Review of Langdon Winner’s Whale and the Reactor

25Nov09

I’ve been taking advantage of the Thanksgiving down time to do a bit of filing and shredding, and in the process I came across a book review I wrote for the Social Informatics seminar last spring of Langdon Winner’s Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Even though it was published in 1986, I find it to still be extremely relevant. And I was reminded again as I read my review of how much this book has influenced my own research trajectory and approach. So I thought I would post my review here.

In The Whale and the Reactor, Langdon Winner provides a trenchant analysis of the political dimensions of technology. Although situated in both philosophy of technology and political science, Winner describes it as a ‘work of criticism’, in the tradition of the more familiar literary criticism. He argues for going beyond viewing technology merely in terms of its development and tool-like use to instead look at how technologies contribute to the structuring and organization of human practice and meaning, and shape the very nature of our existence.

The book is a collection of essays divided into three parts: Philosophy of Technology; Technology: Reform and Revolution; and Excess and Limit. In the first section, he considers the nature of technology, particularly as it relates to politics and society. He portrays technologies as ‘forms of life’ that actively shape human activity and meaning; regarding them as morally neutral leads, in his view, to ‘technological somnabulism’ in which we as a society “sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence” (p. 10). He also shows how artifacts can have political qualities by either effectively deciding social issues through their existence or configuration, or by being inherently political. Lastly, he considers technē and politeia, highlighting ways in which technical systems can play the same role as politics in structuring society, only with much less deliberation put into their design than is involved in other democratic political processes.

In the second section on reform and revolution, Winner critiques several concepts and terms that have been used in discussions of technology. He takes the history of the ‘appropriate technology’ movement as one example, telling how it gave up on the broad societal changes pursued by its more radical forebears to instead see hope for societal change in consumerist visions of better technology. Instead of trying to change the world, their goal became building ‘better mousetraps’. Winner also critiques the notion of ‘decentralization’, shedding light on what is a frequently-used but fuzzy concept and pointing out that technological development has tended to reduce the number of centers of control. The concept of ‘computer revolution’ is his last target. He identifies as ‘mythinformation’ the standard argument of computer romantics that computers can provide people with information which will then become knowledge, which will lead to power which will lead to democracy. Although the perceived logic of inevitable social progress through technological development is attractive, Winner points out that there are flaws in every step of this (implicit) argument.

In the third and final section on excess and limit, Winner looks at some of the more overtly political aspects of technology. He explores how conceptions of nature, the framing of issues in terms of risk assessment versus hazard, and the casting of issues in terms of human values can shape environmental policy and decisions. He concludes with a chapter of personal memoir in which he describes how he came to be interested in these political dimensions of technical systems. He summarizes his experience with technological development, as crystallized in his experience of seeing a whale surface in the ocean just offshore from a nuclear power plant construction site, as that of technology going where it has never been.

The Whale and the Reactor is insightful, and at times witty and provocative. Winner points to the urgent need to think clearly and decide democratically about the world we are building through technological systems. However, he by and large leaves open the problem of how to go about addressing this need. One is left with a sense of the importance and urgency of these issues, but generally must look elsewhere for the tools and strategies with which to address them.

Winner’s overarching concern with putting limits on technology (as reflected even in the title of the book) seems to reflect an assumption that problems with technology are ones of scope and degree rather than character, a slant that is perplexing in light of his simultaneous call to look at the political qualities and effects of specific artifacts. Winner is not anti-technology by any means, so this connotation of technology poisoning everything it touches is an odd conceptual dissonance.

Winner’s primary contribution with this book is in his persuasively making the case that technology is political. It is an ordering of the world and human activity. And not only is technology political, but political decisions can also be effected by technological means. In light of this argument that Winner makes, technological decisions should be made consciously, wisely, democratically, and under the full weight of their significance.

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