Critique of “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”

Langdon Winner’s widely-cited essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” is perhaps a perfect example of what Georg Lukács would identify as a wholly bourgeois approach to the interaction of technology and society. Winner’s piece means well, but remains fundamentally blinkered by a worthy progressivist veneer that nevertheless cannot conceal a “bourgeois, contemplative materialism” inseparable from “the classical economics with which it is so closely bound up”, resigned forever to merely express “the antagonisms of capitalist society and the intractability of its problems when conceived in its own terms”. Winner, for his part, attempts to play both sides: pitting Marx and Engels against each other on the question of technology’s effect on the organization of social (and particularly productive) relations, but at the same time speaking to a rosy view of the future as a choice between nuclear or solar power, and never mentioning capitalism by name—not even once!

Winner’s piece seems to be the type of writing that, if I had read it a year or two ago, would have absolutely floored me. His approach is clear and his arguments seem lucid, nearly indomitable (an opinion shared by the Wikipedia editor of his article who writes that “criticisms [of Winner] are often narrowly focused upon particular cases in Winner’s essays, the height of the bridges built by Robert Moses on the Long Island Parkway, for example, and tend to overlook his general arguments about the interweaving of political institutions and technological devices”. However, Winner suffers from the aforementioned inability to escape the formulation of capitalism’s problems within its own terms.

Returning to Lukács’ essay “Technology and Social Relations” is illustrative in showing how Winner’s argument, while persuasive, is founded on capitalism’s foundation. As Lukács critiques Bukharin throughout the essay, he slowly explicates not just Bukharin’s failures to accurately situate technology within society but a wider problem of technology in general. “All economic or ‘sociological’ phenomena“, Lukács writes, “derive from the social relations of men to one another. Emphasis on a false ‘objectivity’ in theory leads to fetishism”. Winner commits the same error Bukharin does: both “find the underlying determinants of society and its development in a principle other than that of the social relations between men in the process of production” and thus give to technology a “far too determinant position” which, in Bukharin’s own terms (cited by Lukács) “every given system of social technique determines human work relations as well”. In this model, technique (or technological development) determines society itself. Technology becomes, like nature, an abstract, transcendental constant, “over and above” social relations. Though Lukács does not, of course, dispute that technology “retroactively influences the productive forces”, what is at issue here is both Winner’s and Bukharin’s mistake of placing those same productive forces at some remove above technology itself. In Winner’s quest to “take seriously” (always an injunction to maturity with these people!) the technological artifact, he makes a foundational mistake, which Lukács finds to be exactly the problem of the artifact (and specifically, the undialectical character of a new artifact qua progress), which he identifies within a general stream of productive “technique” as a dangerous focus on erroneous figures as opposed to the actually important ground, on the “undissolved quiddity (unaufgelöster Dinghaftlichkeit) and false ‘objectivity’” of the object as opposed to the truth of technology as subjected to socio-economic relations, or labor.

Winner identifies his approach as both technological and political. “The theory of technological politics,” he explains, “draws attention to the momentum of large-scale sociotechnical systems, to the response of modern societies to certain technological imperatives”. At no point does he explain what those imperatives are, or to ask who is giving them. Later, Winner continues: “societies choose structures for technologies that influence how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, and so forth over a very long time”. How do societies choose? Though Winner is not shy about pointing out, say, the role of a mechanical harvester in destroying agricultural communities, he seems incapable of stating the obvious: societal choice is not undertaken consensually, it is not something that we, as a civilization, are all grasping towards with each other’s best interests in mind. Winner spends some time adopting the tone of the scold, the dour academic Marxist, wherein Winner (in caricature) undertakes a separation of the economic and political in order to establish a “Marxist” view in which everything is suborned to the economic and therefore allowing Winner the wherewithal to properly and “maturely” get down to brass tacks. We should not give Winner any credit here: in his attempt to carve off the economic from the political, he then entreats us to imagine a political object: Robert Moses’ bridges, for example, intentionally designed as too low to admit buses under them. Winner writes:

“Automobile-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 consequence 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 Beach.”

He then comes so close to diagnosing the problem—”Moses’s social-class bias and racial prejudice”—without asking the question he himself asks earlier. Why does Moses have these biases, why was he able to put them into action? If society is determining its technological future, why did we not all roll up our sleeves and put a stop to this?

I’ll end this post with the blunt answer: Winner is a bourgeois theorist, and as such, eliminates questions of class as a universal in order to readmit it as a particular.