Andrew Feenberg is first mentioned in Ben McCorkle’s book Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse on page 17, where McCorkle says that he “examined connections between technology, politics, labor, education, and environmental issues.” So…nearly everything that makes up a society! I wanted to dig into him a little more and potentially tease out some ideas for my Final Presentation in the next coming days. It seems that most of my work on this blog has been tied to bringing the theoretical to the “real world,” so what better way to do that than look into what Feenberg has to say about that world.
An Interview with Andrew Feenberg
In a 2007 interview with Mark Zachry, current Professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, Feenberg lays out some ideas he has about the connections between the body and technology, how it relates to democracy, and how the specificity of online communities affects the kind of discourse that takes place in them. Below are three quotes I found interesting and would like to dissect; bold words are my own edits:
“[One] of the vice presidents of the Digital Equipment Corporation, which at the time was the second- or third-largest computer company in the world, explained to me why they were interested in computer-mediated communication. He said, our ambition was to hook up many small machines so that people wouldn’t have to buy IBM mainframes, and after awhile we realized that we were not just connecting the machines, we were connecting the people who use the machines. So then we decided to design a program for them to communicate with each other. I actually think this is the order in which engineers arrive at the conclusion that there is human communication on a system. It is as an outgrowth of some other project that appeals more to an engineering mind” (458).
My first thought here harkens back to McCorkle’s book in which he is careful not to embrace the idea of technological determinism. Here, however, it seems that Feenberg is going directly against that idea, saying instead that the computer and technological connections come first; from there, the humans then take their places. Instead of humans being the driver of person-to-person connection, it seems that the machine is the thing mediating that. This isn’t to say that there is some sort of sentient being trapped inside of the computer (sorry I, Robot), but rather that the driving force of chain comes from the things the machine enables, not the things that the people originally set out to do.
“The emphasis [of critical theory of technology] is on how power is centralized, how people are controlled, and their minds shaped by these centralized technical institutions. To introduce some sort of reciprocity, a more democratic organization of technological society, implies a redesign of many technologies underlying these institutions” (459-460).
Here, Feenberg is referring to institutions and the people who run them such as Rupert Murdoch and his connections with Fox News and other far-reaching media outlets. I like his ideas here, especially in the way he contrasts broadcast companies (Fox News, CNN, MSNBC) with the Internet. He says later on in his response that these types of communication “privilege centralized control” (460), whereas the Internet seems to be counteracting that. Instead of one point of information, there is a connected community of disparate users–though, I do think these connections can allow for echo chambers to emerge. Feenberg seems optimistic about this flexibility, saying “There doesn’t seem to be any way to reverse that [centralized control associated with broadcast] whereas in the case of the Internet there is still a tremendous amount of dynamism coming from users” (460). He is intentional in his use of the phrase “how people are controlled and how “their minds are shaped” which is something I think I’d like to explore in my final project. This isn’t something new, either: who controls the message has, historically, been just as important as what that message is.
In “The Written World,” we are talking about the creation of social spaces for online communication. That discussion was based on our observation that the early designs for computer conferencing were empty spaces, basically. Just a blank upon which anything could be written. The designs showed very little awareness of the fact that different social purposes would be served by different configurations of the communication space. So we wrote about that quite early in the mid-1980s, calling for social factors in design. Soon after that, other people who are better remembered than we were got involved, and fields like Computer-Supported Cooperative Work emerged. In these emerging fields people were very aware that what they were doing was designing communication spaces around a specific task. Now I guess it’s a familiar concept, but at the time it was an innovative idea that there were socially specific communication spaces rather than some universal neutral space (464).
It’s interesting to see how the idea of specialized spaces for specialized communications has developed. I see how, as Feenberg says, this is something that is rather obvious now, but still, interesting all the same. In my head, I sort of separate these kinds of online communication spaces into two broad(ish) categories:
- Real time professional communication
- Real(ish) time unprofessional communication
As for the first, I would group together writing and communication technologies like Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, chat functions on email, and Google Docs. For me, these are technologies that afford the closest mirror to face-to-face communication, what I would say is the end goal for professional communication.
In the second, I would group things like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and even Instagram (though it’s main purpose, I don’t believe, is written communication).
Perhaps these divisions are arbitrary, but I think the reaction to instances of “mold breaking” is worth looking into. An obvious example is President Trump’s rather undiplomatic use of Twitter that frequently prompts criticism. Often, it is not the content of the message that he tweets–as he is apt to verbalize that kind of language anyway–but it is the medium he is using. Twitter, by and large is not a place for “professional communication,” my first grouping from above. In fact, its interface is not designed for that. Sure, users are able to have conversations, but they are only mimicking real-time communication, and are only allotted 280 characters. Anything longer, and they are split up into jarring sections, often with other people’s comments interspersed. So, I think there is some investigating to do here in regards to mismatched communication/communication space.
Long Story Short
I’m still in the beginning stages of my Final Presentation, but I’m really intrigued by the democratic and political implications online communication and composition spaces have. It’s something that I will continue to look into as I near the end of this class.
McCorkle, Ben. Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse: A Cross Historical Study. Southern Illinois University Press, 2012.
Zachry, Mark. “An Interview with Andrew Feenberg: TCQ TCQ.” Technical Communication Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4, 2007, pp. 453-472. ProQuest, http://ezproxy.gardner-webb.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.gardner-webb.edu/docview/215437458?accountid=11041.