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Do Artifacts Have Politics?

Langdon Winner

Source: Daedalus , Winter, 1980, 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:

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 pro­ductivity, 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 appropri­ate 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 phosphate 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 fundamen­tally 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 aggre­gates 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 comput­er 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 tech­nology 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 impor­tance. 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 scien­tists; 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 technological 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 inven­tion, 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 systems 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 arrange­ments 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 technologies, 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-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 Beach.8

As a story in recent American political history, Robert Moses’s life is fasci­nating. 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 impor­tant 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 ex­amples of physical arrangements that contain explicit or implicit political pur­poses. 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 efficien­cy, 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 Mold­ers. He saw the addition of the new machines as a way to “weed out the bad element among the men,” namely, the skilled workers who had organized the union local in Chicago.10 The new machines, manned by unskilled labor, ac­tually 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 ade­quately 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 Haymarket Square. Technological history and American politi­cal 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 tech­nologies, however, encompassed purposes far beyond their immediate use. If our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only cate­gories 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 in­tentions 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 I 970s 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 direc­tion 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 advance 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 to­matoes in lug boxes and saving immature fruit for later harvest. 11 Studies in California indicate that the machine reduces costs by approximately five to sev­en 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 pro­duced. 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 lawsuit 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 hand­ful of private interests to the detriment of farmworkers, small farmers, con­sumers, 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 application.”14

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 unmistak­able 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 harvester are made to seem “antitechnology” or “antiprogress.” For the harves­ter 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 fre­quently 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, con­troversies 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 altera­tion 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 sys­tems 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, deliberately 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 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 rela­tionships 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 opera­tions 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 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 produc­tion 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 organ­ization, relationships of authority and subordination arise “independently of all social organization, [and] are imposed upon us together with the material condi­tions 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 author­itarianism 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 independ­ent 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 techne and employ it by analo­gy to buttress his argument in favor of authority in the state. Among the illus­trations 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 orga­nized 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 subordination 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 that will eventually dissolve the capitalist division of labor and facilitate prole­tarian revolution are conditions latent in industrial technology itself. The dif­ferences 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 mir­rors 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 politi­cal 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 sys­tem 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 en­vironments 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 logi­cal) 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 decentral­izing 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 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 adoption 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 sys­tem 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 tech­nology 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 hypothe­sis that the construction and day-to-day operation of many systems of produc­tion, transportation, and communication in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries require the development of a particular social form-a large-scale cen­tralized, 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, roundhouses, 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 indus­trial 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 tech­nologies-oil pipelines and refineries, for example-are such that over­whelmingly impressive economies of scale and speed are possible. If such systems are to work effectively, efficiently, quickly, and safely, certain require­ments of internal social organization have to be fulfilled; the material possi­bilities that modern technologies make available could not be exploited otherwise. Chandler acknowledges that as one compares sociotechnical institutions of different nations, one sees “ways in which cultural attitudes, values, ideologies, political systems, and social structure affect these imperatives.”26 But the weight of argument and empirical evidence in The Visible Hand suggests that any significant departure from the basic pattern would be, at best, highly unlikely.

It may be that other conceivable arrangements of power and authority, for example, those of decentralized, democratic worker self-management, could prove capable of administering factories, refineries, communications systems, and railroads as well as or better than the organizations Chandler describes. Evidence from automobile assembly teams in Sweden and worker-managed plants in Yugoslavia and other countries is often presented to salvage these pos­sibilities. I shall not be able to settle controversies over this matter here, but merely point to what I consider to be their bone of contention. The available evidence tends to show that many large, sophisticated technological systems are in fact highly compatible with centralized, hierarchical managerial control. The interesting question, however, has to do with whether or not this pattern is in any sense a requirement of such systems, a question that is not solely an empiri­cal one. The matter ultimately rests on our judgments about what steps, if any, are practically necessary in the workings of particular kinds of technology and what, if anything, such measures require of the structure of human associations. Was Plato right in saying that a ship at sea needs steering by a decisive hand and that this could only be accomplished by a single captain and an obedient crew? Is Chandler correct in saying that the properties of large-scale systems require centralized, hierarchical managerial control?

To answer such questions, we would have to examine in some detail the moral claims of practical necessity (including those advocated in the doctrines of economics) and weigh them against moral claims of other sorts, for example, the notion that it is good for sailors to participate in the command of a ship or that workers have a right to be involved in making and administering decisions in a factory. It is characteristic of societies based on large, complex technological systems, however, that moral reasons other than those of practical necessity appear increasingly obsolete, “idealistic,” and irrelevant. Whatever claims one may wish to make on behalf of liberty, justice, or equality can be immediately neutralized when confronted with arguments to the effect: “Fine, but that’s no way to run a railroad” (or steel mill, or airline, or communications system, and so on). Here we encounter an important quality in modern political discourse and in the way people commonly think about what measures are justified in response to the possibilities technologies make available. In many instances, to say that some technologies are inherently political is to say that certain widely accepted reasons of practical necessity-especially the need to maintain crucial technological systems as smoothly working entities-have tended to eclipse other sorts of moral and political reasoning.

One attempt to salvage the autonomy of politics from the bind of practical necessity involves the notion that conditions of human association found in the internal workings of technological systems can easily be kept separate from the polity as a whole. Americans have long rested content in the belief that arrange­ments of power and authority inside industrial corporations, public utilities, and the like have little bearing on public institutions, practices, and ideas at large. That “democracy stops at the factory gates” was taken as a fact of life that had nothing to do with the practice of political freedom. But can the internal politics of technology and the politics of the whole community be so easily separated? A recent study of American business leaders, contemporary ex­emplars of Chandler’s “visible hand of management,” found them remarkably impatient with such democratic scruples as “one man, one vote.” If democracy doesn’t work for the firm, the most critical institution in all of society, American executives ask, how well can it be expected to work for the government of a nation-particularly when that government attempts to interfere with the achievements of the firm? The authors of the report observe that patterns of authority that work effectively in the corporation become for businessmen “the desirable model against which to compare political and economic relationships in the rest of society.”27 While such findings are far from conclusive, they do reflect a sentiment increasingly common in the land: what dilemmas like the energy crisis require is not a redistribution of wealth or broader public partici­pation but, rather, stronger, centralized public management-President Carter’s proposal for an Energy Mobilization Board and the like.

An especially vivid case in which the operational requirements of a technical system might influence the quality of public life is now at issue in debates about the risks of nuclear power. As the supply of uranium for nuclear reactors runs out, a proposed alternative fuel is the plutonium generated as a by-product in reactor cores. Well-known objections to plutonium recycling focus on its unac­ceptable economic costs, its risks of environmental contamination, and its dan­gers in regard to the international proliferation of nuclear weapons. Beyond these concerns, however, stands another less widely appreciated set of haz­ards-those that involve the sacrifice of civil liberties. The widespread use of plutonium as a fuel increases the chance that this toxic substance might be sto­len by terrorists, organized crime, or other persons. This raises the prospect, and not a trivial one, that extraordinary measures would have to be taken to safeguard plutonium from theft and to recover it if ever the substance were stolen. Workers in the nuclear industry as well as ordinary citizens outside could well become subject to background security checks, covert surveillance, wiretapping, informers, and even emergency measures under martial law-all justified by the need to safeguard plutonium.

Russell W. Ayres’s study of the legal ramifications of plutonium recycling concludes: “With the passage of time and the increase in the quantity of pluto­nium in existence will come pressure to eliminate the traditional checks the courts and legislatures place on the activities of the executive and to develop a powerful central authority better able to enforce strict safeguards.” He avers that “once a quantity of plutonium had been stolen, the case for literally turning the country upside down to get it back would be overwhelming.”31 Ayres antic­ ipates and worries about the kinds of thinking that, I have argued, characterize inherently political technologies. It is still true that, in a world in which human beings make and maintain artificial systems, nothing is “required” in an absolute sense. Nevertheless, once a course of action is underway, once artifacts like nuclear power plants have been built and put in operation, the kinds of reason­ing that justify the adaptation of social life to technical requirements pop up as spontaneously as flowers in the spring. In Ayres’s words, “Once recycling be­ gins and the risks of plutonium theft become real rather than hypothetical, the case for governmental infringement of protected rights will seem compelling. “28 After a certain point, those who cannot accept the hard requirements and im­peratives will be dismissed as dreamers and fools.

*                    *                     *

The two varieties of interpretation I have outlined indicate how artifacts can have political qualities. In the first instance we noticed ways in which specific features in the design or arrangement of a device or system could provide a convenient means of establishing patterns of power and authority in a given setting. Technologies of this kind have a range of flexibility in the dimensions of their material form. It is precisely because they are flexible that their con­ sequences for society must be understood with reference to the social actors able to influence which designs and arrangements are chosen. In the second instance we examined ways in which the intractable properties of certain kinds of tech­nology are strongly, perhaps unavoidably, linked to particular institutionalized patterns of power and authority. Here, the initial choice about whether or not to adopt something is decisive in regard to its consequences. There are no alter­ native physical designs or arrangements that would make a significant dif­ference; there are, furthermore, no genuine possibilities for creative intervention by different social systems-capitalist or socialist-that could change the intrac­tability of the entity or significantly alter the quality of its political effects.

To know which variety of interpretation is applicable in a given case is often what is at stake in disputes, some of them passionate ones, about the meaning of technology for how we live. I have argued a “both/and” position here, for it seems to me that both kinds of understanding are applicable in different circum­stances. Indeed, it can happen that within a particular complex of technology­ a system of communication or transportation, for example-some aspects may be flexible in their possibilities for society, while other aspects may be (for better or worse) completely intractable. The two varieties of interpretation I have examined here can overlap and intersect at many points.

These are, of course, issues on which people can disagree. Thus, some proponents of energy from renewable resources now believe they have at last discovered a set of intrinsically democratic, egalitarian, communitarian tech­nologies. In my best estimation, however, the social consequences of build­ing renewable energy systems will surely depend on the specific configurations of both hardware and the social institutions created to bring that energy to us. It may be that we will find ways to turn this silk purse into a sow’s ear. By com­ parison, 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?

My belief that we ought to attend more closely to technical objects them­ selves is not to say that we can ignore the contexts in which those objects are situated. A ship at sea may well require, as Plato and Engels insisted, a single captain and obedient crew. But a ship out of service, parked at the dock, needs only a caretaker. To understand which technologies and which contexts are important to us, and why, is an enterprise that must involve both the study of specific technical systems and their history as well as a thorough grasp of the concepts and controversies of political theory. In our times people are often willing to make drastic changes in the way they live to accord with technological innovation at the same time they would resist similar kinds of changes justified on political grounds. If for no other reason than that, it is important for us to achieve a clearer view of these matters than has been our habit so far.


11 would like to thank Merritt Roe Smith, Leo Marx, James Miller, David Noble, Charles Weiner, Sherry Turkle, Loren Graham, Gail Stuart, Dick Sclove, and Stephen Graubard for their comments and criticisms on earlier drafts of this essay. My thanks also to Doris Morrison of the Agriculture Library of the University of California, Berkeley, for her bibliographical help.

2Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Technology and Culture, 5 (1964):


3Denis Hayes, Rays of Hope: The Transition to a Post-Petroleum World (New York: W. W. Norton,

1977), pp. 71, 159.

4David Lilienthal, T. V.A.: Democracy on the March (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), pp.


SDaniel J. Boorstin, The Republic of Technology (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 7.

6Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought

(Cambridge, Mass.: M.1. T. Press, 1977).

7The meaning of “technology” I employ in this essay does not encompass some of the broader definitions of that concept found in contemporary literature, for example, the notion of “technique” in the writings of Jacques Ellul. My purposes here are more limited. For a discussion of the diffi­ culties that arise in attempts to define “technology,” see Ref. 6, pp. 8-12.

8Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. 318,481,514,546, 951-958.

9/bid., p. 952.

10Robert Ozanne, A Century of Labor-Management Relations at McCormick and International Harvest­ er (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 20.

11The early history of the tomato harvester is told in Wayne D. Rasmussen, “Advances in American Agriculture: The Mechanical Tomato Harvester as a Case Study,” Technology and Culture, 9 (1968): 531-543.

12Andrew Schmitz and David Seckler, “Mechanized Agriculture and Social Welfare: The Case of the Tomato Harvester,” American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 52 (1970): 569-577.

13William H. Friedland and Amy Barton, “Tomato Technology,” Society, 13:6 (September/Oc­ tober 1976). See also William H. Friedland, Social Sleepwalkers: Scientific and Technological Research in California Agriculture, University of California, Davis, Department of Applied Behavioral Sciences, Research Monograph No. 13, 1974.

14University of California Clip Sheet, 54:36, May I, 1979. “Friedland and Barton, “Tomato Technology.”

16 A history and critical analysis of agricultural research in the land-grant colleges is given in James Hightower, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1978).

17David Noble, “Social Choice in Machine Design: The Case of Automatically Controlled Ma­ chine Tools,” in Case Studies in the Labor Process (New York: Monthly Review Press, forthcoming).

18Friedrich Engels, “On Authority” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., Robert Tucker (ed.) (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), p. 731.


20/bid., pp. 732, 731.

21Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, 3rd ed., Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (trans.) (New York: The Modern Library, 1906), p. 530.

22Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: William Morrow, 1978), p. 44.

23See, for example, Robert Argue, Barbara Emanuel, and Stephen Graham, The Sun Builders: A People’s Guide to Solar, Wind and Wood Energy in Canada (Toronto: Renewable Energy in Canada, 1978). “We think decentralization is an implicit component of renewable energy; this implies the decentralization of energy systems, communities and of power. Renewable energy doesn’t require mammoth generation sources of disruptive transmission corridors. Our cities and towns, which have been dependent on centralized energy supplies, may be able to achieve some degree of auton­ omy, thereby controlling and administering their own energy needs” (p. 16).

24Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cam- bridge, Mass.: Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 244.


26/bid., p. 500.

27Leonard Silk and David Vogel, Ethics and Profits: The Crisis of Confidence in American Business

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 191.

28Russel W. Ayres, “Policing Plutonium: The Civil Liberties Fallout,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 10 (1975):443, 413-4, 374.