Do artifacts have politics?

It seems that a number of writing prompts I derived from these days mostly come from Twitter. It might be called a hell site for all the propagation of bad news and misinformation it afforded, but I do also get a lot of good bits of information and thought-provoking questions and statements, all under 280 characters. Today’s prompt is from @nicolasnova:

I immediately was reminded of this eye-opening essay written by political theorist Langdon Winner called Do Artifacts Have Politics?. The essay, also mentioned multiple times by a number of replies in the thread, was one of the writings that catapulted my decision into my doctoral research, along with the writings of Zeynep Tufekci‘s and Cathy O’Neil‘s.

The essay opens with:

No idea is more provocative in controversies about technology and society than the notion that technical things have political qualities.

According to Winner, there are two ways artifacts, or pieces of technology, of which he described it within the scope of the article “technology here is understood as to mean all of modern practical artifice, but to avoid confusion I prefer to speak of technologies, smaller of larger pieces or systems of hardware of specific kind”, can “contain political properties”:

  • Technical arrangements as a form of order: inventions that are deliberately designed to enforce certain power relations
  • Inherently political technologies: inventions that could or could not lead to certain power relations and structure, and which properties aren’t flexible and couldn’t be changed.

For the first category, Winner cited an example on the extremely low overpasses along the parkways on Long Island, New York. It turns out that it was deliberately designed by architect Robert Moses as a way to discourage buses from going underneath them, reflecting his social class bias and racial prejudice. How? In those days people of colour and other minorities commute largely by bus, hence having the low parkways preventing the buses from traveling beyond the parkways and limiting access to Jones Beach, Moses’ acclaimed public park.

The ideas and technologies in the second category are more controversial, and still open to a lot of interpretation in my opinion. As a newly sociological major, I might need more time to think about it all, but the blog Reading Department sums it perfectly thus far:

Secondly, and maybe more provocatively, there is the question if there are technologies not allowing for such flexibility. Is, as Engels once argued, large-scale industry in absolute need of centralized, hierarchical organization? Will nuclear power lead to authoritarian state power (and solar power to a democratic Shangri La)? Winner holds the somewhat weaker view that some technologies at least seem to be strongly compatible with undemocratic, centralized, and authoritarian organization, both inside the factory and outside it (in the social factory, that is).

If you have been in tech and have been thinking on the social implications of the technologies you produce (you should) and how you can do better (we certainly can), please do read Do Artifacts Have Politics? and have a think or two.

In our accustomed way of thinking technologies are seen as neutral tools that can be used well or poorly, for good, evil, or something in between. But we usually do not stop to inquire 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. 

[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.]

(P/s: Bonus – an MA thesis as a critique of Winner’s essay, of which I shall read tomorrow!)

Comment 1

  1. Pingback: Against neutrality – Two Kinds of Intelligence

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