nonsensical demarcation

we are already cyborgs

Technology is a social object. Therefore its open to interpretation like any cultural artifact.

In an ever increasing globalized world where we are engaged with technologies that are used everywhere, such proposition might feel strange. How is it possible that they are flexible cultural artifacts and not rigid, rational and functional objects? Simple. We feel like they are rational and functional because those technologies have been crystallized by technical standards which we now take for granted.

In fact, for technologies that are still in development, the path we should take is not obvious and teams are constantly challenged by the many forms a technology could take. This flexibility is the bread and butter of the development process and it's also the reason why it's impossible to future-proof what kind of technology users will end up adopting. Interestingly enough, during the development of technologies, we sometimes get blindsided by talking about features in terms of efficiency, productivity, and costs. We forget that those are just a few variables in the cultural ocean of things that need to be accounted for if we want this social object to be taken seriously by the audience we are designing for.

In other words... We have been creating technology with a faulty rear-view mirror and under the influence of some magic beliefs that creep in our navigation skills. The predicament of our problem is not new, but rather something that has been said since 1984 in the field of Science and Technology Studies, in Philosophy of Technology since 1991, and Anthropology since 1995. 1 To delve a little more into this position, its world of interpretation and how it actually plays out, I will explain the "double aspect theory" proposed by Andrew Feenberg, as I believe it allows us to pierce through the misconception of what technology is, I'll then contextualize this view within the web industry and how it plays out, and finally I'll exemplify the theory with real world learnings from a research project.


Feenberg is a Philosopher of Technology with a very ambitious project, namely, to pull back the curtain of how our modern society works so that we can create a better one. To do so, he has to throw away long-standing dystopian and deterministic theories and has to help us see clearly what Technology is. The way he goes about this, is by showing us how we actually create technology. He does this by explaining two interpretation variables that are intertwined in that process: social meaning and cultural horizon.3

Social meaning: at this level, we are not only analyzing the object and what it does, but we are also analyzing it in terms of the social role and lifestyles the object makes possible. It's not just about making it faster, it's about what faster allows me to do and how that impacts my life and the world around me. For Feenberg, social meaning is an essential part of what gives rise to technology, in the sense that it's through this lens that we adopt technologies and not because we have more computational power or memory space or [name your favorite spec]. He summarizes this as:

In sum, differences in the way social groups interpret and use technical objects are not merely extrinsic but make a difference in the nature of the objects themselves. What the object is for the groups that ultimately decide its fate determines what it becomes as it is redesigned and improved over time. If this is true, then we can only understand technological development by studying the sociopolitical situation of the various groups involved in it.

Cultural horizon (rationalization): at this level, we go beyond the objects themselves, or actually behind them, it's about our general assumptions that form "the unquestioned background to every aspect of life". Feenberg argues that our modern cultural horizon is technological rationalization, meaning that as social beings we live embedded in beliefs, ideologies, social institutions, and values that permeate how we see the world and therefore how we make technology but we do it under the impression of filtering those values and only crystallizing rational functionalities in the technology.


In development phases, as mentioned above, conversations tend to be rationalized discussions of technique instead of discussions about the social role the technology will take on people's lives. Researchers create Personas based off real interviews from the people this technology is serving so that the team can empathize with the social group they are making the technology for—but they are normally dismissed or almost forgotten about. Research reports get socialized within the team but few read them in full and depending on the team, the discussions created afterwards are not substantive. Most of the times, research gets thrown in later as a way to fix things or they are not even considered. It's a huge problem as even industry leaders keep writing articles such as "The Secret Cost of Research" trying to help professionals voice why research matters in their organization.

Using Feenberg's terms the software development process is something like this: Researchers investigate a technology's social meaning in the lives of a group of people and these insights get shared to the team. This information is discussed and filtered through technological rationalization, the team then extracts the "rational" aspects that are valuable to the problem at hand. And finally, the teams' social meaning of what the object should be gets embedded back to the technology. Rinse and repeat. The hope is that we eventually get, slowly and painfully, to an object that works and it's used by social groups. But a lot of the times technologies just don't get adopted, they are difficult to use or they don't play a significant role in the life of the users. Or they work for a small group and it fails to get adopted by others. I wonder why.

Case: VPN providers using Outline technology

To illustrate the double aspect theory, I will now talk about a research project my colleague Carrie Winfrey and I did alongside Jigsaw's research and engineering team.4 I chose this example as it has three "user levels": i) the team at Jigsaw who created the open source code; ii) the providers who implemented the technology to a full fledged VPN service; iii) and the users who end up using said service. Therefore we have one source of technology being interpreted and materialized differently by each service provider. It's an interesting case to compare and comprehend the theory, because the interpretation of the providers is tangible (as much as software can be).

We found out that they all shared a basic structure, which makes sense, they are offering a VPN service and there's an expectation of what that is. What's interesting is how their vision of the service got materialized by their constraints. In the report, we summarized this in the section "Same Need, Different Solutions" and we exemplify this phenomena. Here's one of them:

Communicating with users: One provider focuses on high quality customer service. They employ three people to provide support 12 hours a day on any question users may have about the service or their account, and to help with troubleshooting. They use a ticket system to organize and keep track of their work, and have created an internal FAQ database to provide a consistent brand experience to users. In contrast, another provider emphasizes the power of open source communities and user collaboration to solve problems. They have created a telegram group chat where users of the same service post their issues and get feedback from the community. Another provider manages such a large number of users that people-powered support is an almost impossible task. As a result, they have created telegram bots to help users.

The differences in their solutions could be discussed in terms of technology and their performance, but what's driving the solution is their vision of the service they want to provide and the technological feasibility of that idea. What's surprising about this example (the entire research) is that every design is different and their approach its heavily influenced by their values, the censorship environment they are dealing with, and the social context of their audience.

During the interview process I remember telling the research team, in our progress meetings, how interesting was to hear how the providers' perspective of the problem at hand was connected to the solution they created and their capabilities. They are intrinsically bounded. Yet we fall under the delusion that we can somehow step outside our beliefs, experience, and knowledge about the world and create something pure, rational, and functional.


Being a design researcher myself, I stand in professional communities that might see this clearly and some that might dismiss it as a crazy thought. For example, in the Design Research Society5 it's taken for granted that we are subjective beings and that our solutions are enmeshed by our personal experience and the way we see the world. Some researchers coming from the divide between natural science and social science are biased towards quantitative methods as the true method to get knowledge about the world and look down upon qualitative ones. Though researchers that embrace social science like the EPIC community are frontier leaders that have been talking about the interplay of society and technology for decades.6 And for the web development industry, as I mentioned above, the organizations don't normally value research (its non-existent or often rushed).7

I really think Andrew Feenberg makes a compelling case. Our cultural horizon is technological rationality. We try to strip down knowledge to their bare "essence" and we mechanize our social world thinking we are doing a technological and rational process rather than a social one. Unfortunately this is something so permeated in the tech industry that it's difficult to see a way out and open a new path.

However, the ideas sketched here have shaped my way of engaging with work, they have helped me understand the role I play, and has allowed me to see opportunities to create change. I would love to say more about all of this, but there's no guide, at the moment it's more of a self-awareness lens than anything else. Though, I see clearly two options: conform or subvert.

I choose the red pill.

  1. For STS and the Social Construction of Technology, I recommend reading Bijker and Pinch paper from 1984. For Critical Theory of Technology, a paper from Andrew Feenberg in 2005. And Cyborg Anthropology in 1995.

  2. Perhaps a better title should have been 'Theory', but this is a wink to a book Feenberg wrote named: Between Reason and Experience.

  3. He grounds his argument several ways but for the scope of the post, I just talk about the double aspect theory. His full argument can be read off this paper called Subversive Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Democracy

  4. Jigsaw created Outline so that individuals and small organizations could circumvent censorship from authoritarian governments. The design was meant for small VPN networks but the code is open source and organizations saw an opportunity using their tech for larger audiences, and it worked. So Outline was interested in knowing what were the needs, problems, etc. of these organizations so they can empower them. The outcome of the research was to inform the future roadmap of Outline as they have decided to put resources in this type of users as it will have a greater impact on the amount of people (vpn users) they could reach.

  5. In particular, I'm aware of Jon Kolko having published various papers on the synthesis process, sensemaking, and how is it that designers come up with solutions.

  6. EPIC or Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Community, have a collection of work (theory and practice) about the interaction between technology and society.

  7. Stripe Partners wrote a research playbook by interviewing senior designers, product managers, and researchers to know how researchers should engage in their role to create 'meaningful impact'. This playbook goes deeper into what I just sketched about the industry and how research is perceived. They have also talked about the shortcomings of organizations using agile which is worth reading.