Technopolitics Essay

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Technopolitics is increasingly entering the complex political terrain of the 21st century as an agonistic intersection of politics and technology, or as a conscious ”strategic practice of designing or using technology to constitute, embody, or enact political goals” (Hecht 1998: 15).

Since the Enlightenment, promoting democracy and developing new technologies have been intimately associated with global ideas about humanity, progress and modernity. New media technologies, from the printing press to the Internet, have always been identified as contested terrains of ideological struggle and accompanied with great hope for their radical potential to provide the wider public with information, or to improve critical political debate.

For Marx, worker control of the means of production could result in the radical transformation of the modern society as a whole. Dewey also called for broad citizen responsibility and participation in communities of inquiry. From the same analytic point of view, Walter Benjamin, in the spirit of Brecht, hoped for the “refunctionalization” of new technologies in the direction of societal and human betterment.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the complex relationship between technology and democracy had been systematically problematized in largely varying ways. This was mainly associated with an increasing concern about the potential threat to democratic politics posed by the rapid growth in the size and complexity of technological systems, rendering them beyond rational political control and deliberation. Such a theme was emphatically taken up by the Frankfurt School (e.g. Marcuse, Adorno, and Horkheimer) and is still visible in contemporary work by Langdon Winner, and Andrew Feenberg.

One response to this ”growth” has been to encompass the technical dimension of our everyday lives through a wide variety of political interventions (e.g. protests and boycotts), active collaboration with experts, and experiments with public participation in technoscientific decision making. Another type of response is to be found in recent works by Bruno Latour, Andrew Barry, Annemarie Mol, and Noortje Marres who have called for a return to the democratic ”politics of objects” (first raised by Dewey). The latter view emphasizes the democratizing impact of technology’s complexity and uncertainty on political processes.

Of course, the idea of technopolitics directly opposes technological determinism, according to which technical means and systems are wholly autonomous entities (with ”purposes” of their own), which always and inevitably become ”ends in themselves”. Technopolitics strongly encourages a creative and active working with media and culture, regarded as progressive ”tools” able to provide democratic alternatives previously excluded from the established order, rather than pessimistically viewing them as promoting social reproduction and passivity.

In addition, technopolitics appears to genuinely further a reflexive line of inquiry which moves us beyond the reductivistic extremes of virulent technophobia – that is, the hypercritical conception of domination from technological development (Ellul, Virilio) – and the naive technophilic celebration of the coming ”computopia”. That means, it allows the philosopher/sociologist of technology to critically grasp ”the full range, effects and possibilities of the high-tech adventure that we are currently undergoing” (Kellner 1999: 123). In recent years, continuing technopolitical struggles, which tend to coordinate with really existing politics, increasingly advance local issues, raise hot bioethical debates and point to alternative (less promethean) technologies from scientists and technical experts in fields such as biology, genetics, medicine and environmental protection.

In the context of contemporary infosociety and cyberculture, “technopolitics,” as a technologically mediated form of political engagement and action, is a radical tool potentially available to oppositional, oppressed or excluded, social groups and communities. It is thus an important means of consciousness-raising and empowerment (globalization from below), which optimistically signifies the critical use of technology (digital media of communication and other cultural forms) to enact small (everyday) revolutions in the here-and-now, to increase the sense of community, and to serve the vital need for global peace, equality, and justice. This perspective possibly amounts to a subversive shift from passive online consumers to active technocitizens.

Bibliography:

  1. Armitage, J. (ed.) (1999) Special issue on machinic modulations: new cultural theory and technopolitics. Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 4 (2).
  2. Hecht, G. (1998) The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
  3. Kellner, D. (1999) Virilio, war and technology: some critical reflections. Theory, Culture & Society (16) (5—6): 103—25.

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