Volume 24, Issue 1/2, 2020
Critical Constructivism and Postphenomenology: Ethics, Politics, and the Empirical
“But, That’s Not Phenomenology!”
A Phenomenology of Discriminatory Technologies
A discussion is emerging within the contemporary philosophy of technology over issues of discrimination through design. My suggestion is that a productive way to approach this topic is through a combination of insights from the postphenomenological and critical constructivist perspectives. In particular, I recommend that we build on the postphenomenological notion of “multistability” (i.e., the idea that technologies are always subject to different uses and meanings) and conceive of instances of discrimination through design as a kind of discriminatory “stability,” one possible instantiation of a device that could be usefully contrasted with others. Through the adoption of ideas from critical constructivism and postphenomenology, it is possible to draw out some of the features of discriminatory stabilities, including how systems of bias can go unnoticed, especially by those not targeted by them. These ideas could be of use in the identification of ways that unjust systematic biases become set within dominant culture, designed into technologies, sedimented within individual bodily-perceptual habits, and even constructed into prevailing senses of reason. As a practical contribution to this ongoing discussion, I identify a distinction that can be made between two broad categories of discrimination via technology: 1. that occurring along what could be called “an axis of difference,” and 2. “an axis of usage.” In the former, discriminatory efforts occur as different users are advantaged and disadvantaged by a device, even as they use it for similar purposes. In the latter, discriminatory effects occur as the particular usage of a technology preferred by a vulnerable group is shut down through design choices. Although the various emerging discussions on technology and discrimination each tend to gravitate toward analysis along one of these axes, it will of course be important to keep our eyes on the variety of ways that biases are faced by the vulnerable.