Online Since the ’80s: An Interview with Andrew Feenberg on the Power of Online Communities

Interview with Andrew Light and Andrew Feenberg for Science Progress

In the early 1980s, Andrew Feenberg did some work for French telephone company, which introduced him to county’s Teletel network. Built to utilize the existing phone lines, the system, launched in 1982, was one of the first large-scale precursors to the modern Internet. In a decision that helped ensure the computers’ widespread adoption and the success of the network, France Telecom gave away some 6 million Minitel terminals to subscribers. Users could place online orders for mail-order products, buy train or airline tickets, and access news and information services. Charges for visiting commercial sites appeared on users’ monthly phone bills, and the telco passed along a portion of the proceeds to the other businesses.

Engineers originally envisioned the network for mostly passive information gathering: subscribers would use sites like they would a catalog or telephone directory. But that changed, Feenberg explains, when hackers broke into a commercial site and used it to send messages to visiting users. Although alarmed at first, the business owners realized the potential for profit from a user-to-user communication system. The result was one of the first commercial instant-messaging platforms.

Feenberg is a professor of the philosophy of technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and he recently joined Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Andrew Light for a podcast discussion about the democratic power of online communities. What happened next in France, Feenberg says, illustrates an important lesson about the evolution of digital communication.

The Minitel computers were developed, Feenberg says, "in order to modernized French society along the lines of a highly rational, efficient, technically sophisticated society." But rational efficiency was not what a lot of citizens had on their minds. "It turned out that what most people wanted to do with instant messaging was get dates," Feenberg explains. "It went from cold to hot all of a sudden in the space of a few months. The meaning of the computer was transformed because instead of being an information system it became a communication system."

This re-imagining of the network as an interpersonal communications tool (or specifically, a dial-up dating service) was an example of what Feenberg describes as "democratic rationalization." The term "rationalization" refers to modern processes used to improve how people manage and control resources through measurement and incremental adjustment. Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line, where humans and machines work together in a carefully calibrated ballet, is an iconic example. Rationalization in this sense is hierarchical, top-down innovation.

"When you make elaborate plans to rationalize something, it usually doesn’t work exactly the way you intended," Feenberg explains, and management theorists have understood for a long time that initiatives from the bottom could play an important role in the innovation process. He calls large-scale, bottom-up innovation like the user-generated communication on the Minitel network "democratic rationalization." This process is non-hierarchical and participants may share different values from top-down innovators, but these distributed users brought together by the network are also very good at getting things done. "Without a lot of input from below, you don’t get anywhere. You don’t have innovation and creativity," he says. "Even though you could make fun of the French for seeking dates…the idea of human communication on computer networks is extremely important for us today."

Trained as a philosopher, Feenberg eventually found himself working in applied ethics at an experimental medical center focused on treating neurological diseases. His work expanded into investigating questions about the relations between science, technology, and society, and this led to pioneering work in the field of online education. From there, connections in the personal computing industry bloomed. In 1983, the vice president of the Digital Equipment Corporation, the innovative company behind many of the most popular minicomputers of the 1970s and 80s, invited Feenberg to lunch.

"What do you think the future of the personal computer will be?" the executive asked. "I had this sudden revelation," Feenberg recalls, "Here I was, a student of Herbert Marcuse, this obscure German Marxist radical philosopher, being asked about the future of technology by somebody who was going to make that future." It dawned on him that he was now involved in something big and important, and he set out from there to develop his own philosophy of technology.

In the early 1990s, he won grants from the National Science Foundation to study nascent online communities, exploring the groups users formed around shared interests, like hobby enthusiasts, or through shared illnesses—without the support or direction of large corporations or government projects. The trends he observed are now entirely familiar to citizens of a networked world, but this was in the early days of the Internet when subscribers dialed in to far less complex services like Prodigy.

This grassroots community building, Feenberg says, was possible because "the networks didn’t really know what they were for. They didn’t have a fully dedicated purpose yet. They were waiting to see what people would make of them, and that gave opportunities for innovation to ordinary people."

He also says that these democratic features of open networks are important in the current discussions of rules the Federal Communication Commission is considering to protect net neutrality in the mobile phone industry. Feenberg contends that if the wireless business continues on its present development path, with more people accessing the Internet on mobile devices, then large portions of the network will become proprietary, "And the space for innovation and creation that characterized the Internet in its early phases will disappear."

The FCC decision on net neutrality is important, he says, because the design and configuration of technology constitutes the "framework of our lives." "If it is not democratized, at least to some degree…then i think it will become a very oppressive environment."

Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Andrew Plemmons Pratt is the managing editor at Science Progress.

For full audio of this conversation, see the original article on Science Progress.