V: like dropping the atom bomb - Langdon Winner

V: like dropping the atom bomb


As I was writing this essay for the Institute for Policy Studies, the all-pervasiveness of addiction was rising to collective awareness in the United States.  More people were joining Alcoholics Anonymous, and more psychotherapy clients were attempting to blend the lessons of A.A. with the healing offered by deep-excavation therapy.  I was invited to speak at a mental health conference put on by an organization located in the hyper-conservative town of Colorado Springs.  When I stepped to the podium and began to outline a relationship between personal addiction and disconnection from the natural world -- with its implied critique of technological progress and favoring of environmental politics -- several listeners stormed out of the auditorium in a rage.
            The essay for Technology for the Common Good continues:

According to psychotherapist Terry Kellogg, addiction is "a process of decreasing choice sustained by denial."[i]The practicing alcoholic pretends that everything is normal. I once met a politician who had gotten himself elected to office by spending ten times more on his campaign than any other contender in the race. He was addicted to power, sex, overspending, and abuse of other people. His denial of these addictions blinded him from admitting them for year -- until one day the Sheriff's Family Violence Protection Act served him notice for assault.
The denial of addiction we find in society's ecological, economic, and psychological crises resembles this man's life. A society-wide stance of "business-as-usual" pervades.  Denial abounds.

 The automotive industry keeps cranking out new models of polluting cars. Television runs ads for them. We buy them. The U.S. government denies a link between technological development and global warming, while President George Bush calls for more technological development as the answer to environmental disaster. The plastics industry inundates world markets with petro-products, even using the idea of park benches made from recycled plastic as an excuse for further production. The medical establishment denies the existence of environmental illness. Corporations deny the ecological impact of manufacturing toxics.
Technology survivors suffer the rejection caused by denial from the insurance industry, justice system, medical establishment, media, and even friends and family. As Love Canal resident Lois Gibbs told me: “I went to my son's pediatrician, and I said, ‘Look, there are eight patients who have you as their doctor. All of them are under the age of twelve, all of them have a similar urinary disorder. Why is this? What do you make of the fact that you have eight patients who live within a few blocks of Love Canal who have the same disease?’ He said, ‘There is no connection.’”[ii]
Dishonesty is acted out by the alcoholic in secret drinking, sneaky behavior, and lying. With respect to technol­ogy addiction, this symptom reveals itself most blatantly in the behavior of corporations and government agencies whose self-interest lies in purvey­ing offending technologies. We know, for example, that officials at A.H. Robins, the makers of the Dalkon Shield, knew in advance of the potential medical risk of their product. Nonetheless, they sent it to market, and when reports and studies indicating ill effects became public knowledge, A.H. Robins claimed ignorance.[iii]Likewise, in the face of increasing liability suits, Manville Corporation (formerly Johns-Manville) froze its assets and declared bankruptcy. At the time, Manville ranked 181st on the Fortune 500 list, with assets of over $2 billion.[iv]
Addicts need to control their world to enjoy uninterrupted access to the source of their obsession. A workaholic who directs a small institute is incapable of negotiating even the smallest agreement because input from others upsets her sense of control. Likewise, today's multinationals display an unbounded obsession with controlling the world's resources, consumer markets, workers'behavior, and public opinion toward their products.
The kindsof technologies a society develops are not as preordained as the ethos of linear progress would have us believe; they express a society's goals, both conscious and unconscious. In mass technological society there exists a striking resemblance between the kinds of technologies produced and tyrannical modes of political power. Winner discusses the similarity in language between the realms of power and technology. "Master" and "slave" are words used to characterize both technology and fascist politics,while "machine," "power," and "control" appear in the vocabularies of both worlds.[v]



When humans assume a position of extreme dependence on technical artifacts, the lines blur be­tween who is master and who is slave. What happens to our lives when cars break down? What happens when you don't owna computer? Technology's mastery over our lives translates into political disempowerment as well. The very conception, invention, development, and deployment of new technologies involve an undemocratic social process rationalized as "progress."[vi] The life experience of technology survivors attests to this fact: they are usually exposed to technological events without warning or choice.
If the particular kinds of technologies in our midst exist to promote mastery and power, we might ask: For whom? Over whom? 

 Windmills and teepees express democratic and ecological values because the very people who invent, produce, and maintain them are the people who use them. By contrast, the technologies of mass society reflect a mentality of domination over the natural world, space, and people. As Mander points out, running a nuclear power plant requires tight, centralized control by both government and industry to produce such a capital-intensive project, master public opinion, and provide military back-up in case of sabotage, accident, or public protest.[vii]
Alcoholics typically employ obsessive, confused, and narcissistic thinking. One addict who assaulted a woman explained that he was not responsible for her medical bills; instead he blamed the woman for her reaction to his attack, rationalizing "you create your own reality."
Likewise, much thinking in mass technological society is dysfunctional -- with people embracing the "technological fix" as the answer to social, psychological, and medical problems caused by previous technological fixes. Doctors treat servicemen with cancer from exposure to nuclear testing -- with small blasts of radiation. Chemists look to ever more-potent pesticides to conquer the insects resistant to last year's poison. One proposed government program seeks to cover the oceans with polystyrene chips which will reflect "unwanted" sunlight off the Earth's surface and save us from global warming. And some scientists suggest orbiting hundreds of satellites around the planet to block the sun's light.[viii]
The practicing alcoholic's delusion of grandeur is well known. The inflated power that fuels technological development is less apparent, more assumed. This grandiosity insists that mass technological society is superior to all other social arrangements. It implies that human evolution is linear and progressive, and that all societies should be judged by the yardstick of technological achievement. These ideas are inescapably present -- on television, in textbooks, in movies -- and are reinforced by each season's parade of state-of-the-art technologies.
Technological society's main organ of socialization, public relations, purveys the grandiosity of technology. "Master the Possibilities" teases the MasterCard ad. "What Exactly Can the World's Most Powerful and Expan­dable PC Do? Anything It Wants," promises the Compaq Deskpro. At the same time the "smart weapons" unleashed on television during Desert Storm advertise that American technology -- and America -- is "Number One." Behind this all-too-earnest insistence lies the out-of-control, often aimless compulsion to create ever-increasing expressions of grandiosity -- and the hallmark of the addict -- to return continually to the source of aggrandizement. We need more cars, more bombs, more televisions, more golf courses, more dams, more shopping malls, more new technologies to prove our grandiosity.
Alcoholics are brimming with emotions, but they can't express themsel­ves directly or constructively. Instead, their feelings are hidden from view, and they live in a state of frozen emotion. Or they act out their feelings in dishonest, controlling, grandiose behavior.
Likewise, survival in the technological system requires that people behave like machines. The hallmark of education is to quantify reality and function in a mechanistic world. Every subject we learn at school seems unrelated to the others. Each department of government appears disconnected from every other.  Modern medicine denies links between body organs and systems; between mind, body, and social experience.
Similarly, technological society is structured "top-down," its frag­mented nature keeping most of us from ever grasping an understanding of the whole. The Manhattan Project that built the bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was constructed accord­ing to a mechanistic military model. The project included 37 installations,[ix]each providing one fragment of the production process. At Los Alamos National Laboratory work waspurposefully accomplished with a compartmentalization of tasks and a censuring of communication between scientists that enabled them to engage in activities the consequence of which could neither be felt nor understood.
The upshot of such an approach to life is that feelings, knowings, and perceptions are disconnected from each other, and the unconscious mind becomes the receptor of repressed feelings.  As a result, many of us tend to reside in a semi-conscious state: the hideous and subterranean violations around us catalyze our feelings, but unacknowledged by the mechanistic world, we act them out in behaviors we neither feel nor understand. 
Like dropping the atomic bomb. (1993)[x]





This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.


[i] Terry Kellogg, “Broken Toys, Broken Dreams,” Santa Fe, NM: AudioAwareness, 1991. Audiotape.
[ii] Glendinning, When Technology Wounds, p. 66.
[iii] Morton Mintz, At Any Cost: Corporate Greed, Women and the Dalkon Shield. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, Chapter 3.
[iv] Paul Brodeur, Outrageous Misconduct: The Asbestos Industry on Trial. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, Chapter 10.
[v] Winner, Autonomous Technology, p. 20.
[vi] Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, Chapter 7.
[vii] Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, p. 44
[viii] Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, p. 179.
[ix] Richard Hewlett and Oscar Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939-1946: A History of the Atomic Energy Commission. University Park PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1962, p. 3.
[x] Adapted from Chellis Glendinning, “The Conversation We Haven’t Had; Trauma, Technology, and the Wild” in Michael Shuman and Julia Sweig, eds., Technology for the Common GoodWashington D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1993, Chapter. 4.

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