Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (2)

When Winner wrote The Whale and the Reactor, in the mid-1980s, personal computers were not yet ubiquitous. I had bought my first computer — the original Macintosh, which still sits in my basement — in the spring of 1985, so that I might have a chance to finish my dissertation while I still had a job. (It was a full-time but temporary appointment which later turned into a tenure-track job.) But I didn't yet know very many people who had taken the same step: most of my colleagues still used typewriters, though some of them used the two big DEC machines that sat in the hallway of our department.

And of course the internet was still unknown to people who were not research scientists or employed by certain branches of the government.

Nevertheless, much that Winner says about the technological status of the society in which he lived sounds like a pretty accurate description of our own. For example, the book’s first words:

The map of the world shows no country called Technopolis, yet in many ways we are already its citizens. If one observes how thoroughly our lives are shaped by interconnected systems of modern technology, how strongly we feel their influence, respect their authority, ad participate in their workings, one begins to understand that, like it or not, we have become members of a new order in human history. To an ever-increasing extent, this order of things transcends national boundaries in order to create roles and relationships grounded in vast, complex instrumentalities of industrial production, electronic communications, transportation, agribusiness, medicine, and warfare. Observing the structures and processes of these vast systems, one begins to comprehend a distinctively modern form of power, the foundations of a technopolitan culture.

The phrases “order of things” and “form of power” strongly suggest Michel Foucault, though, curiously, Foucault is not cited in this book. Also curious is this: when in 1993 Neil Postman published Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, he did not cite Winner.

As I read that opening paragraph of The Whale and the Reactor, what I note is that “electronic communications” is just one among several major technological subcultures listed as dominating our lives. In the intervening quarter-century, it has emerged as the central technological reality of our world, and all other discussions of technology are subordinated to what we think about how computers link us to the rest of the world.


  • Is this any different from typewriters, telephones, telegraphs, trains, and televisions dominating our lives? I am not romantic about the past. Technology can be a servant or a master based on how we use it.

  • "... in order to create roles and relationships ..." also seems to echo Althusser.

    The sheer ubiquity of communication technologies does tend to subordinate most our thinking about technology to thinking about communication, I know it does for me. But I just began Thomas Hughes' Human-Built World, and he immediately pushes against this tendency: "Too often, technology is narrowly equated with computers and the Internet, which are mistakenly assumed to have been invented and developed in a private-enterprise market context ... Americans, especially need to understand [technology's] complex and varied character ..."

    Good reminder, I thought, lest I allow a blind spot to form by focusing exclusively on one form of technology ...

    By the way, glad for your plan to post through your reading of Winner. Looking forward to future posts.

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