Some Thoughts on Langdon Winner’s “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”

This essay seems especially relevant to today’s situation, even though written 38 years ago.   Winner frames his overall argument in a dichotomy:  that between democratic and authoritarian technology.  Democratic technology is human-centered.  Authoritarian technology is system-centered.  Winner locates the ultimate expression of authoritarianism in our society in the phenomenon of the atomic bomb and nuclear power facilities in general.  This stuff is just too dangerous to have any other kind of system in place.  Such a protocol as is implemented in its control can only lead society to the authoritarian right.  In other words, it becomes a paradigm for all purposeful activity; it then radiates out from its center in its control of the weaponry and nuclear power facilities, out to the large corporations, and then…then what?  More on this below.

Winner takes pains to establish that it is possible and valid to think of technology as having a political dimension, but begins by looking at the problem from the opposite perspective.  One does not want to be glib in rejecting the “technology is neutral” thesis.   The key point in the successful articulation of a fully adequate theory of the politics of technology, according to Winner, is to critique “naive technological determinism”, that technology develops solely, irrespective of its social determinations, by an internal dynamic and then proceeds to regulate everything according to its own paradigm.  The whole notion of “autonomous technology” is a slippery one; just what does one mean by “autonomous” in this context?  Human beings invented it, and it must be developed and maintained by humans or it would cease to exist.  But I maintain that insisting on the finality of this position is a mere obstinacy.  Once certain parameters are established, the whole apparatus functions as if it is autonomous.  As Ellul puts it in The Technological Society:  “The complete separation of the goal from the mechanism, the limitation of the problem to the means, and the refusal to interfere in any way with efficiency, all this is clearly expressed by Taylor and lies at the basis of technical autonomy.”  And so this technological imperative rests on a refraining: a refusal to interfere with efficiency.  And the signs of the process of the subsuming of human ends to technical means are proliferating;  this trend has been building now for over a hundred years, brought to fruition by Frederick Winslow Talyor and his minions. The point is that this process of “rationalization” of workplace activity, while seemingly proceeding from a neutral standpoint necessitated by commercial survival, has the character it does because of the values which subtend it.

Winner, in my estimation, wastes considerable energy in the earlier part of the essay by citing certain kinds of examples of politicized technology that are really beside the point.  The key point, that Winner finally makes nine pages into his 18-page essay, is that there really is at work an “ongoing social process in which scientific knowledge, technological invention, and corporate profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns that bear the unmistakable stamp of political and economic power.”  This is a different argument than is put forward by more globally-oriented thinkers such as Jacques Ellul, and Winner again gets bogged down in parsing of specific features in the design or arrangement of technical systems as a way of addressing the problem of the deeply entrenched patterns of political and economic power.  But then he is after all, merely following out his initial assertion that there is a marked dichotomy between an  authoritarian and a democratic way of implementing technology.  For Ellul, democratic or oligarchic is beside the point.  Ellul is operating from the same mindset as Marcel Duchamp who objected to the scientific spirit as such, maintaining that it was against the interests of humanity because it “imposes mechanization upon the affective domain.”  Would it really make any substantive difference in furthering the cause of human autonomy if the slaughterhouses were powered by solar instead of coal energy?  The question is not what unites or divides us, but what subjugates or liberates us.

Finally. at this juncture, 11 pages into the essay, Winner gets to the main points of consideration.  In introducing the idea of a technological scenario which does not admit of any meaningful variations which could dispel the spectre of authoritarianism, he cites Engels’ short essay “On Authority” which was directed against the utopian anarchists who were maintaining so foolishly that all domination of one man or group of men over others was unjustifiable.  Engels uses the example of mechanized cloth production as practiced in the cotton-spinning mills of the day.  Winner writes, “Because these tasks must be coordinated, and because the timing of the work is ‘fixed by the authority of the steam’, laborers must learn to accept a rigid discipline.  They must, according to Engels, work at regular hours and agree to subordinate their individual wills to the persons in charge of factory operations.”  Engels:  “The automatic machinery of a big factory is much more despotic than the small capitalists who employ workers ever have been.”     Engels is maintaning that this is no idiosyncracy particular to capitalist systems, but that these relationships of authority and subordination arise independently of all social organization. This position contrasts most starkly with Engels’ comrade-in-arms, a certain Karl Marx, who, in Capital, tried to demonstrate that increasing mechanization would sweep away the old hierarchical divisions of labor, even in the old cpaitalist system to some extent.  But ultimately, in Marx’s view, it was the capitalistic forms of structuring labor that were responsible for industry’s authoritarian form.  This polemic comes down to us in the implied debate between Jacques Ellul (and Friedrich Engels) and such modern-day Marxists as Herbert Marcuse, who takes the Marxian line on this question without the slightest deviation. But Winner, again after some detours into less pertinent particulars, finally finds the groove: “If we examine social patterns that comprise the environments of technical systems, we find certain devices and systems almost invariably linked to specific ways of organizing power and authority.  The important question is:  Does this state of affairs derive from an unavoidable social response to intractable properties in the things themselves, or is it instead a pattern imposed independently by a governing body…?” Winner nominates the atomic bomb as a candidate for the primacy of the former viewpoint.  “As long as it exists at all, its lethal properties demand that it be controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all influences that might make its workings unpredictable.  The internal social system of the bomb must be authoritarian; there is no other way.”  It’s certainly hard to disagree with that.  Kind of makes mincemeat of Marx’s idea of the progression away from the division of labor as modern industry evolves.  From here it is an easy jump to the idea that the Bomb, trailed by its lap-dog, large-scale industrial organization, functions as an organizing principle for the entire social apparatus.  Winner goes on to speak of the technocracy uniting with large-scale business interests to put everyday democratic society on the defensive.  The armies of workers necessary to run the railroads, airlines, and oil refineries go back to their homes after work and live the democratic life.  Or do they?  One must at this juncture confront the spectre of a form of insidious seepage of the values of large-scale business into the social sphere as a whole. Winner:  “Certain widely accepted reasons of practical necessity…have tended to eclipse other sorts of moral and political reasoning.”  This phenomenon cannot be wholly kept separate from the polity, as considered from the point of view of its extraindustrial aspect.  The table has thus been set for the emergence of the authoritarian state.  And now we return to the chilling words of Carl Schmitt:  The true meaning of the technological age can only be realised when it becomes apparent what kind of politics it takes to master the new technology.”




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