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A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology
By Langdon Winner
The University of Chicago Press, 1986, 200 pages

Langdon Winner has made a name for himself as something of a neo-Luddite or technophobe. But I prefer to think of him as a public historian who raises the very questions many of us are reluctant to ask about new information technologies. This far-sighted and still-timely collection of ten essays explores some the social, political, and philosophical ramifications of these technologies. While he looks at computer networking, nuclear reactors, genetic engineering, the so-called appropriate-technology movement and a variety of other specific issues, his main focus is on the way we think about technology. He believes that, unlike other forms of human creativity, technology has never been considered a subject worthy of philosophical inquiry. This is reflected in our general approach to technology which is more concerned with "how things work" and "making things work" than with the moral and political significance of technical systems in themselves. If we are to awaken from what he calls our "technological somnambulism," a condition in which progress is driven by technology itself rather than by the vision and innovation of society at large, then we need a new approach — "a philosophy of technology" — that examines the consequences and wider implications of technology in our lives.

Winner contends that technologies are not merely aids to human activity but also powerful forces that give meaning and direction to our lives. Conditions of power, authority, freedom, and social justice are often deeply embedded in technical devices. The physical arrangements of industrial production, warfare, communications, etc., have not only transformed the exercise of power and the experience of citizenship but they have also introduced "inherently political technologies" which are, by their very nature, centralized or decentralized, egalitarian or inegalitarian, repressive or liberating. "Some kinds of technology," he writes, "require their social environments to be structured in a particular way in much the same sense that an automobile requires wheels in order to move."

Winner illustrates the dangers of our society's unquestioning faith in technology by examining the concept of "risk" and the practice of "risk assessment" — one of the ways commonly used for choosing between competing technologies. Examining technologies solely on the basis of risk and benefit ignores the larger moral and political dimensions, he argues. Moreover, by substituting "risk" for the more straightforward concept of "danger" current debates about issues such as environmental policy shift the burden of proof to those who resist technological innovation.

In a beautifully crafted essay called "Mythinformation," he deconstructs many of the silly arguments put forth by Internet enthusiasts about the so-called digital revolution. He describes the pervasive "computer romanticism" of our times as rooted in a "woefully distorted picture of the role of electronic systems in social life." He devotes special attention to the political hopes and expectations of computer enthusiasts which he says are based on an unrealistic faith in the value of information, rather than public knowledge and wisdom.

He also looks at the "optimistic technophilia" that characterizes much of the current interest in electronic democracy. The notion that new technologies will produce increased democratization, participation, and social equality does not stand up to scrutiny, he insists. Not only have empirical studies shown that powerful groups tend to use new technologies to retain political control, but the whole idea is grounded in a faulty understanding of democracy. Proponents of electronic democracy subscribe to the belief that democracy is first and foremost a matter of distributing information. They maintain that more people need more information because information is knowledge, knowledge is power, and therefore methods to increase access to power automatically enhance democracy and equalize social power. This is a myth, according to Winner. Genuine democracy involves the pursuit of common ends through discussion, deliberation, and collective decision, not "logging onto one's computer, receiving the latest information, and sending back an instantaneous digitized response."

Winner fears that our instruments have become institutions in the making — that in our time "techne has at last become politeia." The idea that a society might try to guide its sociotechnical development according to self-conscious, critically evaluated standards of form and limit is no longer simply a good idea, it is an imperative. "Because technological innovation is inextricably linked to processes of social reconstruction, any society that hopes to control its own structural evolution must confront each significant set of technological possibilities with scrupulous care."

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.