Do Artifacts Have Politics?

In this journal article from 1980, Langdon Winner explains different interpretations of the way technologies can have political and social qualities.

For instance, when Moses consciously planned and built the overpasses in New York City at an insufficient height for buses to pass underneath them, thus excluding people, who could not afford a car, from access to certain areas. However, Winner claims that it is normally not the inventor’s intention; that only after the introduction and integration of new technologies into existing systems, do they lose their flexibility and become part of the status quo, which is often authoritarian, centralized and in disregard of social implications. In many cases, it is justified as the practical or most efficient way, but were other possibilities ever considered? In some cases it might even make sense to have one authority in control, such as with nuclear weapons. However, it could be argued that this is an exception to the rule: as a weapon, it is a question of control over its use, and with recycling of old fuel rods, the possibility of misuse as weapon material for acts of war or terror has to be controlled. This is a completely different from introducing mechanical tomato harvesters or building and maintaining railways.

Interestingly, some of Winner’s arguments are still valid after more than 30 years; however, it seems he may have been reading too much into certain situations; solar energy is certainly an example of a technology that benefits from a more democratic and decentralized point of view. But the majority of it stems from the technology itself: the grid is not capable of handling it at the moment and further innovations and upgrades are required to achieve a stable supply of electricity through smart grids. Yet, that does not mean that this technology will not eventually fall in line with the rest of the energy sector and become just another cog in the machinery; maybe being aware of the potential implications will change the course of its development; however, only time will tell.


About AMK @ Ryerson

In the past, I was the experienced IT admin and troubleshooter, but the new me is going to be a creative analyst for sustainable solutions (maybe!).
This entry was posted in HIS 500 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Do Artifacts Have Politics?

  1. Do you know of any examples of technology being used as a social or political tool in your day to day life? I found Langdon Winner’s argument very interesting as I had never really given thought to how technologies could have implicit or explicit social and political underpinnings. You mentioned that you felt Winner was reading into certain situations too much and at first while reading the article that is how I felt. His point about the underpasses made me realize that at face value, ‘things’ may seem unconscious but at a deeper level they perhaps could have meanings that the public is unaware of. That is why I ask about technologies around you that have underlying meanings because I cannot really think of any the way Winner has described and maybe you are right, that he is reading into it too much.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s