I am looking for more critical theoretical strands in my research into science and technology studies. I have been mostly pleased with the socio-ecological work stemming from marxian traditions of thought, but I feel the question of technology has not been adequately addressed in these more “environmental” focused works. So I have decided to look into Heideggarian theoretical work, namely the critique by Don Ihde, to search for some strands of thought which might elucidate a critical lens on technology. Heidegger’s philosophy of technology is, although limited because of its historical context and inability to tackle the techno-sciences of the heavily technological world in which we are now situated in the 21st Century, is still tremendously important as it presents useful concepts. And although Heidegger was a product of his surroundings, marked by his European/German hybridization of romanticism and technologization, Ihde notes that this techno-romanticism changed by the time Heidegger wrote his work, ” The Question Concerning Technology” (1954) after he had gone through denazification and began again to publish with the help of his partner, Hannah Arendt.
To call Heidegger a philosopher of technology is to place him in a lineage of thinkers with Karl Marx who was perhaps one of the first (“philosophers” of technology), although not expressedly so. Ihde claims that Marx was a technological determinist, because he showed how material modes of production produced different types of social organization (I am not sure I agree that this is “determinist”, it seems more complicated, because we know Marx did not think that technology existed outside of the social, and instead it was an instrument of capital’s repressive and alienating forces, of a burgeoning economic culture). Nevertheless, Heidegger was and still is well known for his philosophy of technology, for he presented a take that technology was not neutral, a common stance now taken in STS circles, but also that technology was much more than the material, it was important because of its “essence”. By this, Heidegger meant the anthropological-instrumental view of technology made us blind to its essence, that is,Technology is much more than a means to an end, it is a state of mind, an almost metaphysical stance. It is this view which made possible a vision of technology as something capable of being autonomous, a ruining/destructive force on humanity and nature, outside of our control. And thus, following WWII, he had sort of confirmed that the war was never over, but rather, that technology was reinforcing its longer epoch on man, a threatening and dangerous existence to humanity strengthened through complexification, gigantism, and interlocking systems. Now, this, I would argue is determinist!
Critical theorists like Adorno and Horkheimer were strong critics of Heidegger, whereas Arendt and Marcuse looked upon Heideggarian thought in a positive light and developed it further, while Habermas sort of remained ambivalently situated in the debate. Many of the Frankfurt School had agreed that technology (modern and industrial, not traditional) threatened cultural values and encouraged “mass man” uniformity. Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man was highly critical of technology and its analytic rationality suggesting that it reduced humanity to “one dimension such that genuine freedom becomes nearly impossible…only rebellious freedom was possible” (Ihde 2010: 22-3). The critical theorists of the Frankfurt school were more dystopic and pessimistic about the advancement of technology, because they understood it as being produced within the confines of a social structure that reinforced dominant power relations. Technologies were embedded with the social relations of production.
To take this is as starting point is beneficial because it grounds our concepts of technology and science within the material modes of production. Therefore, the subsequent work can build on this, and reappropriate the vast literature on the cultural and empirical work in STS. How can the “empirical turn” in STS, constructivism being central but also co-production, coupled with a materialist marixian perspective shape a new way of thinking about the developments of science and technology in a critical way? When we tease apart, unmask, or ‘open the black box’, can we reveal the innerworkings of the capitalist system? Or does the focus on cultures, values, and imaginaries distract us from asking deeper questions about the underlying social relations and inequalities that exist? How can we rethink the confluence of science, technology, and democracy with a critical STS?