Friday, May 25, 2012

Analysis of Habermas' "Technology and Science as Ideology"

Do humans use technology, or does technology use us? Does technology allow us to reach into the future, or does it constrain us to the social order. These ideas are central to J├╝rgen Habermas’ piece “Technology and Science as Ideology.” In this essay, Habermas criticizes Herbert Marcuse’s ideas that technology corrupts our idea of what we need to do to succeed and makes us resistant to social change. Rather, Habermas states that technology is the natural method of outsourcing our tasks that has been universally growing for all of history. Habermas divides our interactions with technology into purpose driven and culturally driven actions. Unlike Marcuse, Habermas believes our problems are not with our relationship with technology, but rather which parts of that relationship we put more emphasis on.

Marcuse’s “One Dimensional Man” portrays technology as a tool used to maintain social order in a society. While there are many instances in which technology appears to be forcing us to conform to society, technology is more a reflection of society than a unique aspect that can be changed. To illustrate this idea, we can compare the ideas of technology and government. Governments are tools built to solve problems, however they are built on the ideas of people and can freely adjust itself. However, technology is not a human institution but rather an organic progression of our means to solve problems. Governments tend to be tightly connected to the culture in which they govern, new alternative governments rise once they become too disconnected. Habermas points out that, unlike government, we can not connect technology to social projects because there is no alternative to a world with technology. Technology will always remain a major part of society and our relationship with technology will only change as our culture changes around it.

Throughout history technology has evolved to match the challenges faced by humans. Just like early humans used technology as a method of solving their primitive problems like heat and shelter, we continue to develop and use technology to solve our modern problems like communication and transportation. Technology allows humans to extend our natural capabilities to be more efficient and successful. For example, a farmer can work his crops by hand, but using a plow allows him to outsource that task to technology. Humans can easily communicate verbally, but by handing the process of communication to technology, we can communicate at far greater distances. Therefore, technology can not necessarily be connected to it’s historical and political context, as it is human nature to try to preform our necessary tasks with as little effort as possible. Furthermore, Habermas finds issue with Marcuse’s claim that modern technology is always part of a system of repression.
To explain the ways in which we interact with technology in a modern society, Habermas draws a distinction between work and interaction. Work is actions made to accomplish a task and is “governed by technical rules based on empirical knowledge.” Interaction is is actions that allow us to connect to our environment and engage on a social and political level. Interaction less efficient, as it is not centered around rational, purpose driven action, but rather adherence to the social norms. A “traditional society”, as defined by Habermas, is one in which interaction is the dominating force. These societies are constructed around “developed technologies” and work remains an important force in sustaining the society, but remain grounded in traditional values.

Unlike traditional societies, capitalist societies do not feature interaction as the dominant force. “Capitalism is the first mode of production in world history to institutionalize self-sustaining economic growth,” explains Habermas, which is an attribute that is both very helpful but also causes many problems. Capitalism leads to an extremely fast rate of economic growth, which can increase living conditions and lead to a more prosperous country. However, Habermas explains that the problem is that this growth is unconstrained and constantly increasing, leading work to become the dominating force of the society. No longer is work part of the subsystem of the society, work becomes the driving force in the society. This means that interaction becomes less important, and many of the social and cultural attributes of society fall apart. As an example, Habermas discusses the modern protester. Protesters should tend to be oppressed minorities, such as lower-class and poor citizens, however modern protesters are typically made up of privileged college students. In our society, those who actually have legitimate issues to fight for are swept away by the capitalist system, leaving only college students with significant resources as well as a disengagement from the capitalist environment. Political protest, one of the founding ideas of this country, is swept away as work comes to dominate it.

“Technology and Science as Ideology” lays forth Habermas’ beliefs that society's problem is not simply the abundance of technology or our dependence on it, rather it is the way we use technology to interact with society. When work is the driving force of society, we lose many of the elements that make modern societies diverse and cultural. I find Habermas’ views much more accurate than earlier philosophers such as Marcuse. His opinion that we must chance technology to fix the problems associated with it is rather irrational, as the growth of technology is a natural progression that can’t be simply redirected. Habermas accepts technological growth and the ways in which it applies to our culture, but believes that our problems with technology come from a dis-balance of the ways we use technology.


  1. Nice summary of the debate between Marcuse and Habermas. Marcuse's claim that technology is always linked to oppression is bizarre. How is having a bathroom and a kitchen oppressive? How is the printing press itself part of oppression, when in fact it has facilitated the spread of freedom? Not to speak of the bottom-up system of the internet. Habermas, however, is also dead wrong. Historically, an ordinary person in the West would have to work far more than now. In fact, leisure has been democratized. They are basically both overly pessimistic and factually unsupported.

    1. Seriously? How is having a bathroom and a kitchen oppressive? Are you that literal? Can't you see he is talking about how dependent we are on technology right now? We are becoming more and more dependent on a system that works for us that becomes more and more organized and from which you can't run away or fight. I mean, I believe by now you are aware of things like social credit systems or surveillance or all the ways that the exponential progress that we made in the last decades can be seen as "progress traps" that we, as a society, weren't ready for.

      You don't have to agree with them but by now anyone that doesn't consider how the latest improvements of technology are affecting our lives is the ignorant one. We need to ask ourselves if we are ready for the changes that this great development from the last decades made to our socio-technical system and try to ease some of the bad consequences of these traps.

      I mean, your arrogance in saying that both these philosophers are "dead wrong" and being "overly pessimistic" just reflects how little you seem to be engaged by how things are going on. 8 years later, how dead wrong do you still think they are? This resume is very well written but you should really open the books and read them and if you already did it, do yourself a favor and read them again because if your points are "How is having a bathroom and a kitchen oppressive?", you really didn't get that much from them.