(8) Visibility indicates the mapping between intended actions and actual operations.

The Psychology of Everyday Things


(9) affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determined just how the thing could possibly be used.


(12) Here is where the designer's knowledge of the psychology of people coupled with knowledge of how things work becomes crucial.


Principles of Design for Understandability and Usability


(16)(figure 1.10) Conceptual Models. The design model is the designer's conceptual model. The user's model is the mental model developed through interaction with the system. The system image results from the physical structure that has been built (including documentation, instructions, and labels). .. If the system image does not make the design model clear and consistent, then the user still end up with the wrong mental model.


(22) Whenever the number of possible actions exceeds the number of controls, there is apt to be difficulty.


(23) Mapping is a technical term meaning the relationship between two things, in this case between the controls and their movements and the results in the world.

(23) Natural mapping, by which I mean taking advantage of physical analogies and cultural standard, leads to immediate understanding.

(25) A device is easy to use when there is visibility to the set of possible actions, where the controls and displays exploit natural mappings.


(27) Feedback - sending back to the user information about what action has actually been done, what result has been accomplished - is a well-known concept in the science of control and information theory.

(27) To be fair, these new designs are pushing hard on the paradox of technology: added functionality generally comes along at the price of added complexity.

Pity the Poor Designer

The Paradox of Technology

(30) The development of a technology tends to follow a U-shaped curve of complexity: starting high; dropping to a low, comfortable level; then climbing again.

(31) Whenever the number of functions and required operations exceeds the number of controls, the design becomes arbitrary, unnatural, and complicated. The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology.



Falsely Blaming Yourself

(36) If an error is possible, someone will make it. The designer must assume that all possible errors will occur and design so as to minimize the chance of the error in the first place, or its effects once it gets made. Errors should be easy to detect, they should have minimal consequences, and, if possible, their effects should be reversible.

Misconceptions of Everyday Life



(39) everyone forms theories (mental models) to explain what they have observed. In the case of the thermostat, the design gives absolutely no hint as to the correct answer. In the absence of external information, people are free to let their imaginations run free as long as the mental models they develop account for the facts as they perceive them.

Blaming the Wrong Cause

(40) The psychology of blame (or, to be more accurate, of attribution) is complex and not fully understood. In part, there seems to have to be some perceived causal relationship between the thing being blamed and the result. The word perceived is critical: the causal relationship does not have to exist; the person simply has to think it is there.

(41) Interestingly enough, the common tendency to blame ourselves for failures with everyday objects goes against normal attributions people make. In general, it has been found that people attribute their own problems to the environment, those of other people to their personalities.



The Nature of Human Thought and Explanation

How People Do Things: The Seven Stages of Action

(48) Forming the goal; Forming the intention; Specifying an action; Executing the action; Perceiving the state of the world; Interpreting the state of the world; Evaluating the outcome

The Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation


(51) The difference between the intentions and the allowable actions is the Gulf of Execution.


(51) The Gulf of Evaluation reflects the amount of effort that the person must exert to interpret the physical state of the system and to determine how well the expectations and intentions have been met.

The Seven Stages of Action as Design Aids

(52) The seven-stage structure can be a valuable design aid, for it provides a basic checklist of questions to ask to ensure that the Gulfs of Evaluation and Execution are bridged.



(54-55) not all of the knowledge required for precise behavior has to be in the head. It can be distributed - partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in the constraints of the world. Precise behavior can emerge from imprecise knowledge for four reasons: Information in the world, Great precision is not required, Natural constraints are present, Cultural constraints are present.

(56) There is a tradeoff between the amount of mental knowledge and the amount of external knowledge required in performing tasks.

Precise Behavior from Imprecise Knowledge


(56) There is a tradeoff between speed and quality of performance and mental effort.

(57) People function through their use of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of and knowledge how.



(60) Combining the two constraints of rhyme and meaning can therefore reduce the information about the particular word that must be kept in memory to nothing; as long as the constraints are known, the choice of word can be completely determined.

(61) The notion that someone should be able to recite word for word is relatively modern. Such a notion can be held only after printed texts become available; otherwise who could judge the accuracy of a recitation?

Point made by Ong.

Memory is Knowledge in the Head



(67) If we examine how people use their memories and how they retrieve information, we discover a number of categories: Memory for arbitrary things, Memory for meaningful relationship, Memory through explanation.

(70) People probably make up mental models for most of the things they do. This is why designers should provide users with appropriate models: when they are not supplied, people are likely to make up inappropriate ones.

Memory Is Also Knowledge in the World


(72) One of the most important and interesting aspects of the role of external memory is reminding, a good example of the interplay between knowledge in the head and in the world.

Is this the distinction Plato intends in Phaedrus, that reminding involves knowledge in the world? Or the two aspects signal and message?

(73) A good reminding method is to put the burden on the thing itself.

(73) There are two different aspect to reminder: the signal and the message.


(78) Wherever labels seem necessary, consider another design.

The Tradeoff between Knowledge in the World and in the Head

(80) Reminders provide a good example of the relative tradeoffs between the roles of internal versus external knowledge. Knowledge in the world is accessible. .. Knowledge in the mind is ephemeral.



A Classification of Everyday Constraints

(84) for different classes of contraints - physical, semantic, cultural, and logical. These classes are apparently universal, appearing in a wide variety of situations, and sufficient.


(84) Physical limitations constrain possible operations. .. The value of physical constraints is that they rely upon properties of the physical world for their operation; no special training is necessary.


(85) Semantic constraints rely upon the meaning of the situation to control the set of possible actions. .. Semantic constraints rely upon our knowledge of the situation and of the world.


(85) Cultural issues are at the root of many of the problems we have with new machines: there are as yet no accepted conventions or customs for dealing with them.

(85-86) guidelines for cultural behavior are represented in the mind by means of schemas, knowledge structures that contain the general rules and information necessary for interpreting situations and for guiding behavior.


(86) Natural mappings work by providing logical constraints. There are no physical or cultural principles here; rather there is a logical relationship between the spatial or functional layout of components and the tings that they affect or are affected by.

Applying Affordances and Constraints to Everyday Objects





Visibility and Feedback


(101) Nothing succeeds like visual feedback, which in turn requires a good visual display.


(103) Natural sounds reflect the complex interaction of natural objects.

(103) If they are to be useful, sounds must be generated intelligently, with an understanding of the natural relationship between the sounds and the information to be conveyed.

(103) One of the virtues of sounds is that they can be detected even when attention is applied elsewhere. But this virtue is also a deficit, for sounds are often intrusive.



(105) People make errors routinely. Hardly a minute of normal conversation can be by without a stumble, a repetition, a phrase stopped midway through to be discarded or redone. Human language provides special mechanisms that make corrections so automatic that the participants hardly take notice; indeed, they may be surprised when errors are pointed out. Artificial devices do not have the same tolerance. Push the wrong button, and chaos may result.

Recall von Neumann's discussions about error tolerance of natural and artificial automata.

(105) Slips result from automatic behavior, when subconscious actions that are intended to satisfy our goals get waylaid en route. Mistakes result from conscious deliberations.

(105) Form an appropriate goal but mess up in the performance, and you've made a slip. .. Form the wrong goal, and you've made a mistake.


(106) Some slips may indeed have hidden, darker meanings, but most are accounted for by rather simple events in our mental mechanisms.

Footnote on Sherry Turkle's The Second Self confirms that Freud is reinterpreted.

(106) Slips show up most frequently in skilled behavior. .. On the whole, people can consciously attend to only one primary thing at a time. .. We can do more than one thing at a time only if most of the actions are done automatically, subconsciously, with little or no need for conscious attention.


(107) We can place slips into one of six categories: capture errors, description of errors, data-driven errors, associative activation errors, loss-of-activation errors, and mode errors.

(107) The capture error appears whenever two different action sequences have their initial stages in common, with one sequence being unfamiliar and the other being well practiced. Seldom, if ever, does the unfamiliar sequence capture the familiar one.

(108) Description errors usually result in performing the correct action on the wrong object.

(108) Description errors occur most frequently when the wrong and right objects are physically near each other.

(109) Automatic actions are data driven - triggered by the arrival of the sensory data. But sometimes data-drive activities can intrude into an ongoing action sequence, causing behavior that was not intended.

(109) Associate activation errors are the slips studied by Freud; you think something that ought not to be said and then, to your embarrassment, you say it.

This is an excellent enumeration of types of slips but not doing justice to Freud's insight into their nature. Freud would certainly pay attention to all types of slips, not just this one.

(110) Lack-of-activation errors occur because the presumed mechanism - the “activation” of the goals - has decayed. The less technical but more common term would be “forgetting.”

(110) Mode errors occur when devices have different modes of operation, and the action appropriate for one mode has different meanings in other modes. Mode errors are inevitable any time equipment is designed to have more possible actions than it has controls or displays, so the controls must do double duty.

How about some examples of human equivalents? Different uses of body parts, for example, for sex.


(110-111) detection can only take place if there is feedback. .. Some trail of the sequence of actions that was performed is valuable.

(111) The most global description (the one at the top of the list), is called the high-level specification. The more detailed descriptions, the ones at the bottom of the list, are called the low-level specifications. Any one of them might be in error.

(112) In all the situations I have examined the error correction mechanism seems to start at the lowest possible level and slowly works its way higher.


(113) In computer systems, it is common to prevent errors by requiring confirmation before a command will be executed, especially when the action will destroy a file. But the request is ill timed; it comes just after the person has initiated the action and is still fully content with the choice. .. The user has requested deletion of the wrong file but the computer's request for confirmation is unlikely to catch the error; the user is confirming the action, not the file name. Thus asking for confirmation cannot catch all slips. It would be more appropriate to eliminate irreversible actions.

(114) When you build an error-tolerant mechanism, people come to rely upon it, so it had better be reliable.

Mistakes as Errors of Thought


(114-115) Even though principles of rationality seem as often violated as followed, we still cling to the notion that human thought should be rational, logical, and orderly. .. Many scientists who study artificial intelligence use the mathematics of formal logic - the predicate calculus - as their major tool to simulate thought.

But human thought - and its close relatives, problem solving and planning - seem more rooted in past experience than in logical deduction. Mental life is not neat and orderly. It does not proceed smoothly and gracefully in neat, logical form. Instead, it hops, skips, and jumps its way from idea to idea. .. it is the difference that leads to creative discovery and to great robustness of behavior.

(115) Human memory is most definitely not like a set of photographs or a tape recording. It mushes things together too much, confuses one event with another, combines different events, and leaves out parts of individual events.

(115-116) Another theory is based on the filing cabinet model, wherein there are lots of cross references and pointers to other records. .. Of course, it is not called a file cabinet theory. It goes by the names of “schema theory,” “frame theory,” or sometimes “semantic networks” and “propositional encoding.” The individual file folders are defined in the formal structure of the schemas or frames, and the connections and associations among the individual records make the structure into a vast and complex network. The essence of the theory consists of three beliefs, all reasonable and supported by considerable evidence: (1) that there is logic and order to the individual structures (this is what the schema or frame is about); (2) that human memory is associative, with each schema pointing and referring to multiple others to which it is related or that help define the components (thus the term “network”); and (3) that much of our power for deductive thought comes from using the information in one schema to deduce the properties of another (thus the term “propositional encoding”).


(116) A newer approach is rooted in the working of the brain itself. Those of us who follow this new approach call it “connectionism,” but it also goes under the names of “neural nets,” “neural models,” and “parallel distributed processing.” .. This approach follows the rules of thermodynamics more than it does the rules of logic.

(117) We can think of the interactions as the computational part of thought: when one set of units sends signals activating another, this can be interpreted as offering support for a cooperative interpretation of events; when one set of units sends signals suppressing another, it is because the two usually offer competing interpretations. The result of all this support and competition is a compromise: not the correct interpretation, simply one that is as consistent as possible with all possibilities under active consideration. This approach suggests that much of thought results from a kind of pattern matching system, one that forces its solutions to be analogous to past experiences, and one that does not necessarily follow the formal rules of logical inference.

(118) Throw everything into memory on top of one another. That is a crude approximation of the connectionist approach to memory.

(118) We must together details of things that are similar, and give undue weight to the discrepant. We relish discrepant and unusual memories.

(119) This event-based reasoning is powerful, yet fundamentally flawed. Because thought is based on what can be recalled, the rare event can predominate.

The Structure of Tasks


(121) Everyday structures are either shallow or narrow


(121) There are many alternative actions, but each is simple; there are few decisions to make after a single top-level choice.


(121) If each possibility leads to only one or tow further choices, then the resulting tree structure can be said to be narrow and deep.

(123) Any task that involves a sequence of activities where the action to be done at any point is determined by its place in the sequence is an example of a narrow structure.


Conscious and Subconscious Behavior

(125) Subconscious thought is biased toward regularity and structure, and it is limited in formal power. It may not be capable of symbolic manipulation, of careful reasoning through a sequence of steps.

(126) Conscious thought tends to be slow and serial. Conscious processing seems to involve short-term memory and is thereby limited in the amount that can be readily available.

(127) Which is exactly what everyday tasks ought to be - boring, so that we can put our conscious attention on the important things of life, not the routine.


(128) When there is a devastating accident, people's explaining away the signs of the impending disaster always seems implausible to others.


(129) In industrial settings social pressures can lead to misinterpretations, mistakes, and accidents. For understanding mistakes, social structure is every bit as essential as physical structure.

Designing for Error

(131) Designers make the mistake of not taking error into account. Inadvertently, they can make it easy to err and difficult or impossible to discover error or to recover from it. .. Don't think of the user as making errors; think of the actions as approximations of what is desired.

(131) Design so that errors are easy to discover and corrections are possible


(132) Warnings and safety methods must be used with care and intelligence, taking into account the tradeoffs for the people who are affected.


(132) Forcing functions are a form of physical constraint: situations in which the actions are constrained so that failure at one stage prevents the next step from happening.

(125) Forcing functions are the extreme case of strong constraints that make it easy to discover erroneous behavior. .. In the field of safety engineering, forcing functions show up under other names, in particular as specialized methods for the prevention of accidents. Three such methods are interlocks, lockins, and lockouts.

(137) Forcing functions almost always are a nuisance in normal usage. The clever designer has to minimize the nuisance value while retaining the safety, forcing-function mechanism, to guard against the occasional tragedy.

A Design Philosophy

(140) The designer shouldn't think of a simple dichotomy between errors and correct behavior; rather, the entire interaction should be treated as a cooperative endeavor between the person and machine, one in which misconceptions can arise on either side. This philosophy is much easier to implement on something like a computer which has the ability to make decisions on its own than on things like doors and power plants, which do not have such intelligence. .. Put the required knowledge in the world. .. Use the power of natural and artificial constraints: physical, logical, semantic, and cultural. Use forcing functions and natural mappings. Narrow the gulfs of execution and evaluation.



The Natural Evolution of Design


(142) Natural design does not work in every situation; there must be enough time for the process to be carried out, and the item must be simple.


(147) In the end, the qwerty keyboard was adopted throughout the world with but minor variations. We are committed to it, even though it was designed to satisfy constraints that no longer apply, was based on a style of typing no longer used, and is difficult to learn.

(150) Once a satisfactory product has been achieved, further change may be counterproductive, especially if the product is successful.

Why Designers Go Astray

(151) First, the reward structure of the design community tends to put aesthetics first. .. Second, designers are not typical users. .. Third, designers must please their clients, and the clients may not be the users.


(151-152) Because prizes tend to be given for some aspects of a design, to the neglect of all others - usually including usability.


(156) In their work, designers often become expert with the device they are designing. Users are often expert at the task they are trying to perform with the device.


(157) The state of California requires by law that universities purchase things on a price basis; there are no legal requirements regarding understandability or usability of the product.

The Complexity of the Design Process


(162) Some problems are not solved by adjustments. Left-handed people, for example, present special problems.

The handwriting example is great: the social convention of left to write scansion smudges.

(164) designing for flexibility helps.


(165) When there is a problem, people are apt to focus on it to the exclusion of other factors. The designer must design for the problem case, making other factors more salient, or easier to get to, or perhaps less necessary.

(165) A corollary principle is that designers must guard against the problems of focus in their own design.

The Faucet: A Case History of Design Difficulties

(170) If you can't put the knowledge on the device, then develop a cultural constraint: standardize what has to be kept in the head.

Two Deadly Temptations for the Designer


(173) Creeping featurism is the tendency to add to the number of features that a device can do, often extending the number beyond all reason.

(174) The proper division of a complex set of controls into modules allows you to conquer complexity.


(177) the false image is appearance of technical sophistication.

The Foibles of Computer Systems

(177) There is nothing particularly special about the computer; it is a machine, a human artifact, just like the other sorts of things we have looked at, and it poses few problems that we haven't encountered already. But designers of computer systems seem particularly oblivious to the needs of users, particularly susceptible to all the pitfalls of design. The professional design community is seldom called in to help with computer products. Instead, design is left in the hands of engineers and programmers, people who usually have no experience, and no expertise in designing for people.

Typical criticism of FOSS.


(179) DO you want to do things wrong? Here is what to do: Make things invisible; Be arbitrary; Be inconsistent; Make operations unintelligible; Be impolite; Make operations dangerous.


(180) the best computer programs are the ones in which the computer itself “disappears,” in which you work directly on the problem without having to be aware of the computer.



(183) One important method of making systems easier to learn and to use is to make them explorable, to encourage the user to experiment and learn the possibilities through active exploration.


(184) The point cannot be overstressed: make the computer system invisible. This principle can be applied with any form of system interaction, direct or indirect.


Heim would argue strongly against this equivocating the computer as an ordinary tool. Norman's recommendation of designing software such that the computer disappears and the task is foregrounded allows concealing of enframing. “A worn sock is better than a mended one; not so with metaphysics.”



Seven Principles for Transforming Difficult Tasks into Simple Ones







(192) With modern computers and their powerful graphic displays, we now have the power to show what is really happening, to provide a good, complete image that matches the person's mental model of the task - thereby simplifying both understanding and performance.

(193) if the skill is easily automated, it wasn't essential.

(193) In general, I welcome any technological advance that reduces my need for mental work but still gives me the control and enjoyment of the task. .. I want to use my mental powers for the important things, not fritter them away on the mechanics.



(194) In general, technology can help transform deep, wide structures into narrower, shallower ones.

(194) The introduction of new fastening materials - for example, Velcro hook-and-loop fasteners - has eliminated the need for a complex sequence of skilled motor actions by changing the task to one this is considerably simpler, one that requires less skill.

(195-196) Digital timepieces are controversial: in changing the representation of time, the power of the analog form has been lost, and it has become more difficult to make quick judgments about time.

Heim examines this shift in psychic framework in much more detail.

(196) Today, because we can no longer remember the origins, we think of the analog system as necessary, virtuous, and proper. It presents a horrid, classic example of the mapping problem.


(197) One problem is that overreliance on automated equipment can eliminate a person's ability to function without it. .. A second problem is that a system may not always do things exactly the way we would like, but we are forced to accept what happens because it is too difficult (or impossible) to change the operation. A third problem is that the person becomes a servant of the system, no longer able to control or influence what is happening.

(197) All tasks have several layers of control. .. Sometimes we really want to maintain control at the lower level. .. At other times we want to concentrate on higher level things.

Supervisory control models, and closed-loop feedback.



(199) Natural mappings are the basis of what has been called “response compatibility” within the fields of human factors and ergonomics. .. Difficulties arise wherever the positioning and movements of the controls deviate from strict proximity, mimicry, or analogy to the things being controlled.




(201) standardization is essential only when all the necessary information cannot be placed in the world or when natural mappings cannot be exploited.


(202) Standardization is simply another aspect of cultural constraints.

(202) Today's computers are still poorly designed, at least from the user's point of view. But on problem is simply that the technology is still very primitive - like the 1906 auto - and there is no standardization.


(202) Standardize and you simplify lives: everyone learns the system only once. But don't standardize too soon: you may be locked into a primitive technology, or you may have introduced rules that turn out to be grossly inefficient, even error-inducing. Standardize too late and there may already be so many ways of doing the task that no international standard can be agreed on; if there is agreement on an old-fashioned technology, it may be too expensive to change. The metric system is a good example.

Deliberately Making Things Difficult


(208) making things difficult is a tricky business. .. several psychological factors hang in a delicate balance: challenge, enjoyment, frustration, and curiosity.


(209) Complexity of appearance seems to be determined by the number of controls, whereas difficulty of use is jointly determined by the difficulty of finding the relevant controls (which increases with the number of controls) and difficulty of executing the functions (which may decrease with the number of controls).

(209) Hide the controls not being used at the moment.

Design and Society



(211) Style may change further when we get voice typewriters, where our spoken words will appear on the page as they are spoken.

(211) On the one hand, it is satisfying to be able to type your thoughts without worrying about minor typographical errors or spelling. On the other hand, you may spend less time thinking and planning.


(211) The current fad in writing aids is the outline processor, a tool designed to encourage planning and reflection on the organization of material. .. Outline processors attempt to overcome organizational problems by allowing collapsed views of the manuscript to be examined and manipulated. But the process seems to emphasize the organization that is visible in the outline or heading structure of the manuscript, thereby deemphasizing other aspect of the work. It is characteristic of thought processes that attention to one aspect comes at the cost of decreased attention to others.

Reaches similar conclusions as Heim but not at the same depth of ontological analysis.

(212) Hypertext makes a virtue of lack of organization, allowing ideas and thoughts to be juxtaposed at will.

(212) Imagine that this book was in hypertext. How would it work? Well, I've used several devices that relate to hypertext: one is the footnote, another is parenthetical comments, and yet another is contrasting text.

(213) If hypertext really becomes available, especially in the fancy versions now being talked about - where words, sounds, video, computer graphics, simulations, and more are all available at the touch of the screen - well, it is hard to imagine anyone capable of preparing the material. It will take teams of people.


(214) it is difficult to see how the complex instructions required for such a system will be conveyed.

The Design of Everyday Things

(216) Design, therefore, takes on political significance. .. In Western cultures, design has reflected the capitalistic importance of the marketplace, with an emphasis on exterior features deemed to be attractive to the purchaser. .. We are surrounded with objects of desire, not objects of use.

(216) If you are a designer, help fight the battle for usability. If you are a user, then join your voice with those who cry for usable products.

Feenberg tie-in to go along with the Heim tie-in?

Norman, Donald A. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things. United States: Basic Books.

Friday, October 17, 2008


I have to admit that I did not really understand “the medium is the massage” until reading Arther Kroker's 1995 article “Digital Humanism: The Processed World of Marshall McLuhan.” Kroker suggests that McLuhan's method belongs in the long tradition going back to Hippocrates, Thucydides, and St. Thomas Aquinas: “McLuhan's historical study of the media of communication was structured by the three moments of semiology (classification of symptoms), diagnosis and therapeutics. Indeed, it might even be said that McLuhan's adoption of the three stages of the Thomistic 'article' - objections, respondeo, and answers to objections - was only a modern variation of the more classical method of experimental medicine.” The human confrontation with media technologies must be understood at the biological level, as they affect the senses, causing numbness due to the stress of prolonged overstimulation. Thus it is not merely that the media convey messages, nor that the important messages for those who can sense their effects on the human sensorium are the media themselves. Electronic media massage the senses - visual, aural, even haptic (touch) - causing a deep, subliminal numbing, hypnosis, in Kroker's words again,“[Hans] Selye's original theorisation that under conditions of deep stress, the organism anesthetizes the area effected, making the shock felt in peripheral regions,” so that we do not even notice the extent to which they have transformed us. Moreover, human sensory apparatus extend far beyond the physical limits of the body into the machinery, the 'cyborg' - not a term McLuhan every used, apparently, although he used a number of other metaphors to illustrate this point: the outering of the central nervous system, wearing the brain outside the skull, a turtle turned inside out of its shell, auto-amputations of the sensory organs, and so on.

The other shocking revelation from Kroker that does not come out in The Medium is the Massage or the interview in Playboy is McLuhan's strong Catholicism with its allegiance to the optimistic belief in eschatological transformation of world societies united in the project of classical humanism. That is not to deny him vigor in promoting the need to become aware of the effects of media and to creatively confront them. In this respect he confronts the unsatisfactory nostalgia of Heidegger: “If literate Western man were really interested in preserving the most creative aspects of his civilization, he would not cower in his ivory tower bemoaning change but would plunge himself into the vortex of electric technology and, by understanding it, dictate his new environment - turn the ivory tower into the control tower” (The Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan, 1969). It is not surprising that McLuhan had such an influence on Michael Heim, who wrote in “Heidegger and McLuhan: The Computer as Component” that “scholarship requires a cybersage.” I think the scholarly, religious side of McLuhan is overshadowed by his insistence on confronting electric media with a jarring, artistic creativity that is his playing the role of the cybersage plunging himself into the vortex.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Response to Chapter 1 of Hayles Electronic Literature

John Bork's Response to Chapter 1 of N. Katherine Hayles Electronic Literature

The purpose of this chapter - Electronic Literature: What is it? - is to define electronic literature (henceforth EL), survey its genres, expand on its differences with print literature, both in terms of composition and criticism, and provide some ideas on its preservation and dissemination, emphasizing new challenges and opportunities provided by the medium. This introduction sets the stage for the remainder of the book.

What EL is not, is the mere digitization of print literature; there must be important aspects of the work that make it “a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer“ (3). Hayles yields some ground by including in the scope of “the literary” “creative artworks that interrogate the histories, contexts, and productions of literature, including as well the verbal art of literature proper” (4). On this reading, EL may include digitizations of originally print literature, such as ancient Greek texts, provided there is a creative element to them that is natively digital.

She offers a broad survey of genres of EL, beginning with familiar “first-generation” hypertext-oriented works that everyone knows such as Michael Joyce's afternoon: a story, Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, and Shelly Jackson's Patchwork Girl, many of which were created by proprietary software such as Storyspace (6). Both the nature of their composition - blocks of text (lexia) energized primarily by hyperlinks - and their means of production have been eclipsed by new works leveraging a panoply of multimedia components and navigational mechanisms, and preference to delivery over the Web via standard, browser-based technologies instead of proprietary, stand-alone solutions. Her survey includes many recent examples of EL in genres including “[h]ypertext fiction, network fiction, interactive fiction, locative narratives, installation pieces, 'codework', generative art, and the Flash poem” (30).

New modes of analysis and criticism have arisen along with the new forms. For example, it is worthwhile to examine the similarities and differences between EL and computer games; in both, the user is required to invest substantial effort to engage in the computational mechanisms, but for different purposes: “[p]araphrasing Markku Eskelinen's elegant formulation, we may say that with games the user interprets in order to configure, wheres in works whose primary interest is narrative, the user configures in order to interpret” (8). In many cases it is appropriate to describe EL as instruments that users can learn to play in order to fully appreciate their nuances. Furthermore, the program source code and operating environment supporting EL must be accounted in their analysis, since, as Hayles quotes Alexander Galloway, “Code is the only language that is executable” (35). Widening the scope to include code and operating environments reflects the fact that EL engages many skills beyond literary composition; Hayles refers to “a site for negotiations between diverse constituencies and different kinds of expertise”(38). Indeed, the appreciation of the collaborative design and production processes of most complex works of EL contacts the discipline with wider social practices, such as “the development of commercial software, the competing philosophies of open source freeware and shareware, the economics and geopolitical terrain of the internet and World Wide Web, and a host of other factors that directly influence how electronic literature is created and stored, sold or given away, preserved or allowed to decline into obsolescence” (39).

Critical engagement with the social practices surrounding EL foreground the importance of the means by which works are disseminated and preserved, not merely because electronic formats have historically enjoyed much shorter lifespans than printed books, which last for centuries rather than decades, but also because electronic formats involve a host of design decisions that are intimately tied to the early stages of their creation, not merely the publication of the finished product. Thus recommendations are offered concerning the choice of open versus closed systems, community direction versus corporate, plain-text versus binary data formats, and so on.

Monday, October 6, 2008

ENG_6801 Artifact from the Future

I would have liked to make this an interactive work, using an HTML table infused with images and hyperlinks to simulate the tax preparation kiosk where the user can choose between different "educational webinars" recommended by the service provider based on the system's analysis of his/her/it genetic information .. but reality bites, right? .. so instead here are three PNG images. Imagine if you will that pressing the "NEXT" button on the first page takes you to the second; the "RESET" button changes the theme of the webinar, and so on. A more refined layout is presented in the third image, which is based on real software that I have developed and used in academic presentations.

Response to Feenberg Questioning Technology

Response to Andrew Feenberg's Questioning Technology

Feenberg is routinely cited along with Haraway, Ihde, Latour, and Mitcham in contemporary philosophy of technology studies (for example, Scharff and Dusek's 2003 anthology). His critique of essentialist, and extension of social constructivist perspectives, focusing on opportunities for “deep democratization” in the context of his two-layer instrumentalization theory lends itself well to the study of complex technical systems such as software development. The constructivist approach reveals the “technological unconscious” of artifacts whose underdetermined history is concealed by the neat closure of the deterministic illusion that the essence of technology is efficiency and capitalist rationality. I believe his theories are particularly useful for reflecting upon the struggle between entrenched capitalist interests and techno-bureaucracies of the commercial, proprietary software and hardware world, and the revolutionary “free, open source” (FOS) movement highlighted by technologies such as GNU/Linux. To the casual user software does not present moral questions based on the subordination of groups or technocratizing business practices, but rather issues of intellectual property and privacy. Feenberg writes: “what if the various technical solutions to a problem have different effects on the distribution of power and wealth? Then the choice between them is political and the political implications of that choice will be embodied in some sense in the technology” (80). With software the embodiments of political implications is very rich while at the same time concealed by familiarity and the sense of necessity when engaging in them by users already constrained by their overall computing environments. For instance, having to agree with a EULA (End User License Agreement) or other “click-through” agreement in order to use commodity applications and websites that are now part of everyday life. Here Latour's idea that technical devices embody norms that serve to enforce obligations literally enforce them - arriving at Feenberg's notion of 'technological hegemony', “domination so deeply rooted in social life that it seems natural to those it dominates” (86).

A rich body of literature has already grown around the FOS movement, produced by technologists, outlining the contours of this hegemony by authors such as Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, Pekka Himanen, and large-scale empirical studies of the FOS phenomenon have been published in Feller, et al., Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. A common criticism of these viewpoints is the lack of philosophical rigor and a general sense that “the open source community generally lacks a thoroughgoing commitment to democratization” (Jesiek, 2003). In “Democratizing Software: Open Source, the Hacker Ethic, and Beyond,” Brent K. Jesiek therefore threads Feenberg's theories into the existing FOS rhetoric. The FOS option involves design and production as much as it does the use and delivery of finished products, so Feenberg's emphasis on the formation of technical codes and the interplay of primary and secondary instrumentalizations in the concretization of technological features as useful. For instance, Jesiek points out that, while FOS technologies have crept into the corporate workplace through use of GNU/Linux, Apache webserver, MySQL database in the infrastructure - which are often tactical maneuvers done of technology workers, few such organizations literally promote the FOS goals in their business practices themselves. Jesiek thus questions whether open source philosophy may actually reproduce dominance: “many corporations have been quite willing to utilize open source software applications while simultaneously avoiding open source principles when developing and distributing their own products.” He gives the further example of Chinese adoption of Linux, where it is possible that the ability to modify the source code will yield versions of programs that enforce totalitarian policies.

My first encounter with Feenberg was reading Transforming Technology while doing research for a presentation called “The Free, Open Source Option as Ethic.” There I found, in his description of Soviet Rationalizations, nearly a mirror image of the stereotypical FOS development community such as Some of the lingering questions Jesiek has can be addressed by examining the material conditions of software production that make up these communities as hubs of communication, issue tracking, bug reporting, source code control, documentation, and project management tools. Clearly, the FOS movement both epitomizes the democratization of technology, and makes a good contemporary example to join Feenberg's continual reiteration of the Minitel and Internet stories. It is also ripe for analysis.


Feenberg, Andrew. (2002). Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feller, Joseph, et al., editors (2005). Perspectives on Free and Open Source Software. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Jesiek, Brent K. (2003). “Democratizing software: Open source, the hacker ethic, and beyond.” First Monday, volume 8, number 10 (October 2003). Retrieved 10/5/2008 from

Scharff, Robert C. and Dusek, Val, editors. (2003). Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Notes on Feenberg Questioning Technology

Notes on Andrew Feenberg Questioning Technology


(viii) The time has therefore come for an anti-essentialist philosophy of technology.

(x) If essentialism is unaware of its own limitations, this is because it confounds attitude with object, the modern obsession with efficiency with technology as such.

(x) I believe there is a single fundamental distinction among technical actors that enables us to link social to philosophical issues. This is the distinction between the dominant and the subordinate positions with respect to technological systems.

(xi) We have “domesticated” the technicized house and made it ours in all sorts of ways that have little or nothing to do with efficiency. The essence of technology, whatever it is, ought to encompass this complexity in principle.

(xii) Essentialist dualism cuts across the lifeworld of technology, in which both these dimensions are immediately present, and disconnects the technical as such from the experience of it.

(xii) Even if meaning plays no role in technical disciplines at any given point in time, it is relevant to the history of technology. Lifeworld meanings experienced by subordinate actors are eventually embodied in technological designs; at any given stage in its development, a device will express a range of these meanings gathered not from “technical rationality” but from past practices of its users. Technology as a total phenomenon thus must include an experiential dimension since experience with devices influences the evolution of their design. This is a conclusion generously documented in constructivist sociology and social history of technology.

(xiii) Thus what essentialism conceives as an ontological split between technology and meaning, I conceive as a terrain of struggle between different types of actors differently engaged with technology and meaning.

(xiii) we need to take seriously Don Idhe's remark that “technology is only what it is in some use-context” (Ihde, 1990: 128).

(xiv) Real change will come not when we turn away from technology toward meaning, but when we recognize the nature of our subordinate position in the technical systems that enroll us, and begin to intervene in the design process in the defense of the conditions of a meaningful life and a livable environment.

The democratic position of sharing a role on the design process accommodates subordinate, in the sense of illiterate, non-engineer, users so their experience of technologies is not simply that of an indifferent consumer.

(xv) Obscured in the identitarian classification of the new social movements is the potentially unifying articulation supplied by technology, which is often the states in their struggles.

(xv) But the limitation of technology to production in Marx's day has long since been transcended. Only through a generalization of the political question of technology to cover the whole surface of society does it again become relevant to our time.

1. Technology, Philosophy, Politics


(2) either politics becomes another branch of technology, or technology is recognized as political.

(3) According to substantivism, modernity is also an epistemological event that discloses the hidden secret of the essence of technology. And what was hidden? Rationality itself, the pure drive for efficiency, for increasing control and calculability. This process unfolds autonomously once technology is released from the restraints that surround it in premodern societies.

(3) In Marshall McLuhan's melodramatic phrase: technology has reduced us to the “sex organs of the machine world” (McLuhan, 1964: 46). Ellul is as pessimistic as Heidegger and calls for an improbable spiritual transformation in response to the domination of technology.

(3) What makes substantivism so very gloomy, where determinism started out as a cheerful doctrine of progress, is the additional assumption that technology is inherently biased toward domination. .. Essentialism holds that there is one and only one “essence” of technology and it is responsible for the chief problems of modern civilization. I will offer both a critique of essentialism, which continues to set the terms of most philosophy of technology, and an alternative to it, in the concluding chapters of this book.


(4) By “technocracy” I mean a wide-ranging administrative system that is legitimated by reference to scientific expertise rather than tradition, law, or the will of the people.

(4) That those consequences were political was due to the intellectual arrogance of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

(5) The left in this period called for democratic control over the direction and definition of progress, and reformulated socialist ideology on these terms.

The situation is much different today in the technical realm of banking and economics. The emergency bailout that just emerged from “democratic control” is seen as the intellectual arrogance of the Bush administration to rescue the world from financial crisis just as it tried to rescue the world from radical Islamic terrorism.

(5) The French May Events was the culminating new left movement.

(6) I analyze in some detail the debate between Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner that divided environmentalists in the early 1970s.

(6) Several members of this [American philosophy of technology] school, Langdon Winner, Albert Borgmann, Don Idhe, will be referred to frequently in this book, which itself belongs within this tradition (Achterhuis, et al., 1997).

Marcuse and Foucault stand out in this period as the most powerful critics of the role of scientific ideologies and technological determinism in the formation of modern hegemonies (Marcuse, 1963; Foucault, 1977).

(7) The left dystopians reject essentialism and argue for the possibility of radical change in the nature of modernity. . I call the availability of technology for alternative developments with different social consequences, its “ambivalence.” At stake in the ambivalence of technology is not merely the limited range of uses supported by any given technical design, but the full range of effects of whole technological systems.

In his next book Transforming Technology a whole part is devoted to “the ambiguity of the computer.”

(7) The Frankfurt School expressed a similar view in claiming that technology is materialized ideology. .. Habermas, for example, treats technology as a general form of action that responds to the generic human interest in control. .. Technology only acquires a political bias when it invades the communicative sphere.

(8) For Marcuse, technology is ideological where it imposes a system of domination, and forces extrinsic ends on human and natural materials in contradiction with their own intrinsic growth potential.

(8) He [Foucault] explores the “subjugated knowledges” that arise in opposition to a dominating rationality.

(9)(Chart 1: The Varieties of Theory)


(10) The influence of Kuhn and Feyerabend grew among social scientists in the 1980s and it became intellectually respectable to study the history and sociology of science and technology on terms similar to other cultural domains.

(10) Constructivism focuses on the social alliances that lie behind technical choices. Each configuration of components corresponds not only to a technical logic, but also to the social logic of its selection.

(11) Closure produces a “black box,” an artifact that is no longer called into question but is taken for granted. .. Looking back from that later standpoint, the artifact appears purely technical, even inevitable. This is the source of the deterministic illusion.

(11) But so far most constructivist research has confined itself to the study of the strategic problems of building and winning acceptance for particular devices and systems.

Clearly the constructivist position profits from the relative transparency of open source projects whose design evolution is documented in online developer communities. The 'black box' nature of finished technologies is related as much to how we might learn about them, the availability of records, as the metaphysical claims of essentialist determinism.


(13) In abstaining from the philosophical debate over technology, philosophy left it to other disciplines, such as “postmodern” literary theory and cultural studies.

(14) Must we choose between universal rationality and culturally or politically particularized values?


(14) Both developed essentialist theories that fail to discriminate significantly different realizations of technical principles.

(15) In Heidegger and Habermas, modernity is governed by a very abstract concept of technical action. I call this view “essentialist” because it interprets a historically specific phenomenon in terms of a transhistorical conceptual construction.

(15) The difficulty is inherent in the essentialist project: how to fix the historical flux in a singular essence? Two strategies are available: either deny all continuity and treat modern technology as unique - Heidegger's solution; or distinguish earlier from later stages in the history of technical action in terms of the degree to which it has purified itself of the admixture of other forms of action - Habermas's solution.

(16) Modern technology is no merely contingent historical phenomenon but a stage in the history of being. Perhaps because of this ontologizing approach, Heidegger allows no room for a different technological future. Modern technology remains fixed in its eternal essence whatever happens in history. Not technology itself but “technological thinking” will be transcended in a further stage in the history of being that we can only await passively.

(16) For Habermas, on the contrary, modernity does not reveal being but human activity in a new and purer light. In premodern societies the various types of action are inextricably mixed together, with no clear distinction between the technical, the aesthetic, and the ethical. In modern societies these action types are differentiated practically and theoretically. .. His goal is the restoration of a healthy process of social communication capable of providing direction to market and administration and especially of limiting their influence.

(17) The basic problem is essentialism.

(17) I propose an account in which social dimensions of technological systems belong to the essence of technology as well. This essence includes such features as the impact of these systems on workers' skills and the environment, their aesthetic and ethical aspects, and their role in the distribution of power. This “instrumentalization theory” attempts to embrace the wide variety of ways in which technology engages with its objects, its subjects, and its environment. A social account of the essence of technology enlarges democratic concerns to encompass the technical dimension of our lives. It offers an alternative to both the ongoing celebration of technocracy triumphant and the gloomy Heideggerian prediction of technocultural disaster.

Part I.


2. Technocracy and Rebellion: The May Events of 1968

(21) In fact the May Events overthrew not the Gaullist state, but the narrow ideological horizons of the old left it challenged in challenging capitalism in new ways.

(21-22) French intellectuals were also liberated from the moral burdens of communism that had weighed on them since World War II. New theoretical movements associated with Foucault, Deleuze, Baudrillard finished the break with the old left begun in 1968.

(22) The themes on which I will focus are: the logic of the student revolt; the relations between workers and students; the ideological crisis of the middle strata; and the new libertarian image of socialism.

The struggle against technocracy played a central role in each these domains.

Can the structure of this analysis be carried over to the free, open source movement against the capitalist, cathedral mentality of proprietary, closed source software and hardware companies?


(23) In the late 1960s, student resistance was directed at first against the growing pressure to achieve a technocratic integration of the university and society. In France a profoundly traditional university viewed the rise of technocracy with dismay and resisted adaptation to a world it rejected. In America the movement arose simultaneously with the creation of the modern “multiversity,” in the service of business and government as never before.

(26) the revolt within the university was a struggle against the use of arguments from technical necessity and intellectual authority to justify a system of domination.

(26) the students found themselves at the leading edge of a contradiction that cuts across all modern societies, the contradiction between the enormous knowledge and wealth of these societies and the creativity they demand of their members, and the mediocre use to which this knowledge, wealth and creativity is put.


(28) the [Communist] Party completely misunderstood what was new about the movement: its demand for workers' self-management and for the transformation of daily life and culture. As a result, the communists found the new student opposition contesting their own leadership of the working class from the left.

(30) The New Left was thus not exclusively a student affair. Industrial workers, who were believed to be content with receiving periodic wage increases, also came forward in this period with demands for power and control over the labor process.


(31) The struggles of May briefly dislocated one of the structural bases of capitalist democracy: the allegiance of the middle strata to the established parties and institutions.

(32) Their protest focused on the absurdity of “consumer society;” they denounced the bureaucratic organization of their work and demanded the right to participate in the determination of its goals.

(35-36) In May 1968 the French middle strata did not so much feel useless or guilty about their privileges as misused by those in command of the society. Their radical stand is best understood as an appeal to the population to redirect their work into more humane and productive channels.

(36) The “entente” they were looking forward to was not merely political, but social and economic as well. It was to be based on the transformation of the division of labor in a self-managed society.


(39) Socialism was to emerge not from an electoral victory, but through the transformation of the general strike into an “active strike” in which the workers would set their factories back in motion on their own account.

(40) industrialism has continued to develop on the track originally set by its capitalist origins. Its central problem is still control of the labor force which, lacking ownership or identification with the firm, has no very clear reason to favor its success. The instruments of that control, management and technological design, have rooted the system so deeply in consciousness and practice that it seems the outcome of progress as such. The fact that the system has been shaped not only by technical necessities but also by the tensions of the class struggle has been forgotten.

(42) The May Events revived this forgotten council communist tradition under the name “self-management.”


(43) While the May Events did not succeed in overthrowing the state, they accomplished something else of importance, an anti-technocratic redefintion of the idea of progress that continues to live in a variety of forms to this day.

(43) Without the struggles of those years in the background it is difficult to imagine the growth of client-centered professionalism, changed medical practices in fields such as childbirth and experimentation on human subjects, participatory management and design, communication applications of computers, and environmentally conscious technological advance.

Feenberg views May Events as stimulus to changes reducing the dominion of capitalist technocracy that have occurred since.

3. Environmentalism and the Politics of Technology


(47) At the core of the disagreement are very different views on the nature of technology. Fundamentalist environmentalism emphasizes control of growth because it can conceive of no change in the industrial order that would render it ecologically compatible (Ullrich, 1979). Technological determinism thus leads straight to a Malthusian position for which environmental and economic values must be traded off against each other. This is Ehrlich's position. Commoner's contrary view depends on a non-determinist philosophy of technology which admits the possibility of radical technical transformation. Only on this condition can growth and the environment be reconciled.


(48) The new scientific statesmanship hoped to gain a hearing by emphasizing the apocalyptic nature of the forces science had unleashed, and organizing a united front of scientists to put the new authority of research to good use.

(48) Like a natural disaster of planetary scope, the environmental crisis could unify humankind beyond historic rivalries in a more fundamental confrontation with nature itself.



(54) All these Malthusian positions treat society as a natural object ruled by deterministic laws. .. Technology too is naturalized by the assumption that economic growth implies more technology of the sort we use now.

(54-55) Without these deterministic premises, the analogy between the population bomb and the atom bomb is weak and the rationale for a politics of survival breaks down.


(55) For Commoner, environmental problems of all sorts, including overpopulation, are effects of social causes inherent in capitalism and colonialism.

(56) Commoner proposed transforming modern technology “to meet the inescapable demands of the ecosystem” (Commoner, 1971: 282).

(57) Technological design must be freed from the profit system.


(57) But was Commoner right to link the fresh young environmental movement with the tired old struggle for socialism?


(60) the dilemma of population politics is the absence of any significant realm of action other than appeals to individual conscience and government enforced limits on family size.


(63) environmental politics is a zero-sum game in which the distribution of costs affects classes differently, according to their position in the economic system. Starting from this premise, Commoner constructed what are, in effect, ideal-typical models of class-determined attitudes toward the environment.

(63) Conclusion: capitalism will resist environmental controls until they become unavoidable and then attempt to get others to bear the burden.

(63) Workers' objective position with respect to the environment is quite different because for them pollution is not an exogenous but an endogenous factor.

When it comes to the “spiritual pollution” of using technology systems that do not offer freedom, or only narrow degrees of freedom within fixed configuration options, both workers and consumers suffer.

(64) When he wrote The Closing Circle Commoner was convinced that the intensified class conflict generated by the ecological crisis would be a great school in environmental policy. .. In fact, labor environmentalism never played the central role he predicted. The failure of his strategy raises serious questions about his whole approach.


(64) One simply cannot predict the future beliefs of a class from its objective interests.

(67) What is needed then is a theory not of individual lifestyle, nor only of social control over production, but also of cultural change.


(68) Ehrlich suggested a shift in the scene of fulfillment, from the material or economic domain, to the spiritual or ideological domain. .. Commoner envisaged a resolution to the environmental crisis not through restricting the supply of material goods, but rather through changing the definition and delivery of them.


(70) The environmental crisis, in short, brings not peace but a sword. .. it is a new terrain on which the old issues will be fought out, perhaps this time to a conclusion.

Part II.


4. The Limits of Technical Rationality


(75) According to Weber, modernity is characterized by the increasing role of calculation and control in social life, a trend leading to what he called the “iron cage” of bureaucracy.

(75) “Democratic” rationalization is a contradiction in Weberian terms.

(76) The ambivalence of technology can be summarized in the following two principles.

1. Conservation of hierarchy: social hierarchy can generally be preserved and reproduced as new technology is introduced.

2. Democratic rationalization: new technology can also be used to undermine the existing social hierarchy or to force it to meet needs it has ignored.

This ambivalence plays out in his differentiation of primary and secondary instrumentalizations.


Determinism Defined

(77) Faith in progress has been supported for generations by two widely held deterministic beliefs: that technical necessity dictates the path of development, and that that path is discovered through the pursuit of efficiency.

(77) Determinism is based on two premises which I will call unilinear progress and determination by base.

(77) social institutions must adopt “imperatives” of the technological base. .. Railroads require scheduled travel.

(78) These two theses of technological determinism present decontextualized, self-generating technology as the foundation of modern life.


(78) contemporary sociology undermines the idea of unilinear progress while historical precedents are unkind to determination by base.

(79) underdetermination means that technical principles alone are insufficient to determine the designs of actual devices.

(79) Constructivism argues, I think correctly, that the choice between alternatives ultimately depends neither on technical nor economic efficiency, but on the “fit” between devices and the interests and beliefs of the various social groups that influence the design process.

(79) Pinch and Bijker illustrate this approach with the early evolution of the bicycle (Pinch and Bijker, 1987).

The importance of fit is evident in the selection of electronic technologies such as personal computers, their operating systems and software, mobile electronic devices, automobiles, and so on.

(80) But what if the various technical solutions to a problem have different effects on the distribution of power and wealth? Then the choice between them is political and the political implications of that choice will be embodied in some sense in the technology.

With software the embodiments of political implications is very rich while at the same time concealed by familiarity and the sense of necessity when engaging in them by users already constrained by their overall computing environments. For instance, having to agree with a EULA or other “click-through” agreement in order to use commodity applications and websites that are now part of everyday life. Here Latour's idea that technical devices embody norms that serve to enforce obligations literally enforce them - arriving at Feenberg's notion of “technological hegemony.”

(81)(Chart 2: How Artifacts Have Politics)



Technology Study

Function or Meaning

(85) According to Latour, technical devices embody norms that serve to enforce obligations. He presents the door closer as a simple example.

(85) He adapts the linguistic distinction between denotation and connotation to describe the difference between the functions of technical objects and their many other associations. .. The engineer may think these connotations are extrinsic to the device he or she is working on, but they too belong to its social reality.

Baudrillard's approach opens technology to quasi-literary analysis. .. However, his model still remains caught in the functionalist paradigm insofar as it takes the distinction between denotation and connotation for granted.

Technological Hegemony

(86) hegemony is domination so deeply rooted in social life that it seems natural to those it dominates.

(87) The legitimating effectiveness of technology depends on unconsciousness of the cultural-political horizon under which it was designed. A critical theory of technology can uncover that horizon, demystify the illusion of technical necessity, and expose the relativity of the prevailing technical choices.

Technical Regimes and Codes

(88) Technical codes define the object in strictly technical terms in accordance with the social meaning it has acquired. These codes are usually invisible because, like culture itself, they appear self-evident. For example, if tools and workplaces are designed today for adult hands and heights, that is only because children were expelled from industry long ago with design consequences we now take for granted.

(89) These hermeneutic congruencies offer a way to explain the impact of the larger sociocultural environment on the mechanisms of closure, a still relatively undeveloped field of technology studies.

Kuhnian Perspectives on Technical Change

(89) But in reality technical professions are never autonomous; in defending their traditions, they actually defend the outcomes of earlier controversies rather than a supposedly pure technical rationality.

Reflexive Design

(90) A reflexive design process could take into account the social dimensions of technology at the start instead of waiting to be enlightened by public turmoil or sociological research.

Ironically, this is taking calculative thinking to its logical conclusion, being as inclusive and comprehensive as possible in the analysis of requirements so that the social dimensions are necessarily part of design.


The Tradeoff Model

(92) I call the public's response to new and imponderable risks it is not equipped to evaluate “rational dread.”

(93) Fear usually does not kill new technology; for the most part, it simply changes the regulatory environment and the orientation of development.

(94) Exchange is all about tradeoffs: more of A means less of B. But the aim of technical advance is precisely to avoid such dilemmas by devising what the French philosopher of technology, Gilbert Simondon, called “concrete” designs that optimize several variables at once.

Regulation of Technology

(95) What a boiler “is” was thus defined through a long process of political struggle culminating finally in uniform codes issued by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

(95) The illusion of technical necessity arises from the fact that the code is thus literally “cast in iron.” (at least in the case of boilers.)

(95) Conformity is no ideological extravagance but an intrinsic production cost.

The Fetishism of Efficiency

(96) Violating the code in order to lower costs is a crime, not a tradeoff.

Design is only controversial while it is in flux.

(97) Non-economic values intersect the economy in the technical code. .. The legal standards that regulate workers' economic activity have a significant impact on every aspect of their lives. In the child labor case, regulation widened educational opportunities with consequences that are not primarily economic in character.

(97) The economic significance of technical change often pales beside its wider human implications in framing a way of life. In such cases, regulation defines the cultural framework of the economy; it is not an act in the economy.

The Concept of Potentiality

(98) In anticipation, theory may situate itself imaginatively on the boundary of the new civilizational configuration that will give a concrete content to its speculations, judging this society from the standpoint of a possible successor. .. As progress unfolds on the basis of the constrained choices that have shaped technology in the past, lines of development emerge with a clear direction.

(98) Where suboptimizations are rooted in the technical code, we are dealing not with a specific or local failure but with the generalized wastefulness of a whole technological system. In economic terms, unrealized civilizational potentialities appear as systematic underemployment of major resources due to the restrictions the dominant economic culture places on technical and human development.

(98) The speculative claims of morality become ordinary facts of lie through such civilizational advances.

5. The Problem of Agency


Beyond Technocracy

(101) The fundamental problem of democracy today is quite simply the survival of agency in this increasingly technocratic universe. This is the central problem the Frankfurt School thematized in Adorno's concept of “total administration,” Marcuse's “one-dimensionality,” and Habermas's “technization of the lifeworld.”

Technocratic Legitimation

(102) [Latour writes] Prescription is the moral and ethical dimension of mechanisms (Latour, 1992: 232).

(103) The prescriptions contained in devices define a division of labor.

(103) it [technocracy] relies on the consensus that emerges spontaneously out of the technical roles and tasks in modern organizations.

(103) actors in command of technically mediated institutions, whether private or public, capitalist or communist, subordinate their technical choices to the implicit meta-goal of reproducing their operational autonomy.

The Recovery of Agency

(104) Micropolitics has no general strategy and offers no global challenge to the society. It involves many diverse but converging activities with long-term subversive impacts.

(105) What we have learned is that even if no totalizing approach makes sense, the tensions in the industrial system can be grasped on a local basis from “within,” by individuals immediately engaged in technically mediated activities and able to actualize ambivalent potentialities suppressed by the prevailing technological rationality.

I call this “democratic rationalization.”

Feenberg talks about soviet rationalizations in Transforming Technology. Micropolitics are the domains where individuals can make changes by selecting, voting, commenting, and participating. This is the sort of activism that powers the FOS movement, and it is greatly aided by the Internet.


Cultural Studies and Critical Theory

(107) He [Roger Silverstone] and his collaborators have developed a reception theory of the appropriation of technology in the household. Just as TV viewers impose their own interpretations on the shows they watch, so users can resignify and even modify the devices they use in accordance with their own codes and values. This process, called “domestication,” yields a technical object adapted to the home environment.

(107) Merete Lie and Knut Sorensen (1996) have indeed attempted to extend the range of the term. .. They hope to join domestication theory to social constructivism in a synthesis explaining the active role of users in design.

(108) Perhaps we can get used to nuclear power plants in our neighborhood much as we get used to a television in the dining room, but it is far from clear in what sense significant agency is involved in either case.

(108) I have proposed the term “democratic rationalization” to signify user interventions that challenge undemocratic power structures rooted in modern technology. With this concept I intend to emphasize the public implications of user agency.

(108) the solution now is to find radical political resources immanent to technologically advanced societies.

(109) This argument recalls Ulrich Beck's theory of the “risk society” and the associated notion of “sub-politics.” .. Normal politics increasingly loses its political character as it becomes a form of system management, while new “sub-political” forces emerge in the interstices of the society, contesting the consequences of reflexive modernization in many spheres, and most especially in relation to technology and the environment where the contradictions appear with particular clarity.


(110) The middle writings of Michel Foucault and two other French thinkers, Michel de Certeau and Bruno Latour offer fruitful starting points for this revision of Critical Theory.

(111) To regimes of truth correspond subjugated knowledges that express the point of view of the dominated. Subjugated knowledges are “situated” in a subordinate position in the technical hierarchy. They lack the disciplinary organization of the sciences, and yet they offer access to an aspect of the truth that is the specific blind spot of these sciences. .. Logically implied but insufficiently elaborated, this notion of counter-hegemony offers the hope of radical change without reliance on traditional agent-based models such as the class struggle, which Foucault believes have outlived their usefulness.

Strategies and Tactics

(112) De Certeau found games to be a useful model of society. Games define the players' range of action without determining their moves. .. The technical code is the most general rule of the game, biasing the play toward the dominant contestant.

De Certeau defines “strategies” as institutionalized controls embodied in modern social organizations such as corporations or agencies.

(113) Tactics thus differ from outright opposition in that they subvert the dominant codes from within by introducing various unexpected delays, combinations, and ironies into the application of strategies.

(113) Tactics thus belong to strategies the way speech belongs to language. The technical code of society is the rule of an exorbitant practice, a syntax which is subject to unintended usages that may subvert the framework it determines.

(113) That power expresses itself in plans which inevitably require implementation by those situated in the tactical exteriority. But no plan is perfect; all implementation involves unplanned actions in what I call the “margin of maneuver” of those charged with carrying it out.

(114) Successful administration today consists in suppressing those dangerous potentials in the preservation of operational autonomy. .. In this context, the claim that the technical base of the society is ambivalent means that it can be modified through tactical responses that permanently open the strategic interiority to the flow of subordinates' initiatives.

An example of “margin of maneuver” in many businesses is the use of telephones, email and instant messaging to conduct business communications, while at the same time offering workers an outlet to gossip, chat with distant friends, and otherwise recover a social dimension that had been repressed by the cubicle office design. It is possible that the proliferation of cross-functional teams and other “subordinates' initiatives” owe some of their success to such maneuvering.


Actor Network Theory

(114) Latour invites us to study technology as the embodiment of “programs,” i.e. intentional structures with a close resemblance to de Certeau's strategies. .. Actor network theory argues that the social alliances in which technology is constructed are bound together by the very artifacts they create. Thus social groups do not precede and constitute technology, but emerge with it.

(114-115) Machines are comparable to texts because they too inscribe a “story,” i.e. a prescribed sequence of events which the user initiates and undergoes. This analogy then authorizes a semiotics of technology drawing on concepts developed in linguistics, several of which play an important role in the theory.

In the first place, Latour adapts the concept of “shifting out,” or change of scene, to describe the process of “delegating” functions to humans or nonhumans through technological design.

(115) Secondly, he adapts the distinction between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions of the phrase to sociotechnical networks.

Images of Resistance

(115) Latour calls the disaggregating forces the network must resist or turn aside, its “anti-progam.”

System, Network, Lifeworld

(118) Systems, as self-reproducing wholes, are fragile subsets of much more loosely organized complexes of interacting elements that may support several overlapping systemic projects. I call these larger complexes “networks.”

(119) In sum, the system concept reflects the spontaneous representations of owners, managers or organizers in charge of an apparatus that implements their program. They have a natural tendency to bound the apparatus conceptually in terms of their strategies, and to consider everything which is not under their control as “environment.” .. A network theory of the technical politics in which these unofficial actors engage needs new categories that do not depend on the self-understanding of managers.

(119) We must supplement these with the symmetry of program and anti-program, at least in those cases where the anti-program is taken up by actors able to build a new system around it. This third symmetry is the basis of a democratic politics of technological rationalization.


Technical Micropolitics

(120) Democratization of modern technically mediated organizations is not fundamentally about the distribution of wealth or even formal administrative authority, but concerns the structure of communicative practices.

(120) Only in the local situation are nonprofessionals likely to be motivated to learn enough about a technical issue to intervene.

(120) In other cases, professionals themselves may open what Arnold Pacey calls an “innovative dialogue” with those affected by their activities (Pacey, 1983: chap. 8).

(121) In still other cases users appropriate technologies creatively, reinventing existing devices through innovative applications. The computer field offers striking illustrations of this new politics of technology. .. R&D opens branches, and the determination of the “right” branch is not within the competence of engineers because it is not inscribed in their narrowly conceived field of activity. This is the context in which amateur hackers and ordinary users were able to transform the computer from an information processor into a communications medium.

Controversy: Environmentalism

(122) Information control strategies come up against the widespread access to expertise and publicity in democratic societies.

Innovative Dialogue and Participatory Design

(123) Specific intellectuals constitute a new class of heterogeneous engineers whose tactical labors extend the recognized boundaries of networks, often against the will of managers, through initiating innovative dialogues with a public audience.

(125) Innovative dialogue and participatory design promise a fundamental solution to the conflict between lay and expert. .. In the long run, a technology continually revised and advanced through innovative dialogue would incorporate different values reflecting a broader range of interests and a more democratic vision.

Creative Appropriation: Reinventing Computers and Medicine

(126) The design of the Minitel invited communications applications which the company's engineers had not intended when they set about improving the flow of information in French society. .. The “cold” computer became a “hot” new medium. A somewhat similar story could be told about the Internet although in this case there was no central control, but rather a cultural shift that ocurred unexpectedly among the user community.

(126) The new interpretation of the technology was soon incorporated into its structure through design changes and, ultimately, through a change in its very definition. Today, it would not occur to someone describing the principal functionalities of the computer to omit its role as a communications medium although communications applications were regarded as marginal by most experts only twenty years ago.

(128) AIDS patients and network users intervened in each case to accommodate the system to excluded interests. As patients gained access to experiments, FDA regulations and experimental designs were forced to change. Similarly, the Minitel was transformed in response to its unexpected use for communication.

(128) Instead of a technocracy in which technology everywhere trumps human communication, we may yet build a democratic society in which technical advance serves communicative advance.

(128) the role of communication in design can serve as a touchstone of democratic politics in the technological age. This is why I have been at pains to work out the relation between my position and Habermas's communication theory, despite the fact that he ignores technology.

Feenberg's favorite examples of the French Minitel system and the Internet itself have been eclipsed by the activities of the FOS movement, especially the proliferation of GNU/Linux in government and business computing environments. Furthermore, these development communities foreground the underdetermination of technical codes and devices in their largely transparent, easily reviewed transactions and toolsets. Notice should be given to the Request For Comments nature of Internet technologies. Indeed, this style of public comment and iterative design of communications protocols as well as hardware standards so permeates the Internet today that it is hardly noticed. And just a Feenberg shifts his critique from essentialism to capitalism, the struggle today is between large, capitalist ventures like Microsoft, and the user/developer-mediated FOS movement, or, as Raymond characterizes it, “the cathedral versus the bazaar.” Does the emphasis on communicative advance carry forward, too?

6. Democratizing Technology


(131) technology should be considered as a new kind of legislation, not so very different from other public decisions (Winner, 1995). .. But if technology is so powerful, why don't we apply the same democratic standards to it we apply to other political institutions? By those standards the design process as it now exists is clearly illegitimate.

And to a large extent we do apply democratic standards, such as in the selection of open document formats. Nonetheless, just as in normal politics, those initiatives are influenced by lobbies from powerful corporations like Microsoft.


(134) One of the most prominent advocates of the new populism is Benjamin Barber. Barber argues for a theory of “strong democracy,” by which he means a participatory politics that relies primarily on local collective action (Barber, 1984).

(135) What he [Richard Sclove] adds to Barber's argument is the notion that this is not merely a matter of political arrangements but also requires appropriate technology.

(135) Sclove argues for adjusting technological design to the requirements of strong democratic community.


(137) The problem we are up against has to do with the nature of representation in the technical sphere.

(138) The accumulation of specialized knowledge and expertise implies a necessary specialization of personnel and function. The direct creation and appropriation of technology by users, characteristic of premodern societies, is no longer possible. Thus here it is temporal parameters rather than spatial ones that determine the shape of authority.

(139) the differentiation of specializations gives specialists the illusion of pure, rational autonomy. This illusion makes a more complex reality. In reality, they represent the interests which presided over the underdetermined technical choices that lie in the past of their profession. The results are eventually embodied in technical codes which in turn shape the training of technical personnel. We have, in a sense, passed from an open direct democracy of technique to a covert representative form. .. Is there an equivalent in the technical domain of the global/local dichotomy and the associated notion of testimony?

(139) The emergence of large-scale technical systems suggests an alternative principle of organization: the technical network itself.

(139) If the technical “global” is taken to refer to the larger networks, then its “local” correlate becomes the basic institutional settings in which tactical resistances emerge.

(140) Where the individuals deliberate and act in those “local” technical settings, they reenact in the technical domain the very sort of populist participation so prized by advocates of strong democracy when it appears in local geographical settings.


(140) Insofar as they are enrolled together, they have what I call “participant interests” in the design and configuration of the activities in which the networks engage them.

Again the exemplar is the global, open source development community/network like Sourceforge. Here users and developers interact in steering the evolution of products, with feature requests, bugs reports, support forums, shared documentation, and so on. Even commercial, proprietary software companies invite their users to participate in beta-testing, discussion forums, and “voice of the customer” activities. It is important to point out the studies of FOSS suggest a host of economies in operation, from gift cultures to cults of personality.

(141) World-defining technical struggles emerge around these considerations. They are the technical equivalent of major legislative acts. As they become more commonplace, the democratic significance of technical politics will surely become clearer.

There is no more compelling example of this phenomenon than the movement of disabled people for barrier-free design (Sclove, 1995: 194-195).

(141) The example of the struggle over AIDS discussed in the last chapter is a more complex case, revealing how life inside a technical network gives rise to participant interests in changing a technically constituted world.


(142) Technical representation is not primarily about the selection of trusted personnel, but involves the embodiment of social and political demands in technical codes.

(143) the most important means of assuring more democratic technical representation remains transformation of the technical codes and the educational process through which they are inculcated.

In addition to professional ethical standards and other forms of structuring technical areas with normative components that have little to do with efficiency per se, FOS licenses like the GPL play a powerful role as technical codes in actualizing this transformation in a permanent manner.

(143) Taking administration into account, as Habermas does more or less on the terms of systems theory, adds a welcome element of realism. If the word “technology” is substituted for “administration” in many contexts of his argument, the resulting paraphrase makes good sense and supports the position taken here.

(144) Habermas's solution is participatory administration, administration open to influence from public inputs of one sort or another.

(145) We have other less ambitious models than strong democracy of alternatives to technocratic control, such as the collegial organization of certain professionals. These collegial forms of organization of teachers and physicians have distant roots in the old craft guilds. .. Refined and generalized, collegiality might be part of a strategy for reducing the operational autonomy of management and creating systematic openings for democratic rationalizations.

(146) The summits of the technical bureaucracies could and should be chosen by conventional democratic means.

(146) What is perhaps more worrisome is the lack of pressure to democratize public technical institutions in which everyone has a large stake, institutions such as utilities, medicine, and urban planning that are only loosely controlled by elected officials today, if at all.

(147) As distinct from “strong” democracy, I will call a movement for democratization “deep” where it includes a strategy combining the democratic rationalizations of technical codes with electoral controls on technical institutions.

Part III.


7. Critical Theories of Technology


(151) The substantivist critique of technology as such characterizes the Frankfurt School and especially its leading members, Adorno and Horkhiemer. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1972) they argue that instrumentality is in itself a form of domination, that controlling objects violates their integrity and distorts the inner nature of the dominating subject.

(152) Design critique holds that social interests or cultural values influence the realization of technical principles.

(153) what can we learn from Marcuse and Habermas assuming that we are neither metaphysicians nor instrumentalists, that we reject both a romantic critique of science and the neutrality of technology?


All Power to the Imagination”

(154) In Heideggerian terms, as Dreyfus explains them, Marcuse proposes a new disclosure of being through a revolutionary transformation of basic practices (Dreyfus, 1995). This would lead to a change in the very nature of instrumentality, which would be fundamentally modified by the abolition of class society and its associated performance principle. It would then be possible to create a new science and technology that would place us in harmony rather than in conflict with nature.

The Neutrality of Technology

(157) Technology, in short, will always be [to Habermas] a non-social, objectivating relation to nature, oriented toward success and control. Marcuse argues, on the contrary, that the very essence of technology is at stake in ecological reform (Marcuse, 1992).

(157) Habermas's theory could accommodate a critique of technology in principle, but the index of The Theory of Communicative Action does not even contain the word. This oversight is related to his treatment of technology as neutral in its own sphere.


Weber and Habermas

(158)(Chart 3: World Relations and Basic Attitudes)

(159) Habermas argues that the pathologies of modernity are due to the obstacles capitalism places in the way of rationalization in the moral-practical sphere.

A Marcusean Reply

(160) As a general rule, formally rational systems must be practically contextualized in order to be used, and as soon as they are contextualized in a capitalist society, they incorporate capitalist values.

This approach is loosely related to Marx's original critique of the market.

(161) Marcuse adopts a similar line in criticizing Weber's notion of administrative rationality, a fundamental aspect of rationalization. Economic administration presupposes the separation of workers from the means of production, and that separation eventually shapes technological design. .. Marcuse thus insists on distinguishing between rationality in general and a concrete, socially specific rationalization process: “pure” rationality is an abstraction from the life process of a historical subject. That process necessarily involves values that become integral to rationality as it is realized.

Technological Rationality

(162) Because design is technically underdetermined, this “blending” of the technical and the social is not extrinsic and accidental as Habermas assumes, but is rather defining for the nature of technology.

A plausible interpretation of what Marcuse meant by his term “technological rationality” would be the most fundamental social imperatives in the form in which they are internalized by a technical culture. This is what, in a constructivist framework, I have called the “technical code.”

Constructivism, Phenomenology, and Critical Theory

(164) The issue is not, as Habermas thinks, whether to revive a philosophy of nature; it concerns our self-understanding as subjects of technical action.

This is the argument of Steven Vogel, who points out that Habermas's chart omits an obvious domain of normative relations to the objective world: the built environment.

(165) nature would be treated as another subject where humans took responsibility for the well-being of the materials they transform in creating the built environment. The values in terms of which this well-being is defined, such as beauty, health, free expression and growth, may not have a scientific status and may not be the object of universal agreement, but neither are they merely personal preferences as modern value nihilism would have it.


The Media Theory

(167) Habermas distinguishes between system, media regulated rational institutions, such as markets and administration, and lifeworld, the sphere of everyday communicative interactions in which such functions as child rearing, education, and public debate go on. According to Habermas, the central pathology of modern societies is the colonialization of lifeworld by system. This involves the overextension of success-oriented action beyond its legitimate range and the consequent imposition of criteria of efficiency on the communicative sphere. The lifeworld contracts as the system expands into it and delinguistifies dimensions of social life which should be mediated by language.

But, surprisingly, even though he protests what, following Luhmann, he calls the “technization of the lifeworld,” Habermas scarcely mentions technology.

(168) this argument repreats the functionalist error criticized in chapter 4. In fact technology has several different types of communicative content. Some technologies, such as automobiles and desks, communicate the status of their owners (Forty, 1986); others, such as locks, communicate legal obligations; most technologies also communicate through the interfaces by which they are manipulated.

(168) it is quite possible to suggest as Habermas appears to that action coordination in the rationalized spheres of social life can be completely described by reference to money and power.

Technology as a Medium

(171)(Chart 4: Coordination Media)


A Two-Level Critique

(174) What we need is a two-level critique of instrumentality. At one level I will follow Habermas in claiming that the media have general characteristics which qualify their application. .. But a second-level critique is also needed because media design is shaped by the hegemonic interests of the society it serves. .. critique cannot cease at the boundary of the system but must extend deep inside it; it must become design critique.

The Bias of the System

(175) The crux of the problem is not the system/lifeworld distinction per se, but the identification of one of its terms with neutral formal rationality. Contemporary feminist theory, organizational sociology, and sociology of science and technology have abundantly demonstrated that no such rationality exists.

(176) We are unaccustomed to the idea that institutions based on system rationality realize objectified norms in devices and practices, and not merely in the individual beliefs or shared assumptions.

This is one of the fundamental insights of Feenberg's approach, also apparent to Drucker and McVarish in their study of the history of graphic design.

(177) By contrast, the hermeneutic approach distinguishes system and lifeworld not as matter and spirit, means and ends, but in terms of the different ways in which fact and value are joined in different types of social objects and discourses. From this standpoint, there is no need for an unconvincing notion of pure rationality.

Critical Theory of Technology

(178) Our technical disciplines and designs, especially in relation to labor, gender, and nature, are rooted in a hegemonic order.

(178-179) Is it possible to develop a critique of technical rationality at that concrete level while avoiding the pitfalls of Marcuse's theory? I believe this can be done through analysis of the social dimensions of technology discussed in earlier chapters. These include delegated norms, aesthetic forms, work group organization, vocational investments, and various relational properties of technical artifacts. In chapter 9, I call these “secondary instrumentalizations” by contrast with the “primary instrumentalizations” that establish the basic technical subject-object relation. Their configuration, governed by specific technical codes, characterizes distinct eras in the history of technical rationality.

Boundaries and Layers

(180) Thus pure moral norms are insufficient to define a society; they must be concretized through choices about the good life.

(180) Pure technical principles do not define actual technologies. They must be concretized through a technically realized conception of the good which particularizes them and establishes them systematically in the life process of a society. Every instantiation of technical principles is socially specific, just as Habermas claims of law.

(180) Now it is clear even on Habermas's own terms why it is insufficient merely to bound technical systems; they must also be layered with demands corresponding to a publicly debated conception of the good life.

In what seems obvious, technical devices and programs must be informed by collective choices about the good life or they have no reason to be conceived. There can still be much confusion here, such as when Microsoft's slogan “Your Potential, Our Passion” seems to leave ideals of the good life up for grabs by enabling the pursuit, whatever it is.

8. Technology and Meaning


(183-184) Heidegger claims that technology turns everything it touches into mere raw materials, which he calls “standing reserve” (Bestand) (Heidegger, 1977a). .. Modern technology is based on methodical planning which itself presupposes the “enframing” (Gestell) of being, its conceptual and experiential reduction to a manipulable vestige of itself.

(184) The willful making that comes to fruition in technology has been the ontological model for Western metaphysics since Plato .. Heidegger calls for resignation and passivity (Gelassenheit) rather than an active program of reform which would simply constitute a further extension of modern technology.

(186) Macro-systems take on what Thomas Hughes calls “momentum,” a quasi-deterministic power to perpetuate themselves and to force other institutions to conform to their requirements (Hughes, 1987). Here we can give a clear empirical content to the concept of enframing.

(186) how is the break with “technological thinking” supposed to affect the design of actual devices? By osmosis, perhaps?

(187) Unfortunately, Heidegger's argument is developed at such a high level of abstraction he literally cannot discriminate between electricity and atom bombs, agricultural techniques and the Holocaust.

Recall Heim's claim that scholarship needs a cybersage, not more Heideggers resigned to the nostalgia of hunching over writing tables in their mountain huts.


Technology and Meaning

(187) identification of the structural features of enframing can found a critique of modernity.

(187) Borgmann identifies the “device paradigm” as the formative principle of a technological society which aims above all at efficiency. In conformity with this paradigm, modern technology separates off the good or commodity it delivers from the contexts and means of delivery.

(188) The device paradigm offers gains in efficiency, but at the cost of distancing us from reality. .. But what Borgmann calls “focal things” that gather people in meaningful activities that have value for their own sake cannot survive this functionalizing attitude.

(188) Where means and ends, contexts and commodities are strictly separated, life is drained of meaning.

(188) Borgmann's critique of technological society usefully concretizes themse in Heidegger.

(189) However, Borgmann's approach suffers from both the ambiguity of Heidegger's original theory and the limitations of Habermas's. .. And as a result, Borgmann imagines no significant restructuring of modern society around culturally distinctive technical alternatives that might preserve and enhance meaning.

Interpreting the Computer

(190) Hyperintelligent communication offers unprecedented opportunities for people to interact across space and time, but, paradoxically, it also distances those it links. No longer are the individuals “commanding presences” for each other; they have become disposable experiences that can be turned on and off like water from a faucet.

(190-191) Borgmann's conclusions are too hastily drawn and simply ignore the role of social contextualizations in the appropriation of technology. .. the real struggle is not between the computer and low tech alternatives, but within the realm of possibilities opened by the computer itself.

In the first place, the computer was not destined by some inner techno-logic to serve as a communications medium.

(191) In the second place, Borgmann's critique ignores the variety of communicative interactions mediated by the networks.

(192) [Example of how] democratic rationalization of the computer contributes to a parallel transformation of medicine.

(193) His theory hovers uncertainly between a description of how we encounter technology and how it is designed.


(194) Heidegger's doctrine of the thing is a puzzling combination of deep insights and idiosyncratic esotericism.

(195) Heidegger's poetic notion of the “fourfold” [earth, sky, mortals, divinities] seems to be an attempt to capture in abstract terms the essential elements of the ritual structure of the thing, the human being, and the world they inhabit.

(195) The jug is not primarily a physical object which has gathering relations. It is these relations and is merely release to its existence as such by production, or known in its outward appearance by representation.

(196) The disclosure takes place form out of the thing as much as from Dasein.

(196) Devices, Heidegger complains, race toward our goals and lack the integrity of his favorite jug or chalice. But by what rights does he make this summary judgment on the very thing that surround him? Devices are things too. Modern and technological though they may be, they too focus gathering practices that bring people together with each and with “earth and sky,” joining them in a world.

(197) Heidegger's modern technology is seen from above. This is why it lacks the pathos of gathering and disclosing. The official discourse of a technological society combines narrow functionalism with awe in the fact of the technological sublime.

(197) This lifeworld of technology is the place of meaning in modern societies. Our fate is worked out here as surely as on Heidegger's forest paths.

(198-199) The problem with Heidegger's critique is his unqualified claim that modern technology is essentially unable to recognize its limit. That is why he advocates liberation from it rather than reform of it. .. Could it be that old disciplinary boundaries between the humanities and the sciences have determined the fundamental categories of social theory?

(199) Beyond those boundaries we discover that technology also “gathers” its many contexts through secondary instrumentalizations that integrate it to the surrounding world. .. When modern technical processes are brought into compliance with the requirements of the environment or human health, they incorporate their contexts into their very structure as truly as the jug, chalice, or bridge that Heidegger holds out as models of authenticity. Our models should be such things as reskilled work, medical practices that respect the person, architectural and urban designs that create humane living spaces, computer designs that mediate new social forms.

These promising innovations are the work of human beings intervening in the design of the technical objects with which they are involved. This is the only meaningful “encounter between global technology and modern man.”

This brief return to Heidegger sets the stage for Feenberg's synthesis of all of the positions he has reviewed so far, as well as his initial discussions about the May Events and the environmental debate.

9. Impure Reason


(201) I will define the essence of technology as the systematic locus for the sociocultural variables that actually diversify its historical realizations.


A Two-Level Theory

(202) On this account, the essence of technology has not one but two aspects, an aspect which explains the functional constitution of technical objects and subjects, which I call the “primary instrumentalization,” and another aspect, the “secondary instrumentalization,” focused on the realization of the constituted objects and subjects in actual networks and devices.

Primary Instrumentalization: Functionalization

(203) The primary instrumentalization consists in four reifying moments of technical practice.

1. Decontextualization

(203) The isolated object reveals itself as containing technical schemas, potentials in human action systems which are made available by decontextualization. .. Nature is fragmented into bits and pieces that appear as technically useful after being abstracted from all specific contexts.

2. Reductionism

(203-204) Reductionism refers to the process in which the de-worlded things are simplified, stripped of technically useless qualities, and reduced to those aspects through which they can be enrolled in a technical network. .. The tree trunk, reduced to its primary quality of roundness in becoming a wheel, loses its secondary qualities as a habitat, a source of shade, and a living, growing member of its species. The Heideggerian enframing is the reduction of all of reality to the most abstract primary qualities through formalization and quantification.

3. Autonomization

(204) A friendly remark is likely to elicit a friendly replay, rudeness, rudeness. By contrast, technical action “autonomizes” the subject. This is accomplished by interrupting the feedback between the object and the actor. In an apparent exception to Newton's law, the technical subject has a big impact on the world, but the world has only a very small return impact on the subject.

4. Positioning

(204-205) the subject's action consists not in modifying the law of its objects, but in using that law to advantage. .. By positioning itself strategically with respect to its objects, the subject turns their inherent properties to account. The management of labor and the control of the consumer through product design have a similar positional character.

Secondary Instrumentalization: Realization

(205) The underdetermination of technological development leaves room for social interests and values to participate in this process. As decontextualized elements are combined, these interests and values assign functions, orient choices and insure congruence between technology and society.

1. Systematization

(205) To function as an actual device, isolated, decontextualized technical objects must be combined with each other and re-embedded in the natural environment. Systematization is the process of making these combinations and connections, in Latour's terms, of “enrolling” objects in a network (Latour, 1992).

2. Mediation

(206) Ethical and aesthetic mediations supply the simplified technical object with new secondary qualities that seamlessly embed it in its new social context.

3. Vocation

(206) These human attributes of the technical subject define it at the deepest levels, physically, as a person, and as a member of a community of people, engaged in similar activities. “Vocation” is the best term we have for this reverse impact of tools on their users.

4. Initiative

(207) Finally, strategic control of the worker and consumer through positioning is to some extent compensated by various forms of tactical initiative on the part of the individuals submitted to technical control.

Reflexive Technology

(207) The secondary instrumentalization constitutes a reflexive meta-technical practice which treats functionality itself as raw material for higher-level forms of technical action.

(207) Substantivism identifies technology as such with a particular ideology hostile to reflection.

(208) In contrast with Heidegger, I distinguish premodern from modern historically, rather than ontologically and I break with Habermas as well in arguing that the differentiation of modern technology from other world orientations is relatively superficial and does not reveal the truth of the technical.

(208)(Chart 5: Instrumentalization Theory)


The Problem of Progress

(209) Essentialism argues that a quasi-transcendental process of functionalization is differentiated from what I have called the secondary instrumentalizations in the course of technical and social development.

(209) Once technology is differentiated from other social domains, its interaction with them appears to be external. This is particularly clear in the case of mediations. Art is no longer an intrinsic part of technical practice but something added on a posteriori.

(209) Heidegger and Habermas have taken such differentiation to be the essence of modernity. In the course of it the mediations lose their concrete links to technical reality and become ineffectual ideals. .. Heidegger's despair may in the end be a more realistic indication of the paltry reforms possible in this framework.

(210) From the standpoint of that theory, attempts at radical technical change can only lead to dedifferentiation and regression.

Technological Fetishism

(210-211) We need to know why differentiation appears as an indicator of progress in the essentialist framework.

I will argue here that essentialism reflects the reified form of objectivity of technology in modern societies. By “form of objectivity” I mean a culturally determined frame of reference rooted in a way of seeing and a corresponding way of doing, a system of practices. Forms of objectivity might be thought of as socially necessary “illusions” with real consequences. Such illusions are constituting for social reality insofar as we constantly act on them.

Marx offered the original analysis of this phenomenon. In his usage, the fetishism of commodities is not the love of consumption but the practical belief in the reality of the prices attached to goods on the market. As he points out, price is not in fact a “real” (physical) attribute of goods but the crystallization of a relation between manufacturers and consumers; yet the movement of goods from seller to buyer is determined by price just as though it were real. The fetishistic perception of technology similarly masks its relational character: it appears as a non-social instantiation of pure technical rationality rather than as a node in a social network.

(211) What explains the persistent self-evidence of the reified concept of technology? In everyday practical affairs, technology presents itself to us first and foremost through its function. We encounter it as essentially oriented toward a use.

(211) Thus an initial abstraction is built into our immediate perception of technologies.

And that perception of technology oriented toward a use feeds back into the notion of reified value (price) based on the extent to which use is met.

(212) both users and technologists act against a background of assumptions that belong to a lifeworld of technology which need not be thematized in the ordinary course of events. A hermeneutic of technology must clarify that background. From that standpoint, the secondary instrumentalizations are just as inseparable from technology's intrinsic nature as its function.

(212) our examples tend to be simple things like hammers. With such examples in mind, we elaborate a functionalist model in which society relates externally to technology, posing demands that are implemented by technical means.

(212) Insofar as structures have an internal causal logic, they can be abstracted from their social surround as an instance of causal principles. All systematic knowledge of technology rests on this type of abstraction. Professional technical disciplines arise to explain and perfect the structures of technologies. As the prestige of these disciplines spreads, their approach to technology becomes the model for common sense and philosophy alike. Eventually, it seems obvious that technical devices are their structure.

(213) Whereas social attributes such as the place of technologies in vocations are relational and seem therefore not to belong to technical artifacts proper, function looks like a non-technical property of technology “in itself.” But in reality function is just as social as the rest. .. As Don Ihde writes .. “The technology is only what it is in some use-context” (Ihde, 1990: 128).

Theory and Reality: Degrees of Differentiation

(215) The difference between the degree and type of differentiation characteristic of theories and the real-world objects they study gives rise to serious confusion.

(215) The differentiation of technical disciplines opens cognitive access to rational structures like those economics discovers in markets. But, again like economics, those structures are abstractions from a far more complex and far less differentiated reality.

(216) Although philosophy of technology has often attacked the narrow horizons of engineering from a humanistic standpoint, paradoxically, its concept of technology is equally narrow. Its key mistake has been to assume that technical disciplines reveal the nature of their objects, not just in a certain respect for certain purposes, but generally, fundamentally. .. But an adequate definition of real technology, as opposed to the narrow, idealized cross-section studied by engineering, involves much besides the formal-rational properties of devices.

Feenberg points out the selection of simple examples such as hammers and jugs as leading to oversimplified analyses of technical objects and their situation within complex networks for which the division into primary and secondary instrumentalizations makes sense. Likewise, the complex, multilayered supply chains that make up typical technologically-oriented business processes differ radically with the simple, two-step movement between technically-oriented producer and non-technically-oriented consumer. On the contrary, there is normally a number of intermediaries in the movement between producers and consumers. In intermediary positions, technologists work together, albeit in producer/consumer roles.



(216) The problem at this point is to reconstruct a concept of progress without relying on a process of purification to explain it. .. I have found a starting point in the work of Gilbert Simondon.

(217) Simondon calls the fundamental law of development “concretization,” by which he means something like what technologists themselves call “elegance.” By contrast with a design restricted to a single function, an elegant design serves many purposes at once.

(217) According to Simondon technology evolves through such elegant condensations aimed at achieving functional compatibilities. Concretization is the discovery of synergisms between the functions technologies serve and between technologies and their environments. Here the functionalization of the object is reconciled with wider contextual considerations through a special type of technical development.

(218) But unlike a simple development criterion such as growth in productivity, concretization involves the reflexive accommodation of technologies to their social and natural environment.

Technical Pluralism

(218) Ihde proposes the concept of technical “pluriculture” as an alternative to the notion that development leads inevitably to a unique planetary technoculture. .. The theory of democratic rationalization suggests a way of introducing Simondon's concept of concretization into the pluricultural model.

(218) Thus in uniting many functions in a single structure, concretizing innovations offer much more than technical improvements; they gather social groups around artifacts or systems of artifacts.

(218) [Example 1] Simondon contrasts the alienated modern worker with the craftsman, whose body is actually the “milieu” within which traditional tools function.

(219) A general return to craft labor is impracticable, but is deskilling the last word in technical progress? It turns out that work can be redesigned to take advantage of human intelligence and skill. .. Concretizing innovations affecting work organization are in fact becoming more common as information technology reveals its full potential.

(219) [Example 2] In both the AIDS and the Minitel cases the original design of the systems reflected the interests and concerns of technical and administrative elites. .. Concretizing innovations incorporated the new functions into the initial structures.

(219-220) [Example 3] The stratified charge engine, developed by Honda in the early 1970s, offers a suggestive illustration from the domain of environmental politics (Commoner, 1990: 99ff; Maruo, 1993). Since the inherent structure of this engine reduces pollution by 90%, it requires no external add-on such as the catalytic converter to meet minimum environmental standards.

(220) Once social constraints are internalized in this way, there is a tendency to lose sight of them. Technical devices are then seen as pure of social influences, which are conceived as essentially external, as values, ideologies, rules. The internalized social constraints concretized in design are read off the reconfigured device as its inevitable technical destiny. The concretizing process is thus a technological unconscious, present only in the sedimented form of technical codes that appear asocial and purely rational (Feenberg, 19991: 79ff).

This point again relates to the opacity of the iterations of design processes that take place in the creation of technical objects. The free, open source option provides “epistemological transparency” into the history of the concretizing process and foregrounds the underdetermination present in the unfolding of most technical operations.

Technology and Values

(221)(Chart 6: Differentiation and Concretization)

(220-222) These considerations allow us to identify a type of development that is both technically and normatively progressive. The normative standards of that development are immanently derived from the resistances evoked by the technical process itself. Reified forms embodied in devices and systems which reflect a narrow spectrum of interests encounter resistance from beyond their horizon as irrationalities, inefficiencies. In reality, those resistances are reflexes of designs that suppress aspects of nature and social life the affected individuals mobilize to defend or to incorporate into improved designs through democratic rationalizations.


(222) the error of substantivism is not so much in the details of its description of modern technology as the failure to acknowledge its historical contingency.

That history shows that modern Western technology has been profoundly shaped by capitalist enterprise. .. To define technology as such on there terms is ethnocentric.

(223) Contrary to Heideggerian substantivism, there is nothing unprecedented about our technology. .. It is the exorbitant role of these features that is new, and this does have unprecedented consequences.

(223) If we define technology exclusively in modern capitalist terms, we ignore many currently marginalized practices that belonged to it in the past and may prove central to its future development. .. This link with things was broken when capitalist deskilling transformed workers into mere objects of technique, no different from raw materials or machines. Here, not in some mysterious dispensation of being, lies the source of the “total mobilization” of modern times.

A different type of social system that restored the role of the secondary instrumentalizations would determine a different type of technical development in which these traditional technical values might be expressed in new ways. Thus social reform involves not merely limiting the reach of the media, as Habermas advocates, but building a different technology based on a wider range of human and technical potentials.

(224) For the most part the socialist movement has failed in this task. It has focused on the crude opposition of market and plan, rich and poor, and overlooked the question of technology.

(224) It is this capitalist technical rationality that is reflected unwittingly in the essentialism of Heidegger and Habermas.

(224) But unexpected struggles over issues such as nuclear power, access to experimental treatment, and user participation in computer design remind us that the technological future is by no means predetermined.

Feenberg, Andrew. (2006). Questioning Technology. New York: Routledge.