Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (final installment)

Let me conclude these posts on Winner’s book by looking at its third and last section, “Excess and Limit.” Winner’s approach throughout the book has been to pursue (as the book’s subtitle has it) “a search for limits in an age of high technology”; his assumption throughout has been that limits on technology are indeed needed, and needed for the health of the body politic. (I am not sure that he ever argues for this assumption with the clarity and force that he needs to.)

So if we need, at least sometimes, to be able to set limits to technological development, what criteria should we employ to guide us? It is typical, Winner explains, for us to invoke the concept of risk, and to argue that we should avoid unnecessarily hazardous risks. Winner doesn't like this because he thinks — I’m going to have to oversimplify here — the language of risk often masks deeper and more serious concerns. What kind of risk? What is being risked? Who is experiencing risk? Ask these questions and you open the door to much deeper matters of social inequality and injustice.

Perhaps then we should speak of the right technology as that most in keeping with “nature.” Alas, Winner concludes, that won't work either: the invocation of “nature” is incoherent and overly limiting. So how about speaking in terms of the best “values”? “Let us not waste time with ‘values.’ When you knock on that door, however loudly, no one answers.”

This brings us to the last chapter, in which Winner reflects on his own California upbringing and the construction, near his childhood home, of the Diablo Canyon Reactor. To the presence of this massive power plant in a magnificent coastal setting, Winner responds:

To put the matter bluntly, in that place, on that beach, against those rocks, mountains, sands, and seas, the power plant at Diablo Canyon is simply a hideous mistake. It is out of place, out of proportion, out of reason. It stands as a permanent insult to its natural and cultural surroundings. The thing should never have been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit calculations may have shown. Its presence is a tribute to those who cherish power and profit over everything in nature and our common humanity.

I’m inclined to agree. But it is not at all clear, here at the end of The Whale and the Reactor, what Winner thinks should be done about this situation. He passionately believes — and I sympathize strongly with this sentiment — that it simply ought to be obvious to everyone that there’s something profoundly inappropriate, indecorous, offensive about placing a power plant in such a setting. But it wasn’t obvious. The plant got built, and the protests against its construction have largely been forgotten.

Thus Winner’s concern for restoring our political culture: he wants the American people to be formed, intellectually and morally, in such a way that what should be obvious to them is obvious — so that a project like the Diablo Canyon plant would be a political non-starter. But even if one agrees completely with Winner that that is indeed a consummation devoutly to be wished, I don't see how The Whale and the Reactor gets us any closer to figuring out how to make that happen. A convincing case for technological limits, and the right technological limits, remains to be made.


  • It's difficult to disagree with a call for "restoring our political culture" in the face of what's happened over the past decades (pick your jumping off point). One set of upheavals has yielded to subsequent sets until our basic humanity has been thoroughly muted, a fact that isn't obvious but should be (i.e., it takes humanity to recognize the loss of it). What shines through instead is the brutal, calculating instrumental reality that regards the world (and each other) as little more than resource material for manipulation and exploitation. If Winner has failed to crystalize and argue the idea effectively, that's too bad; he apparently sensed it. Others have sensed it, too, and once in a while, an effective description makes it past the din of commerce and finds a receptive ear.

  • Others have sensed it, too, and once in a while, an effective description makes it past the din of commerce and finds a receptive ear.

    Very true. I find myself wondering, though, whether it's possible to make an effective argument that will sway those who simply don't sense a problem.

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