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Academic Special Session: Philosophies of technology for degrowth (Part 2)

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Session proposal for the 6th International Degrowth Conference in Malmö, Sweden, titled “Dialogues in turbulent times”, 21-25 August 2018.

Philosophies of technology for degrowth

Session chairs

Pasi Heikkurinen
Sustainability Research Institute
University of Leeds, UK

Toni Ruuska
Department of Management Studies
Aalto University, Finland

Niklas Toivakainen
Department of History, Philosophy, Culture and Art Studies
University of Helsinki, Finland

Call for papers

The starting point for proposing this session is the observation that the current debates on the role of technology are largely building on the narrow idea that technology is something neutral, merely a means to an end. From this instrumental perspective follows a proposition that technology can be used for ‘good or bad purposes’, as long as it is in control of its users. Many philosophers of technology, however, have questioned this idea that technology is entirely in human control (e.g. Jacques Ellul, Martin Heidegger, Langdon Winner).

The question concerning technology is also controversial within the degrowth movement (see the recent special issue on technology and degrowth published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, Kerschner et al., 2018). The conflicts and contradictions of envisioning technology in and for degrowth, however, have not been discussed in detail. These tensions are partly due to the instrumental and more-than-instrumental definitions of technology, but also reflects another divide found in the philosophy of technology, namely between the more classical approach to technology and the recent ‘empirical turn’ (see Achterhuis, [1999] 2001; Scharff and Val Dusek, [2001] 2012; Val Dusek, 2006). While in the analysis of the technological phenomenon, the latter gives more emphasis to socio-cultural factors of technologies and is characterized by constructivist assumptions (e.g. Albert Borgmann, Hubert Dreyfus, Donna Haraway), the former is keen on understanding the inherent logic in technology, as well as its essence (Achterhuis, [1999] 2001). However, what seems to be shared by these streams of literature is that they both challenge those characteristics that the instrumental definition ascribes to technology, namely ‘instrumentality, neutrality, rationality, and universality’ (Achterhuis, [1999] 2001, p. 68), and consequently, insinuate a more comprehensive understanding on technology.

What is important for the degrowth movement, as well as politics in general, is that the practical implications of the viewpoints on technology are very contingent in the manner in which technology is defined. For instance, research building on the classic philosophers of technology, including Martin Heidegger, Ivan Illich, and Jacques Ellul, tend to be less optimistic about the possibilities of technology for degrowth. Influenced by Heidegger, Heikkurinen (2016), for example, concludes that technological practices do not and cannot support the degrowth movement, as they direct humans to continuously transform non-human-made objects into human-made objects resulting in an increase in cumulative [matter-energy] throughput. Samerski (2016, p. 1), who again builds on Illich, notes that ‘[m]odern tools – and especially the computer – not only paralyze innate capabilities, but shape self-perception and subjectivities so as to increase dependencies on technological systems’, and thus, degrowth needs limits to technology use, in addition to its demand to limit economic growth and material throughput.

Furthermore, the understanding and analysis of technology should also be sensitive to the hopes and liberatory promises invested in the grand narrative of technology-as-solution and progress more generally, a narrative arguably best understood as a reaction to pre-modern societies and their power structures (Pippin, 1994; Taylor, 2007). Although the myth of progress and high modernity have rightly been criticised for their destructive drive, the emancipatory potential of technology related to degrowth aspirations of social justice, equity, democracy, and freedom also deserves more attention, as long as it also takes the ecological boundary conditions into account.

Being so, the main aim of this session is to examine how different understandings of technology relate to and influence the degrowth movement, its manifold means and ends. For instance, which kind of definitions and conceptualisations of technology support and which corrupt the emergence of a degrowth society? How the technological phenomenon has emerged? Is ‘good progress or development or modernity’ really conceivable? What kind of ethics and morality are needed to live in the technological age? What is the relation between technology and class and capitalism? How autonomous is technology vis-à-vis humans? What kind of technological values, practices and structures characterise different cultures? How different technological instruments differ? What is the potential and limitations of alternative, distributed technology systems? Is artificial intelligence and digitalisation a friend or a foe? What characterises technological knowledge and what else is there? Is atechnology possible? How can technology support peaceful coexistence between earthbound beings?

The session is open to proposals that scrutinise both the social and ecological aspects of technology but is particularly keen on submissions that are able to connect these domains in the analysis. We invite papers from all disciplines and fields, as well as welcome empirical contributions to tackle these questions. Topics include, but are not limited to the following list (which all in relation to degrowth):

• Definitions of technology
• Evolution and history of technology
• Ideas of progress, development and modernity
• Ethics and technology
• Technology, class and capitalism
• Power, agency and autonomy of technology
• Technological values, practices and structures of cultures
• Machines, tools and instruments (including DYI)
• Local, renewable, and distributed technology systems
• Artificial intelligence and digitalization
• Technological knowledge and atechnological experience
• Peace, non-violence, and technology


Achterhuis, H. (ed.). ([1999] 2001). American philosophy of technology: The empirical turn. Indiana University Press.
Dusek, V. (2006). Philosophy of technology: An introduction. Blackwell.
Heikkurinen, P. (2016). Degrowth by means of technology? A treatise for an ethos of releasement. Journal of Cleaner Production.
Pippin, R. (1994). On the Notion of Technology as Ideology: Prospects. In Ezrahi, Y. et al. (eds.). Technology, Pessimism and Postmodernism. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Samerski, S. (2016). Tools for degrowth? Ivan Illich's critique of technology revisited. Journal of Cleaner Production.
Scharff, R. C., & Dusek, V. (eds.). ([2001] 2012). Philosophy of technology: The technological condition: An anthology. John Wiley & Sons.
Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Toivakainen, N. (2016). Machines and the face of ethics. Ethics and Information Technology, 18(4), 269-282.

Outline for the session ‘Philosophies of technology for degrowth’

Part 1/2

Mapping the terrain: Reflections on the drive of growth- and techno-culture
Niklas Toivakainen

Ecological criticism of growth and the means and ends of technology:
A pragmatist perspective on societal dynamics
Stephan Lorenz

Atechnological experience unfolding
Pasi Heikkurinen

Part 2/2

Modern utopia with serious reservations: Karl Marx’s philosophy of technology
Toni Ruuska

Reversing the Industrial Revolution: Theorizing the distributive dimensions of energy transitions
Alf Hornborg and Andreas Roos

Degrowth beyond cleantech: Learning to let go and love other worlds
Jesse Goldstein