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We have covered two crucial concepts in technology: technological determinism and sociological determinism. A quick recap of these two concepts:

Marshall McLuhan argues that technology that delivers the message changes us, society, individuals, work, leisure, and perhaps how we experience the world. The railway accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating new kinds of cities and new types of work and leisure. Does the artifact you chose to analyze change us, society, work, or the ways in which we experience the world? For example, Nicholas Carr argues that the way we use the Internet changes our brains can lead to distraction and shallow thoughts.

Langdon Winner argues that the technical arrangements and the designs of artifacts affect society or what people can do. He adds that artifacts can embody overt political effects, for example, the low bridges in Parkway, New York. But not all inventions have ill-intentions embedded in its designs and adoption. In some cases, it’s hard to say that someone wants to harm others. However, what happens might be because technology that looks like it is effective and convenient can favor certain social groups and provide unequal benefits such as the tomato harvester in CA that gave unequal benefits to the larger companies smaller producers out of business. Do you see the unequal interests in the artifact’s efficiency? Who benefits from that? How might that perpetuate certain socio-economical disadvantages in specific segments of the population?

Understanding Media:
The Extensions of Man
by Marshall McLuhan
The Medium is the Message
In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a
means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the
personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. Thus, with automation, for example,
the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate jobs it is true. That is the
negative result. Positively, automation creates roles for people, which is to say
depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical technology had destroyed. Many people would be disposed to say that it
was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or
message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one
another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped
by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The
essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in
depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.
The instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection.
The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were,
unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all
media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The
content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and
print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, “What is the content of speech?,”
it is necessary to say, “It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.” An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs. What we are considering here,
however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they
amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or
technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human
affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road
into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human
functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.
This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environ-
ment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. The
airplane, on the other hand, by accelerating the rate of transportation, tends to dissolve the railway form of city, politics, and association, quite independently of
what the airplane is used for.
Let us return to the electric light. Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale
and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are
as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed,
it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of
the medium. It is only today that industries have become aware of the various
kinds of business in which they are engaged. When IBM discovered that it was not
in the business of making office equipment or business machines, but that it was in
the business of processing information, then it began to navigate with clear vision.
The General Electric Company makes a considerable portion of its profits from
electric light bulbs and lighting systems. It has not yet discovered that, quite as
much as A.T.&T., it is in the business of moving information.
The electric light escapes attention as a communication medium just because it
has no “content.” And this makes it an invaluable instance of how people fail to
study media at all.
For it is not till the electric light is used to spell out some brand name that it is
noticed as a medium. Then it is not the light but the “content” (or what is really
another medium) that is noticed. The message of the electric light is like the message of electric power in industry, totally radical, pervasive, and decentralized. For
electric light and power are separate from their uses, yet they eliminate time and
space factors in human association exactly as do radio, telegraph, telephone, and
TV, creating involvement in depth.
A fairly complete handbook for studying the extensions of man could be made
up from selections from Shakespeare. Some might quibble about whether or not he
was referring to TV in these familiar lines from Romeo and Juliet:
But soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It speaks, and yet says nothing.
In Othello, which, as much as King Lear, is concerned with the torment of people
transformed by illusions, there are these lines that bespeak Shakespeare’s intuition
of the transforming powers of new media:
Is there not charms
By which the property of youth and maidhood
May be abus’d? Have you not read Roderigo,
Of some such thing?
In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which is almost completely devoted to
both a psychic and social study of communication, Shakespeare states his awareness that true social and political navigation depend upon anticipating the consequences of innovation:
The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,
Keeps place with thought, and almost like the gods
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.
The increasing awareness of the action of media, quite independently of their
“content” or programming, was indicated in the annoyed and anonymous stanza:
In modern thought, (if not in fact)
Nothing is that doesn’t act,
So that is reckoned wisdom which
Describes the scratch but not the itch.
The same kind of total, configurational awareness that reveals why the medium is socially the message has occurred in the most recent and radical medical
theories. In his Stress of Life, Hans Selye tells of the dismay of a research
co11eague on hearing of Selye’s theory:
When he saw me thus launched on yet another enraptured description of
what I had observed in animals treated with this or that impure, toxic material, he looked at me with desperately sad eyes and said in obvious despair:
“But Selye try to realize what you are doing before it is too late! You have
now decided to spend your entire life studying the pharmacology of dirt!”
(Hans Selye, The Stress of Life)
As Selye deals with the total environmental situation in his “stress” theory of
disease, so the latest approach to media study considers not only the “content” but
the medium and the cultural matrix within which the particular medium operates.
The older unawareness of the psychic and social effects of media can be illustrated
from almost any of the conventional pronouncements.
In accepting an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame a few
years ago, General David Sarnoff made this statement: “We are too prone to make
technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The
products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they
are used that determines their value.” That is the voice of the current somnambulism. Suppose we were to say, “Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the
way it is used that determines its value.” Or, “The smallpox virus is in itself neither
good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value.” Again, “Firearms
are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines
their value.” That is, if the slugs reach the right people firearms are good. If the TV
tube fires the right ammunition at the right people it is good. I am not being perverse. There is simply nothing in the Sarnoff statement that will bear scrutiny, for
it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus
style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new
technical form. General Sarnoff went on to explain his attitude to the technology of
print, saying that it was true that print caused much trash to circulate, but it had
also disseminated the Bible and the thoughts of seers and philosophers. It has
never occurred to General Sarnoff that any technology could do anything but add
itself on to what we already are.
Such economists as Robert Theobald, W. W. Rostow, and John Kenneth Galbraith have been explaining for years how it is that “classical economics” cannot
explain change or growth. And the paradox of mechanization is that although it is
itself the cause of maximal growth and change, the principle of mechanization excludes the very possibility of growth or the understanding of change. For mechanization is achieved by fragmentation of any process and by putting the fragmented
parts in a series. Yet, as David Hume showed in the eighteenth century, there is no
principle of causality in a mere sequence. That one thing follows another accounts
for nothing. Nothing follows from following, except change. So the greatest of all
reversals occurred with electricity, that ended sequence by making things instant.
With instant speed the causes of things began to emerge to awareness again, as
they had not done with things in sequence and in concatenation accordingly. Instead of asking which came first, the chicken or the egg, it suddenly seemed that a
chicken was an egg’s idea for getting more eggs.
Just before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible
on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an
apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just
as the earlier forms reach their peak performance. Mechanization was never so vividly fragmented or sequential as in the birth of the movies, the moment that translated us beyond mechanism into the world of growth and organic interrelation. The
movie, by sheer speeding up the mechanical, carried us from the world of sequence
and connections into the world of creative configuration and structure. The message of the movie medium is that of transition from lineal connections to configurations. It is the transition that produced the now quite correct observation: “If it
works, it’s obsolete.” When electric speed further takes over from mechanical
movie sequences, then the lines of force in structures and in media become loud
and clear. We return to the inclusive form of the icon.
To a highly literate and mechanized culture the movie appeared as a world of
triumphant illusions and dreams that money could buy. It was at this moment of
the movie that cubism occurred and it has been described by E. H. Gombrich (Art
and Illusion) as “the most radical attempt to stamp out ambiguity and to enforce
one reading of the picture—that of a man-made construction, a colored canvas.”
For cubism substitutes all facets of an object simultaneously for the “point of
view” or facet of perspective illusion. Instead of the specialized illusion of the third
dimension on canvas, cubism sets up an interplay of planes and contradiction or
dramatic conflict of patterns, lights, textures that “drives home the message” by
involvement. This is held by many to be an exercise in painting, not in illusion.
In other words, cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back,
and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favor
of instant sensory awareness of the whole. Cubism, by seizing on instant total
awareness, suddenly announced that the medium is the message. Is it not evident
that the moment that sequence yields to the simultaneous, one is in the world of the
structure and of configuration? Is that not what has happened in physics as in
painting, poetry, and in communication? Specialized segments of attention have
shifted to total field, and we can now say, “The medium is the message” quite
naturally. Before the electric speed and total field, it was not obvious that the medium is the message. The message, it seemed, was the “content,” as people used to
ask what a painting was about. Yet they never thought to ask what a melody was
about, nor what a house or a dress was about. In such matters, people retained
some sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity. But in the electric
age this integral idea of structure and configuration has become so prevalent that
educational theory has taken up the matter. Instead of working with specialized
“problems” in arithmetic, the structural approach now follows the lines of force in
the field of number and has small children meditating about number theory and
Cardinal Newman said of Napoleon, “He understood the grammar of gunpowder.” Napoleon had paid some attention to other media as well, especially the
semaphore telegraph that gave him a great advantage over his enemies. He is on
record for saying that “Three hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”
Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to master the grammar of print and typography. He was thus able to read off the message of coming change in France and
America as if he were reading aloud from a text that had been handed to him. In
fact, the nineteenth century in France and in America was just such an open book
to de Tocqueville because he had learned the grammar of print. So he, also, knew
when that grammar did not apply. He was asked why he did not write a book on
England, since he knew and admired England. He replied:
One would have to have an unusual degree of philosophical folly to believe oneself able to judge England in six months. A year always seemed
to me too short a time in which to appreciate the United States properly,
and it is much easier to acquire clear and precise notions about the American Union than about Great Britain. In America all laws derive in a sense
from the same line of thought. The whole of society, so to speak, is
founded upon a single fact; everything springs from a simple principle.
One could compare America to a forest pierced by a multitude of straight
roads all converging on the same point. One has only to find the center and
everything is revealed at a glance. But in England the paths run criss-cross,
and it is only by travelling down each one of them that one can build up a
picture of the whole.
De Tocqueville in earlier work on the French Revolution, had explained how it
was the printed word that, achieving cultural saturation in the eighteenth century,
had homogenized the French nation. Frenchmen were the same kind of people
from north to south. The typographic principles of uniformity, continuity, and lineality had overlaid the complexities of ancient feudal and oral society. The Revolution was carried out by the new literati and lawyers.
In England, however, such was the power of the ancient oral traditions of
common law, backed by the medieval institution of Parliament, that no uniformity
or continuity of the new visual print culture could take complete hold. The result
was that the most important event in English history has never taken place;
namely, the English Revolution on the lines of the French Revolution. The American Revolution had no medieval legal institutions to discard or to root out, apart
from monarchy. And many have held that the American Presidency has become
very much more personal and monarchical than any European monarch ever could
De Tocqueville’s contrast between England and America is clearly based on
the fact of typography and of print culture creating uniformity and continuity. England, he says, has rejected this principle and clung to the dynamic or oral commonlaw tradition. Hence the discontinuity and unpredictable quality of English culture.
The grammar of print cannot help to construe the message of oral and nonwritten
culture and institutions. The English aristocracy was properly classified as barbarian by Matthew Arnold because its power and status had nothing to do with literacy or with the cultural forms of typography. Said the Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon upon the publication of his Decline and Fall: “Another damned fat
book, eh, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?” De Tocqueville was a highly literate aristocrat who was quite able to be detached from the
values and assumptions of typography. That is why he alone understood the
grammar of typography. And it is only on those terms, standing aside from any
structure or medium, that its principles and lines of force can be discerned. For any
medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction
and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance. But the
greatest aid to this end is simply in knowing that the spell can occur immediately
upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody.
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster is a dramatic study of the inability of oral
and intuitive oriental culture to meet with the rational, visual European patterns of
experience. “Rational,” of course, has for the West long meant “uniform and continuous and sequential.” In other words, we have confused reason with literacy,
and rationalism with a single technology. Thus in the electric age man seems to the
conventional West to become irrational. In Forster’s novel the moment of truth and
dislocation from the typographic trance of the West comes in the Marabar Caves.
Adela Quested’s reasoning powers cannot cope with the total inclusive field of
resonance that is India. After the Caves: “Life went on as usual, but had no consequences, that is to say, sounds did not echo nor thought develop. Everything
seemed cut off at its root and therefore infected with illusion.”
A Passage to India (the phrase is from Whitman, who saw America headed
Eastward) is a parable of Western man in the electric age, and is only incidentally
related to Europe or the Orient. The ultimate conflict between sight and sound, between written and oral kinds of perception and organization of existence is upon
us. Since understanding stops action, as Nietzsche observed, we can moderate the
fierceness of this conflict by understanding the media that extend us and raise these
wars within and without us.
Detribalization by literacy and its traumatic effects on tribal man is the theme
of a book by the psychiatrist J. C. Carothers, The African Mind in Health and Disease (World Health Organization, Geneva, 1953). Much of his material appeared
in an article in Psychiatry magazine, November, 1959: “The Culture, Psychiatry,
and the Written Word.” Again, it is electric speed that has revealed the lines of
force operating from Western technology in the remotest areas of bush, savannah,
and desert. One example is the Bedouin with his battery radio on board the camel.
Submerging natives with floods of concepts for which nothing has prepared them
is the normal action of all of our technology. But with electric media Western man
himself experiences exactly the same inundation as the remote native. We are no
more prepared to encounter radio and TV in our literate milieu than the native of
Ghana is able to cope with the literacy that takes him out of his collective tribal
world and beaches him in individual isolation. We are as numb in our new electric
world as the native involved in our literate and mechanical culture.
Electric speed mingles the cultures of prehistory with the dregs of industrial
marketeers, the nonliterate with semiliterate and the postliterate. Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation
with new information and endless new patterns of information. Wyndham Lewis
made this a theme of his group of novels called The Human Age. The first of these,
The Childermass, is concerned precisely with accelerated media change as a kind
of massacre of the innocents. In our own world as we become more aware of the
effects of technology on psychic formation and manifestation, we are losing all
confidence in our right to assign guilt. Ancient prehistoric societies regard violent
crime as pathetic. The killer is regarded as we do a cancer victim. “How terrible it
must be to feel like that,” they say. J. M. Synge took up this idea very effectively
in his Playboy of the Western World.
If the criminal appears as a nonconformist who is unable to meet the demand
of technology that we behave in uniform and continuous patterns, literate man is
quite inclined to see others who cannot conform as somewhat pathetic. Especially
the child, the cripple, the woman, and the colored person appear in a world of visual and typographic technology as victims of injustice. On the other hand, in a cul-
ture that assigns roles instead of jobs to people—the dwarf, the skew, the child create their own spaces. They are not expected to fit into some uniform and repeatable
niche that is not their size anyway. Consider the phrase “It’s a man’s world.” As a
quantitative observation endlessly repeated from within a homogenized culture,
this phrase refers to the men in such a culture who have to be homogenized Dagwoods in order to belong at all. It is in our I.Q. testing that we have produced the
greatest flood of misbegotten standards. Unaware of our typographic cultural bias,
our testers assume that uniform and continuous habits are a sign of intelligence,
thus eliminating the ear man and the tactile man.
C. P. Snow, reviewing a book of A. L. Rowse (The New York Times Book Review, December 24, 1961) on Appeasement and the road to Munich, describes the
top level of British brains and experience in the 1930s. “Their I.Q.’s were much
higher than usual among political bosses. Why were they such a disaster?” The
view of Rowse, Snow approves: “They would not listen to warnings because they
did not wish to hear.” Being anti-Red made it impossible for them to read the message of Hitler. But their failure was as nothing compared to our present one. The
American stake in literacy as a technology or uniformity applied to every level of
education, government, industry, and social life is totally threatened by the electric
technology. The threat of Stalin or Hitler was external. The electric technology is
within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, blind, and mute about its encounter with
the Gutenberg technology, on and through which the American way of life was
formed. It is, however, no time to suggest strategies when the threat has not even
been acknowledged to exist. I am in the position of Louis Pasteur telling doctors
that their greatest enemy was quite invisible, and quite unrecognized by them. Our
conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts,
is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the “content” of a medium is like
the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.
The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as “content.” The content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera.
The effect of the movie form is not related to its program content. The “content” of
writing or print is speech, but the reader is almost entirely unaware either of print
or of speech.
Arnold Toynbee is innocent of any understanding of media as they have
shaped history’ but he is full of examples that the student of media can use. At one
moment he can seriously suggest that adult education, such as the Workers Educational Association in Britain, is a useful counterforce to the popular press. Toynbee
considers that although all of the oriental societies have in our time accepted the
industrial technology and its political consequences: “On the cultural plane, however, there is no uniform corresponding tendency.” (Somervell, I. 267) This is like
the voice of the literate man, floundering in a milieu of ads, who boasts, “Personally, I pay no attention to ads.” The spiritual and cultural reservations that the oriental peoples may have toward our technology will avail them not at all. The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense
ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious
artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because
he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.
The operation of the money medium in seventeenth century Japan had effects
not unlike the operation of typography in the West. The penetration of the money
economy, wrote G. B. Sansom (in Japan, Cresset Press, London, 1931) “caused a
slow but irresistible revolution, culminating in the breakdown of feudal government and the resumption of intercourse with foreign countries after more than two
hundred years of seclusion.” Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just
because it is an extension of our sense lives. This change does not depend upon
approval or disapproval of those living in the society.
Arnold Toynbee made one approach to the transforming power of media in his
concept of “etherialization,” which he holds to be the principle of progressive simplification and efficiency in any organization or technology. Typically, he is ignoring the effect of the challenge of these forms upon the response of our senses. He
imagines that it is the response of our opinions that is relevant to the effect of media and technology in society, a “point of view” that is plainly the result of the typographic spell. For the man in a literate and homogenized society ceases to be
sensitive to the diverse and discontinuous life of forms. He acquires the illusion of
the third dimension and the “private point of view” as part of his Narcissus fixation, and is quite shut off from Blake’s awareness or that of the Psalmist, that we
become what we behold.
Today when we want to get our bearings in our own culture, and have need to
stand aside from the bias and pressure exerted by any technical form of human expression, we have only to visit a society where that particular form has not been
felt, or a historical period in which it was unknown. Professor Wilbur Schramm
made such a tactical move in studying Television in the Lives of Our Children. He
found areas where TV had not penetrated at all and ran some tests. Since he had
made no study of the peculiar nature of the TV image, his tests were of “content”
preferences, viewing time, and vocabulary counts. In a word, his approach to the
problem was a literary one, albeit unconsciously so. Consequently, he had nothing
to report. Had his methods been employed in 1500 A.D. to discover the effects of
the printed book in the lives of children or adults, he could have found out nothing
of the changes in human and social psychology resulting from typography. Print
created individualism and nationalism in the sixteenth century. Program and “content” analysis offer no clues to the magic of these media or to their subliminal
Leonard Doob, in his report Communication in Africa, tells of one African
who took great pains to listen each evening to the BBC news, even though he
could understand nothing of it. Just to be in the presence of those sounds at 7 P.M.
each day was important for him. His attitude to speech was like ours to melody—
the resonant intonation was meaning enough. In the seventeenth century our ancestors still shared this native’s attitude to the forms of media, as is plain in the fol-
lowing sentiment of the Frenchman Bernard Lam expressed in The Art of Speaking
(London, 1696):
‘Tis an effect of the Wisdom of God, who created Man to be happy, that
whatever is useful to his conversation (way of life) is agreeable to him . . .
because all victual that conduces to nourishment is relishable, whereas
other things that cannot be assimulated and be turned into our substance
are insipid. A Discourse cannot be pleasant to the Hearer that is not easie
to the Speaker; nor can it be easily pronounced unless it be heard with delight.
Here is an equilibrium theory of human diet and expression such as even now
we are only striving to work out again for media after centuries of fragmentation
and specialism.
Pope Pius XII was deeply concerned that there be serious study of the media
today. On February 17, 1950, he said:
It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of modern society and the
stability of its inner life depend in large part on the maintenance of an
equilibrium between the strength of the techniques of communication and
the capacity of the individual’s own reaction.
Failure in this respect has for centuries been typical and total for mankind.
Subliminal and docile acceptance of media impact has made them prisons without
walls for their human users. As A. J. Liebling remarked in his book The Press, a
man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him
get there. For each of the media is also a powerful weapon with which to clobber
other media and other groups. The result is that the present age has been one of
multiple civil wars that are not limited to the world of art and entertainment. In
War and Human Progress, Professor J. U. Nef declared: “The total wars of our
time have been the result of a series of intellectual mistakes . . .”
If the formative power in the media are the media themselves, that raises a host
of large matters that can only be mentioned here, although they deserve volumes.
Namely’ that technological media are staples or natural resources, exactly as are
coal and cotton and oil. Anybody will concede that society whose economy is dependent upon one or two major staples like cotton, or grain, or lumber, or fish, or
cattle is going to have some obvious social patterns of organization as a result.
Stress on a few major staples creates extreme instability in the economy but great
endurance in the population. The pathos and humor of the American South are embedded in such an economy of limited staples. For a society configured by reliance
on a few commodities accepts them as a social bond quite as much as the metropolis does the press. Cotton and oil, like radio and TV, become “fixed charges” on
the entire psychic life of the community. And this pervasive fact creates the unique
cultural flavor of any society. It pays through the nose and all its other senses for
each staple that shapes its life.
That our human senses, of which all media are extensions are also fixed
charges on our personal energies, and that they also configure the awareness and
experience of each one of us may be perceived in another connection mentioned by
the psychologist C. G. Jung:
Every Roman was surrounded by slaves. The slave and his psychology
flooded ancient Italy, and every Roman became inwardly, and of course
unwittingly, a slave. Because living constantly in the atmosphere of slaves,
he became infected through the unconscious with their psychology. No
one can shield himself from such an influence (Contributions to Analytical
Psychology, London, 1928).
Challenge and Collapse
The Nemesis of Creativity
It was Bertrand Russell who declared that the great discovery of the twentieth century was the technique of the suspended judgment. A. N. Whitehead, on the other
hand, explained how the great discovery of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. Namely, the technique of starting with the thing
to be discovered and working back, step by step, as on an assembly line, to the
point at which it is necessary to start in order to reach the desired object. In the arts
this meant starting with the effect and then inventing a poem, painting, or building
that would have just that effect and no other.
But the “technique of the suspended judgment” goes further. It anticipates the
effect of, say, an unhappy childhood on an adult, and offsets the effect before it
happens. In psychiatry it is the technique of total permissiveness extended as an
anesthetic for the mind, while various adhesions and moral effects of false judgments are systematically eliminated.
This is a very different thing from the numbing or narcotic effect of new technology that lulls attention while the new form slams the gates of judgment and perception. For massive social surgery is needed to insert new technology into the
group mind, and this is achieved by the built-in numbing apparatus discussed earlier. Now the “technique of the suspended judgment” presents the possibility of
rejecting the narcotic and of postponing indefinitely the operation of inserting the
new technology in the social psyche. A new stasis is in prospect.
Werner Heisenberg, in The Physicist’s Conception of Nature, is an example of
the new quantum physicist whose over-all awareness of forms suggests to him that
we would do well to stand aside from most of them. He points out that technical
change alters not only habits of life, but patterns of thought and valuation, citing
with approval the outlook of the Chinese sage:
As Tzu-Gung was traveling through the regions north of the river Han, he
saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug an irrigation
ditch. The man would descend into a well, fetch up a vessel of water in his
arms and pour it out into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous the
results appeared to be very meager.
Tzu-Gung said, “There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred
ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. Would
you not like to hear of it?”
Then the gardener stood up, looked at him and said, “And what would
that be?”
Tzu-Gung replied, “You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back
and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just
gushes out. This is called a draw-well.”
Then anger rose up in the old man’s face, and he said “I have heard
my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine,
and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity.
He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul.
Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree
with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am
ashamed to use them.”
Perhaps the most interesting point about this anecdote is that it appeals to a
modern physicist. It would not have appealed to Newton or to Adam Smith, for
they were great experts and advocates of the fragmentary and the specialist approaches. It is by means quite in accord with the outlook of the Chinese sage that
Hans Selye works at his “stress” idea of illness. In the 1 920s he had been baffled
at why physicians always seemed to concentrate on the recognition of individual
diseases and specific remedies for such isolated causes, while never paying any
attention to the “syndrome of just being sick.” Those who are concerned with the
program “content” of media and not with the medium proper, appear to be in the
position of physicians who ignore the “syndrome of just being sick.” Hans Selye,
in tackling a total, inclusive approach to the field of sickness, began what Adolphe
Jonas has continued in Irritation and Counter-irritation; namely, a quest for the
response to injury as such, or to novel impact of any kind. Today we have anesthetics that enable us to perform the most frightful physical operations on one another.
The new media and technologies by which we amplify and extend ourselves
constitute huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete
disregard for antiseptics. If the operations are needed, the inevitability of infecting
the whole system during the operation has to be considered. For in operating on
society with a new technology, it is not the incised area that is most affected. The
area of impact and incision is numb. It is the entire system that is changed. The
effect of radio is visual, the effect of the photo is auditory. Each new impact shifts
the ratios among all the senses. What we seek today is either a means of controlling these shifts in the sense-ratios of the psychic and social outlook, or a means of
avoiding them altogether. To have a disease without its symptoms is to be immune.
No society has ever known enough about its actions to have developed immunity
to its new extensions or technologies. Today we have begun to sense that art may
be able to provide such immunity.
In the history of human culture there is no example of a conscious adjustment
of the various factors of personal and social life to new extensions except in the
puny and peripheral efforts of artists. The artist picks up the message of cultural
and technological challenge decades before its transforming impact occurs. He,
then, builds models or Noah’s arks for facing the change that is at hand. “The war
of 1870 need never have been fought had people read my Sentimental Education,”
said Gustave Haubert.
It is this aspect of new art that Kenneth Galbraith recommends to the careful
study of businessmen who want to stay in business. For in the electric age there is
no longer any sense in talking about the artist’s being ahead of his time. Our technology is, also, ahead of its time, if we reckon by the ability to recognize it for
what it is. To prevent undue wreckage in society, the artist tends now to move
from the ivory tower to the control tower of society. Just as higher education is no
longer a frill or luxury but a stark need of production and operational design in the
electric age, so the artist is indispensable in the shaping and analysis and understanding of the life of forms, and structures created by electric technology.
The percussed victims of the new technology have invariably muttered clichés
about the impracticality of artists and their fanciful preferences. But in the past
century it has come to be generally acknowledged that, in the words of Wyndham
Lewis, “The artist is always engaged in writing a detailed history of the future because he is the only person aware of the nature of the present.” Knowledge of this
simple fact is now needed for human survival. The ability of the artist to sidestep
the bully blow of new technology of any age, and to parry such violence with full
awareness, is age-old. Equally age-old is the inability of the percussed victims,
who cannot sidestep the new violence, to recognize their need of the artist. To reward and to make celebrities of artists can, also, be a way of ignoring their prophetic work, and preventing its timely use for survival. The artist is the man in any
field, scientific or humanistic, who grasps the implications of his actions and of
new knowledge in his own time. He is the man of integral awareness.
The artist can correct the sense ratios before the blow of new technology has
numbed conscious procedures. He can correct them before numbness and subliminal groping and reaction begin. If this is true, how is it possible to present the matter to those who are in a position to do something about it? If there were even a
remote likelihood of this analysis being true, it would warrant a global armistice
and period of stocktaking. If it is true that the artist possesses the means of anticipating and avoiding the consequences of technological trauma, then what are we to
think of the world and bureaucracy of “art appreciation”? Would it not seem suddenly to be a conspiracy to make the artist a frill, a fribble, or a Milltown? If men
were able to be convinced that art is precise advance knowledge of how to cope
with the psychic and social consequences of the next technology, would they all
become artists? Or would they begin a careful translation of new art forms into
social navigation charts? I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties. Would
we, then, cease to look at works of art as an explorer might regard the gold and
gems used as the ornaments of simple nonliterates?
At any rate, in experimental art, men are given the exact specifications of coming violence to their own psyches from their own counter-irritants or technology.
For those parts of ourselves that we thrust out in the form of new invention are attempts to counter or neutralize collective pressures and irritations. But the counterirritant usually proves a greater plague than the initial irritant, like a drug habit.
And it is here that the artist can show us how to “ride with the punch,” instead of
“taking it on the chin.” It can only be repeated that human history is a record of
“taking it on the chin.”
Emile Durkheim long ago expressed the idea that the specialized task always
escaped the action of the social conscience. In this regard, it would appear that the
artist is the social conscience and is treated accordingly! “We have no art,” say the
Balinese; “we do everything as well as possible.”
The modern metropolis is now sprawling helplessly after the impact of the motorcar. As a response to the challenge of railway speeds the suburb and the garden
city arrived too late, or just in time to become a motorcar disaster. For an arrangement of functions adjusted to one set of intensities becomes unbearable at another
intensity. And a technological extension of our bodies designed to alleviate physical stress can bring on psychic stress that may be much worse. Western specialist
technology transferred to the Arab world in late Roman times released a furious
discharge of tribal energy.
The somewhat devious means of diagnosis that have to be used to pin down
the actual form and impact of a new medium are not unlike those indicated in detective fiction by Peter Cheyney. In You Can’t Keep the Change (Collins, London,
1956) he wrote:
A case to Callaghan was merely a collection of people, some of whom,—all of
whom—were giving incorrect information, or telling lies, because circumstances
either forced them or led them into the process.
But the fact that they had to tell lies; had to give false impressions, necessitated a reorientation of their own viewpoints and their own lives. Sooner or later
they became exhausted or careless. Then, and not until then, was an investigator
able to put his finger on the one fact that would lead lead him to a possible logical
It is interesting to note that success in keeping up a respectable front of the
customary kind can only be done by a frantic scramble back of the façade. After
the crime, after the blow has fallen, the facade of custom can only be held up by
swift rearrangement of the props. So it is in our social lives when a new technology strikes, or in our private life when some intense and, therefore, indigestible
experience occurs, and the censor acts at once to numb us from the blow and to
ready the faculties to assimilate the intruder. Peter Cheyney’s observations of a
mode of detective fiction is another instance of a popular form of entertainment
functioning as mimic model of the real thing.
Perhaps the most obvious “closure” or psychic consequence of any new technology is just the demand for it. Nobody wants a motorcar till there are motorcars,
and nobody is interested in TV until there are TV programs. This power of technology to create its own world of demand is not independent of technology being
first an extension of our own bodies and senses. When we are deprived of our
sense of sight, the other senses take up the role of sight in some degree. But the
need to use the senses that are available is as insistent as breathing—a fact that
makes sense of the urge to keep radio and TV going more or less continuously.
The urge to continuous use is quite independent of the “content” of public programs or of the private sense life, being testimony to the fact that technology is
part of our bodies. Electric technology is directly related to our central nervous
systems, so it is ridiculous to talk of “what the public wants” played over its own
nerves. This question would be like asking people what sort of sights and sounds
they would prefer around them in an urban metropolis! Once we have surrendered
our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try
to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have
any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like
handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s
atmosphere to a company as a monopoly. Something like this has already happened with outer space, for the same reasons that we have leased our central nervous systems to various corporations. As long as we adopt the Narcissus attitude of
regarding the extensions of our own bodies as really out there and really independent of us, we will meet all technological challenges with the same sort of bananaskin pirouette and collapse.
Archimedes once said, “Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.”
Today he would have pointed to our electric media and said, “I will stand on your
eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo
or pattern I choose.” We have leased these “places to stand” to private corporations.
Arnold Toynbee has devoted much of his A Study of History to analyzing the
kinds of challenge faced by a variety of cultures during many centuries. Highly
relevant to Western man is Toynbee’s explanation of how the lame and the crip-
pled respond to their handicaps in a society of active warriors. They become specialists like Vulcan, the smith and armorer. And how do whole communities act
when conquered and enslaved? The same strategy serves them as it does the lame
individual in a society of warriors. They specialize and become indispensable to
their masters. It is probably the long human history of enslavement, and the collapse into specialism as a counterirritant, that have put the stigma of servitude and
pusillanimity on the figure of the specialist, even in modern times. The capitulation
of Western man to his technology, with its crescendo of specilized demands, has
always appeared to many observers of our world as a kind of enslavement. But the
resulting fragmentation has been voluntary and enthusiastic, unlike the conscious
strategy of specialism on the part of the captives of military conquest.
It is plain that fragmentation or specialism as a technique of achieving security
under tyranny and oppression of any kind has an attendant danger. Perfect adaptation to any environment is achieved by a total channeling of energies and vital
force that amounts to a kind of static terminus for a creature. Even slight changes
in the environment of the very well adjusted find them without any resource to
meet new challenge. Such is the plight of the representatives of “conventional wisdom” in any society. Their entire stake of security and status is in a single form of
acquired knowledge, so that innovation is for them not novelty but annihilation.
A related form of challenge that has always faced cultures is the simple fact of
a frontier or a wall, on the other side of which exists another kind of society. Mere
existence side by side of any two forms of organization generates a great deal of
tension. Such, indeed, has been the principle of symbolist artistic structures in the
past century. Toynbee observes that the challenge of a civilization set side by side
with a tribal society has over and over demonstrated that the simpler society finds
its integral economy and institutions “disintegrated by a rain of psychic energy
generated by the civilization” of the more complex culture. When two societies
exist side by side, the psychic challenge of the more complex one acts as an explosive release of energy in the simpler one. For prolific evidence of this kind of problem it is not necessary to look beyond the life of the teenager lived daily in the
midst of a complex urban center. As the barbarian was driven to furious restlessness by the civilized contact, collapsing into mass migration, so the teenager, compelled to share the life of a city that cannot accept him as an adult, collapses into
“rebellion without a cause.” Earlier the adolescent had been provided with a rain
check. He was prepared to wait it out. But since TV, the drive to participation has
ended adolescence, and every American home has its Berlin wall.
Toynbee is very generous in providing examples of widely varied challenge
and collapse, and is especially apt in pointing to the frequent and futile resort to
futurism and archaism as strategies of encountering radical change. But to point
back to the day of the horse or to look forward to the coming of antigravitational
vehicles is not an adequate response to the challenge of the motorcar. Yet these
two uniform ways of backward and forward looking are habitual ways of avoiding
the discontinuities of present experience with their demand for sensitive inspection
and appraisal. Only the dedicated artist seems to have the power for encountering
the present actuality.
Toynbee urges again and again the cultural strategy of the imitation of the example of great men. This, of course, is to locate cultural safety in the power of the
will, rather than in the power of adequate perception of situations. Anybody could
quip that this is the British trust in character as opposed to intellect. In view of the
endless power of men to hypnotize themselves into unawareness in the presence of
challenge, it may be argued that will-power is as useful as intelligence for survival.
Today we need also the will to be exceedingly informed and aware.
Arnold Toynbee gives an example of Renaissance technology being effectively
encountered and creatively controlled when he shows how the revival of the decentralized medieval parliament saved English society from the monopoly of centralism that seized the continent. Lewis Mumford in The City in History tells the
strange tale of how the New England town was able to carry out the pattern of the
medieval ideal city because it was able to dispense with walls and to mix town and
country. When the technology of a time is powerfully thrusting in one direction,
wisdom may well call for a countervailing thrust. The implosion of electric energy
in our century cannot be met by explosion or expansion, but it can be met by decentralism and the flexibility of multiple small centers. For example, the rush of
students into our universities is not explosion but implosion. And the needful strategy to encounter this force is not to enlarge the university, but to create numerous
groups of autonomous colleges in place of our centralized university plant that
grew up on the lines of European government and nineteenth-century industry.
In the same way the excessive tactile effects of the TV image cannot be met by
mere program changes. Imaginative strategy based on adequate diagnosis would
prescribe a corresponding depth or structural approach to the existing literary and
visual world. If we persist in a conventional approach to these developments our
traditional culture will be swept aside as scholasticism was in the sixteenth century. Had the Schoolmen with their complex oral culture understood the Gutenberg
technology, they could have created a new synthesis of written and oral education,
instead of bowing out of the picture and allowing the merely visual page to take
over the educational enterprise. The oral Schoolmen did not meet the new visual
challenge of print, and the resulting expansion or explosion of Gutenberg technology was in many respects an impoverishment of the culture, as historians like
Mumford are now beginning to explain. Arnold Toynbee, in A Study of History, in
considering “the nature of growths of civilizations,” not only abandons the concept
of enlargement as a criterion of real growth of society, but states: “More often
geographical expansion is a concomitant of real decline and coincides with a ‘time
of troubles’ or a universal state—both of them stages of decline and disintegration.”
Toynbee expounds the principle that times of trouble or rapid change produce
militarism, and it is militarism that produces empire and expansion. The old Greek
myth which taught that the alphabet produced militarism (“King Cadmus sowed
the dragon’s teeth, and they sprang up armed men”) really goes much deeper than
Toynbee’s story. In fact, “militarism” is just vague description, not analysis of causality at all. Militarism is a kind of visual organization of social energies that is
both specialist and explosive, so that it is merely repetitive to say, as Toynbee
does, that it both creates large empires and causes social breakdown. But militarism is a form of industrialism or the concentration of large amounts of homogenized energies into a few kinds of production. The Roman soldier was a man with
a spade. He was an expert workman and builder who processed and packaged the
resources of many societies and sent them home. Before machinery, the only massive work forces available for processing material were soldiers or slaves. As the
Greek myth of Cadmus points out, the phonetic alphabet was the greatest processer
of men for homogenized military life that was known to antiquity. The age of
Greek society that Herodotus acknowledges to have been “overwhelmed by more
troubles than in the twenty preceding generations” was the time that to our literary
retrospect appears as one of the greatest of human centuries. It was Macaulay who
remarked that it was not pleasant to live in times about which it was exciting to
read. The succeeding age of Alexander saw Hellenism expand into Asia and prepare the course of the later Roman expansion. These, however were the very centuries in which Greek civilization obviously fell apart.
Toynbee points to the strange falsification of history by archeology, insofar as
the survival of many material objects of the past does not indicate the quality of
ordinary life and experience at any particular time. Continuous technical improvement in the means of warfare occurs over the entire period of Hellenic and Roman
decline. Toynbee checks out his hypothesis by testing it with the developments in
Greek agriculture. When the enterprise of Solon weaned the Greeks from mixed
farming to a program of specialized products for export, there were happy consequences and a glorious manifestation of energy in Greek life. When the next phase
of the same specialist stress involved much reliance on slave labor there was spectacular increase of production. But the armies of technologically specialized slaves
working the land blighted the social existence of the independent yeomen and
small farmers, and led to the strange world of the Roman towns and cities crowded
with rootless parasites.
To a much greater degree than Roman slavery, the specialism of mechanized
industry and market organization has faced Western man with the challenge of
manufacture by mono-fracture, or the tackling of all things and operations one-bitat-a-time. This is the challenge that has permeated all aspects of our lives and enabled us to expand so triumphantly in all directions and in all spheres.
Do Artifacts Have Politics?
Author(s): Langdon Winner
Source: Daedalus, Vol. 109, No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter,
1980), pp. 121-136
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20024652
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Do Artifacts Have Politics?
In controversies about technology and society, there is no idea more pro
vocative than the notion that technical things have political qualities. At issue is
the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture
can be accurately judged not only for their contributions of efficiency and pro
ductivity, not merely for their positive and negative environmental side effects,
but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and
authority. Since ideas of this kind have a persistent and troubling presence in
discussions about the meaning of technology, they deserve explicit attention.1
Writing in Technology and Culture almost two decades ago, Lewis Mumford
gave classic statement to one version of the theme, arguing that “from late neo
lithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have
recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the
first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other
man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.”2 This thesis
stands at the heart of Mumford’s studies of the city, architecture, and the his
tory of technics, and mirrors concerns voiced earlier in the works of Peter
Kropotkin, William Morris, and other nineteenth century critics of industrial
ism. More recently, antinuclear and prosolar energy movements in Europe and
America have adopted a similar notion as a centerpiece in their arguments.
Thus environmentalist Denis Hayes concludes, “The increased deployment of
nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism. Indeed, safe
reliance upon nuclear power as the principal source of energy may be possible
only in a totalitarian state.” Echoing the views of many proponents of appropri
ate technology and the soft energy path, Hayes contends that “dispersed solar
sources are more compatible than centralized technologies with social equity,
freedom and cultural pluralism.”3
An eagerness to interpret technical artifacts in political language is by no
means the exclusive property of critics of large-scale high-technology systems.
A long lineage of boosters have insisted that the “biggest and best” that science
and industry made available were the best guarantees of democracy, freedom,
and social justice. The factory system, automobile, telephone, radio, television,
the space program, and of course nuclear power itself have all at one time or
another been described as democratizing, liberating forces. David Lilienthal, in
T.V.A.: Democracy on the March, for example, found this promise in the phos
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phate fertilizers and electricity that technical progress was bringing to rural
Americans during the 1940s.4 In a recent essay, The Republic of Technology,
Daniel Boorstin extolled television for “its power to disband armies, to cashier
presidents, to create a whole new democratic world?democratic in ways never
before imagined, even in America.”5 Scarcely a new invention comes along that
someone does not proclaim it the salvation of a free society.
It is no surprise to learn that technical systems of various kinds are deeply
interwoven in the conditions of modern politics. The physical arrangements of
industrial production, warfare, communications, and the like have fundamen
tally changed the exercise of power and the experience of citizenship. But to go
beyond this obvious fact and to argue that certain technologies in themselves have
political properties seems, at first glance, completely mistaken. We all know
that people have politics, not things. To discover either virtues or evils in aggre
gates of steel, plastic, transistors, integrated circuits, and chemicals seems
just plain wrong, a way of mystifying human artifice and of avoiding the true
sources, the human sources of freedom and oppression, justice and injustice.
Blaming the hardware appears even more foolish than blaming the victims when
it comes to judging conditions of public life.
Hence, the stern advice commonly given those who flirt with the notion that
technical artifacts have political qualities: What matters is not technology itself,
but the social or economic system in which it is embedded. This maxim, which
in a number of variations is the central premise of a theory that can be called
the social determination of technology, has an obvious wisdom. It serves as a
needed corrective to those who focus uncritically on such things as “the comput
er and its social impacts” but who fail to look behind technical things to notice
the social circumstances of their development, deployment, and use. This view
provides an antidote to naive technological determinism?the idea that tech
nology develops as the sole result of an internal dynamic, and then, unmediated
by any other influence, molds society to fit its patterns. Those who have not
recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic
forces have not gotten very far.
But the corrective has its own shortcomings; taken literally, it suggests that
technical things do not matter at all. Once one has done the detective work
necessary to reveal the social origins?power holders behind a particular in
stance of technological change?one will have explained everything of impor
tance. This conclusion offers comfort to social scientists: it validates what they
had always suspected, namely, that there is nothing distinctive about the study
of technology in the first place. Hence, they can return to their standard models
of social power?those of interest group politics, bureaucratic politics, Marxist
models of class struggle, and the like?and have everything they need. The
social determination of technology is, in this view, essentially no different from
the social determination of, say, welfare policy or taxation.
There are, however, good reasons technology has of late taken on a special
fascination in its own right for historians, philosophers, and political scien
tists; good reasons the standard models of social science only go so far in ac
counting for what is most interesting and troublesome about the subject. In
another place I have tried to show why so much of modern social and political
thought contains recurring statements of what can be called a theory of tech
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nological politics, an odd mongrel of notions often crossbred with orthodox
liberal, conservative, and socialist philosophies.6 The theory of technological
politics draws attention to the momentum of large-scale sociotechnical systems,
to the response of modern societies to certain technological imperatives, and to
the all too common signs of the adaptation of human ends to technical means. In
so doing it offers a novel framework of interpretation and explanation for some
of the more puzzling patterns that have taken shape in and around the growth of
modern material culture. One strength of this point of view is that it takes
technical artifacts seriously. Rather than insist that we immediately reduce
everything to the interplay of social forces, it suggests that we pay attention to
the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.
A necessary complement to, rather than a replacement for, theories of the social
determination of technology, this perspective identifies certain technologies as
political phenomena in their own right. It points us back, to borrow Edmund
Husserl’s philosophical injunction, to the things themselves.
In what follows I shall offer outlines and illustrations of two ways in which
artifacts can contain political properties. First are instances in which the inven
tion, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a
way of settling an issue in a particular community. Seen in the proper light,
examples of this kind are fairly straightforward and easily understood. Second
are cases of what can be called inherently political technologies, man-made sys
tems that appear to require, or to be strongly compatible with, particular kinds
of political relationships. Arguments about cases of this kind are much more
troublesome and closer to the heart of the matter. By “politics,” I mean arrange
ments of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that
take place within those arrangements. For my purposes, “technology” here is
understood to mean all of modern practical artifice,7 but to avoid confusion I
prefer to speak of technology, smaller or larger pieces or systems of hardware
of a specific kind. My intention is not to settle any of the issues here once and for
all, but to indicate their general dimensions and significance.
Technical Arrangements as Forms of Order
Anyone who has traveled the highways of America and has become used to
the normal height of overpasses may well find something a little odd about some
of the bridges over the parkways on Long Island, New York. Many of the
overpasses are extraordinarily low, having as little as nine feet of clearance at the
curb. Even those who happened to notice this structural peculiarity would not
be inclined to attach any special meaning to it. In our accustomed way of look
ing at things like roads and bridges we see the details of form as innocuous, and
seldom give them a second thought.
It turns out, however, that the two hundred or so low-hanging overpasses
on Long Island were deliberately designed to achieve a particular social effect.
Robert Moses, the master builder of roads, parks, bridges, and other public
works from the 1920s to the 1970s in New York, had these overpasses built to
specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways.
According to evidence provided by Robert A. Caro in his biography of Moses,
the reasons reflect Moses’s social-class bias and racial prejudice. Automobile
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owning whites of “upper” and “comfortable middle” classes, as he called them,
would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting. Poor people
and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because
the twelve-foot tall buses could not get through the overpasses. One con
sequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones
Beach, Moses’s widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this
result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones
As a story in recent American political history, Robert Moses’s life is fasci
nating. His dealings with mayors, governors, and presidents, and his careful
manipulation of legislatures, banks, labor unions, the press, and public opinion
are all matters that political scientists could study for years. But the most impor
tant and enduring results of his work are his technologies, the vast engineering
projects that give New York much of its present form. For generations after
Moses has gone and the alliances he forged have fallen apart, his public works,
especially the highways and bridges he built to favor the use of the automobile
over the development of mass transit, will continue to shape that city. Many of
his monumental structures of concrete and steel embody a systematic social
inequality, a way of engineering relationships among people that, after a time,
becomes just another part of the landscape. As planner Lee Koppleman told
Caro about the low bridges on Wantagh Parkway, “The old son-of-a-gun had
made sure that buses would never be able to use his goddamned parkways.”9
Histories of architecture, city planning, and public works contain many ex
amples of physical arrangements that contain explicit or implicit political pur
poses. One can point to Baron Haussmann’s broad Parisian thoroughfares,
engineered at Louis Napoleon’s direction to prevent any recurrence of street
fighting of the kind that took place during the revolution of 1848. Or one can
visit any number of grotesque concrete buildings and huge plazas constructed
on American university campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s to de
fuse student demonstrations. Studies of industrial machines and instruments
also turn up interesting political stories, including some that violate our normal
expectations about why technological innovations are made in the first place. If
we suppose that new technologies are introduced to achieve increased efficien
cy, the history of technology shows that we will sometimes be disappointed.
Technological change expresses a panoply of human motives, not the least of
which is the desire of some to have dominion over others, even though it may
require an occasional sacrifice of cost-cutting and some violence to the norm of
getting more from less.
One poignant illustration can be found in the history of nineteenth century
industrial mechanization. At Cyrus McCormick’s reaper manufacturing plant in
Chicago in the middle 1880s, pneumatic molding machines, a new and largely
untested innovation, were added to the foundry at an estimated cost of
$500,000. In the standard economic interpretation of such things, we would
expect that this step was taken to modernize the plant and achieve the kind of
efficiencies that mechanization brings. But historian Robert Ozanne has shown
why the development must be seen in a broader context. At the time, Cyrus
McCormick II was engaged in a battle with the National Union of Iron Mold
ers. He saw the addition of the new machines as a way to “weed out the bad
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element among the men,” namely, the skilled workers who had organized the
union local in Chicago.10 The new machines, manned by unskilled labor, ac
tually produced inferior castings at a higher cost than the earlier process. After
three years of use the machines were, in fact, abandoned, but by that time they
had served their purpose?the destruction of the union. Thus, the story of these
technical developments at the McCormick factory cannot be understood ade
quately outside the record of workers’ attempts to organize, police repression of
the labor movement in Chicago during that period, and the events surrounding
the bombing at Hay market Square. Technological history and American politi
cal history were at that moment deeply intertwined.
In cases like those of Moses’s low bridges and McCormick’s molding ma
chines, one sees the importance of technical arrangements that precede the use of
the things in question. It is obvious that technologies can be used in ways that
enhance the power, authority, and privilege of some over others, for example,
the use of television to sell a candidate. To our accustomed way of thinking,
technologies are seen as neutral tools that can be used well or poorly, for good,
evil, or something in between. But we usually do not stop to inquire whether a
given device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a
set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses.
Robert Moses’s bridges, after all, were used to carry automobiles from one point
to another; McCormick’s machines were used to make metal castings; both tech
nologies, however, encompassed purposes far beyond their immediate use. If
our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only cate
gories having to do with tools and uses, if it does not include attention to the
meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be
blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial.
Because the point is most easily understood in the light of particular in
tentions embodied in physical form, I have so far offered illustrations that seem
almost conspiratorial. But to recognize the political dimensions in the shapes of
technology does not require that we look for conscious conspiracies or malicious
intentions. The organized movement of handicapped people in the United
States during the 1970s pointed out the countless ways in which machines,
instruments, and structures of common use?buses, buildings, sidewalks,
plumbing fixtures, and so forth?made it impossible for many handicapped per
sons to move about freely, a condition that systematically excluded them from
public life. It is safe to say that designs unsuited for the handicapped arose more
from long-standing neglect than from anyone’s active intention. But now that
the issue has been raised for public attention, it is evident that justice requires a
remedy. A whole range of artifacts are now being redesigned and rebuilt to
accommodate this minority.
Indeed, many of the most important examples of technologies that have
political consequences are those that transcend the simple categories of “in
tended” and “unintended” altogether. These are instances in which the very
process of technical development is so thoroughly biased in a particular direc
tion that it regularly produces results counted as wonderful breakthroughs by
some social interests and crushing setbacks by others. In such cases it is neither
correct nor insightful to say, “Someone intended to do somebody else harm.”
Rather, one must say that the technological deck has been stacked long in ad
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vanee to favor certain social interests, and that some people were bound to
receive a better hand than others.
The mechanical tomato harvester, a remarkable device perfected by re
searchers at the University of California from the late 1940s to the present,
offers an illustrative tale. The machine is able to harvest tomatoes in a single
pass through a row, cutting the plants from the ground, shaking the fruit loose,
and in the newest models sorting the tomatoes electronically into large plastic
gondolas that hold up to twenty-five tons of produce headed for canning. To
accommodate the rough motion of these “factories in the field,” agricultural
researchers have bred new varieties of tomatoes that are hardier, sturdier, and
less tasty. The harvesters replace the system of handpicking, in which crews of
farmworkers would pass through the fields three or four times putting ripe to
matoes in lug boxes and saving immature fruit for later harvest.11 Studies in
California indicate that the machine reduces costs by approximately five to sev
en dollars per ton as compared to hand-harvesting.12 But the benefits are by no
means equally divided in the agricultural economy. In fact, the machine in the
garden has in this instance been the occasion for a thorough reshaping of social
relationships of tomato production in rural California.
By their very size and cost, more than $50,000 each to purchase, the ma
chines are compatible only with a highly concentrated form of tomato growing.
With the introduction of this new method of harvesting, the number of tomato
growers declined from approximately four thousand in the early 1960s to about
six hundred in 1973, yet with a substantial increase in tons of tomatoes pro
duced. By the late 1970s an estimated thirty-two thousand jobs in the tomato
industry had been eliminated as a direct consequence of mechanization.13 Thus,
a jump in productivity to the benefit of very large growers has occurred at a
sacrifice to other rural agricultural communities.
The University of California’s research and development on agricultural ma
chines like the tomato harvester is at this time the subject of a law suit filed by
attorneys for California Rural Legal Assistance, an organization representing
a group of farmworkers and other interested parties. The suit charges that
University officials are spending tax monies on projects that benefit a hand
ful of private interests to the detriment of farmworkers, small farmers, con
sumers, and rural California generally, and asks for a court injunction to stop the
practice. The University has denied these charges, arguing that to accept
them “would require elimination of all research with any potential practical
As far as I know, no one has argued that the development of the tomato
harvester was the result of a plot. Two students of the controversy, William
Friedland and Amy Barton, specifically exonerate both the original developers
of the machine and the hard tomato from any desire to facilitate economic con
centration in that industry.15 What we see here instead is an ongoing social
process in which scientific knowledge, technological invention, and corporate
profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns that bear the unmistak
able stamp of political and economic power. Over many decades agricultural
research and development in American land-grant colleges and universities has
tended to favor the interests of large agribusiness concerns.16 It is in the face of
such subtly ingrained patterns that opponents of innovations like the tomato
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harvester are made to seem “antitechnology” or “antiprogress.” For the harves
ter is not merely the symbol of a social order that rewards some while punishing
others; it is in a true sense an embodiment of that order.
Within a given category of technological change there are, roughly speaking,
two kinds of choices that can affect the relative distribution of power, authority,
and privilege in a community. Often the crucial decision is a simple “yes or no”
choice?are we going to develop and adopt the thing or not? In recent years
many local, national, and international disputes about technology have centered
on “yes or no” judgments about such things as food additives, pesticides, the
building of highways, nuclear reactors, and dam projects. The fundamental
choice about an ABM or an SST is whether or not the thing is going to join
society as a piece of its operating equipment. Reasons for and against are fre
quently as important as those concerning the adoption of an important new law.
A second range of choices, equally critical in many instances, has to do with
specific features in the design or arrangement of a technical system after the
decision to go ahead with it has already been made. Even after a utility company
wins permission to build a large electric power line, important controversies can
remain with respect to the placement of its route and the design of its towers;
even after an organization has decided to institute a system of computers, con
troversies can still arise with regard to the kinds of components, programs,
modes of access, and other specific features the system will include. Once the
mechanical tomato harvester had been developed in its basic form, design altera
tion of critical social significance?the addition of electronic sorters, for ex
ample?changed the character of the machine’s effects on the balance of wealth
and power in California agriculture. Some of the most interesting research on
technology and politics at present focuses on the attempt to demonstrate in a
detailed, concrete fashion how seemingly innocuous design features in mass
transit systems, water projects, industrial machinery, and other technologies
actually mask social choices of profound significance. Historian David Noble is
now studying two kinds of automated machine tool systems that have different
implications for the relative power of management and labor in the industries
that might employ them. He is able to show that, although the basic electronic
and mechanical components of the record/playback and numerical control sys
tems are similar, the choice of one design over another has crucial consequences
for social struggles on the shop floor. To see the matter solely in terms of cost
cutting, efficiency, or the modernization of equipment is to miss a decisive
element in the story.17
From such examples I would offer the following general conclusions. The
things we call “technologies” are ways of building order in our world. Many
technical devices and systems important in everyday life contain possibilities for
many different ways of ordering human activity. Consciously or not, deliber
ately or inadvertently, societies choose structures for technologies that influence
how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, and so forth over
a very long time. In the processes by which structuring decisions are made,
different people are differently situated and possess unequal degrees of power as
well as unequal levels of awareness. 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
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investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical
purposes once the initial commitments are made. In that sense technological
innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a
framework for public order that will endure over many generations. For that
reason, the same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles, and rela
tionships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of high
ways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seemingly
insignificant features on new machines. The issues that divide or unite people in
society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper,
but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete,
wires and transistors, nuts and bolts.
Inherently Political Technologies
None of the arguments and examples considered thus far address a stronger,
more troubling claim often made in writings about technology and society?the
belief that some technologies are by their very nature political in a specific way.
According to this view, the adoption of a given technical system unavoidably
brings with it conditions for human relationships that have a distinctive political
cast?for example, centralized or decentralized, egalitarian or inegalitarian, re
pressive or liberating. This is ultimately what is at stake in assertions like those
of Lewis Mumford that two traditions of technology, one authoritarian, the
other democratic, exist side by side in Western history. In all the cases I cited
above the technologies are relatively flexible in design and arrangement, and
variable in their effects. Although one can recognize a particular result produced
in a particular setting, one can also easily imagine how a roughly similar device
or system might have been built or situated with very much different political
consequences. The idea we must now examine and evaluate is that certain kinds
of technology do not allow such flexibility, and that to choose them is to choose
a particular form of political life.
A remarkably forceful statement of one version of this argument appears in
Friedrich Engels’s little essay “On Authority” written in 1872. Answering anar
chists who believed that authority is an evil that ought to be abolished altogeth
er, Engels launches into a panegyric for authoritarianism, maintaining, among
other things, that strong authority is a necessary condition in modern industry.
To advance his case in the strongest possible way, he asks his readers to imagine
that the revolution has already occurred. “Supposing a social revolution de
throned the capitalists, who now exercise their authority over the production
and circulation of wealth. Supposing, to adopt entirely the point of view of the
anti-authoritarians, that the land and the instruments of labour had become the
collective property of the workers who use them. Will authority have dis
appeared or will it have only changed its form?”18
His answer draws upon lessons from three sociotechnical systems of his day,
cotton-spinning mills, railways, and ships at sea. He observes that, on its way to
becoming finished thread, cotton moves through a number of different opera
tions at different locations in the factory. The workers perform a wide variety of
tasks, from running the steam engine to carrying the products from one room to
another. Because these tasks must be coordinated, and because the timing of the
work is “fixed by the authority of the steam,” laborers must learn to accept a
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rigid discipline. They must, according to Engels, work at regular hours and
agree to subordinate their individual wills to the persons in charge of factory
operations. If they fail to do so, they risk the horrifying possibility that produc
tion will come to a grinding halt. Engels pulls no punches. “The automatic
machinery of a big factory,” he writes, “is much more despotic than the small
capitalists who employ workers ever have been.”19
Similar lessons are adduced in Engels’s analysis of the necessary operating
conditions for railways and ships at sea. Both require the subordination of
workers to an “imperious authority” that sees to it that things run according to
plan. Engels finds that, far from being an idiosyncracy of capitalist social organ
ization, relationships of authority and subordination arise “independently of all
social organization, [and] are imposed upon us together with the material condi
tions under which we produce and make products circulate.” Again, he intends
this to be stern advice to the anarchists who, according to Engels, thought it
possible simply to eradicate subordination and superordination at a single
stroke. All such schemes are nonsense. The roots of unavoidable author
itarianism are, he argues, deeply implanted in the human involvement with
science and technology. “If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius,
has subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him by
subjecting him, insofar as he employs them, to a veritable despotism independ
ent of all social organization.”20
Attempts to justify strong authority on the basis of supposedly necessary
conditions of technical practice have an ancient history. A pivotal theme in the
Republic is Plato’s quest to borrow the authority of techn? and employ it by analo
gy to buttress his argument in favor of authority in the state. Among the illus
trations he chooses, like Engels, is that of a ship on the high seas. Because large
sailing vessels by their very nature need to be steered with a firm hand, sailors
must yield to their captain’s commands; no reasonable person believes that ships
can be run democratically. Plato goes on to suggest that governing a state is
rather like being captain of a ship or like practicing medicine as a physician.
Much the same conditions that require central rule and decisive action in orga
nized technical activity also create this need in government.
In Engels’s argument, and arguments like it, the justification for authority is
no longer made by Plato’s classic analogy, but rather directly with reference to
technology itself. If the basic case is as compelling as Engels believed it to be,
one would expect that, as a society adopted increasingly complicated technical
systems as its material basis, the prospects for authoritarian ways of life would
be greatly enhanced. Central control by knowledgeable people acting at the top
of a rigid social hierarchy would seem increasingly prudent. In this respect, his
stand in “On Authority” appears to be at variance with Karl Marx’s position in
Volume One of Capital. Marx tries to show that increasing mechanization will
render obsolete the hierarchical division of labor and the relationships of subor
dination that, in his view, were necessary during the early stages of modern
manufacturing. The “Modern Industry,” he writes, “… sweeps away by
technical means the manufacturing division of labor, under which each man is
bound hand and foot for life to a single detail operation. At the same time, the
capitalistic form of that industry reproduces this same division of labour in a
still more monstrous shape; in the factory proper, by converting the workman
into a living appendage of the machine. . . .”21 In Marx’s view, the conditions
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that will eventually dissolve the capitalist division of labor and facilitate prole
tarian revolution are conditions latent in industrial technology itself. The dif
ferences between Marx’s position in Capital and Engels’s in his essay raise an
important question for socialism: What, after all, does modern technology make
possible or necessary in political life? The theoretical tension we see here mir
rors many troubles in the practice of freedom and authority that have muddied
the tracks of socialist revolution.
Arguments to the effect that technologies are in some sense inherently politi
cal have been advanced in a wide variety of contexts, far too many to summarize
here. In my reading of such notions, however, there are two basic ways of
stating the case. One version claims that the adoption of a given technical sys
tem actually requires the creation and maintenance of a particular set of social
conditions as the operating environment of that system. Engels’s position is of
this kind. A similar view is offered by a contemporary writer who holds that “if
you accept nuclear power plants, you also accept a techno-scientific-industrial
military elite. Without these people in charge, you could not have nuclear
power.”29 In this conception, some kinds of technology require their social en
vironments to be structured in a particular way in much the same sense that
an automobile requires wheels in order to run. The thing could not exist as an
effective operating entity unless certain social as well as material conditions
were met. The meaning of “required” here is that of practical (rather than logi
cal) necessity. Thus, Plato thought it a practical necessity that a ship at sea have
one captain and an unquestioningly obedient crew.
A second, somewhat weaker, version of the argument holds that a given
kind of technology is strongly compatible with, but does not strictly require,
social and political relationships of a particular stripe. Many advocates of solar
energy now hold that technologies of that variety are more compatible with a
democratic, egalitarian society than energy systems based on coal, oil, and nu
clear power; at the same time they do not maintain that anything about solar
energy requires democracy. Their case is, briefly, that solar energy is decentral
izing in both a technical and political sense: technically speaking, it is vastly
more reasonable to build solar systems in a disaggregated, widely distributed
manner than in large-scale centralized plants; politically speaking, solar energy
accommodates the attempts of individuals and local communities to manage
their affairs effectively because they are dealing with systems that are more
accessible, comprehensible, and controllable than huge centralized sources. In
this view, solar energy is desirable not only for its economic and environmental
benefits, but also for the salutary institutions it is likely to permit in other areas
of public life.23
Within both versions of the argument there is a further distinction to be
made between conditions that are internal to the workings of a given technical
system and those that are external to it. Engels’s thesis concerns internal social
relations said to be required within cotton factories and railways, for example;
what such relationships mean for the condition of society at large is for him a
separate question. In contrast, the solar advocate’s belief that solar technologies
are compatible with democracy pertains to the way they complement aspects of
society removed from the organization of those technologies as such.
There are, then, several different directions that arguments of this kind can
follow. Are the social conditions predicated said to be required by, or strongly
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compatible with, the workings of a given technical system? Are those conditions
internal to that system or external to it (or both)? Although writings that address
such questions are often unclear about what is being asserted, arguments in this
general category do have an important presence in modern political discourse.
They enter into many attempts to explain how changes in social life take place
in the wake of technological innovation. More importantly, they are often used
to buttress attempts to justify or criticize proposed courses of action involving
new technology. By offering distinctly political reasons for or against the adop
tion of a particular technology, arguments of this kind stand apart from more
commonly employed, more easily quantifiable claims about economic costs and
benefits, environmental impacts, and possible risks to public health and safety
that technical systems may involve. The issue here does not concern how many
jobs will be created, how much income generated, how many pollutants added,
or how many cancers produced. Rather, the issue has to do with ways in which
choices about technology have important consequences for the form and quality
of human associations.
If we examine social patterns that comprise the environments of technical
systems, we find certain devices and systems almost invariably linked to specific
ways of organizing power and authority. The important question is: Does this
state of affairs derive from an unavoidable social response to intractable proper
ties in the things themselves, or is it instead a pattern imposed independently by
a governing body, ruling class, or some other social or cultural institution to
further its own purposes?
Taking the most obvious example, the atom bomb is an inherently political
artifact. As long as it exists at all, its lethal properties demand that it be con
trolled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all
influences that might make its workings unpredictable. The internal social sys
tem of the bomb must be authoritarian; there is no other way. The state of
affairs stands as a practical necessity independent of any larger political system
in which the bomb is embedded, independent of the kind of regime or character
of its rulers. Indeed, democratic states must try to find ways to ensure that the
social structures and mentality that characterize the management of nuclear
weapons do not “spin off’ or “spill over” into the polity as a whole.
The bomb is, of course, a special case. The reasons very rigid relationships
of authority are necessary in its immediate presence should be clear to anyone.
If, however, we look for other instances in which particular varieties of tech
nology are widely perceived to need the maintenance of a special pattern of power
and authority, modern technical history contains a wealth of examples.
Alfred D. Chandler in The Visible Hand, a monumental study of modern
business enterprise, presents impressive documentation to defend the hypothe
sis that the construction and day-to-day operation of many systems of produc
tion, transportation, and communication in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries require the development of a particular social form?a large-scale cen
tralized, hierarchical organization administered by highly skilled managers.
Typical of Chandler’s reasoning is his analysis of the growth of the railroads.
Technology made possible fast, all-weather transportation; but safe, regular, re
liable movement of goods and passengers, as well as the continuing maintenance
and repair of locomotives, rolling stock, and track, roadbed, stations, round
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houses, and other equipment, required the creation of a sizable administrative
organization. It meant the employment of a set of managers to supervise these
functional activities over an extensive geographical area; and the appointment of an
administrative command of middle and top executives to monitor, evaluate, and
coordinate the work of managers responsible for the day-to-day operations.
Throughout his book Chandler points to ways in which technologies used in the
production and distribution of electricity, chemicals, and a wide range of indus
trial goods “demanded” or “required” this form of human association. “Hence,
the operational requirements of railroads demanded the creation of the first
administrative hierarchies in American business.”25
Were there other conceivable ways of organizing these aggregates of people
and apparatus? Chandler shows that a previously dominant social form, the
small traditional family firm, simply could not handle the task in most cases.
Although he does not speculate further, it is clear that he believes there is, to be
realistic, very little latitude in the forms of power and authority appropriate
within modern sociotechnical systems. The properties of many modern tech
nologies?oil pipelines and refineries, for example?are such that over
whelmingly impressive economies of scale and speed are possible. If such
systems are to work effectively, efficiently, quickly, and safely, certain require
ments of internal social organization have to be fulfilled; the material possi
bilities that modern technologies make ava…
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