Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (1)

The chief theme of the opening pages of The Whale and the Reactor is the absence of a substantial philosophy of technology: "At this late date in the development of our industrial/technological civilization the most accurate observation to be made about the philosophy of technology is that there really isn't one."

In the quarter-century since Winner wrote those words a great deal more has been done, especially (I would argue) by Albert Borgmann, whom I have mentioned several times in this blog. But in fact more had been done than Winner acknowledges. I think particularly of Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society — originally published in French in 1954 and then in English translation in 1964 — and, farther back, Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization, first published in 1934. Each of these books is cited later in The Whale and the Reactor, but rarely and briefly, and I can't help wondering how Winner's book would have been different if he had reckoned more seriously with these major predecessors. Instead he leans pretty heavily on Wittgenstein, and I am not sure those ideas about language and “forms of life” translate very well to the task of making sense of technology. It seems to me that Winner missed out on some useful possibilities in neglecting such thinkers as Ellul and Mumford. This is just a first impression, of course, and I'll come back to these thoughts later.

(I see that Winner has written a foreword to a new edition of Mumford’s book.)

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