RIsk rhetoric, neoliberal ideology, Langdon Winner

I recently read Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. It turned out to be more about environmental policy and politics than, say, media and information technology, the particular forms of tech I am looking for limits for. (Winner frequently mentions replacing nuclear power with solar power and devotes a chapter to the “appropriate technology” movement, sort of a proto-green movement with what strikes me as better branding.)

In the most interesting chapter to me, “Mythinformation”, Winner points out that while artifacts may imply political arrangements and path dependency constrains future political options, no technology obviates the need for collective action to shape the future of society. Nothing is inevitable in any technological development; technology is always shaped by (and then begins to shape) the social context in which it is embedded. The temptation to talk about what “technology wants” is an attempt to eliminate the political dimension of technology and let that context be shaped undemocratically by those with the most direct financial investments. That is, it is a plea to let capitalism dictate the use of technology to transform society in ways that make it more amenable to capitalist accumulation and the extraction of profit and the molding of behavior by individual incentivization. Politics is, to a large degree, a public debate about the parameters of acceptable social ideas; it makes no sense to pretend technology is (a) developed without a vision of society in mind and (b) that it dictates the future automatically. Winners and losers are not predetermined by a technology but by how it is adopted and developed and implemented, etc. “For those willing to wait passively while the computer revolution takes its course, technological determinism ceases to be a mere theory and becomes an ideal: a desire to embrace conditions brought on by technological change without judging them in advance.” This doesn’t go far enough; it is quietism in the face of parties protecting their status quo interests by co-opting technology.

It seems wise to remember, as Winner puts it, that “Those best situated to take advantage of a new technology are often those previously well situated by dint of wealth, social standing, and institutional position. Thus, if there is to be a computer revolution, the best guess is that it will have a distinctly conservative character.” It still requires political intervention to allow technology to address social inequities, no matter how magical the technology may seem.

What the ideology of technological determinism can mask is the choices we have about the tendency of capitalism to use technology to accelerate exchanging, to speed up obsolescence, and so on. The accelerated information-processing approaches to everyday life crowd out the slower “ways of knowing.” Tech determinism becomes a trojan horse for introducing and reinforcing capitalist values about the importance of individualism, convenience, efficiency and so on. It makes us “consumers of change,” as Winner notes, which corresponds with the subject position we;ve learn to adopt and inhabit comfortably.

Winner points out that “people must be convinced that the human burdens of an information age — unemployment, deskilling, the disruption of many social patterns — are worth bearing.” This is the primary positive ideology at work in the “information age” discourse — the benefits of social media, etc., make any sacrifices seem small, irrelevant, and to complain about them makes one ungrateful, inconsiderate, uncool. The general media worship of Steve Jobs epitomizes this.

Another aspect of the positive tech ideology is pushing convenience as more important than sociality. Winner notes how much of innovation heightens efficiency, productivity, and convenience at the expense of collective action, community- or social-bond-building collaboration. It tends to represent social interaction as a nuisance rather than an opportunity, turning social connection into something that is more contrived, deliberate, something that must be consciously chosen rather than evolving out of given circumstances. That can be represented as an advantage, as a stride toward authenticity since one would be choosing people who fit with the “real” them rather than having friends thrust upon them by circumstances. But those circumstances usually allow other people’s personalities to show in a genuine rather than contrived, controlled, personal-brand sort of way. Those circumstances allow for more genuine sociality, it seems to me, than the opportunities designed into the functionality of tech applications.

Winner mounts a critique of the rhetoric of risk management and cost-benefit analysis, the idea that society should accept small risks in order to receive the massive benefits of technology. Such discourse frames danger as something inevitable, reasonably manageable. Also it casts those who reject accepting more danger as irrationally phobic. The discussion of inescapable and necessary risk plays into the dissemination of entrepreneurial rhetoric, which leads to the ultimate celebration of risk as separating the capitalist heroes from the pretenders. Winner: “There is, then, a deep-seated tendency in our culture to appreciate risk-taking in economic activity as a badge of courage.” Those willing to take risks are courageous; those who aren’t are cowards. This leads to the “damn the torpedoes” brand of conservatism, Winner argues, in which technological innovations are introduced if profitable and then mitigated later if there harm becomes unmanageable, unmaskable. As Winner puts it, this sort of conservatism encourages society in “renovating human needs to match what modern science and engineering happened to make available.” This becomes an ethos of “We don’t know where we are going but we are on our way.”


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