The New Media Parlour

“An Interview with Andrew Feenberg” Mark Zachry

Zachry, Mark. An Interview with Andrew Feenberg. Technical Communication Quarterly 2007

This interview with Feenberg touches on quite a few areas of his research and gives some very interesting theories on the design of technology. Feenberg’s main focus is on human agency and its effects on technology. He believes that the true development of technology is done by users as they turn the given technology into something useful for them, regardless of whether that was the primary function of the technology at its inception. He calls this democratic rationalization, “Agency is exhibited in the unique hacks people develop to repurpose technologies to address their idiosyncratic needs, but also in the participatory design processes through which technologies can be developed with others. When agency is exercised to affect technologies in such a way that they counteract power structures that are undemocratic, Feenberg associates it with democratic rationalization.” In June, I was interested in following the use of Twitter by Iranians during the protests against the compromised presidential election. This was a prime example of democratic rationalization as the Iranian protesters used Twitter to publicize the events and protests when there was a press crackdown by the Iranian government that limited US media outlets from broadcasting updates. The protesters were able to spread the news to the rest of the world about the corruption of the government and lose of democratic freedom of the people that they were experiencing.

Feenberg encourages hacking technology and manipulating it to better serve your individual purpose. We hear constantly the importance of considering the user when designing technology. The spotlight shines on usability testing, from simple (as outlined by Steve Krug in Don’t Make Me Think) to complex. But Feenberg criticizes the design process that does not include usability testing until  after a prototype of a technology is created. He sees this more as “debugging” instead of user-participation in the design process. I agree and disagree with this point. I think that there needs to be a starting point for every design, and most design begins with an idea to improve something that already exists. Even if the designer initially only considers how he or she might use the product, that is the beginning considerations of user-centric design. And if there is one think I will always remember from Don’t Make Me Think, it is that you should test your site design early and often, therefore the user is constantly being considered, even if they are not sitting at the computer next to you.

He embraces the subculture of hacks and remixes, but uses the much-more technical term “creative appropriation”. Instead of believing that technology is not designed for the user, I think this quote gives a better sense of what he means when you have to consider how the user will use the given technology. “You can think of people as having many dimensions, and each technology represent as some of those dimensions. When people hack or redesign or reinvent technology, they are asking it to represent them better or represent more aspects of their lives.” He notes that most technology is initially created in the military or corporate industries, which some can argue are more out of touch with the everyday user of technology. I don’t think the fact is that the technology is wrong when it is first created, but it was created with a specific task in mind, a task that may not be important or may not even exist outside a military base. So hacks and redesigns help morph these technologies into something more useful for others. Vannevar Bush used the knowledge that he had about military technology that was in production for WWII and used that working knowledge to theorize on some of the uses that these technologies could have for the general public.

This was one of the most interesting readings for me that we have reviewed in this class so far. There were quite a few parts that resonated with me and also ideas that I have discussed in other classes as well. In Computers and Writing we discussed quite a bit about the difference between giving people access to technology and people truly understanding how the technology can improve their experiences. Feenberg mentions that he encountered that attitude that if we present people with the tools of technology they will just  know how to use it. “But finally as he was leaving I buttonholed him, and I said, you know, I understand you’re going to wire up all our campuses and classrooms. Has any thought been given to how we are going to teach on these systems? And he said, we’re putting in the equipment; it is up to you guys to figure out what to do with it.”

As a writer, I embraced his role for technical writers to become a liaison between users and designers, to understand the mechanics of a technology as well as how a user may interpret this. “And you have to cross that gap in your technical writing in order to give people access to the marvels of the device you are trying to document. It would be good if that could feed back to the designers so that they would modify the design in accordance with what they can learn from the technical writer about how users think and what they need. Technical writing could be made into more than a writing profession. It could become a point of translation between professional and lay mentalities, cultures.”


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