The second chapter of The Whale and the Reactor is titled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, and it is concerned with the relations between technology and various forms of political life. Winner rightly points out that skeptics and celebrants of technology alike have often insisted that there is a tight bond between technology and politics — and sometimes, of course, the same person can be skeptic and celebrant: consider Richard Stallman, for instance, who believes that proprietary software both promotes and serves tyranny, while open-source software preserves deeply valuable human freedoms. Stallman is deeply skeptical towards one set of technologies, profoundly celebratory of another. And really, that’s probably true of everyone who thinks about technology. After all, the Luddites weren’t against technology per se, just against the technologies that put skilled laborers out of work or made their work less valuable.

Winner places all those who see a tight connection between technology and politics on one side of a divide, and on the other places those who take a more instrumental view: such people see technologies themselves as neutral, and think that how we use them is what matters. In the end Winner does not choose one side or the other, and claims that he is taking a “both/and” position, but perhaps what he does not make sufficiently clear is that one cannot reasonably take one position on such questions that accounts for all technologies. Surely some of them are more demanding and less flexible than others.

And that’s something to be taken into account when we’re thinking of adopting new technologies. As Winner writes,

By far the greatest latitude of choice exists the very first time a particular instrument, system, or technique is introduced. Because choices tend to become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes once the initial commitments are made.

“Vanishes” is too strong, but certainly a sclerosis sets in. I think of all the people I know who utterly despise Microsoft Word and yet feel locked into it, unable to escape its malign clutches. . . .


  1. Reading this as a photographer turned writer I find myself thinking about how much more comfortable (not the best word but it will do for now) many (most?) visual artist are (seem to be?) with relationship between materials and technology and the expression of ideas.

    Two of my very favorite teachers at the U of O were positively obsessed with materials and processes, and viewed a hungry curiosity in that area as foundational to being a good artist. Similarly, though rarely televise there are a whole bunch of oscars given out each year for technical excellence and innovation. (Imagine, by contrast, a literary body giving out an award, every year, for excellence and/or advances in text formatting technology.)

    A while back you posted something about books and archepelogos and the novel being the Idealized Amateur form at its highest (or something like that, I never really figured out the technology/workflow of book-marking, and have to really on my memory.)


    All of the anxiety I see seems to be the anxiety of men of letters having technology storm the ramparts of their once (relatively) ideal world — a world were the notion of pure, unmediated expression of ideas could at least be entertained, even if not completely (nearly) true.

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