Existential and Materialist Critiques of Technology

Graduate: January 27
Undergraduate: January 28


Graduate students: Also read the rest of One-Dimensional Man, focusing on the Introductions, “New Forms of Control,” and “The Closing of the Political Universe.”

Additional suggested reading:


One way of understanding Martin Heidegger’s existential critique of technology (and science) is that technology requires a way of viewing the world (or more accurately, a way of being in the world) that takes the instrumental value of efficiency and transforms it into a idol, an overarching value that obscures all other facets of the world besides their function as interchangeable resources. Something very similar is going on in Herbert Marcuse’s critique of technology, now transfigured from the existential-phenomenological approach of Heidegger, to the materialist, Marxist approach of the critical theorists. Marcuse questions the role of technology in advanced industrial society, its ability to keep us enslaved to oppressive social and economic institutions though we believe we are free.

For Marcuse, the possibility of change cannot arise from the politically powerful, who benefit from the current system, nor from middle- or working-class people, who are enslaved by the system and unaware of their bondage. It could only arise from those marginalized in the current society. Andrew Feenberg is somewhat more optimistic. He sees technological development as more contingent, and more responsive to various social pressures. Thus he sees hope in the possibility of intervening in technical planning and design, and the role of technology in society generally. The critical theory of technology could thus prepare the way for a more democratic approach to technological inquiry.

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