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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Darkness of Technology, February 7, 2002
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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Location: Fort-Coulonge, Quebec Canada

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