summary of the whale and the reactor by langdon wi

nnerSummary of The Whale and the Reactor by Langdon Winner (pp. ix-39, 99-200). Winner states implicitly that he wishes to add his book to a surprisingly short list of works that can be characterized as “philosophy of technology” (which includes Marx and Heidegger). His book will deal primarily with the political and social aspects of this philosophy, pertinent since as he notes the world is changing because of tech., no longer comprised of national entities–a global economy, etc. In this context he will also look at language and determine how adequate it is presently for handling the state of the art high tech world. His ultimate and ever present question being asked throughout his book is, “How can we limit modern technology to match our best sense of who we are and the kind of world we would like to build?” (xi), since the “basic task for a philosophy of technology is to examine critically the nature and significance of artificial aids to human activity” (4). Winner makes a crucial distinction: “technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning” (6). Of course, the social arena is directly and profoundly influenced by tech. W cites a recent court case from San Diego where, as in Los Angeles, virtually everyone travels everywhere by car, of “a young man who enjoyed taking long walks at night through the streets of San Diego and was repeatedly arrested by police as a suspicious character.” A criminal court ruled, however, that “Merely traveling by foot is not yet a crime” (9). Yet it is important not simply to see tech as the “cause” of all world “effects.” Rather, “as technologies are being built and put to use, significant alterations in patterns of human activity and human institutions are already taking place” (11). All the same, tech developments are absorbed into the ever mutating process of human activity so that they some to be taken for granted and are integrated into our view of what is natural and/or inherent in the world–they become “second nature,” as Winner, taking after Wittgenstein, terms it, they become part of our “forms of life” (11). In this context we can best appreciate certain crossroads or perhaps better to say thresholds we are facing, such as genetic engineering and the possibility of founding human settlements in outer space. These “call into question what it means to be human and what constitutes ‘the human condition’” (13). How do such developments change the fabric of everyday existence? Chapter 2: “Do Artifacts Have Politics W asks, Can technology “embody specific forms of power and authority” (19). He reviews the ideas of Kropotikin, Morris Hayes, Lillienthal, Boorstein and Mumford on his way to answering his question. For example, Hayes states that “deployment of nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism” because of safety concerns (19-20). W believes “that technical systems of various kinds are deeply interwoven in the conditions of modern politics and further, that the physical arrangements of industrial production, warfare, communications, and the like have fundamentally changed the exercise of power and the experience of citizenship” (20). Indeed, “human ends are powerfully transformed as they are adapted to technical means” (21). Artifacts “contain political properties” in two ways: 1) via “invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system that becomes a way of settling an issue in the affairs of a particular community.” 2) via “‘inherently political technologies’, man-made systems that appear to require or to be strongly compatible with particular kinds of political relationships.” Here W means the term politics to stand for “arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements”; while the term technology is meant to stand for “all of modern practical artifices” (22). Examples cited in the above regard include the highway overpasses at Jones Beach, designed by Robert Moses, which are “extraordinarily low” so that poor people cannot gain access to the beach because their only method of transportation there would have to be by bus yet a bus cannot get under the overpasses. Moses wanted to “build a particular social effect” (22-23). And in fact he made sure that a rail line would not be built to go to the beach. Similarly, Baron Haussmann engineered broad Parisian thoroughfares to make sure that there could be not street fighting of the sort that occurred in 1848. This was an early version of the kinds of planning that informed the construction of college campuses in the 1970s after the trauma of student rioting that began in the 1960s. Another example is that of McCormick’s reaper manufacturing plant in Chicago in the 1880s, when he brought in kinds of modernization of the plant as a way to “‘weed out the bad element among the men’, namely, the skilled workers who had organized the union local” (24). In these examples we “see the importance of technical arrangements that precede the use of the things in question. 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” (25). This perception also helps us to cope with phenomena like the organized movement of handicapped people in the 1970s which pointed out the countless ways in which machines, instruments, and structures of common use . . . mad it impossible for handicapped persons to move about freely, a condition that systematically excluded them from public life” (25). Some technologies, of course, are politically motivated in the sense that they are profit driven, such as the mechanical tomato harvester which instigated the hybridization of tomatoes that are tasteless but which are not susceptible to being bruised by the machinery. Workers here have been displaced, which means that social relationships have been altered, especially because the machinery requires highly concentrated growing areas; thus the landscape is altered and with it social and political entities. Of course, increased profits in the hands of a few means that these few are able to wield unusual political influence. W sums this up when he writes: “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” (29). Thus it is perhaps important to device flexible technologies that will not choose for us unalterably a form of life. Here then W reviews the history of thinking about this societal dynamic, citing Engels, Plato, Marx, Chandler, in that order, especially pointing out how specialized knowledge of a technological nature tends to be kept in the hands of a few, hence creating hierarchically structured societies, and that “characteristic of societies based on large, complex technological systems is the fact that moral reasons other than those of practical necessity appeal increasingly obsolete, ‘idealistic’, and irrelevant” (36). What then becomes of civil liberties in the high tech world, when extraordinary dangers such as the black market sale of plutonium to criminal elements require extraordinary abrogations of civil rights in order to prevent those sales? Particularly the nuclear power industry, in fact, comes under W’s attack. He adds to the above idea this one: “Advocates of the further development of nuclear power seem to believe that they are working on a rather flexible technology whose adverse social effects can be fixed by changing the design parameters of reactors and nuclear waste disposal systems. For reasons indicated above, I believe them to be dead wrong in that faith. Yes, we may be able to manage some of the ‘risks’ to public health and safety that nuclear power brings. But as society adapts to the more dangerous and apparently indelible features of nuclear power, what will be the long-range toll in human freedom?” (39). Chapter 6: “Mythinformation” The “use of computers and advanced communications technologies is producing a sweeping set of transformations in every corner of social life” (99). This may be called a computer “revolution,” a term that has been used in history in a variety of ways. Does this technology constitute a revolution, truly? What is a revolution? And what might it have to do with human freedom? “To mention revolution also brings to mind the relationships of different social classes. Will the computer revolution bring about the victory of one class over another? Will it be the occasion for a realignment of class loyalties?” (101). In any case, the computer industry engages in the most sweeping and utopian pronouncements. For example: “what water- ;and steam-powered machines were to the industrial age, the computer will be to the era now dawning. . . . Because ‘knowledge is power’, because electronic information will spread knowledge into every corner of world society, political influence will be much more widely shared and rule by centralized authority and social class dominance will gradually fade away” (103). The grandiose claims, “taken as a whole, constitute . . . mythinformation: the almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems along with easy access to electronic information will automatically produce a better world for human living. It is a peculiar form of enthusiasm that characterizes social fashions of the latter decades of the twentieth century” (105). And this is typical of a technological breakthrough, which “provides an occasion for flights of utopian fancy” (106). W does also point out, conversely, that all myths contain elements of truth, and he does not wish to make light of the importance of computer tech. to human progress, but does say that ordinary people, while affected by it, do not benefit from it directly as do, say, transitional corporations. “Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power by those who already had a great deal of power” (107). And of course those in power, who most readily enjoy access to new technology, use it to consolidate and increase their power–while computer enthusiasts will insist that the technology will further democracy. What will happen when (if) the world is totally wired and intraconnective? Will there not occur a pure(r) form of democracy? W says that this “idea is entirely faulty. It mistakes sheer supply of information with an educated ability to gain knowledge and act effectively based on that knowledge” 108-09). And, “at times knowledge brings merely an enlightened impotence where one may know exactly what to do but lack the wherewithal to act” (109). Thus knowledge may not be power after all (as some like Plato and Veblen have recognized). Part of the problem with this idea in our contemporary society has specifically to do with the fallacy that “democracy is first and foremost a matter of distributing information” (110). Indeed, “public participation in voting has steadily declined as television replaced the face-to-face politics of precincts and neighborhoods. Passive monitoring of events through electronic media allows citizens to feel involved while dampening the desire to take an active part” in political society (111). Computer utopianism in the political arena is a reprise of 18th and 19th century notions that if only the masses possessed the arms, they would rise up to seize power–yet this has not at all always been the case. W goes on to point out the danger of computer tech to civil rights and privacy, because of what may become a “benign surveillance,” which will cause people to opt for “passivity and compliance as the safest route, avoiding activities that once represented political liberty” (115). And W does allow that the “linking of computers and telecommunications will mean that basic structures of political order will be recast. Until recently the crucial conditions created by spatial boundaries of political societies were never in question” (116-17). Chapter 7: “The State of Nature Revisited” The underlying question in this chapter is what is the relationship of human action, specifically of technology, to nature (built into this question is another one: what is nature?)? W writes that no “artist, no thinker, no political movement, no society has ever rested content with the simple definition of nature as ‘the totality of all things’” (121). And indeed, “As the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau clearly demonstrate, discussions of ‘natural law’, ‘human nature’, and ‘state of nature’ are occasions for the most extravagant theoretical fictions. Yet these conceptions of nature have an astonishing power to persuade,” and in the last half century terms like “ecology,” “ecosystem” and “environment” embody a “familiar quest for moral guidance” (122-23). Thinkers from the past like Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, Ophul, White, Leopold, Naess, Emerson, Marsh and Locke underwrite this quest. In all this, again, we find that the conception of nature is fluid. Empirical science, all the same, as clearly proven that modern technologies–e.g., the use of pesticides–is destructive of the environment. W notes “how the moral weight of predicted disaster provides an occasion for adopting a particular interpretation of nature–ecological theory–as a framework for understanding and judging the works of modern society” (129). W then discusses the difference between “shallow environmentalism” and “deep ecology” and “land ethic” (131 ff.). W then tries not so much to resolve the discrepancies of these theories and theorists as to move on to yet another point of view that may supersede them, quoting Lukacs: “Nature is a social category” (135). W concludes that an “ecosystem is a utopia of sorts, doing well what artificial structures do poorly in the ecosystem . . . unlike human organizations, there are no wrong-headed decisions to foul things up. Ecosystem change has benign homeostasis as its telos; by contrast, change in modern society produces chaotic disruptions that never cease” (136). This consideration is key to understanding how society may fashion economic policy. W seems finally equivocal: “Nature will justify anything” (137). Ch. 8: “On Not Hitting the Tar-Baby” Here W attacks the practice of risk assessment, which he sees as stemming from Hobbes’s ideas, as a way of arriving at “norms to guide the moral aspects of scientific and technical practice” (138). Arriving at consensus, in this case it must be narrow, is questionable, in a highly politicized process. But W ultimately doubts risk assessment, and in doing so throws open the question of how political, economic and scientific language intersect not always for the better, when he writes: “Questions that had previously been talked about in such terms as the ‘environmental crisis’, ‘dangerous side effects’, ‘health hazards,’ and the like were gradually redefined as qaustions of ‘risk’. The difference is of no small importance” (142). What precisely is the notion of risk? “The use of the concept of ‘risk in business dealings, sports, and gambling reveals how closely it is linked to the sense of voluntary undertakings” (145). This voluntarism sanctions the use of psychological complexity to compound the difficulties offered by at times “scientific uncertainty and the calculations of risk/cost/benefit analysis” (145). Thus W questions whether such risk assessments are accurate (even after the option to engage in such assessment, in the face of scientific evidence, has been exercised), and risk takers tend to debunk people who suffer anxiety over such evidence by calling them phobic regarding technological advancement; as a society, “we finally arrive at an unhappy destination–the realm of invidious comparison and social scorn” (147). Conversely, “there is a deep-seated tendency in our culture to appreciate risk-taking in economic activity as a badge of courage” (147). W makes clear that he is not categorically deploring risk assessment, but he says that “certain kinds of social interests can expect to lose by the very act of entering into the risk debate. . . . The root of this tendency lies, very simply, in the way the concept of ‘risk’ is employed in everyday language” where “risk” is not in the debate substituted by other more tendentious terms like “danger,” “peril,” “hazard” and “threat,” and in fact “risk” becomes ever more legitimate as “standards of scientific certainty are applied to the available data to show how little we know about the relationship of cause and effect as regards particular industrial practices and their broader consequences” (149-50). W proposes a middle ground that he sees as more useful and specific. For instance, a “toxic waste disposal site placed in your neighborhood need not be defined as a risk; it might appropriately be defined as a problem of toxic waste and automobile emissions “might still be called by the old-fashioned name, ‘pollution’ etc.” (151). W allows as how, though, some situations can better be subjected to risk analysis than others like cancer and genetic engineering research. Ch 9: “Brandy, Cigars, and Human Values” W traces the history of the term value (“to be strong”) as it makes its way into social and political thought and then into economics in the 18th and 19th centuries (Smith, Ricardo, Marx). Nietsche especially altered its meaning, usually employing it in the plural, to mean “the sum total of principles, ideals, desires” (157). Perry extended it to “the full range of human interests” (157). W notes that the “shift in the use of this term from an objective to a subjective meaning is strongly linked to a change in how we view our situation” and another consequence of this way of talking and thinking is to exclude much of what was formerly contained in traditional moral and ploitical language” which means that there “is a loss of attention paid to shared reasons for action” (158-59). In the context of risk assessment, then, the fluidity of the concept of value means that we are at a loss of an instrument for “weighing various possibilities and coming to an intelligent choice” unless we see social values as mere “trade offs” (159). Ch 10: “The Whale and the Reactor” Here W acknowledges the dizzying impact of technology on the human psyche, and weighs it against the often frightening consequences of technology. (He is therefore calling for rational limits on technological research and development, in which tech needs to be seen within a broader context. He writes of the dangers of “technological somnambulism” 169 ff.; we often might better hesitate before employing new technologies, to see better what possible harm they may cause. He speaks critically of our “religion of progress” 170 ff. and of the possible loss of “qualities” with new tech 172, and how this is a self-nurturing process: “Technological development proceeds steadily from what it has already transformed and used up toward that which is still untouched” 174. What, now, that we are involved in changing “the gene pool” 174? Where, now, do we store our abundance of radio active waste?) Even when we make decisions to institute new technologies, considering their relative risks, even when these decisions are based on the best available scientific evidence, we may be making terrible mistakes–as is often borne out be later scientific evidence that causes revision of the earlier findings. Unfortunately, what we often do in this circumstance, W says, is begin to rationalize our original decisions, rather than tearing down the edifice we have constructed because it is now deemed to be not safe; we begin to ask, “just how unsafe is it, then? is it safe ‘enough’?” W’s point is that unsafe is unsafe. Period. “More and more the whole language used to talk about technology and social policy–the language of ‘risks,’ ‘impacts,’ and ‘trade-off-smacks of betrayal. . . . The excruciating subtleties of measurement and modeling mask embarrassing shortcomings in human judgment. We have become careful with numbers, callous with everything else. Our methodological rigor is becoming spiritual rigor mortis” (176).

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