As is my Cornell birthright, I used to read a lot of Science and Technology Studies stuff, but lately I’ve been slacking on that in order to read science fiction and work on games journalism. While reading some games studies and zombie theory, though, I found a reference to Langdon Winner, which led to looking him up, which led to aforementioned reading of The Whale and the Reactor.
I’d never heard of Winner before, but was, I found out, familiar with his anecdotes–he (along with biographer Robert Caro) is the one who popularized the story of Robert Moses’ Long Island bridges, which were, he alleges, intentionally built too low to accommodate public buses, and therefore kept the poor and black off beaches intended for the middle class and wealthy, who traveled by car.
This story’s been disputed, but the general thesis of the first part of his book–that artifacts, or technology, has politics, whether intentional or unintentional–holds up, despite the potential shakiness of this anecdote. Perhaps a more general way of putting Winner’s thesis for this first part is not so much that technology has politics (which implies a kind of intentionality that I don’t think is completely correct), but that it has political implications–the way we shape our environment shapes us, for better or worse. STS was, I understand, a fairly nascent field at that time, but he’s been vindicated by time: By the time I went to school it was fairly well-acknowledged that this happened–mechanization changed the power dynamic between blue-collar workers and their bosses, The Pill changed the power dynamic between women and men.
The more interesting parts of his book, however, are where he explores what, exactly, he thinks that technology is leading us. And, contrary to most of the stuff I read, it’s not a good place, he says. It’s a world of centralized power and growing inequality, of poorly-thought-through technophilia and declining liberty. Given that this was the Reagan/Thatcher era in which he was writing, a lot of what he’s saying feels like a reflection of the times–he’s also clearly fighting some culture wars here, and addresses some of the same concerns as my perpetual nemesis Allan Bloom, but in a way that posits technological development, and the social orders it condones, as the cause instead of feminism and Mick Jagger. Like Bloom, Winner is looking for the Good Life and a form of absolute truth, and finds it before capitalism, but is more interested in a restrained form of (possibly?) agrarian anarcho-syndicalism than the “unabashedly elitist” Athens that Bloom idealizes.
In an idea somewhat contrary to his first section on artifacts and politics, Winner is adamant about the need to actively take control of technology, rather than letting it lead us. The reason that I, a woman incredibly allergic to standard anti-tech screeds, am able to read this at all is because Winner is unfailingly thoughtful and analytical about what, precisely, he dislikes about technology, and (of course) because I agree with his end goals. He refuses to talk in the vague and fuzzy notions of “humanity” that much anti-tech stuff goes into, and he acknowledges the problems with appealing to “nature” and the “natural world.” Nor does he charge that technology makes us lazy, or seem to believe that it is bad because it disrupts the intended order of the weak being dominated by the strong.
All that aside, what’s really enlightening about Winner’s stuff is how neatly he dissects the “technology revolution” talk that was around even in the 1980s. It’s a bit of an easy target, to be sure, but it’s also a pervasive one: The “Internet will change everything” folks who believe that the Internet is inherently decentralizing and gives power to the people. Apparently, the same argument was made about electricity:
In 1924, for example, Joseph K. Hart, a professor of education, extolled the liberation electricity would bring. “Centralization,” he wrote, “has claimed everything for a century: the results are apparent on every hand. But the reign of steam approaches its end: a new stage in the industrial revolution comes on. Electric power, breaking away from its servitude to steam, is becoming independent. Electricity is a decentralizing form of power: it runs out over distributing lines and subdivides to all the minutae of life and need. Working with it, men may feel the thrill of control and freedom once again.”
This is what I love about technology studies: Finding crazy futurism that never came to pass. But stuff like this really highlights the false utopia that people have created around the Internet: The idea that it will do our job of creating a decentralized world for us, that by their very nature things like Twitter and Facebook will create a beautiful new order in which everyone has an equal participatory voice.
Well, Wikileaks showed that up for what it was, didn’t it? The net takes censorship as damage and routes around it? Then how could Paypal, Visa, and Mastercard essentially shut down online donations? Why is Wikileaks itself being dumped by provider after provider? We may not be able to shut down someone’s voice online altogether, but the Net is far less open than it seems. A few Internet service providers or hosting sites agreeing to drop or block something and suddenly it’s nearly gone.
I love technology, but I don’t think it’s inherently a good thing, and I think we should be thinking harder about what we want it to do. Tech can liberate or enslave–but it is, ultimately, up to us. At least that’s what I’d like to think.