Do Artifacts Have Politics

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"Do artifacts have politics?"
Discuss Langdon Winner's question and give some examples.

Iva N. Ivanova
First semester at UiO
Word count: 2103


The objective of this paper is to discuss Langdon Winners theory on the politics of technology. In his book "The Whale and the Reactor" Langdon Winner asks the question "Do artifacts have politics?". That question has provoked many to look for different dimensions of technology. Winner argues that technologies hold specific forms of power and authority and that they should be taken seriously as their own political phenomena. According to him technological innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings, which establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations and for that reason careful attention should be paid to them (Winner 1986 p.29).

"Do Artifacts Have Politics?"

Technological innovation should not be seen as an autonomous force whose outputs are derived simply from a technical logic. In other words, technologies are socially shaped by human actors, institutional choices and political power (Sujatha Raman, 2003).

Winner's argues that the massive belief that, technology means just progress and improvement, should be corrected and we should look more closely to whether a given device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses (Winner 1986 ). We can not expect that social problems should find a technological solution and even new emerging technologies in the area of sustainable development, that are now perceived as the main problem solver should be look upon critically. Technologies are not neutral instrument of social and economic progress but rather they have well defined political agendas.

Winner gives simple examples to prove his case, but though simple those examples are symbolic of the basic idea that the very form taken by technologies must be taken seriously by political analysts. As example he gives Robert Moses' bridges in New York with their low height that functioned to prevent buses from the motorway connecting Long Island to the beaches and public parks, thus limiting the access of the lower classes and minority groups. He concludes that not only artifacts have politics, but it's the most perverse of all since they hide their biases under the appearance of objectivity, efficiency or mere expediency (Bruno Latour, Domus June 04). He also argues that some kinds of technologies could not exist as an effective operating entity unless certain social as well as material conditions were met like for example nuclear power plant that requires a hierarchical system of political control in contrast with solar energy that can be deployed in a decentralized way in a democratic, egalitarian society.

Of course it is widely understood that technological artifacts are not neutral instruments to serve the advancement of humankind but they have their specific purposes weaved into their design, which is not necessary of a political kind, but they do represent a particular intended use. But though technological artifacts may represent some political aim this does not mean necessarily that the aim is going to be achieved. As a consequence from the thesis that technologies have underlying political and economic interests, a tendency has occurred in the academic efforts to show that these politics are harmful to the society. This leads to the fact that technology is being described as a negative force that needs to be controlled. But on the other hand, technology does represent possibilities to improve and remedy social problems, like the ones we encounter in the environmental area. Technology is not just a negative force that needs to be checked; it is also a positive force to be made use of. (Knut H. Sørensen).

Different critiques to Winner have also emerged....
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