Discussion Post: Summary And Analysis Of Readings Reading homework help

The course title is Information Practices in Contemporary Society

There are two readings, please read through them and write summary, take away points and analysis for each of them.



The other reading is attached.

Please annotate the page number and use quotation marks if referring to anything in text.

Do Artifacts Have Politics?

Author(s): Langdon Winner

Source: Daedalus , Winter, 1980, Vol. 109, No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or
Opportunity? (Winter, 1980), pp. 121-136

Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20024652

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Do Artifacts Have Politics?

In controversies about technology and society, there is no idea more pro
vocative 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 of efficiency and pro
ductivity, not merely for 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 have a persistent and troubling presence in
discussions about the meaning of technology, they deserve explicit attention.1

Writing in Technology and Culture almost two decades ago, Lewis Mumford
gave classic statement to one version of the theme, arguing that “from late neo
lithic 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.”2 This thesis
stands at the heart of Mumford’s studies of the city, architecture, and the his
tory of technics, and mirrors concerns voiced earlier in the works of Peter
Kropotkin, William Morris, and other nineteenth century critics of industrial
ism. More recently, antinuclear and prosolar energy movements in Europe and
America have adopted a similar notion as a centerpiece in their arguments.
Thus environmentalist Denis Hayes concludes, “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 appropri
ate 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.”3

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 have 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,
the space program, and of course nuclear power itself have all at one time or
another been described as democratizing, liberating forces. David Lilienthal, in
T.V.A.: Democracy on the March, for example, found this promise in the phos


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phate fertilizers and electricity that technical progress was bringing to rural
Americans during the 1940s.4 In a recent essay, The Republic of Technology,
Daniel Boorstin extolled television for “its power to disband armies, to cashier
presidents, to create a whole new democratic world?democratic in ways never
before imagined, even in America.”5 Scarcely a new invention comes along that
someone does not proclaim it 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 fundamen
tally 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, not things. To discover either virtues or evils in aggre
gates of steel, plastic, transistors, integrated circuits, and chemicals 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 when
it comes to judging conditions of public life.

Hence, the stern advice commonly given those who flirt with the notion that
technical artifacts have political qualities: What matters is not technology itself,
but the social or economic system in which it is embedded. This maxim, which
in a number of variations is the central premise of a theory that can be called
the social determination of technology, has an obvious wisdom. It serves as a
needed corrective to those who focus uncritically on such things as “the comput
er and its social impacts” but who fail to look behind technical things to notice
the social circumstances of their development, deployment, and use. This view
provides an antidote to naive technological determinism?the idea that tech
nology develops as the sole result of an internal dynamic, and then, unmediated
by any other influence, molds society to fit its patterns. Those who have not
recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic
forces have not gotten very far.

But the corrective has its own shortcomings; taken literally, it suggests that
technical things do not matter at all. Once one has done the detective work
necessary to reveal the social origins?power holders behind a particular in
stance of technological change?one will have explained everything of impor
tance. This conclusion offers comfort to social scientists: it validates what they
had always suspected, namely, that there is nothing distinctive about the study
of technology in the first place. Hence, they can return to their standard models
of social power?those of interest group politics, bureaucratic politics, Marxist
models of class struggle, and the like?and have everything they need. The
social determination of technology is, in this view, essentially no different from
the social determination of, say, welfare policy or taxation.

There are, however, good reasons technology has of late taken on a special
fascination in its own right for historians, philosophers, and political scien
tists; good reasons the standard models of social science only go so far in ac
counting for what is most interesting and troublesome about the subject. In
another place I have tried to show why so much of modern social and political
thought contains recurring statements of what can be called a theory of tech

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nological politics, an odd mongrel of notions often crossbred with orthodox
liberal, conservative, and socialist philosophies.6 The theory of technological
politics draws attention to the momentum of large-scale sociotechnical systems,
to the response of modern societies to certain technological imperatives, and to
the all too common signs of the adaptation of human ends to technical means. In
so doing it offers a novel framework of interpretation and explanation for some
of the more puzzling patterns that have taken shape in and around the growth of
modern material culture. One strength of this point of view is that it takes
technical artifacts seriously. Rather than insist that we immediately reduce
everything to the interplay of social forces, it suggests that we pay attention to
the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.

A necessary complement to, rather than a replacement for, theories of the social
determination of technology, this perspective identifies certain technologies as
political phenomena in their own right. It points us back, to borrow Edmund
Husserl’s philosophical injunction, to the things themselves.

In what follows I shall offer outlines and illustrations of two ways in which
artifacts can contain political properties. First are instances in which the inven
tion, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a

way of settling an issue in a particular community. Seen in the proper light,
examples of this kind are fairly straightforward and easily understood. Second
are cases of what can be called inherently political technologies, man-made sys
tems that appear to require, or to be strongly compatible with, particular kinds
of political relationships. Arguments about cases of this kind are much more
troublesome and closer to the heart of the matter. By “politics,” I mean arrange

ments of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that
take place within those arrangements. For my purposes, “technology” here is
understood to mean all of modern practical artifice,7 but to avoid confusion I
prefer to speak of technology, smaller or larger pieces or systems of hardware
of a specific kind. My intention is not to settle any of the issues here once and for
all, but to indicate their general dimensions and significance.

Technical Arrangements as Forms of Order

Anyone who has traveled the highways of America and has become used to
the normal height of overpasses may well find something a little odd about some
of the bridges over the parkways on Long Island, New York. Many of the
overpasses are extraordinarily low, having as little as nine feet of clearance at the
curb. Even those who happened to notice this structural peculiarity would not
be inclined to attach any special meaning to it. In our accustomed way of look
ing at things like roads and bridges we see the details of form as innocuous, and
seldom give them a second thought.

It turns out, however, that the two hundred or so low-hanging overpasses
on Long Island were deliberately designed to achieve a particular social effect.
Robert Moses, the master builder of roads, parks, bridges, and other public
works from the 1920s to the 1970s in New York, had these overpasses built to
specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways.

According to evidence provided by Robert A. Caro in his biography of Moses,
the reasons reflect Moses’s social-class bias and racial prejudice. Automobile

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owning whites of “upper” and “comfortable middle” classes, as he called them,
would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting. Poor people
and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because
the twelve-foot tall buses could not get through the overpasses. One con
sequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones
Beach, Moses’s widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this
result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones

As a story in recent American political history, Robert Moses’s life is fasci
nating. His dealings with mayors, governors, and presidents, and his careful
manipulation of legislatures, banks, labor unions, the press, and public opinion
are all matters that political scientists could study for years. But the most impor
tant and enduring results of his work are his technologies, the vast engineering
projects that give New York much of its present form. For generations after
Moses has gone and the alliances he forged have fallen apart, his public works,
especially the highways and bridges he built to favor the use of the automobile
over the development of mass transit, will continue to shape that city. Many of
his monumental structures of concrete and steel embody a systematic social
inequality, a way of engineering relationships among people that, after a time,
becomes just another part of the landscape. As planner Lee Koppleman told
Caro about the low bridges on Wantagh Parkway, “The old son-of-a-gun had
made sure that buses would never be able to use his goddamned parkways.”9

Histories of architecture, city planning, and public works contain many ex
amples of physical arrangements that contain explicit or implicit political pur
poses. One can point to Baron Haussmann’s broad Parisian thoroughfares,
engineered at Louis Napoleon’s direction to prevent any recurrence of street
fighting of the kind that took place during the revolution of 1848. Or one can
visit any number of grotesque concrete buildings and huge plazas constructed
on American university campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s to de
fuse student demonstrations. Studies of industrial machines and instruments

also turn up interesting political stories, including some that violate our normal
expectations about why technological innovations are made in the first place. If
we suppose that new technologies are introduced to achieve increased efficien
cy, the history of technology shows that we will sometimes be disappointed.
Technological change expresses a panoply of human motives, not the least of
which is the desire of some to have dominion over others, even though it may
require an occasional sacrifice of cost-cutting and some violence to the norm of
getting more from less.

One poignant illustration can be found in the history of nineteenth century
industrial mechanization. At Cyrus McCormick’s reaper manufacturing plant in
Chicago in the middle 1880s, pneumatic molding machines, a new and largely
untested innovation, were added to the foundry at an estimated cost of
$500,000. In the standard economic interpretation of such things, we would
expect that this step was taken to modernize the plant and achieve the kind of
efficiencies that mechanization brings. But historian Robert Ozanne has shown
why the development must be seen in a broader context. At the time, Cyrus
McCormick II was engaged in a battle with the National Union of Iron Mold
ers. He saw the addition of the new machines as a way to “weed out the bad

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element among the men,” namely, the skilled workers who had organized the
union local in Chicago.10 The new machines, manned by unskilled labor, ac
tually produced inferior castings at a higher cost than the earlier process. After
three years of use the machines were, in fact, abandoned, but by that time they
had served their purpose?the destruction of the union. Thus, the story of these
technical developments at the McCormick factory cannot be understood ade
quately outside the record of workers’ attempts to organize, police repression of
the labor movement in Chicago during that period, and the events surrounding
the bombing at Hay market Square. Technological history and American politi
cal history were at that moment deeply intertwined.

In cases like those of Moses’s low bridges and McCormick’s molding ma
chines, one sees the importance of technical arrangements that precede the use of
the things in question. It is obvious that technologies can be used in ways that
enhance the power, authority, and privilege of some over others, for example,
the use of television to sell a candidate. To 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.
Robert Moses’s bridges, after all, were used to carry automobiles from one point
to another; McCormick’s machines were used to make metal castings; both tech
nologies, however, encompassed purposes far beyond their immediate use. If
our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only cate
gories having to do with tools and uses, if it does not include attention to the
meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be
blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial.

Because the point is most easily understood in the light of particular in
tentions embodied in physical form, I have so far offered illustrations that seem

almost conspiratorial. But to recognize the political dimensions in the shapes of
technology does not require that we look for conscious conspiracies or malicious
intentions. The organized movement of handicapped people in the United
States during the 1970s pointed out the countless ways in which machines,
instruments, and structures of common use?buses, buildings, sidewalks,
plumbing fixtures, and so forth?made it impossible for many handicapped per
sons to move about freely, a condition that systematically excluded them from
public life. It is safe to say that designs unsuited for the handicapped arose more
from long-standing neglect than from anyone’s active intention. But now that
the issue has been raised for public attention, it is evident that justice requires a
remedy. A whole range of artifacts are now being redesigned and rebuilt to
accommodate this minority.

Indeed, many of the most important examples of technologies that have
political consequences are those that transcend the simple categories of “in
tended” and “unintended” altogether. These are instances in which the very
process of technical development is so thoroughly biased in a particular direc
tion that it regularly produces results counted as wonderful breakthroughs by
some social interests and crushing setbacks by others. In such cases it is neither
correct nor insightful to say, “Someone intended to do somebody else harm.”
Rather, one must say that the technological deck has been stacked long in ad

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vanee to favor certain social interests, and that some people were bound to
receive a better hand than others.

The mechanical tomato harvester, a remarkable device perfected by re
searchers at the University of California from the late 1940s to the present,
offers an illustrative tale. The machine is able to harvest tomatoes in a single
pass through a row, cutting the plants from the ground, shaking the fruit loose,
and in the newest models sorting the tomatoes electronically into large plastic
gondolas that hold up to twenty-five tons of produce headed for canning. To
accommodate the rough motion of these “factories in the field,” agricultural
researchers have bred new varieties of tomatoes that are hardier, sturdier, and
less tasty. The harvesters replace the system of handpicking, in which crews of
farmworkers would pass through the fields three or four times putting ripe to
matoes in lug boxes and saving immature fruit for later harvest.11 Studies in
California indicate that the machine reduces costs by approximately five to sev
en dollars per ton as compared to hand-harvesting.12 But the benefits are by no
means equally divided in the agricultural economy. In fact, the machine in the
garden has in this instance been the occasion for a thorough reshaping of social
relationships of tomato production in rural California.

By their very size and cost, more than $50,000 each to purchase, the ma
chines are compatible only with a highly concentrated form of tomato growing.

With the introduction of this new method of harvesting, the number of tomato
growers declined from approximately four thousand in the early 1960s to about
six hundred in 1973, yet with a substantial increase in tons of tomatoes pro
duced. By the late 1970s an estimated thirty-two thousand jobs in the tomato
industry had been eliminated as a direct consequence of mechanization.13 Thus,
a jump in productivity to the benefit of very large growers has occurred at a
sacrifice to other rural agricultural communities.

The University of California’s research and development on agricultural ma
chines like the tomato harvester is at this time the subject of a law suit filed by
attorneys for California Rural Legal Assistance, an organization representing
a group of farmworkers and other interested parties. The suit charges that
University officials are spending tax monies on projects that benefit a hand
ful of private interests to the detriment of farmworkers, small farmers, con
sumers, and rural California generally, and asks for a court injunction to stop the
practice. The University has denied these charges, arguing that to accept
them “would require elimination of all research with any potential practical

As far as I know, no one has argued that the development of the tomato
harvester was the result of a plot. Two students of the controversy, William
Friedland and Amy Barton, specifically exonerate both the original developers
of the machine and the hard tomato from any desire to facilitate economic con
centration in that industry.15 What we see here instead is an ongoing social
process in which scientific knowledge, technological invention, and corporate
profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns that bear the unmistak
able stamp of political and economic power. Over many decades agricultural
research and development in American land-grant colleges and universities has
tended to favor the interests of large agribusiness concerns.16 It is in the face of
such subtly ingrained patterns that opponents of innovations like the tomato

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harvester are made to seem “antitechnology” or “antiprogress.” For the harves
ter is not merely the symbol of a social order that rewards some while punishing
others; it is in a true sense an embodiment of that order.

Within a given category of technological change there are, roughly speaking,
two kinds of choices that can affect the relative distribution of power, authority,
and privilege in a community. Often the crucial decision is a simple “yes or no”
choice?are we going to develop and adopt the thing or not? In recent years
many local, national, and international disputes about technology have centered
on “yes or no” judgments about such things as food additives, pesticides, the
building of highways, nuclear reactors, and dam projects. The fundamental
choice about an ABM or an SST is whether or not the thing is going to join
society as a piece of its operating equipment. Reasons for and against are fre
quently as important as those concerning the adoption of an important new law.

A second range of choices, equally critical in many instances, has to do with
specific features in the design or arrangement of a technical system after the
decision to go ahead with it has already been made. Even after a utility company
wins permission to build a large electric power line, important controversies can
remain with respect to the placement of its route and the design of its towers;
even after an organization has decided to institute a system of computers, con
troversies can still arise with regard to the kinds of components, programs,

modes of access, and other specific features the system will include. Once the
mechanical tomato harvester had been developed in its basic form, design altera
tion of critical social significance?the addition of electronic sorters, for ex
ample?changed the character of the machine’s effects on the balance of wealth
and power in California agriculture. Some of the most interesting research on
technology and politics at present focuses on the attempt to demonstrate in a
detailed, concrete fashion how seemingly innocuous design features in mass
transit systems, water projects, industrial machinery, and other technologies
actually mask social choices of profound significance. Historian David Noble is
now studying two kinds of automated machine tool systems that have different
implications for the relative power of management and labor in the industries
that might employ them. He is able to show that, although the basic electronic
and mechanical components of the record/playback and numerical control sys
tems are similar, the choice of one design over another has crucial consequences
for social struggles on the shop floor. To see the matter solely in terms of cost
cutting, efficiency, or the modernization of equipment is to miss a decisive
element in the story.17

From such examples I would offer the following general conclusions. The
things we call “technologies” are ways of building order in our world. Many
technical devices and systems important in everyday life contain possibilities for

many different ways of ordering human activity. Consciously or not, deliber
ately or inadvertently, societies choose structures for technologies that influence
how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, and so forth over
a very long time. In the processes by which structuring decisions are made,
different people are differently situated and possess unequal degrees of power as
well as unequal levels of awareness. 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

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investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical
purposes once the initial commitments are made. In that sense technological
innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a
framework for public order that will endure over many generations. For that
reason, the same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles, and rela
tionships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of high
ways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seemingly
insignificant features on new machines. The issues that divide or unite people in
society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper,
but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete,
wires and transistors, nuts and bolts.

Inherently Political Technologies

None of the arguments and examples considered thus far address a stronger,
more troubling claim often made in writings about technology and society?the
belief that some technologies are by their very nature political in a specific way.

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