Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Hope for the future

The Nature of Knowledge and the Philosophy of Technology

The post this week is a reflection of chapter one in 'Questioning Technology' by Andrew Feenberg. However it is deeply interwoven with the thoughts of Gadamer and my emerging notions of epistemological and ontological understanding. There is no running away from Gadamer now and there is no running away from my questions on teaching and learning. What is learning for? What is schooling for? Why do we teach? What is this nature of knowledge if we place it within a technological framework? When I say learning I mean purpose driven learning not memorization.
In this chapter Feenberg is really just sketching the main themes he intends to address in the book as a whole. However the chapter gradually brings in to focus in my mind that which was very much outside of my awareness just a short 7 months ago. I say gradually because nothing is sharply focused yet. Not long ago I remember saying out loud 'Technology has a philosophy?' Well doesn't everything that becomes real to you? So here I will attempt to lay this out on the floor to tip toe around for a minute:

I believe that philosophy is the study of the nature of knowledge, reality, and existence. What I call knowledge, reality and existence may not be what others call it.

With regards to epistemology and the nature of knowledge traditionally it has been thought of as the theory of knowledge associated with scientific-technological knowledge with regard to methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology can be thought of as an investigation that will distinguish a difference between justified belief and opinion. In this case reality leads to a single truth that maybe repeatable in order to be believed by others. For me this nature of knowledge just does not transfer to well from the lab to the complex world that I teach in. I can see how this approach works with memorization but not with the nebulous nature of purpose driven learning in the digital world?

However I have begun to understand ontology in a metaphysical way as a study of reality. My personal ontological view seems to be in line with philosophical hermeneutics as I understand it. I believe that understanding and what we believe to be reality is based on how we live and play in the world and therefore is in constant flux leading to more than one truth. So in my mind reality is a personal experience that we are capable of sharing through dialogue and language. So I wonder given this, are epistemology and ontology a dichotomy or just different windows to look through?

Historically we humans have not placed to much value in thinking about the technical. Feenberg reports that this goes back to the ancient Greeks who place a higher value on activity of the mind such as social, political and theoretical rather than activities of the hands. A view that I shared not long ago was treating technology as a neutral instrument and therefore did not require any kind of philosophical explanation or justification of its existence. In more recent times however we have a new notion of technology that is rooted in the idea of progress, freedom and happiness. Out of these two traditions form what Feenberg calls technological determinism. Technology's advance is the advance of the human species (p.2).

In opposition to this there is a tradition of protest against mechanization the most famous example is the luddites in the early nineteenth century. Feenberg refers to this as a substantive theory of technology. In this case technology may be viewed as an instrument but it is not neutral or free from values. In this case technological development transforms what it is to be human. This autonomous thinking naturally leads to fear of loss of control.
I am left to wonder what the thinking of knowledge is within a substantive or a determinist theory if technology is viewed as a tool. In fact Feenberg states that modernity is an epistemological event in which the essence of technology lives. Our drive for efficiency is linked to a rational method and a epistemological theory of understanding, as I quoted last week “Reason can be used to tear apart bad arguments and it can be used to apply universal principles to particular cases. But reason as an instrument of analysis on its own is uncreative. It is not an instrument of creativity or discovery. Reason can apply universal principles but it cannot discover them”(p.1)

Both determinism and substantivism view technology as an autonomous tool but what about those that see technology as humanly controllable? Feenberg briefly describes two other theories, instrumentalism and critical theory. I think it is on this side I think I place my hope for the future. It is on this side we find democratic control over the direction and definition of what progress is and intervention into technical affairs. It is also where we find social constructivism that lead to choices of alternative means-ends systems. I look forward to part two of his book that goes deeper into these theories.

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