Is it possible to critize technology from the very practice of technology?
The adjective “critical” is used in many art, design, or uban projects. It’s becoming another “new normal”. In fact, we are already in post-critical and post-digital times (see for example). The standardization and integration of “the digital” into everyday practices permeates the lives of almost everyone. A sign of this post-digitality is the integration of the digital modes of culture and innovation in the official parlance. My home city, for example, seems to have taken up a good deal of “Californian Ideology” into its official discourse: urban digitization projects, adoption of the maker moviment outlook as the city new productive development strategy, constant references to prototyping (Prototyping Barcelona) as the city favorite way of innovation, etc.
All along the path towards the postdigital we have left initiatives that promoted the critical appropriation of technology. For example, Andrew Feenberg’s. I owe to Simon Penny and an old cyberpunk friend a hint towards how things could had happened otherwise.
Let’s start with Simon Penny. I took part in the “Sinergy” workshop that he led with Roc Parés and Mara Balestrini at Hangar in July 2013. The focus of the workshop was “transdisciplinarity”. Simon Penny drew our attention to Phil Agre. Phil Agre!. It was a surprise for me. I had only associated the work of Agre with arcane Artificial Intelligence projects. As an undergraduate of Computer Science I had to study his research (his mythical Pengi system for example). Never heard about his reflections on critical approaches to technology. Thanks to “Sinergies” I discovered that Phil Agre promoted “Critical Technical Practice” as a way to critically develop technology. In a way, he showed how to be critical about a discipline from within the discipline itself. And this I discovered in a seminar about transdisciplinary methods at the crossroads of art, sciene and technology. Definitely some months of July are really fruitful!.
Phil Agre invited technologists to develop methods that allowed, from the practice of a technology, a thorough and deep critique of that technology.
The intellectual utility of technical exercises, aside from the practical utility that they might actually have in the world, lies precisely in their limitations and failures. Perhaps we can learn to approach technical work in the spirit of reductio ad absurdum: faced with a technical difficulty, perhaps we can learn to diagnose it as deeply as possible. Some difficulties, of course, will be superficial and transient. But others can serve as symptoms of deep and systematic confusions in the field. We are only aware of this possibility if we develop the critical tools to understand the depths below the ordinary practices of a technical field.
He discussed how this could be done not only from reflection, or argumentation from theory. In a move that is idiosyncratic to technical cultures, he showed that it should be done through the actual practice of that technology.
The constructive path is much harder to follow, but more rewarding. Its essence is to evaluate a research project not by its correspondence to one’s own substantive beliefs but by the rigor and insight with which it struggles against the patterns of difficulty that are inherent in its design.
But how cand you do that?. That’s where the lead from my old cyberpunk friend enters the scene. He pointed me the work of Julian Oliver, who is one of the promoters of the “Critical Engineering Manifesto“. I copy here some of the Manifesto’s proposals, that somehow connect to Phil Agre’s points of view:
1. The Critical Engineer considers any technology depended upon to be both a challenge and a threat. The greater the dependence on a technology the greater the need to study and expose its inner workings, regardless of ownership or legal provision.
2. The Critical Engineer raises awareness that with each technological advance our techno-political literacy is challenged.
6. The Critical Engineer expands “machine” to describe interrelationships encompassing devices, bodies, agents, forces and networks.
7. The Critical Engineer observes the space between the production and consumption of technology. Acting rapidly to changes in this space, the Critical Engineer serves to expose moments of imbalance and deception.
The first work from Julian Oliver that I got to know was “The Transparency Grenade“, a criticism of the opacity (or, conversely, aggresive transparency) that digital technology allows.
When AI is being portrayed as one of worst menaces to Humankind by no other than Stephen Hawking himself and Big Data as a monster of total control, shouldn’t we shake and wake up critically the happy builders of the new postdigital worlds based on those technologies?. Some conceptual grenades are appearing here and there, as the proposals by Agre and Oliver and many others show. However, they are too far from engineering schools. And let’s not talk about how far they are from official innovation offices.
Here you have a possible map of the fragile connections present in this post.
“You cannot be creative without a good organization”Lo que más me intriga es que mucha gente encuentra una contradicción entre “organización” y “creatividad”. Lo cual me ha llevado a desenterrar viejas referencias de creatividad organizada de campos bien diversos como la Inteligencia Artificial o la Literatura.