Switch ContentsQuestions Concerning Music Technology

by Agostino Di Scipio

7. Feenberg's notion of technological determinism

What does "narrow focus on technology" mean? The notion that the power of technology is an aid in our daily practical life and that it has no influence on our being comes from and leads to the belief that technology is a decontextualized, autonomous dimension. In other words, technological progress would be independent of social and cultural processes, but would still have a strongest impact on them. Society, then, would appear partially dependent on extra-social factors, and the development of technology would follow a sequence of refinement stages obeying only to technical necessity, along a linear path from less to more efficient tools. This is what the critical theory of technology proposed by Feenberg [1991] terms technological determinism.

Decontextualizing technology validates the concept that technology is neutral to the goals it can serve, and that the undesired consequences of technological progress (e.g. the blind devastation of the natural environment, or, with a musical parallel, the planetary diffusion and deaf consumerism of music) are exclusively as the users' (ir)responsability. "Technological determinism draws its force from this attitude" [Feenberg, 1995, p.8]. Speaking of the essence of technology - rather than an anthropological, historical concept of technology - Heidegger is speaking of something separate from the cultural and social environment, contextless. Not by chance he sees cybernetics (alias computer science, alias artificial intelligence) as the final incarnation of a particular philosophical tradition, that of metaphysics [Fabris, 1988; Dreyfus, 1979/1992, pp.72 and 212].

This can be seen as an attitude peculiar to the humanists' position, but actually it turns out to be the same as the technocrats'. Decontextualising technology is in the interest of those who rule the industrial business of technology. Their job takes advantage of the blindness and the narrow focus proper to the humanists' view. It also takes advantage of the bias of technology to reinforce the particular knowledge and the particular purposes it is put to serve: A specific technology always supports a specific hegemony as it "offers a material validation of the cultural horizon to which it has been preformed" [Feenberg, 1995, p.12; see also Feenberg, 1991, p.14].

On the one hand Heidegger's position lends itself to a naÔve, romantic rebellion against the primacy of technological rationality. On the other it converges with the position supposed to be the enemies'. In actuality the two parties (the humanists and the technocrats) equally contribute to establish technological determinism as a form of ideology typical of modern Western culture. To believe that we could let technology enter our life and yet let it not penetrate our being is to neglect that the design of workable tool captures and validates someone's knowledge and concerns about how technology could or should enter our life. It is to neglect that technology is more than means to an end (with Heidegger's own words) and a way to adfirm a particular view or theory.

As far as artistic endeavors are concerned, that negligence prepares the ground for the belief that the domain of tÈchne would not be the artist's affair at all, but a catering of stockpiled resources meant to give her/him the power to solve practical problems in creating pieces of art. A composer, then, would turn to the computer just to overcome the problems raised by her/his autonomous, creative imagination, in order to eventually realize the musical ideas born in her/his mind with the maximum of efficiency achievable. Although this may seem quite reasonable, I believe this is a simplistic account and alternatives should be explored, as discussed below.

(4) I do not (only) mean political hegemony, but more in general the establishement of a particular piece of knowledge or theory and the related cultural implications. As an example, a computer program which allows for writing music in common music notation reflects and supports the hegemonic opinion that composing is writing; however, this can be (and has been since the birth of musique concrete in the 1940s) a questionable view.