Winner believes that common sense propositions about technology are under fire. He offers three tenets that no longer seem to hold:
Instead, "[t]he contemporary experience of things technological has repeatedly confounded our vision, our expectations, and our capacity to make intelligent judgements" (7-8) and inevitably, "[a]utonomous technology in the sense of technological-change-out-of-control is a part of modern experience." (56) Winner names the "predisposition of men in society to allow ...changes to occur with little intervention" (105) technological dynamism. Winner's work is intended to highlight how, where and why technologies seem to be out of the control of individuals.
In "Autonomy and Mastery" Winner sets the stage for his following chapters. Has technology gotten out of control? It certainly appears so, and "...[i]f nothing else," Winner argues, "'autonomous technology' has enough intuitive plausibility to stand as a convenient receptacle for a host of contemporary anxieties." (15) He finds that the number of intelligent writers who believe technology to be out of control is somewhat surprising but he reminds the reader that mastery is an important aspect of Western culture: "[i]n a spirit that many have called Faustian, we believe that control is possible and that we must strive for it." (19) What does this loss of control entail? "...[T]he loss of mastery manifests itself in a decline of our ability to know, judge or control our technical means. It is in the general waning of intellectual, moral and political command that ideas of autonomous technology find their basis." (30) He quickly reviews Frankenstein, Erewhon, Player Piano, and "The Machine Stops" as a vehicle for understanding contemporary anxieties. Turning to a Marxist analysis of technology, he sees the same themes of alienation and loss of control applied to labor, and referencing Ellul, Winner says that he also has grasped the thorough unification of humanity and technology.
Winner discusses four ideas under the rubric "engines of change:" technological evolution, technological determinism, historical drift and the technological imperative. Winner rejects the notion of technological evolution if it includes a pre-set destination (for instance, humanity on the scrap pile), but he adds: "If we examine the progress of scientific discovery and technological invention and innovation in modern history, we do encounter something resembling an evolution of forms." (60) Each branch of science and technology becomes more specialized and complex. Winner himself does not entirely accept the idea of determinism; but he does want to show the power it holds. He discusses technological determinism and argues that there are some historical contingencies that are important to recognize. First people are willing to seek and employ technological innovations; second, there are organized social systems in all technical fields; and third, there are in most fields technological forms that can be used a basis for modification. (65) Determinism is also given weight by the remarkable number of simultaneous inventions in the 20th century. If we agree that "the technological base of a society is the fundamental condition affecting social existence and...that changes in technology are the single most important source of change in society," then technological determinism is a persuasive idea. Reviewing Marx, Winner connects the Marxist notion of production to determinism. "Insofar as there is significant change in society, it is usually because there has been a change in the forces of production." (79) Winner then links the forces of production to the idea of the technological imperative. The imperative takes effect when the conditions of operation for a particular technology demand the restructuring of its environment. To give some simple examples, a new laser requires the restructuring of the lab, and a new car requires a new garage. He concludes this chapter with the notion of technological dynamism. If "each individual lives with procedures, rules processes, institutions, and material devises that are not of his making but powerfully shape what he does," (86) then society is caught in currents of innovation that flow toward a "highly uncertain destination." (88) We do nothing to stop the flow. "In effect, we are contented to follow a drift -- accumulate unanticipated consequences -- given the name progress." (99)
What are the ultimate origins of Western technological dynamism? Winner provides a rapid survey of opinions, including those of Mumford, Bacon, Ellul, Max Weber, Lynn White, and John Passmore. They vary between speculations about basic human nature and analysis of what makes the Western society unique. Winner finds Western exceptionalism suspect, and thus aligns himself (perhaps unwittingly) somewhere in the "basic human nature" camp. He also sees reinforcement of technological dynamism in modern society through the "well-trained technical narrowness that lies at the foundations of the phenomena of unintentionality and technological drift..." (129)
Creating a technocracy is one response to the technological threat. Winner reviews Bacon's New Atlantis and suggests that its more disquieting features -- the secrecy, the powerful elite, the hidden sources of money, and the perhaps mental oppression of the society members -- have remained the same in future utopian visions and fictions. In America, Winner asserts, a technological power elite simply does not exist, but one can clearly see the dependencies of incoming and outgoing governments on access to industry and technological solutions to problems of national defense. He contrasts the views of Price (The Scientific Estate) and Galbraith (The New Industrial State) and concludes that they share the same assumption: "real" voting on issues of technological significance will take place among a few highly educated men. Only experts will be allowed into the debate.
In Chapters 5 and 6 Winner builds a theory of the technological society which "gives the technological element its due without falling into either reductionism or eclectic compromise." (177) He offers characteristics that are useful for measuring and mulling the features of such a society: among them are size, concentration, and interconnection. He notes the free use of rationality in its many meanings ("formal rules of operation," "accommodation of means to ends," "efficiency") as a justification for action. He proposes that people may respond to the already-givenness of technology by self-induced servitude or by scapegoat-seeking. Coining the term technological apraxia, he also proposes that we are already in a condition in which no mechanical link may be removed without causing disaster. (think of electrical blackouts) The "technological order is one in which all systems are 'go' and indeed must be." (186) Adding to the theory, he says, "once underway, the technological reconstruction of the world tends to continue." (208) Furthermore, "more highly developed, rational-artificial structures tend to overwhelm and replace less well-developed forms of life." (212)
Winner suggests that systems force users to adapt their ends to the technological means at hand; this he calls reverse adaptation. Reverse adaptation includes controlling markets relevant to operations; controlling political processes that regulate operations; seeking a mission to match the system's capabilities; propagating the needs it serves, if necessary by creating a crisis to justify its expansion. However, he disagrees with the notion that centralization is a coming problem because, in his analysis, a "multiplicity of reverse-adapted, large-scale systems would, in all likelihood, have the inclination and power to oppose comprehensive centralization." (255). Politicians in a communist government or in liberal democracy produce the same results. The technocracy is simply made up of the people who make the decisions that any intelligent person would make when faced with the same information. "...technology is now a kind of conduit such that no matter which aims or purposes one decides to put in, a particular kind of product inevitably comes out." (278) He acknowledges that economic forces can move technology, but feels that on the whole, technology has more force. (Would he revise this opinion now?) He continues (and tips his hand) by offering an "action" that his political theory should take. "The theory of technological politics ... insists that the entire structure of the technological order be the subject of critical inquiry...The kinds of apparatus, technique, and organization that have been built during the last two centuries are seen to be utterly destructive of much that is good in nature, man and society, lethal to many positive possibilities." (226) Winner sums up the perspective of his theory thus: "...megatechnical systems are seen to have definite operational imperatives of their own, which must be met. Society stands at the disposal of the systems for the satisfaction of their requirements." (251)
Winner believes that modern society is embroiled in manifest social complexity. "[T]he totality of ...interconnections -- the relationships of the parts to each other and the parts to the whole -- is something which is no longer comprehensible to anyone." (284) Split between the efficient performance of more and more tasks and the passive acceptance of aesthetic experiences as commodities, people know increasingly less and less about the systems which support their lifestyles. So deep is the problem, that ignorance can be arranged, and then "plausible deniability" is used as a means to escape responsibility.
To conclude, Winner reviews Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. In the tale, Frankenstein abandons the monster he has created. The monster seeks out Frankenstein and insists that he take responsibility for the life he has created. Cut off from humanity by the horror of his own being, he asks for a monster-mate. Frankenstein reluctantly begins to comply, and then loses his nerve, and tears the female to pieces. The monster exacts revenge by killing Frankenstein's fiancee. Frankenstein flees to on a ship and dies of a fever amongst the Polar iceburgs. The monster determines to commit suicide. For Winner, the significance of this tale is in the protagonist, a man who tries to forget his responsibility to his discoveries. What does Winner advocate? First, one must agree that technology is, in fact politics by another name. Having done so, he calls for epistemological Luddism, or taking each system apart at the seams and permitting only those systems that can be scaled and structured for non-experts. These scaled-down technologies would be appropriate for humans.
Winner's work is at once poignant and (as the jacket says) trenchant.
It was a pleasure to read an early contribution to STS, and a pleasure
to see the source of some well-worn terms. In this, the second work
I've read, I find again much to admire and even more to think about.