VII: technology is political - Langdon Winner

VII: technology is political


“The feast of life” is how Lewis Mumford described this lively sentiment in his 1962 “Prologue to Our Time.”[i]  By 1989 I was aware that the important public intellectual, who had in so many ways laid the ground for my own life’s work, would soon pass from this world.  I wrote a letter to his home in Amenia, New York, to ask if I might pay a visit.  Make a pilgrimage, really.  His wife Sophia wrote back to make the arrangements.  I was told to arrive between two and three-thirty in the afternoon.  I was told to stay no longer than a half hour.  And I was informed that “his brain still functions, but more often than not the connection between brain and communication is weak.”[ii]  The fact did not deter me.  In the end what deterred the trip to Amenia was my own ill health – and then, on January 26, 1990, before I could revamp a schedule built around upstate New York, 94-year old Lewis Mumford had passed on.
A year later Ping and I drove through the upstate New York countryside to pay our respects to Sophie.  She was gracious, alert, and, in her 80’s, embarking upon what she described as the start of her own writing career after so many decades in the shadow lands of her husband’s.  She pointed me towards his writing room.  I rose from the easy chair and edged towards it with the sense of numinosity that one usually reserves for the approach to a great cathedral.
The floor was made of planks.  There was no rug, and the room was almost empty.  At the far wall, under a dappling of light from a small window, stood a writing table, a wooden chair, an old black typewriter, plus some clipboards, pencils, and erasers.  Everything was exactly as it had been the last day he had worked there.  His corduroy jacket was still hanging from a nail on the inside of the door.


Mumford's Home

The feast of life. 
Emboldened by colleagues like Langdon Winner and John Mohawk; inspired by the courage of forerunners like Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and the Luddites; propelled by the force of a globally-charged anti-nuclear movement -- we were riding high, feeling our oats, speaking our truth. 
But it was a different time from now. 
Slower.  The speed of computers did not form the backbone of social relations, and people had time to nurse deep thoughts.  Conversations were not cut off by intrusive clicks and ditty-refrains.  Everyone was not running to get somewhere else.  You wrote a letter, time passed, you received a response.  Speciousness reigned.  Your every move was not captured on security film, your conversations not tracked, your whereabouts not documented by skyward camera.  You didn’t have instant access to every iota of information and every product on the planet.  “Be Here Now” was a distinct possibility -- along with a sense of alighting upon life rather than plying it with management skills.  Before.  There was a vibrancy sizzling through your bones.  The inclination to help a friend, lend a hand, start a movement was alive.  Oddly to those who defend a preference for digital “connectivity” via telecommunications, the internet, and satellite-delivered data -- indeed,  cannot fathom life without it --  the cracks one might fall through seemed less gaping, less craggy than they do now.  We were well aware that life was up a creek.  But we felt more rooted in the face of it, more at home, more embodied, engaged, supported -- and far more given to bold language in articulating visions of the possible. 
Such was the sentiment that guided me to write “Notes toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto,” penned for the Utne Reader in 1990.

Most students of European history dismiss the Luddites of 19th century England as “reckless machine-smashers” and “vandals.”  Probing beyond this interpretation, though, we find a complex, and thoughtful social movement whose roots lay in a clash between two worldviews.
The worldview the Luddites challenged was that of laissez-faire capitalism with is increasing amalgamation of power, resources, and wealth, rationalized by an emphasis on “progress.”
The worldview they supported was an older, decentralized one espousing the interconnectedness of work, community, family, and nature through craft guilds, village networks, and local sustainability. They saw the new machines that owners introduced into their workplaces – the gig mills and shearing frames – as threats not only to their jobs, but to the quality of their lives. In the end, destroying the machines was a last-ditch effort by a desperate people whose world lay on the verge of destruction.


The current controversy over technology is reminiscent of that of the Luddite period. We too are being barraged by a new generation of technologies -– biotechnology, superconductivity, fusion energy, wireless electricity, space weapons, super-computers. We too are witnessing protest against the onslaught. 
A group of Berkeley students gathered in Sproul Plaza to smash television sets as an act of “therapy for victims of technology.” A Los Angeles businesswoman hiked onto Vandenberg Air Force Base and beat a weapons-related computer with a crowbar, bolt cutters, and cordless drill. Villagers in India resist the bulldozers cutting down their forests by wrapping their bodies around tree trunks. Japanese living near the Narita airport sit on the tarmac to prevent airplanes from taking off and landing. West Germans climb up the smokestacks of factories to protest emissions that are causing acid rain and killing the Back Forest.



Such acts echo the commitment of the 19th-century Luddites.  Neo-Luddites are 20th-century citizens – activists, workers, neighbors, social critics, scholars – who question the predominant modern worldview preaching that unbridled technology represents progress. Neo-Luddites have the courage to gaze at the full catastrophe of our century: the technologies created by modern Western societies are out-of-control and desecrating the fragile fabric on Earth. Like the early Luddites, we too are a desperate people seeking to protect the livelihoods, communities, families, and wild spaces we love.

Just as recent social movements have challenged the idea that current models of gender roles, economic organization, and family structures are not necessarily “normal” or “natural,” so the Neo-Luddite movement has come to acknowledge that technological progress and the kinds of technologies produced in modern society are not simply “the way things are.”
Technology consists of more than machines. It includes the techniques of operation and the social organizations that make a particular machine workable. In essence, a technology reflects a worldview.  Which particular forms of technology – machines, techniques, and social organization – are spawned by a particular worldview depends on its perception of life, death, human potential, and the relationship of humans to nature.
In contrast to the worldviews of a majority of cultures through history and around the world, the view that lies at the foundation of modern technological society encourages a mechanistic approach: to rational thinking, efficiency, utilitarianism, scientific detachment, and the insistence that the human place on Earth is one of ownership and supremacy.

Stopping the destruction brought by such technologies requires not just regulating or eliminating individual items like pesticides or nuclear weapons. It requires new ways of thinking about life and humanity. It requires the creation of a new worldview.

1)  Neo-Luddites are not anti-technology. Technology is intrinsic to human creativity and culture. What we oppose are the kinds of technologies that are destructive and that emanate from a worldview that sees rationality as the key to human potential, material acquisition as the key to human fulfillment, technological development as the key to social progress.

2)  All technologies are political. As social critic Jerry Mander writes, technologies are not neutral tools that can be used for good or evil depending on who uses them. They are entities that have been consciously structured to serve specific interests in specific historical situations. The technologies created in mass technological society are those that serve the perpetuation of mass technological society. They tend to be structured for short-term efficiency, profit-taking, war-making, and ease of production, distribution, and marketing.
Television, for example, does not just bring entertainment and information to households across the globe. It offers corporations a surefire method of expanding their markets and controlling social/political thought. It also breaks down family communications and narrows people’s experience of life by mediating reality and lowering their span of attention, thus making them more fertile consumers.

3)  The personal view of technology is dangerously limited. The oft-heard message “but I couldn’t live without my word processor” overlooks the consequences of widespread use of computers like toxic contamination of electronics workers or the solidifying of corporate power through instantaneous access to information.
Producers and disseminators of technologies tend to introduce their creations in utopian terms. Pesticides will increase yields to feed a hungry planet! Nuclear energy will be too cheap to meter! The Pill will liberate women! Learning to critique technology demands fully examining its sociological context, economic ramifications, and political meanings. It involves asking not just what is gained and by whom -- but what is lost and by whom. It involves looking at the introduction of technologies from the perspective not only of human use, but of their impact on other living beings, natural systems, and the environment.

As a move toward dealing with the consequences of modern technologies and preventing further destruction of life, we favor the dismantling of:

1)  Nuclear technologies -- which cause disease and death at every stage of the fuel cycle;

2)  Chemical technologies -- which create poisonous substances and leave behind toxic wastes;

3)  Genetic engineering technologies -- which foster dangerous mutagens;

4)  Television – which functions as a centralized mind-controlling force, disrupts community life, and poisons the environment;

5)  Electromagnetic technologies – whose non-ionizing radiation alters the natural electrical rhythms of living beings and causes disease; and

6)  Computer technologies – which cause disease and death in their manufacture, enhance centralized political power, and remove people from direct experience of life.

We favor a search for new technological forms. We favor the creation of technologies by the people directly involved in their use – not by scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who gain financially from mass production of their inventions and who know little about the context in which their technologies are used.
We favor technologies that are of a scale and structure that make them understandable to the people who use them. We favor technologies built with a high degree of flexibility so that they do not impose a rigid and irreversible imprint on their users, and we favor technologies that promise political freedom, economic justice, and ecological balance.
We favor technologies in which politics, morality, ecology, and technics are merged for the benefit of life on Earth:

1)  Community-based energy sources utilizing solar, wind, and water technologies – which are renewable and enhance community integrity and respect for nature;

2)  Organic, biological technologies in agriculture, engineering, architecture, art, medicine, transportation, and defense – which derive directly from natural models; and

3)  Decentralized social technologies – which encourage participation, responsibility, and empowerment.

We favor the development of a life-enhancing worldview in Western technological societies. We seek to instill a perception of life, death, and human potential that will integrate the human need for creative expression, spiritual experience, and community with the capacity for rational thought and functionality. We perceive the human role not as the dominator of other species and planetary biology, but as integrated into the natural world with appreciation for the sacredness of life.
We foresee a sustainable future for humanity if and when Western technological societies restructure their mechanistic projections and foster the creation of machines, techniques, and social organizations that respect both human dignity and nature’s wholeness. In progressing toward such a transition, we are aware: We have nothing to lose except a way of living that leads to the destruction of all life. We have a world to gain. (1990)[iii]


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] Lewis Mumford, “Prologue to Our Time.”
[ii] Letter from Sophia Mumford, September 6, 1989.
[iii] Adapted from Chellis Glendinning, “Notes Toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto,” Utne Reader, No. 38, March/April 1990, pp. 50-53.

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