Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”

Langdon Winner’s classic article argues, in the vein of “soft” technological determinism, that technology determines certain social foundations. In this case, that (at least some) technology is inherently political: certain technologies are democratic, others autocratic, by their very nature. That is, regardless of the intent behind their invention or deployment, they have concrete social consequences that can be qualified in political terms. While it is energy production that is ultimately at stake, Winner’s most salient example is the series of expressways erected around Long Island by Robert Moses in the 1930s. Moses had the overpasses constructed so low to the ground that public buses couldn’t pass under them. According to Winner, these bridges had overtly political effects (as well as intent, presumably): namely, to prevent lower-income people from easily accessing the beachfront playgrounds of the middle and upper classes.

Not only expressways, but many other technologies have a built-in politics, according to Winner. The tomato harvesting machine, for instance, was very efficient at picking tomatoes (much more so than hand picking), but was extremely expensive to purchase. It thus had the effect of centralizing production with a few large producers who could afford the investment and subsequently undercut the smaller producers in price, effectively putting them out of business. This, then, is an example of an “inherently political technology.”

Winner is mostly interested in large technological systems, particularly electricity generation. He notes that certain technologies require particular social structures for their implementation. The atomic bomb is one: it requires a top-down, hierarchical, centralized system for its deployment. Indeed, it requires a military infrastructure. The deployment of the bomb necessitates an autocratic system (even if it is embedded within a larger democratic system, as in the case of the U.S. Military). He argues that nuclear power is similar: it requires centralization of facilities, technicians, and security in order to operate as a system. He contrasts this with solar power, which is decentralized. It can operate at many different sites and requires little monetary investment per site as well as far less technical expertise, and doesn’t represent a security risk. No hierarchical social structures need to be created or maintained in order to deploy solar technology. It it inherently democratic and populist.

Winner implies that centralized, autocratic technologies have the possibility of being generalized into society as a whole. That is, that we may start to run our politics like the military runs its defense program, or CEOs run their businesses. Beyond the immediate effects of centralized technologies, then, there are larger political dangers.

-ZH

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