The second chapter of The Whale and the Reactor is titled “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”, and it is concerned with the relations between technology and various forms of political life. Winner rightly points out that skeptics and celebrants of technology alike have often insisted that there is a tight bond between technology and politics — and sometimes, of course, the same person can be skeptic and celebrant: consider Richard Stallman, for instance, who believes that proprietary software both promotes and serves tyranny, while open-source software preserves deeply valuable human freedoms. Stallman is deeply skeptical towards one set of technologies, profoundly celebratory of another. And really, that’s probably true of everyone who thinks about technology. After all, the Luddites weren’t against technology per se, just against the technologies that put skilled laborers out of work or made their work less valuable.
Winner places all those who see a tight connection between technology and politics on one side of a divide, and on the other places those who take a more instrumental view: such people see technologies themselves as neutral, and think that how we use them is what matters. In the end Winner does not choose one side or the other, and claims that he is taking a “both/and” position, but perhaps what he does not make sufficiently clear is that one cannot reasonably take one position on such questions that accounts for all technologies. Surely some of them are more demanding and less flexible than others.
And that’s something to be taken into account when we’re thinking of adopting new technologies. As Winner writes,
By far the greatest latitude of choice exists the very first time a particular instrument, system, or technique is introduced. Because choices tend to become strongly fixed in material equipment, economic investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical purposes once the initial commitments are made.
“Vanishes” is too strong, but certainly a sclerosis sets in. I think of all the people I know who utterly despise Microsoft Word and yet feel locked into it, unable to escape its malign clutches. . . .