Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2015

A dialectical approach to technology

Filed under: computers,Internet,technology — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

From Digital Rebellion:

This dialectical approach to technology avoids a techno-utopian outlook that imputes naturally given revolutionary character to the Internet. At the same time, this dynamic approach recognizes the critical and likely realist analysis of technology embodied in Dean’s work, while not seeing the capture of technology as complete or given. In this sense, as other research has shown, “if capital ‘interweaves technology and power, this weaving can be undone, and the threads can be used to make another pattern” (Dyer-Withford 1999).

This reweaving of technology is illustrated by Frantz Fanon in Studies of a Dying Colonialism (1965), when he famously described how the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) reappropriated the radio, changing it from a tool of French colonial domination to a fundamental weapon of resistance. As Fanon argues, “[T]he creation of a Voice of Fighting Algeria” (93) and the correspondent construction of an Algerian version of truth put the French truth, which for so long was unchallenged in Algeria, on the defensive. Thus, while in the hands of the French, the radio served to further French domination, obscuring social relations and isolating “natives” from one another, whereas the FLN’s reappropriation turned the radio into a tool of information, connection, and unification by creating a new language of Algerian resistance and nationhood. Thus, it was not radio alone that produced change; in fact, Algerians would not adopt the radio while it was a tool of French domination. It was the social use of radio by the FLN that made it a revolutionary tool in Algeria.

Fanon’s dialectical analysis of radio in Algeria offers an entry point into this complex discussion of technology and social movements. Along these lines, the birth of the Internet serves as a useful example of the dialectical interplay of technological tools and social relations. By all accounts, the development of the Internet as a communications tool was financed, and at times led, by the U.S. Department of Defense, through the Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). DARPA created the predecessor to the Internet, ARPANET, in order to decentralize command and control in case of nuclear attack.9 Developed at the height of the Cold War in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, the technology had a singular military purpose. Scholars have shown, however, that in the research and development process, the tech laborers working on ARPANET appropriated the system to create a social-communications network. Correspondingly, much of the original intent was supplanted by the aim of creating a democratic, egalitarian communications network. In this respect, a technology that emerged out of the U.S. Department of Defense became the backbone for a worldwide-unrestricted medium for information and communication. As Hafner and Lyon explain: “The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used. By 1980 the Net was far more than a collection of computers and leased lines. It was a place to share work and build friendships and a more open method of communications” (1996, 218). In another account, speaking of social networking and successive layers of social usage that engulfed the new technology, Peter Childers and Paul Delany (1994) exclaimed, “The parasites took over the host” (62).

More recently, however, as the Internet has emerged as a central tool of social life, the forces of capitalism have successfully worked to co-opt it and create a technology that prioritizes profit over information sharing. In Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet against Democracy (2013), Robert W. McChesney details how, for the last two decades, in every major fight that determined the direction of this new communication technology, the forces of capital have won: “The tremendous promise of the digital revolution has been compromised by capitalist appropriation and development of the Internet. . . . In the great conflict between openness and the closed sys-tem of corporate profitability, the forces of capital have triumphed whenever an issue mattered to them” (97). This appropriation of the Internet for the interests of capital is not complete, of course, as there are a host of struggles that will determine the character of this new technology for decades, yet it does offer the central window through which to understand the Web in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In a broader sense, however, the conflict over the Internet yet again illustrates that a dialectical approach to technology offers a framework for studying technological practices as they are tied to social relations and the mode of production, while leaving open conditions of possibility for contravening interests.


1 Comment »

  1. It seems to me that perhaps whistleblowers today, have more effective immediate effect than the strikes and demonstrations of past decades. The kind of transparency available today was simply not available decades ago. They are able to challenge the control the rulers have over the media and perform an extremely valuable service in educating the 99% about the system.

    Comment by Robert Gahtan — February 18, 2015 @ 7:20 pm

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