Why I appreciate Langdon Winner

In an article from 4 Aug 1993 in Technology Review Winner discusses the ways in which “technologies reweave the fabric of society”. I can’t help but think of his comments in light of the built environment, the urban environment and the technology (established ways of applying knowledge and producing artifacts for some given problem) of city planning. He criticizes the Clinton Administrations one-tract mindset on economic development in their infrastructure projects, their narrow and feeble conceptualization and understanding of technological systems, and the lip-service paid to consideration of cultural, social or political ramifications of infrastructure projects.  He interlinks the creation of technologies with their ends, and what the goals of those in power might be, which is likely why the technology is being employed.

He discusses the problem of technological ambivalence and existing power structures in the context of democracy and governance suggesting that many technological projects are assaults on democracy, they undermine and and reinforce a complacent citizenry.  His critique can be applied to any number of technologies and their institutions (not just ICT infrastructures or highways which he discusses). Energy infrastructure is one such technology, one that shapes our daily lives in numerous ways, and is a highly political (definitely not political in the sense of Mouffe) and widely debated area. Energy politics is dealt with by experts, yet the impacts are felt by citizens and their environment.  Citizens don’t make choices regarding these decisions or technologies at the same level or with the same power as experts, private industry, and public officials who are more narrowly focused on economic and technical considerations. Public input would stifle and slow the process, but is that not a quality of democratic debate? How is the public to be engaged without opportunity? How much power shall we concede to experts and officials to make decisions for us, especially if it means higher energy prices, greater tolls on environmental and human health, and perhaps nuclear armament? Shouldn’t urban residents be involved in the decisions to privatize energy systems, or to build mass transit versus streetcars or more bike lanes or EcoDistricts?

“The process of building significant infrastructure can create social divisions or seek to heal them. We have a wealth of cultural experience with such projects, as well as a growing industry of social scientists and historians able to describe and theorize about the impact and outcomes of such projects. But focused attention on the social and cultural aspects of technological development — the loom in contrast to the pump, or the reweaving of the fabric of society in contrast to the sheer production of wealth — seldom occurs in actual deliberations about policy.

Yes, particular issues do attract the notice of the public and policy makers now and again — for example, debates over the environmental consequences of various technical developments. Hence we worry about toxic wastes from industrial processes entering our ground water or carbon-dioxide emissions that affect global climatic change. But we find it difficult as a nation to discuss in any sustained way the relationship between important technological projects and the kind of society we want to build. Again and again, we engage in a process that I would call technological somnambulism — sleepwalking our way through the process of changing basic patterns of social and political relationships.

In recent years, scholars in science and technology studies — an emerging interdisciplinary field that combines social science, history, and philosophy — have made great strides in understanding the ways in which technology, culture, and politics are intertwined. But thus far, this research has had little effect upon national-policy deliberations. Perhaps the scholars have not tried hard enough to make their findings known outside the academy. Or perhaps, more likely, the eyes of the nation are so thoroughly fixed on economic definitions of technological change that all other perspectives seem “soft” and unreal.

If we look at major projects in the infrastructure building of the past century — the construction of systems for water, sewage, electricity, transportation, and the like — we see wonders of functional integration, reliable service, and economies of scale. But these have been accomplished at a serious cost — the weakening of American democracy. Decisions about infrastructure have been bureaucratized, professionalized, “technicized,” and removed from the decision-making competence of ordinary citizens and local political bodies. When these conditions double back on us — for example, in the “energy crisis” of the 1970’s or in today’s predicaments about waste disposal and water supply — the very remoteness of large technological systems looms as an intractable political problem.

As a result, we hear bitter complaints from citizens who feel that they have little say over important decisions that affect their lives. No one knows how corrosive that mistrust will be in the long run. But these feelings result from the ways that our society has handled seemingly “neutral” infrastructure projects over many decades.

Will the infrastructures that we build during the next decade continue long-standing patterns of disempowering citizens or seek to alter them? ”

link: http://chronicle.com/article/How-Technology-Reweaves-the/73446/

no pdf available, yet


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