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Do Artifacts Have Politics

Last updated March 8, 2022

by Langdon Winner

“In controversies about technology and society, there is no idea more provocative than the notion that technical things have political qualities”

“A long lineage of boosters have insisted that the ‘biggest and best’ that science and industry made available were the best guarantees of democracy, freedom, and social justice” – seeing these arguments esp wrt web3 being a strong driver for these same values

“What matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded.”

“Seemingly innocuous design features in mass transit systems, water projects, industrial machinery, and other technologies actually mask social choices of profound significance.” (societal impact is treated as an externality, those which do not matter when ‘just considering efficiency’)

“The things we call ’technologies’ are just ways of building order in our world.”

“In that sense technological innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations.”

# How artifacts can contain political properties

“Politics” is defined as “arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements.”

  1. “Instances in which the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in a particular community.”
  2. “Cases of what can be called inherently political technologies, man-made systems that appear to require, or to be strongly compatible with, particular kinds of political relationships”

“Technological change expresses a panoply of human motives, not the least of which is the desire of some to have dominion over others, even though it may require an occasional sacrifice of cost-cutting and some violence to the norm of getting more from less”

# The mechanical tomato harvester

A remarkable device perfected by researchers at UC from the late 1940s to present. The harvesters replace the system of handpicking.

The machine reduces costs by approximately five to seven dollars per ton as compared to hand-harvesting.

“The suit charges that University officials are spending tax monies on projects that benefit a handful of private interests to the detriment of farmworkers, small farmers, consumers, and rural California generally, and asks for a court injunction to stop the practice. The University has denied these charges, arguing that to accept them ‘would require elimination of all research with any potential practical application’” – this is an especially good point re: whether additive (as opposed to multiplicative) tech is truly possible


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