The Phantom Economy   /   Summer 2010   /    Book Forum: Shop Class As Soulcraft

Autonomy as Necessity, Agency as Compensation

Richard Stivers

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Matthew Crawford criticizes technological progress for its expansion of autonomy at the expense of human agency. Autonomy means the freedom to use our technological devices for any purpose without being involved in understand- ing and personally maintaining them. Agency suggests we acquire practical knowledge in the use and upkeep of our tools and machines. He goes on to say that it is not instrumental rationality that destroys agency but the severe limitation of individual instrumental rationality. Furthermore, Crawford argues, globalization turns us into passive consumers who buy into the ideology of “freedomism”—choice without responsibility and agency.

Crawford makes a valid point with which I concur. My criticism centers on what he omits: the fuller technological context. Globalization is often used to refer to global capitalism when it comes to consumption, but behind global capitalism lies the technological system. In this view capitalism is a form of economic technique, as Max Weber understood it. Technology is comprised of both material and nonmaterial techniques. The latter include organizational techniques such as bureaucracy and psychological techniques like propaganda and advertising. Karl Polanyi observed that the Industrial Revolution was accompanied by and indeed facilitated by nonmaterial techniques. Technology, both material and nonmaterial, is driven by the will to power (which cannot be reduced to economic power) and the desire for efficiency. Technology therefore forms a unity of method and purpose.

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