The Whale and the Reactor, a collection of essays published from 1980
to 1985, and gathered up in this volume in 1986, is by turns humorous,
shrewd, outraged, pessimistic. As one might expect in a writer focused
on the intersection between technology and the public, Winner seems prescient
on some issues, outdated on others. The strand that holds his essays
together is twofold: first, a deep concern for the forms of social life
encouraged by, and shaped around, technology, and second, the social power
structures that seem to arise "naturally" from the mass consumer technologies
pursued by the 19th and 20th century Western world.
In his preface Winner remarks:
The map of the world shows no country called Technopolis, yet in many ways we are already its citizens. If one observes how thoroughly our lives are shaped by interconnected systems of modern technology, how strongly we feel their influence, respect their authority, and participate in their workings, one begins to understand that, like it or not, we have become members of a new order of human history...one begins to comprehend a distinctly modern form of power, the foundations of a technopolitan culture. (Preface, ix)
Winner's alerts his readers to those aspects of society they have accepted without thinking, used without understanding. He calls us "technological somnambulists," but it seems that his desire goes beyond simply serving as an alarm: he wants us to the taste the air we breathe: he wants to show us the consequences of our political and aesthetic apathy. He wants us to be pained enough to act.
At least Winner doesn't pick small targets. Older technology circumscribes current choices, becoming a silent vortex around which everyday life centers. One can ride a bike and eschew cars, one can listen to NPR and not turn on the TV, but the automobile and television are at the heart of much economic activity; it would be hard to eliminate them. Furthermore, technology can be used to divide society. In one of his often quoted examples, Winner relates how parts of the New York highway system were created to exclude buses, and so keep poorer (and often black) families off of the public beaches. Artifacts have politics, and can express hierarchical relationships. In fact, technology as we experience it -- the infrastructures of roads, energy, mass production -- leans towards the totalitarianism of efficiency.
Equally disturbing is the way in which alternative technology, in the advent of the Reagan years, ended as a viable, vibrant and creative group of scientists working on technologies that could have upended entrenched culture, and became instead a minor trickle down into that entrenched consumer culture. Winner doubts that the social reform envisioned in the 1970s will be carried on by the "decentralization" of the 1980s, noting acerbically that the center must be identified, and as long as that center remains the consumer, very little decentralization of any sort will occur. The much vaunted computer is not likely to create equality, and the information society "will offer plenty of opportunities for janitors, hospital orderlies, and fast-food waiters." (106) Knowledge is not necessarily power -- sometimes it is simply pain. So much for sloganeering with Winner.
In this iconoclastic vein, Winner knocks down comfortable notions of nature, risk and values. Nature is neither an economic stock, nor a source of intrinsic good; instead, from century to century nature becomes what we want and need it to be, and always ideas about nature simply reflect current thinking about human power structures. "Risk" is likewise turned upside-down. Winner takes to task the foot-dragging of big industrial companies who dodge social responsibility for dangerous practices by re-labeling danger "risk." (After all, what is more all -American that "risk-taking?") Finally, Winner inveighs against "values" when values are a sliding substitute for reasons, knowledge, arguments, motives, justice. In taking on nature, risk, and values, Winner argues that not all political decisions should or ought to be made using a cost-benefit analysis. What is best for humans is not necessarily best for technology. Winner closes on a meditative note, offering one day in southern California, a conjunction of a whale in the harbor and a reactor on shore, and this moment as symbolic of the impetus for his essays, and the effort of the book.
Because Winner is an exhorter of Biblical fervor, his character assumes
an importance equal to his ideas for the reader. His ideas must be
sound, but his morals must be more so, in order for him to be effective.
In his indignation, and with his savagely honed writing skills, he stands
in the tradition of George Orwell. In what may be a characteristic
attitude, Winner gives short shrift to the field and proponents of artificial
intelligence, and one feels regret, thinking that this area could
use the vinegar and vigor of moral critique. Winner's sense of the
stifling ubiquity of technology has much in common with Jacque Ellul's
Technological Society and Anthony Giddens's The Consequences of Modernity.
But what is best in Winner is his allegiance to his own version of the
"polis," a city that ought to be bound by human relationships and based
on human needs.