Langdon Winner, Do Artifacts Have Politics

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POLITICS? [from Winner, L. (1986). The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 19-39.] No idea is more provocative in controversies about technology and society than the notion that technical things have political qualities. At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority. Since ideas of this kind are a persistent and troubling presence in discussions about the meaning of technology, they deserve explicit attention. Writing in the early 1960s, Lewis Mumford gave classic statement to one version of the theme, arguing that “from late neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man- centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.”‘ This thesis stands at the heart of Mumford’s studies of the city, architecture, and history of technics, and mirrors concerns voiced earlier in the works of Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, and other nineteenth-century critics of industrialism. During the 1970s, antinuclear and pro-solar energy movements in Europe and the United States adopted a similar notion as the centerpiece of their arguments. According to environmentalist Denis Hayes, “The increased deployment of nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism. Indeed, safe reliance upon nuclear power as the principal source of energy may be possible only in a totalitarian state.” Echoing the views of many proponents of appropriate technology and the soft energy path, Hayes contends that “dispersed solar sources are more compatible than centralized technologies with social equity, freedom and cultural pluralism.” 2 An eagerness to interpret technical artifacts in political language is by no means the exclusive property of critics of large- scale, high-technology systems. A long lineage of boosters has insisted that the biggest and best that science and industry made available were the best guarantees of democracy, freedom, and social justice. The factory system, automobile, telephone, radio, television, space program, and of course nuclear power have all at one time or another been described as democratizing, liberating forces. David Lillienthal’s TVA: Democracy on the March, for example, found this promise in the phosphate fertilizers and electricity that technical progress was bringing to rural Americans during the 1940s.3 Three decades later Daniel Boorstin’s The Republic of Technology extolled television for “its power to disband armies, to cashier presidents, to create a whole new democratic world.4 Scarcely a new invention comes along that someone doesn’t proclaim it as the salvation of a free society. It is no surprise to learn that technical systems of various kinds are deeply interwoven in the conditions of modern politics. The physical arrangements of industrial production, warfare, communications, and the like have fundamentally changed the exercise of power and the experience of citizenship. But to go beyond this obvious fact and to argue that certain technologies in themselves have political properties seems, at first glance, completely mistaken. We all know that people have politics; things do not. To discover either virtues or evils in aggregates of steel, plastic, transistors, integrated circuits, chemicals, and the like seems just plain wrong, a way of mystifying human artifice and of avoiding the true sources, the human sources of freedom and oppression, justice and injustice. Blaming the hardware appears even more foolish than blaming the victims...
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