On Technologies as Forms of Life and Other Matters

On Technologies as Forms of Life and Other Matters

An e-mail interview with
Langdon Winner
Author and professor of Political Science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

[T]he important question about technology becomes, As we "make things work," what kind of world are we making? This suggests that we pay attention not only to the making of physical instruments and processes, although that certainly remains important, but also to the production of psychological, social, and political conditions as a part of any significant technical change. Are we going to design and build circumstances that enlarge possibilities for growth in human freedom, sociability, intelligence, creativity, and self-government? Or are we headed in an altogether different direction?
                  The Whale and the Reactor, p. 17.

Langdon Winner is a political theorist highly regarded for his original and prescient insights into our modern technology especially as it impinges on social and political life. The idea that modern technology is out of control--fiercely debated as it is today--was the subject of his 1977 book Autonomous Technology.. In his 1986 book The Whale and the Reactor he explored the need for limits in "an age of high technology"--again, far in advance of this current hotly-debated issue. In our interview this formidable but always fair-minded critic shares with us some of his recent thinking on the condition of our technological culture.
                  Dolores Brien, Associate Editor, CGJungPage.org

A biographical profile of Langdon Winner and a bibliography of his publications, lectures and interviews can be found at his website at www.rpi.edu/~winner. Also recommended are his essays including "Cybertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community." And don't miss "The AutomaticProfessor Machine," Winner's clever and very funny satire on technology 's assault on higher education. Presently he is writing a book about the politics of design in the context of engineering, architecture and political theory. Another book, a collection of essays on technology and human experience, is also underway as well as a new edition of Autonomous Technology.

The Whale and the Reactor was published nearly fifteen years ago. Everything you discuss in that book is as on the mark today as it was in 1986. What is missing, of course, is the Internet which became dominant only in the nineties. Is the Internet more of the same, or has it brought a radically new dynamism into our high technology?

We must always ask who this "dynamism" is going to benefit. Many of the visions of liberation from high technology strike me as the fantasies suited to the wealthiest 1% in places like Lexington, Seattle and Palo Alto, rather than the economic, technical, and social conditions that confront most of the world's people. After one has purchased one's yacht and Mercedes and has built that lavish trophy home in the Sierras, one can turn one's attention to the horizons of a posthuman, extropian future. We'll download our intelligence, merge with our machines and live forever. Now there's real luxury for you. Utopias announced today strongly resemble the lovely castles and gardens that eighteenth European kings and queens built at Versailles and Sans Souci just before the world came crashing down on them.

But what about the popular enthusiasm for the Internet?

Many aspects of the Internet are beneficial and even more seem highly promising. If people accept the challenge of shaping the medium for their own purposes rather than accept the imprint of anti-Net marketers like AOL Time Warner, the future looks bright. But I'm skeptical of the belief that networked computing is inherently liberating. We must persist in asking: Which new technologies, practices and new institutions would be truly liberating to individuals and world societies? In that light proclamations of today's high-tech gurus are a lousy substitute for vision. Noticing that they can consult with their well-to-do friends in muti-media settings, they conclude that democracy has been restored. Digitally connected to distant contacts who use the same ski equipment and have similar troubles with their personal trainers, they enthuse that community life is being revitalized. For anyone who's studied political theory, today's prophets of digital democracy and digital community make little sense.They score high on narcissism, low on sympathy for the human condition.

What are some other problems you see in the short-term?

An apparently indelible feature of the "new economy" is a widening gap between the very rich and everyone else. After a quarter century in which the wages of most working folks were flat or sinking, average incomes have actually begun to creep up during the past two years, but only to a modest degree. Our economy is geared to realize the ambitions of the top ten percent and to discount everyone else. It resembles a vast casino in which the winners gloat and the losers lick their wounds in silence. By the same token, our political system is now less democracy than plutocracy, government of the rich, a system in which public office and political power are openly bought and sold.

Historical precedent suggests that societies with widening gaps of wealth and power are prone to instability and chronic conflict. It's astonishing that despite a decade of unparalleled economic prosperity, the mood in America is extremely bitter. There's intense cynicism about public life, contempt among differing cultural factions, and a total lack of any sense of the common good. Yet we are told that these are the best of times and that the new technologies will make us even happier.

You pointed out that when it comes to technology most of us are sleep-walking. Do you see any signs that we are coming out of our deep sleep?

At present there is more intense, uncritical worship of "technology" than at in time in memory. This means that a great people simply expect technology to lead the way while they scramble frantically to catch up. Perhaps "sleeprunning" would be a better term for it now. Fortunately, there are also signs that some of the illusions that surround high-tech are in for a stiff reality check. The recent collapse of the dot.com bubble is merely one indication of how thoroughly insubstantial many of the plans and projects associated with the "new economy" have become in recent years.

Going beyond issues of instrumentality and neutrality, you claim our technologies are "forms of life." What do you mean?

The adoption of new technologies often entails a thorough re-weaving of the social fabric. This means that beyond any instrumental uses tools and technical systems have, they also serve as catylsts for sweeping changes in personal habits, social relationships, moral understandings, and political institutions. Television is a well-understood example of a "form of life". After a half century in existence, "television" is less a device for communicating pictures and sounds than it is a comprehensive framework of social and political life. It is no longer something you can "turn off" because it infuses personal and public life so thoroughly. Of course, much of our politics centers exclusively on television. The need to buy TV time for political ads is the source of the pervasive political corruption I mentioned earlier.

Are there other examples of technological "forms of life" that interest you now?

At present many of the basic institutions that have sustained people in this country for generations are being dismantled, a consequence of economic and technical pressures, replaced by ways of living that emphasize market relations and weaken deep, enduring, personal ties. Corporate production processes now prefer work completed on short term contracts. Our personal lives, similarly, presuppose connections that last for relatively brief periods of time. Under these circumstances it is increasingly difficult to build lasting bonds to other people. Electronic communication has become the glue people use in frantic attempts to hold things together. We rely on cell phones, not neighborhoods; email, not extended families; wireless digital devices, not living, stable communities.

The exhilaration that many people feel about the wired world often conceals high levels of stress, disorientation and unease. But problems of this kind receive very little attention. Symptoms often surface in television sit-coms, depicted as the annoying but amusing quirks of frantic, intensely lonely, young adults who struggle to find love and friendship in an increasingly slippery social milieu.

One of the big stumbling blocks to placing limits on technology is the widely held notion that "technology has a life of its own, it is unstoppable." How does this attitude differ from your idea that technologies are "forms of life."

The idea that technology has a life of its own has many dimensions to it. It can mean, for example, that the sociotechnical change is so rapid, so ubiquitous and so throughly unplanned in its outcomes that people experience it as something beyond anybody's control. It can also suggest that the underlying norms that inform patterns of technological change " obsessions with efficiency and profit, for example " are so deeply embedded that they seem to operate independent of our powers of reflection and choice.

My suggestion that technologies are "forms of life" points to opportunities that are before us all the time, opportunities to recognize, negotiate and shape emerging patterns in technology before they penetrate the social order too deeply.

The heart of your book, it seems to me, is about a subject rarely discussed, that is, the intimate relationship between technology and politics. What are "technological politics?" Where and how do you see it at work today as compared to fifteen years ago?

To my way of thinking, the perennial questions of political philosophy and political history are involved in all significant initiatives in technological development. Issues of freedom, justice, order, power, authority, equality and inequality, and the like are present in the design, development and use of technical things. This means that those who hope to be engaged with politics in our time must become skillful in understanding how technologies are introduced, how they operate, how they are involved in the distribution of wealth and power, and how a democratic citizenry might intervene to produce better outcomes.

At the time I wrote The Whale and the Reactor the techno-political issues that mattered most were the arms race, domestic nuclear power, and the effects of computerization in the workplace. While those issues are still very much with us, there are other matters that loom large today -- the politics of information, biotechnology, and flexible production systems among others. There's no great mystery about what's at stake. If you are aware of debates about privacy on the Internet or concerns about the "digital divide," you have a good start in understanding the politics of technology.

"Appropriate technology," which you sympathetically described, had some influence as a countervailing movement in the late seventies and early eighties. How does that movement look today?

Some specific projects in "appropriate technology" are now booming fields of technological development -- organic agriculture, wind and solar energy, recycling, and resource conserving inventions of various kinds. A great many people are taking sensible steps along this path, but giving it different names, "smart engineering" for example. What's missing from today's projects are the utopian dreams and sense of inevitable transformation that characterized alternative technology movements in the 1970s. But perhaps that's just as well. Convincing everyday folks that a desirable, steady transition is underway may be preferable to shocking them with slogans about a green revolution.

Today there is "Technorealism" which seeks some sort of balance between technomania and technophobia, but it lacks, as far as I can tell, a political agenda.

That's right. In fact, it's hard to take "Technorealism" seriously at all. Saying that one is a "realist" is about like declaring you're the most handsome guy in the room. The main concern of self-proclaimed technorealists appears to be how to strike an upbeat pose on high tech while remaining concerned about a range of social issues. But those who've adopted this posture are not strongly engaged in resisting the mischief that characterizes our time -- environmental destruction, the dominance of global corporations, and excessive misapplications of digital technology. Their attempted compromise has fallen flat.

Are there any incipient movements out there which show some promise of effective action in what you refer to as "the search for reasonable moral limits to guide technological civilization?"

Yes, there are a number of promising groundswells. The international organizations that have come together in Seattle and elsewhere to resist globalization are a good example. Several agencies of the United Nations are strongly focused on how to connect technological change to the needs of the world's poorest populations. These concerns are reflected in the U.N. reports on human development that point to enormous challenges for anyone who hopes that technological advance will eliminate hunger and suffering on the planet.

In general, I think there's a growing awareness of sense of the need to democratize technological change at all levels. The Loka Institute has done a fine job demonstrating what such efforts involve. I'm also pleased to see an organization called The Turning Point organizing and publicizing the central themes in humane, positive technology criticism. Their web page and full page ads in the New York Times have carried number of urgent issues out to the broader public.

There's also a no-nonsense approach to resource efficiency and environmental issues in the business world that's worth noting. The book Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, and Amory and Hunter Lovins documents initiatives of this kind. While I'm dubious that capitalism can adapt to the environmental and political challenges we face, the authors give a spirited defense of the role markets can play.

Are there countries or communities that have chosen a wiser path when it comes to technology than the USA?

To my way of thinking, the Scandinavian countries have a much more intelligent, balanced approach to technological change than the United States. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are far more open to the contributions of a wide variety of social groups and philosophical perspectives than we encourage here. Conversations about technological change likely to affect society are often more public, more comprehensive and more democratic, and more imaginative than Americans find comfortable. In addition, Scandinavian societies are also far more resolute than the U.S.A. in recognizing obligations they take on as members of the international community, for example, the responsibility to devote funds to improve the lot of the world's poor and to adhere to the standards established by environmental treaties. To much of the rest of the world, the U.S.A. now seems to be an overfed giant, clueless and eager to shirk its responsibilities. Alas, that was America's posture at the conference on global warming at the Hague in November 2000.

Reading The Whale and the Reactor I became much more aware of how we uncritically we accept such terms "values," "risk," "efficiency""decentralization" "progress," or those notions, for example, which equate information with knowledge and democracy with networking. In the interests of helping us awaken from our somnambulism about technology what commonly accepted expressions prevalent today would you suggest we examine more closely?

One interesting term is "innovation," a word that has replaced "progress" in people's ways of understanding what change involves. Signalled here is a move away from earlier notions that advancing science and technology necessarily contribute to the well-being of the world's population as a whole. The focus on "innovation" points to the need to move ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace as rapidly as possible. Hence there will be new products and and production processes galore. But the benefit that flows from these will be directed at corporate profits and high tech consumerism.

If not the path of "innovation," then which roadmap to the future should people be following?

Basically, I believe that we need to strive for greater justice, democracy and sustainability in the technologies we build and use. The technological paradigm we see today, the one we thoughtlessly impose upon every society, is merely one model from a number of conceivable, feasible technological worlds. This knee-jerk model is one we inherited from the wasteful habits of nineteenth century industrialism when extracting, exploiting and trashing as fast as possible seemed the ideal path to wealth. Alas, we have never fully outgrown those dreadful habits. In addition, many of the obsessions and technologies of the Cold War still define our understanding of what's promising in technical advance. Ask yourself which technologies are praised as high-tech these days, and trace their lineage. A great many of them are progeny of the Pentagon and our bloated military-industrial complex, technologies created for the electronic battlefield, for example.

One can imagine a world in which concerns for resource and energy efficiency, cooperation among nations, and human compassion shaped the course of technological progress. But that is not the world we've gotten. People now worship weird idols -- faster processors, robotic systems, wireless devices and the like. It's a fascinating question: Why do we persist?

Do you agree with Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems that we should consider banning some research into fields such as nanotechnology, robotics and genetic engineering?

I share Bill Joy's sense that the developments in these fields involve grave dangers. The idea of imposing a moratorium on certain kinds of research makes good sense. In some cases another option would be to test possibly calamitous projects very carefully within limited, enclosed settings before releasing them into world at large (if at all!) The ethical norm "first do no harm" should be embraced as fundamental, especially within domains of technical innovation in which great powers could be unleashed. But too often we follow a maxim of a quite different sort: "Hell, why not?" That's the default setting on today's moral compass.

There is one point where I may differ with Joy, although I'm not certain about this. He seems to argue that nothing short of a species-threatening disaster would be sufficient to warrant putting laboratory research and corporate development on hold. Faced with the prospect of our own demise, we need to ask what kind of future our deeds portend. The logic here resembles that of Thomas Hobbes who argued that men will only make moral commitments when faced the imminent threat of death. I believe that there are many urgent problems "not just the specter of species extinction" that ought to cause today's technology makers to seek different maps of invention and commitment. Our hopes, rather than our fears, should lead us forward.

What developments do you anticipate for the year 2001?

I look forward to a significant shift in technical ingenuity and economic investment that reflects a new understanding of the relationship between technological change and well-being. As the true beginning of the new millennium, 2001 will not see the fabled but absurd "space odyssey," but rather a growing recognition of the necessity to shift the energies of invention toward those who are most in need and away from those whose who are already quite comfortable. This means that research and development will focus more heavily on fundamental projects in health, nutrition, sanitation, literacy, communication, education, environmental protection and other issues that affect the vast majority of the world's people. We've got to seek ways of living much more lightly on Earth, affirming the rights of all humans and all creatures who share this planet.

© Dolores Brien and Langdon Winner 2000.
E-mail: Dolores E. Brien at
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.