The technical code: how hard?

So I’m revising my chapter for the ACT Lab book. Feenberg flagged me down while I was walking by his office the other day. He asked if I had time to go over his comments on my paper. As if I didn’t. Anyway, the comments/revisions were not few, but not drastic, so it’s a lot of picky work, but not too difficult. There were some mistakes in my application of the theory, which is embarassing, but to be expected, no doubt, from a student. Feenberg seemed fine with the work overall – happy enough, no major disturbances in the force detected. I’m having trouble with my rendition of his concept of the technical code. From what I can gather, there is the technical code of capitalism, which I didn’t know about till I read Transforming Technology. In the index, it is found under “code, defined”. It goes a little something like this:

“Capitalist social and technical requirements are condensed in a ‘technological ratonality’ or a ‘regime of truth’ [as Foucault would say – ed.] that brings the construction and interpretation of technical systems into conformity with the requirements of a system of domination. I will call this phenomenon the social code of technology or, more briefly, the technical code of capitalism. Capitalsit hegemony, on this account, is an effect of its code” (p. 76).

OK, sounds good so far, but I thought that this was *the* technical code. Apparently, though, it is different from the plain old technical code. According to Questioning Technology, the technical code is part of a technological regime; this, in turn, is the “technology-specific context of a technology…a structure that both enables and constrains certain changes” (Rip & Kemp, in Feenberg, 1999). Integrated into these regimes are numerous social factors expressed in “purely technical language and practices. I call those aspects of technological regimes which can best be interpreted as direct reflections of significant soical values the ‘technical code’ of the technology. Technical codes define the object in strictly technical terms in accordance with the soical meaning it has acquired” (Feenberg, p.88).

Please. How hard?

But, again, please, do not the two terms differ, yet purport to be describing the same phenomenon?

Where I erred, however, was in here: I thought that the technical code was always a reflection of domination. That is, the technical code necessarily embodied and reproduced the core values of the ruling elite – in contemporary society, capitalist maagers and their state counterparts. However, Feenberg nuances the definition by stating that the technical code reflects the values that “win out” in the design process. Typically, these would mirror those of the status quo; but this is not always the case, as Feenberg’s concept of “democratic rationalization” illustrates. When technologies are subject to democratic rationalization (vs. Marcuse’s technological rationalization), the technical design is opened up to users, and necessarily becomes more responsive to a broader range social of needs and values. My working example of this is the Internet, and free software development. Much more to come…

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