Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (5)

I’m finding Winner’s core arguments rather elusive. I am not sure whether that’s my fult as reader or his as writer, but I think that he’s trying awfully hard not to settle for simplistic answers and as a result ends up offering no clear answers at all.

As best I can understand it, the chapter “Techne and Politeia” is primarily arguing that technology has become so intertwined with our political institutions that we cannot have appropriately vigorous and consequential debates about technology without a renewal of political philosophy. That is, people interested in technology need to think more philosophically about politics, and political philosophers need to see technology as a necessary object of their attention. But will either of these things happen?

There’s an interesting anecdote in this chapter: Winner explains that when electronic funds transfer was a new thing, some of his colleagues asked him whether he could articulate some possible danger in a technology that tended to empower large banks and devalue small ones.

I recommended that their research try to show that under conditions of heavy, continued exposure, EFT causes cancer in laboratory animals. . . . My ironic suggestion acknowledged what I take to be the central characteristic of socially acceptable criticism of technology in our time. Unless one can demonstrate conclusively that a particular technical practice will generate some physically evident catastrophe — cancer, birth defects, destruction of the ozone layer, or some other — one might as well remain silent.

The question this situation forces on Winner is this: “Are there no shared ends that matter to us any longer other than the desire to be affluent while avoiding the risk of cancer? It may be that the answer is no.” And if that’s right, then political philosophers, presumably, need to get busy renewing the public conversation about the possible “shared ends” of our society.

I don't think there has been much progress on these matters in the past twenty-five years.

1 comments:

  • Political philosophy as a backdrop for political action hasn't really evaporated. It has merely hardened into dogma that closes conversation before any begins. The internalized assumptions are that holding office is the ultimate good, obstructing the opposition is automatic, market mechanisms will sort out social problems for us, and spinning public debate around the wheel of rhetoric will satisfy the masses that a political conversation is taking place, albeit a nasty, soulless one.

    If the underlying motivation behind political philosophy was to uncover and work toward the public good by careful, thoughtful examination of what constitutes that good, it's clearly been replaced by its counterpart: private interest.

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