Sunday, April 8, 2012

Do Technologies Have Politics?

I've been exploring the idea that technology isn't just a collection of things which can be used interchangeably for either good or ill. Technologies shape the world and the range of choices we have. For example, in my last post, I suggested that real-time technologies may have effects for the ways we do finance. Our question today is: if technologies can shape financial decisions, can they shape politics as well?

It's one thing to say that technologies are used for political ends and another to say that technology is political. The latter is Langdon Winner's claim. If politics is about power and authority, then at least some technologies are political if they embody, define, or exert the power of some people over others.

Technologies are obviously political when they are used as tools of control. It is often feared that new computer technologies will allow governments to spy on people in order to control illegal activities. But forms of control can take much subtler forms. For example, when Robert Moses designed many public works in New York City in the mid 20th century, he designed them so that people could not get to them via public transportation. The overpasses he constructed have a clearance of only 9 feet--far too low for buses and those who would ride them to get to Jones Beach. Similarly, many people don't realize that the grand boulevards of Paris were designed by Baron Haussmann in the mid 19th century as a form of riot control.  As a Penn State alum, I can tell you that narrow streets are much more conducive to riots than open fields.

These are examples of technologies being used to empower some and dis-empower others. But are some technologies inherently political? I think so. Marx and Engels called for factory workers to take over control of 'the means of production,' but Engels later argued that the very technology of industrial manufacturing requires a division between workers and elites. How can you run a factory without a boss?

Winner endorses solar power over nuclear energy because it can be decentralized and doesn't require the scientific and bureaucratic elites who make decisions without the knowledge of anyone else, as in the case of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. For months, the Japanese government and TEPCO lied to people about the seriousness of the accident. Countless polls show that support for nuclear power is at an all-time low across the world, with Germany abandoning future plans for construction. Nuclear fallout is an issue, of course, but I think people are really worried about the forms of power that are inseperable from nuclear energy.

Visit Japan, future skate park capital of the world.

Technologies that shapes public opinion and collective decision-making are also inherently political. Before the invention of the printing press, it would have been impossible to have democracy on anything other than a very small scale. Though it required a set of elites who broadcast information to information consumers, and though, as Walter Lippmann worried, most people would never get the whole truth, the dynamic duo of newspapers and democracy were better than any alternative. Pamphlets made the American Revolution possible.

I, for one, welcome our new search engine overlords.
Today, internet technologies are already reshaping power. The decline of major 1-directional or broadcast media, including newspapers, is heralded by some as the dawn of a new, more democratic age. Like much breathless optimism about technology, such claims should be taken with a grain of salt. Most internet traffic is routed through about five sites, a problem Michael Hindman terms Googlearchy. Most influential political bloggers are white males who went to ivy league schools. But there are many precedents for thinking that new technologies can undermine and recreate power in radical ways. These will be fought by the old guard and embraced by the new.

It comes back again to: what kind of technology do we want?


  1. That was a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are. Very insightful.

  2. A pencil isn't political; the person wielding the pencil is (or can be). I get what you're saying about the political design of technology -- like those Paris streets -- but it still goes back to the designer. I dare say sometimes the results of technology aren't what the designer intended. :)

  3. Cool thought about the politics of energy production and the decentralized form of solar power.


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