In The Fetish of Technology: Causes and Consequences David Harvey engages in a critical dissection of the origins and implications of the fetish of technology. He uses the concept of the fetish to analyze societies’ outsized and misplaced faith in technology and to demonstrate how it obscures the social realities of capitalist production. He attempts to lift the haze produced by the fetish to awaken people to the “possibilities of conscious political choices” present beyond hoping and praying for advanced technology to solve all significant problems. Written in 2003, the text is situated in the aftermath of the Dot-Com bubble and during the prelude to the Iraq War. The unwieldy, tripartite definition of technology is noticeably indebted to the recent popularization of computer technology. His primary audience is a disillusioned American public very familiar with the new terms. Harvey debunks many false beliefs and biases about technology that are already marred by an opening salvo from the stock market crash and resulting, resurgent media criticism. However, just as finance journalists looking at a market crisis are incapable of moving their critique beyond a certain depth, most critics merely “reflect and replicate” the fetishism of technology even when supposedly critiquing it. They lose “all critical acumen” the moment they fall prey to fetish beliefs about the “causative powers” of technology. They are “blinded” by a misunderstanding of the role of technology within capitalist society. The fact that the fetish is now “institutionalized” within the innovation industry, a new development in capitalism, makes clearing the haze both more difficult and more necessary.
Harvey does not provide his own theory as to the origin of the fetish of technology. Instead he takes a hypothetical scenario suggested by Marx in which one is to “imagine a perfect market” of individual capitalists competing for market supremacy. He traces the logic by which productivity increases mediated by technological advances result in “temporary excess profits” that capitalists treat as a direct result of technology. He writes that, “fetishism arises when it is inferred that productivity is a (or even the) source of profit as opposed to recognizing that profit arises out of a social relation between labor and capital”. The root of the fetish is confusion over how technology impacts productivity and how productivity results in profit. This early misattribution, postulated over a century ago by Marx, results in many more because the fetish gains authority and followers as technology advances. Harvey restates the point that profit is an effect of the social relation between labor and capital multiple times throughout the text. In fact, he comes to use the word fetish to describe any conclusion that ignores this fundamental materialist reality. The fetish precludes this understanding and masquerades as the key to profit and progress. This “very simple materialist explanation” of the origins of the fetish does not try to be exhaustive, but gives Marx’s “general line of thinking” on the subject. It serves as sufficient grounding to “usefully extend” the concept of the fetish to any misunderstanding of how technology fits into a capitalist society.
One interesting aspect of this text is that both key terms, fetish and technology, remain vague even with expansive definitions. This is fundamental to Harvey’s argument. The fetish is “not purely imaginary and has a very real basis”, but the majority of its value as a conceptual tool comes from outlining its extensions and not its origins. These imaginative extensions are embedded, imbricated, and coextensive with the material reality of capitalist society. This makes decoding the implications of the fetish a colossal task. It also \ wrings much of the life out of the term: it becomes impossible to discuss a causal fetish, to distinguish between fetish and effect, and to avoid the term deconstructing itself. Harvey ends up trying to avoid fetishism as much as he tries to locate it. Harvey writes that this makes “the whole issue of the meaning and impact of technology…immensely more complicated and diffuse”. This is a good thing because it prevents a “narrow reductionism” that generates false certainty. Harvey defines technology to be composed of hardware, software, and organizational components, but than says, “we must learn to elide them and also to recognize each as the internal relation of the other”. Technology has internal relations with itself even as it is positioned at the nexus “between the material reproduction of daily life, our relationship to nature, our social relations, and our mental conceptions of the world”. This unbelievable complexity is “the full import” of Marx and the dialectical perspective. It is better to be in a world where “everything relates to everything else”, and it is hard to keep track of anything, than to live in one with a false, fetishistic certainty.
The explicit bias of this text points to the main argument it advances. To deal with the aforementioned complexity, Harvey turns “in the first instance to Karl Marx for help”. This occurs in the third paragraph of the essay and Marx remains the most prominent authority throughout the text. Harvey knows this is “off-putting” to some of his audience and frequently feels the need to defend Marx. Beyond the specific topical choices of fetish and technology, this text unabashedly advances the relevance and applicability of Marx to contemporary social problems and current events. For example, Harvey uses Marx’s theory on the origin of the fetish to contradict Alan Greenspan five years before the financial crisis did. He also uses it to explain how institutionalized fetishism can yield enormous technological dynamism and predicts that Silicon Valley will innovate, “come what may”. This seems obvious now, but it was far from so nine years ago. Yet, regardless of his capacity for prediction, his arguments will be rejected out of hand by anyone who rejects Marx. Harvey writes that, “One does not have to accept Marx’s conceptual apparatus to see the cogency of his arguments…”, but one does need to accept his authority as a reference for this text to function. The text is itself an extension of Marx’s conceptual apparatus brought to bear on a particular moment in the history of capitalism.
The fetish of technology leads to a fantastical world where technology is understood to be an autonomous force rather than a product of social relations. People forget that power differentials impact how technology is distributed and what problems are chosen for it to solve. It is thought to “determine social changes”, to be “both inevitable and ‘good’”, and to be politically neutral. Harvey notes that the fetish is destabilizing because it “embodies contradictions” while also obscuring them. This is best seen in the contrast between two prominent figures of futuristic fantasy spectacle: the robot and the cyborg. The former represents the “fantasy of total control over the laborer by technology”; the latter represents the “fantasy of the insatiable consumer totally hooked into the circulation of capital and its endless output of products”. Taken together, the figures serve to embody the irreconcilable dreams of capitalism for both the perfect worker and the perfect consumer. It is the will of the fetish to merge these two impulses.
I would like to conclude this discussion of Harvey’s text by analyzing his mention of the “chicken-and-egg problem” and how it relates to the limits of fetish analysis in supporting social change. Harvey undertakes this analysis to support the goal of conscious social change, but his use of the fetish concept may ironically be impeding as much as it reveals. The concept forces Harvey to engage in a self-referential discourse where he elides and maneuvers around the word, trying not to give it the very power he claims is misattributed. Harvey mentions the chicken and the egg as the generic example of a producer/produced metonymic circularity. It reflects the problem of situating technology within the “schema of internal relations” that constitutes capitalist society. He ends by noting that a “redefinition and demystification” of technology is a “necessary first step towards a more generalized approach to emancipation”. My question is whether he has reached an unproductive conclusion: is more analysis really required for emancipation? It feels like society is overburdened with the ability to diagnose and has been since Marx. The most persuasive aspect of this text is the fact that all of the biases and fetishes are revealed by a Marxist diagnostic analysis. The use of the fetish concept seems to be appealing to the modern, varied definition of the word; it functions like a headline to attract attention, but forces the author to expend a lot of effort justifying its use. Of all the Marxist concepts he uses, I feel I understand the concept of the fetish the least. It seems like the figure of the fetish is one that cannot be made literal, let alone operationalized, without ending up in a chicken-and-egg problem that promotes categorization and diagnosis over the prescriptions and solutions society needs. There seems to be an inherent paradox to fetish analysis that doesn't lead towards emancipation.