Tag Archives: Langdon Winner

Digging Out!

Oh NO! I can't believe it.

 Its me again, Sparky. Sorry for the interruption, but I need to reach out. It’s the snow. I have been going stir crazy. Even with their cars buried under three feet of snow, humans have many ways to reach out. They have landline and wireless telephones. They have computers, and email, and Facebook and twitter, not to mention TV sets and DVD players  And so I lament.   The only way that I can communicate with the outside world is to perch on my couch, straining my eyes as I try to peer out  the window, which these days is covered with snowflakes cast by the wind.

Early in the morning, the day of the first snow, I pushed my nose against my ‘doggie door.’ Nothing moved. So I pushed with my head. But again it wouldn’t budge. So I waited patiently until my Master came downstairs and tried his hand at opening the backdoor leading out to the deck. He pushed and pushed, but it gave way only a few inches. I could hardly believe my eyes. The snow, which was flush with the door frame, rose up about three feet, if not more. From my lowly perspective, all I could see was the sky!

How to hibernate. . . lorimoon.files.wordpress.com/ 2009/03/hibernat.

I suspect that this is what a bear experiences when he comes out of hibernation. Assessing the situation, he looks around, sees piles and piles of snow, and then returns inside. This is, of course, a reasonable strategy. But need I remind you, I am not a bear. Oh, I may be cuddly, and my fur is thick and silky black. But while a bear sleeps, I have work to do. For example, my job is to keep tabs on the local neighborhood, watching people go by, determining who is a friend or foe, and–of course–barking when I deem it appropriate. When on a walk, I also parole a much larger area, first checking the bushes and fire hydrants for pungent messages left by my friends and enemies, and then leaving my own mark to bound my territory. This signaling system can get quite complex, as my mistress would say. Of course, my favorite task is barking ferociously at the mailman until he drops his ‘loot,’ and I chase him away. Unfortunately, the postal service–not withstanding its motto: in all kinds of weather–failed us, as did the garbage men, during the Big Snow, or as President Obama said, “snowmaggedon.”.

Our social life only recommenced with the shoveling of snow. Having overcome their awe at the situation, all of the neighbors, and of course their dogs, converged in our street to shovel the snow, and clear a path for cars and pedestrians alike. I finally got to engage with my friends Carla and Roxy, who live across the street. With the streets passable, we could take our walks again. But it wasn’t quite the same.

A new beginning

Walking through a narrow passage way, with the snow on the side piled many feet high, I could smell the dogs across the street–especially my nemesis, the chocolate poodle named Bosco–but I could not see him much less growl at him. But the more fundamental problem was: ‘how to do my duty,’ The snow was like quick sand; when I climbed up on top of it, I sank down almost above my shoulders, and when my mistress came to my rescue, she fell in too.

Notwithstanding all of the communication technology in our house, I have come to think my Mistress also found our imposed enclosure somewhat stressful. In particular, I think that she is missing her classes. While she often tells me to “stay, sit, and come”, she rarely lectures me about intellectual matters. These days, however, as she walks with me through the snow, she tells me about the ‘social capital,’ that is being developed as neighbors join together to shovel. Noting the people who don’t shovel their walks, but who shovel out their cars, she references Langdon Winner‘s account in the Whale and the Reactor of how the pedestrian and the auto driver perceive the world differently. As we slip and slide across the ice, she asks me what Langdon Winner might say about people who fail to shovel their sidewalks. And of course, as we meander in and out of the snowbanks, looking for a crossway, she talks about the importance of architecture and how the snow has restructured our interactions.

Yesterday, we saw the ground. Hope springs eternal, as they say.

Technology Indeterminism

the question I wrestle with is about agency–when it comes to technology, how much agency do we have? 

For me, being a professor is very refreshing. It is an occupation that never gets stale. For, even when I work with the same material year after year, I get to share it with a new class of students each of whom has unique interpretations to offer. If I am too provocative, or appear too certain, no doubt I will be challenged. Questioning whether my thoughts and ideas hold up in the face of this kind of scrutiny, I am thoroughly reengaged.

In the Communication Culture and Technology Masters Program, at Georgetown University, the topics I most frequently address revolve around technology. More specifically, the question I wrestle with most is how much agency do we have? At what points are technologies brought into question, and how can they be influenced most effectively?

This question has dominated my thinking ever since my days at the Office of Technology Assessment, when I first read Langdon Winner’s opus Autonomous Technology. Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1977). Surveying the range of positions that major thinkers have adopted with respect to the march of advancing technologies, Winner challenges us, not to be technology somnambulists, but rather to develop our own philosophical positions with respect to technology. I try to pass this challenge on to my students.

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

To be sure, developing a coherent philosophy of technology requires a sound theoretical understanding of the relationship between technology and society. This relationship is the focus of my CCT course Technology and Society. In this class, we employ different theoretical lenses through which to consider how technology affects society and vice versa. In examining these theories, I encourage my students to approach them the way they select their clothes–that is to say, try them on for size. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, but some are more suitable than others for the purpose at hand.

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

Thus, for example, theoretical approaches associated with technology determinism, such James Beniger’s The Control Revolution, can help us understand the big picture–that is, what underlies technological momentum and unintended consequences, but it says little about how and by whom technology decisions are actually made. On the other hand, while the SHOT approach (Society for the History of Technology) hones in on how concerned interests and decision-makers arrive at a consensus, it give short shrift to the role of power and the institutional and cultural environment in which decision makers act. Like the SHOT approach, Actor-Network Theory (ANT)–developed by French philosophers Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, discounts the social frame of reference. Its focus, instead, is on how actors (including technology) employ their power and resources to create networks in support of technology outcomes. Most comprehensive of all is evolutionary theory, which conceives of technology outcomes as emergent and indeterminate –the product of complex, cumulative forces.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference, whatever their views about technology. And I certainly hope that they go on to do so. As well, I think that, when viewed together, the theoretical perspectives outlined above suggest a number of entry points where they might intervene successfully on behalf of technology-related issues. So I am not a pessimistic, technology determinist. But neither am I an optimistic somnambulist, ready to stand aside and give way to whatever forces come my way. After years of engaging with my students around these issues, I am existential in the face of technology. That is to say, I am–for lack of a better word–a technology indeterminist. Recognizing the complexity of the problem, and the unintended consequences of technology that are strewn all around us, I know I need to act, even if the outcome of my actions is uncertain. I draw comfort from the idea that, in a complex social environment, small changes at the local level give rise to large scale repercussions at the level of the whole.