Environmental ‘Luddism’ and Feenberg Contra Technological Determinism

My post yesterday on the debate on the Factories Act of 1844 was written to remind ourselves of the perennial dismissal–in the all-too-familiar language of economic efficiency–of attempts to introduce values pertinent to worker-side regulation in industrial workplaces. As noted, I had borrowed the example  from Andrew Feenberg’s Reason and Modernity, his latest book in a long series of works that have developed his ‘critical theory technology’. It should be unsurprising that this material would have been found in a book on the philosophy of technology, because arguments about economic efficiency often use as cover technological imperatives i.e., ‘this argument has the form that it does because technology has pushed us into this corner, along this path, and to back up now is unthinkable.’ Thus, not only can the sword of economic efficiency be flourished, it can do so under the cover of technological determinism.

So, today, I’d like to quote Feenberg to note the followup to the little story recounted yesterday:

Yet what actually happened once the regulators succeeded in imposing limitations on the work day and expelling children from the factory? Did the violated imperatives of technology come back to haunt them? Not at all. Regulation led to an intensification of factory labor that was incompatible with the earlier conditions in any case. Children ceased to be workers and were redefined socially as learners and consumers. Consequently, they entered the labor market with higher levels of skill and discipline that were soon presupposed by technological design. A vast historical process unfolded, partly simulated by the ideological debate over how children should be raised and partly economic. It led eventually to the current situation in which nobody dreams of returning to cheap child labor in order to cut costs, at least not in developed countries.

The key phrase in this paragraph, of course,  is ‘Children ceased to be workers and were redefined socially as learners and consumers.’ Technical systems are flexible, as are the societies in which they are embedded, capable of conceptual redefinition and the absorption of new values. Technological development can be pushed into new trajectories, guided and prodded by the introduction of values that we, as a society, have elevated in our priorities. Among the ways in which these new trajectories can be sought out and followed is the redefinition of key theoretical terms–such as ‘children–in the discourse that guides technological development. These redefinitions may alter the term of the debate such that some old dialectical positions, once thought commonsensical, are unlikely to be ever adopted again.

On page 38 of Reason and Modernity Feenberg provides us a photograph by Lewis Hine of a ten-year old girl standing in front of a cotton mill. The machines are built to her height, designed to be operated by people four feet tall. Needless to say, their design was altered in response to the regulation of child labor.

Those that articulate modern dismissals of environmental concerns, describing it as ‘the new Luddism’ and couching their objections in the language of we’d-love-to-be-environmentalists-but-our-hands-are-tied-by-the-technological-infrastructure, would do well to read up on the history of the technological apparatus they so fervidly defend.

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