Winner, The Whale and The Reactor

Langdon. The Whale and The Reactor: A Search For Limits In An Age
of High Technology
. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1986.

Winner launches a strong indictment of overzealous framings of
as inherently good, progressive, and responsible for widespread
social improvements. His approach is deliberately hyperbolic and polemic in many
places; drawing on historical examples of technology’s unfulfilled promises and
working to concretize the slick vocabulary preferred by the most vocal and
uncritical advocates of technological "revolutions," Winner is forthright
about his position as a technology critic. The book stitches
together pieces he published from 1980-1985; Winner’s most pointed emphases are
the limits of technological promises, the impact of technological
encroachments on the natural environment, and social justice–the
effects of technology for those who don’t have access or resources enough to
participate in the sweeping changes. He is deeply skeptical of the
progress narratives
that pit technology as inevitable or altruistic.

Rather than anchoring his strong critique in technological determinism,
Winner establishes a slight variation: technological somnambulism or
sleep-walking, which results from simplistic perspectives of tools as
culturally neutral
and value-free. He works at a relatively high
level–large-scale effects rather than the hands-on encounters with specific

In answer to the question titling chapter 2, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?,"
Winner develops his most memorable example: the low-clearance bridges in
certain Long Island communities were designed to prevent the access of busses
and, thereby, to block the access of any who would make use of low-cost public
transportation. Winner explains that all made things are infused
with political values; technology design is often used for gate-keeping
(preserving social order) and union busting (worker replacement). The
blend of techne (efficiency, as Winner frames it) and
is largely responsible for this. Winner explains the
history of this fusion of politcal and instrumental efficiency as the faulty
promise of capitalist civil society. Notably, he polarizes authority and
democracy (31), suggesting that techne aligns with authority (rather than
participation). Furthermore, everything made is embedded with motivation,
and to a degree, such motivations are materially taxied into the future,
always leading unto unforseeable effects (a perlocutionary effect of things).

Lingering bits:

  • Winner often works on words, the concretization of words: decentralization
    (c. 5), revolution (c. 6), nature (c. 7), risk (c. 8), and values (c. 9).
  • In one place (78), he refers to nuclear power plants as artifacts.
    Why not systems?
  • In his discussion of "decentralization," Winner prefers to account
    for the phenomenon of emergence and distribution using "atomistic"
  • In his closing chapter (the California gray whale in the scene where the
    nuclear reactor is being built), Winner works with what resonates nicely with
    Polanyi’s tacit knowing and personal knowledge (166).

Mythinformation: "the almost religious conviction that a widespread
adoption of computers and communications systems along with easy access to
electronic information will automatically produce a better world for human
living" (105).

Key terms: technological somnambulism (sleepwalking) (5, 10), artificial
realities (3), philosophy of technology (4), progress (5, 171), technological
determinism (9), forms of life (13), inherently political technologies (22),
artifacts (38), efficiency (46, 53), regime of instrumentality (54, 55),
appropriate technology (63), demonstration models (76), "the shoddy" (77),
mousetrap (78), New Age (80), decentralization (85), "atomistic" (93),
participatory democracy (94), revolution (98), mythinformation (105), ideology
(113), ecology (123), naturalistic fallacy (129), shallow environmentalism
(131), deep ecology (131), ecological conscience (132), risk assessment (138),
conservative drift (148), moral limits (155).

"Writers who venture beyond the most pedestrian, dreary conceptions of
tools and uses to investigate ways in which technological forms are implicated
in the basic patterns and problems of our culture are often greeted with the
charge that they are merely ‘antitechnology‘ or ‘blaming technology’"

"The basic task for a philosophy of technology is to examine
critically the nature and significance of artificial aids to human activity"

"If the experience of modern society shows us anything, however, it is that
technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful
forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning
" (6).

"The construction of a technical system that involves human beings as
operating parts brings a reconstruction of social roles and
" (11).

"At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of
modern material culture
can be accurately judged not only for their
contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative
environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody
specific forms of power and authority" (19).

"Histories of architecture, city planning, and public works
contain many examples of physical arrangements with explicit or implicit
political purposes" (23).

"In many instances, to say that some technologies are inherently political
is to say that certain widely accepted reasons of practical
necessity–especially the need to maintain crucial technological systems as
smoothly working entities–have tended to eclipse other sorts of moral and
political reasoning" (36).

"The prevailing consensus seems to be that people love a life of high
, tremble at the thought that it might end, and are
displeased about having to clean up the messes that modern technologies
sometimes bring" (51). ^i.e. anxiety in technological change.

"We should try to imagine and seek to build technical regimes
compatible with freedom, social justice, and other key
political ends
" (55).

"But this eloquence of criticism–and perhaps this is a property of
–is matched by a poverty of practice" (67). ^Applies to
most/all criticism? Winner’s included?

"[Enthusiasts] employ a metaphor of revolution for one purpose
only–to suggest a drastic upheaval, one that people ought to welcome as
good news. It never occurs to them to investigate the idea or its meaning any
further" (101).

"Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power
by those who already had a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of
by those already prepared for control, an augmentation of wealth
by the already wealthy" (107).

"The efficient management of information is revealed as the
telos of modern society
, its greatest mission" (115).