Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 10 March 2024

Technology: Weapon of the People

Communication technology with global internet network connected in Europe. Telecommunication and data transfer european connection links. IoT, finance, business, blockchain, security.

In an essay titled “Looking forward, looking backward,’ philosopher of technology, Andrew Feenberg writes (in Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity, The MIT Press, 2010, p. 61; my emphasis, B.O.):

The utopian and dystopian visions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were attempts to understand the fate of humanity in a radically new kind of society in which most social relations are mediated by technology. The hope that such mediation would enrich society while sparing human beings themselves was disappointed. The utopians expected society to control modern technology just as individuals control traditional tools, but we have long since reached the point beyond which technology overtakes the controllers. But the dystopians did not anticipate that once inside the machine, human beings would gain new powers they would use to change the system that dominates themWe can observe the faint beginnings of such a politics of technology today. How far it will be able to develop is less a matter for prediction than for practice.

This essay was published almost 15 years ago, and it is striking that, even then, Feenberg was keenly aware of the need for a ‘politics of technology,’ of which he perceived the glimmerings at the time. From this excerpt it is apparent that the rest of the essay addressed the diametrically opposed evaluations of the mediating role of modern technology in society in the late 19th and early 20th century, evaluations that are subsumed under the headings of ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian.’

These divergent approaches were accompanied by optimism and pessimism, respectively, regarding the ability of human beings to keep technology in check, but the italicised sentences reflect a different, hopeful, and novel realisation, articulated by Feenberg himself. Here I would like to reflect on the implications for today of his belief, ‘that once inside the machine, human beings would gain new powers they would use to change the system that dominates them.’ There are indications that this is indeed happening, as evident in the fact that, contrary to the desire of the Davos ‘elites’ to, and their belief that they could, control the (largely internet-based) news, this is increasingly not the case. (More on this below.)

What does Feenberg mean by ‘inside the machine’? A lot hinges on how one understands this, and in order to do justice to the ambiguity of this statement, I believe that it is imperative to understand the meaning of the ancient Greek concept of the pharmakon (when applied to technology), which means both ‘poison’ and ‘cure,’ and from which the English terms, ‘pharmacy’ and ‘pharmaceutical’ are derived.

As most people know, pharmaceutical products are literally pharmaka (plural of pharmakon)– they have to be used with circumspection, otherwise they may have an adverse effect on one’s health instead of a curative one. In the practice of homeopathy this is even clearer – the preparations received from a homeopath for curing, say, anxiety, or an itchy skin, are usually based on miniscule amounts of substances, such as belladonna (deadly nightshade), which are poisonous, but nevertheless work for their assigned medicinal purpose when taken in small quantities.

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