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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Darkness of Technology, February 7, 2002
By 
Tom Gray (Fort-Coulonge, Quebec Canada) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Paperback)
In this book, Langdon Winner presents a philosophical description of the position of those who oppose the paramount place technology has taken in society. Central to Winner�s argument is his observation that technology is inherently political. He presets two ways in which this is so. The first, which is rather unconvincing, is that a piece of technology can be used as a means of political coercion. He cites the fact that Robert Moses designed the overpasses on the parkways around New York City to be so low as to prevent buses from using them. This ensured that low-income people could not live in the communities adjacent to these parkways which was a political aim of Moses. Now Moses used technology in this case but since technology represents the means by which things are done in the world, this seems to have been inevitable.
Winner makes a much more convincing case for his second form of politics in technology. Any technology requires a compatible environment to work in to achieve maximum efficiency. People who benefit from a specific technology will through political means strive to change society to achieve this compatibility. Specific technologies carry their own political imperatives.
Now in itself the co-evolution of society and technology is not necessarily harmful to human society. Modern technology requires and educated work force and hence drives a political imperative for an educated middleclass population. The needs of technology and a beneficial state of society are compatible in this case. However Winner does not see it this way. He sees technology as an independent force for change that will indifferently discard traditions and social structures that are incompatible with it. Reading his descriptions of society, one realizes that Winner appreciates what could be called the �darkness of society� in analogy to the �darkness of god.�
The darkness of god is the sense of ineffable mystery when one contemplates the power and intentions of god. The magnificence of god is tied to the fact that he is infinitely good and beyond human comprehension. His ineffable mystery provides comfit to his believers. In the same way, Winner wants to find a sense of belonging in society. He objects to the technological view that society is a purely instrumental means of achieving some desirable end. For his society is the thing that gives meaning. Depriving it of this renders the individual helpless and alone.
Winner attempts to understand why others do not see society in this way. In particular he tries to understand why people are quite willing to adapt themselves and their society to the needs of technology. Winner sees that this acceptance of technological change has brought prosperity but cannot see how shallow economic prosperity is preferable to a stable meaning-giving society. Hence the Whale and the Reactor of his title.
What Winner seems to miss is that while technology has political imperatives, as he correctly observes, it is also subject to political imperatives. There is no monolithic thing called technology. Rather there are various technologies that all compete to fit into what would best be called a ecosystem of technological and societal arrangements. Successful technologies then must be aware and adapt to the needs of the larger ecosystem of society. Societal and technological arrangements co-evolve and a successful arrangement must be sensitive to larger needs outside of itself.
This co-evolution is best done in a open educated affluent society that is tolerant of change and divergent views. Technology rather than being a straightjacket requiring conformity from members of society is a slave to society�s needs. It will be By fostering an open educated society it creates the conditions that foster the dignity of the individual. The very political imperatives that control technological development are the reasons why people are willing to adapt to technology. They adapt in an open educated way that provides frees them from obsolete constraints while emphasizing long held beliefs of individual dignity and freedom.
The movies �Modern Times� and �Metropolis� show technology in the way it is viewed by Winner. Technology is shown as an over-powering force that indifferently shapes mankind to its needs. However the dystopias presented in these movies and seen by Winner has not come about. Society has become more open. Society has become freer with the political changes driven by technology.
Winner decries the lack of meaning and tradition he sees around him. To him meaning comes from society and change eliminates meaning. For others, meaning comes from an eternal process of which change is a part. Meaning is not fixed but a continual striving for understanding. Technology is accepted because it is part of that process. Technology is then part of an ineffable darkness by which mankind evolves its meaning.
This is a book well worth reading. Winner's views have wide consonance in society. His feeling of unease in the face of technological change is shared by many. There is a wide gulf in understanding between those who share Winner's view and the bulk of society which finds that its beliefs are compatible with technological change. This gulf can be seen by the mutual incomprehension on both sides of the globalization debate. I disagree with Winner's views and find his view of technology as political incomplete. However he masterfully describes the issues that a5re driving these worldwide protests. Most of these protests are inarticulate expressions of an emotional horror at the loss of meaning. Winner provides us with an insightful analysis of the issues that is clear and thoughtful.
This is a book well worth reading.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars recognition and reflection, March 23, 2006
This review is from: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Paperback)
In The Whale and the Reactor, Langdon Winner asserts that technology is inseparably connected with politics, in that the technological decisions we make are often decisions significantly shaped and motivated by political forces. Some of these politically shaped technologies are obvious, such as those created for and used by the military. However, most are much more subtle. Winner provides an example early in the book about the bridges over parkways in Long Island, New York, describing how they are only nine feet tall. He then claims that these bridges were actually politically designed and built to achieve a specific social affect; to keep busses, and thus the poor and racial minorities, out of public parks.

Winner's primary intention is not necessarily to restructure or provide alternatives to the role politics has in technology, but rather to first recognize it. Winner asserts that the concept of technological determinism is much too strong, but claims that currently we exist in technological somnambulism, "willingly sleepwalking through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence." Although it need not be, technology, driven by politics, is shaping the world in which we live, rather than a cognitive society as a whole.

Winner also argues that politics also uses the promise of technology to restructure and format society to its liking. Many technologies need a specific structure around them to function at their greatest potential. By controlling technology, something society has blindly placed their faith in, politics can in turn control the structure of society necessary for technology to prosper. This does not, however, take into consideration the possibility that instead of society attuning itself to the demands of technology, technology may instead attune itself to the demands of society. The characteristics of technology may in fact be a result of cultural values rather than exclusively political ones.

Either way Winner makes a significant point in that whatever our current situation is, we appear to be sleepwalking through it. To rectify our condition, we must first recognize, and reflect on it thoroughly. Winner's book is well worth reading and at the very least sheds some important light on our circumstance at present.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a Great Book!!, February 26, 2003
This review is from: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Paperback)
The debate that our book club spawned from the material was intense and exciting.
This book clearly defines an interesting problem that is hidden underneath a complex facade of consumerism and innovation. Winner chooses not to offer alternatives to our pursuit of unlimited technology, but instead, he describes certain aspects of technology, such as politics, that should be taken into consideration as society blindly accepts technology on a product-by-product basis. How are we being limited?? This is an important question to ponder as you read this.
His way of citing examples is actually VERY humorous and embarrassing at times, which makes the book easy and enjoyable to read. Instead of being told WHAT to be aware of, he sets up a method that informs the reader on HOW to be MORE aware of the technology around us and the implications of it. I believe that this a very effective way to make people think without ranting about political views, etc.
I wish they would reissue this book with a beautiful cover design, it truly deserves more attention.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prof Winner's insights on technology are winners indeed!, September 29, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Paperback)
A fascinating read. Thoughtful, intriguing, insightful. Professor Winner's book investigates the impact technology is having on our society in ways you are not likely to have previously considered.
My reaction was the same as I had when first exposed to Emerson's writings: "Hey, he's absolutely right! Why hadn't I thought of that? It's so obvious -- now that he's connected the dots for me."
If this topic interests you at all, and it should given that you utilize the web to search for good books, you will absolutely fall in love with this book. Guaranteed.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A great read!, December 8, 2011
By 
Raymond V. Rand (Las Vegas, Nevada USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Paperback)
I read this book in my early twenties (early 90s) and it really opened my eyes to the issue of rampant, out-of-control technology that is thrust upon us before we know what hit us and before we know what the implications are (a good example explored in detail in the book is television). At the time, there was very little that was published on this topic. This book should be required reading in school. I highly recommend this book!
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stop and Think About It!, August 9, 2001
By 
rodboomboom (St. Louis, Missouri United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)   
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This review is from: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Paperback)
A popular morning radio broadcast here in Detroit has a great bit periodically entitled this, "Stop and think about it." Winner passionately writes with this theme in mind when it comes to technology.
As technology as we now know it seems steamrolling always into new area never ventured and most react with "can't stop progress," this book delivers the good gift of "we'd better start, stopping and thinking more carefully about it." The "it" is the impact of technologies upon society.
Discussions of risk analysis, tradeoffs, environment and ecology, and of course, economics and politics and social sciences and philosophy are all here.
I came away at times frustrated with the critique going on which didn't truly provide great alternatives, but certainly one obtains from reading this profitable work the valuable premise, i.e. shouldn't we be engaging more seriously in setting limits on technology?
Stem cells, and medical technology regarding life & death issues have clearly pushed the technological envelope to the breaking point for all of society. Engage with this subject. This book is good place to enter the dialogue.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a Great Book!!, February 26, 2003
This review is from: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Paperback)
We have just finished this book in our Book Club here in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The debate that we spawned from the material was intense and exciting.
This book clearly defines an interesting problem that is hidden underneath a complex facade of consumerism and innovation. Winner chooses not to offer alternatives to our pursuit of unlimited technology, but instead, he describes certain aspects of technology, such as politics, that should be taken into consideration as society blindly accepts technology on a product-by-product basis. How are we being limited?? This is an important question to ponder as you read this.
His way of citing examples is actually VERY humorous and embarrassing at times, which makes the book easy and enjoyable to read. Instead of being told WHAT to be aware of, he sets up a method that informs the reader on HOW to be MORE aware of the technology around us and the implications of it. I believe that this a very effective way to make people think without ranting about political views, etc.
I wish they would reissue this book with a beautiful cover design, it truly deserves more attention...
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The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology
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