Summary of the Whale and the Reactor by Langdon Winner

Topics: Risk, Technology, Political philosophy Pages: 9 (3307 words) Published: May 22, 2002
Summary of The Whale and the Reactor by Langdon Winner (pp. ix-39, 99-200). Winner states implicitly that he wishes to add his book to a surprisingly short list of works that can be characterized as "philosophy of technology" (which includes Marx and Heidegger). His book will deal primarily with the political and social aspects of this philosophy, pertinent since as he notes the world is changing because of tech., no longer comprised of national entities--a global economy, etc. In this context he will also look at language and determine how adequate it is presently for handling the state of the art high tech world. His ultimate and ever present question being asked throughout his book is, "How can we limit modern technology to match our best sense of who we are and the kind of world we would like to build?" (xi), since the "basic task for a philosophy of technology is to examine critically the nature and significance of artificial aids to human activity" (4). Winner makes a crucial distinction: "technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning" (6). Of course, the social arena is directly and profoundly influenced by tech. W cites a recent court case from San Diego where, as in Los Angeles, virtually everyone travels everywhere by car, of "a young man who enjoyed taking long walks at night through the streets of San Diego and was repeatedly arrested by police as a suspicious character." A criminal court ruled, however, that "Merely traveling by foot is not yet a crime" (9). Yet it is important not simply to see tech as the "cause" of all world "effects." Rather, "as technologies are being built and put to use, significant alterations in patterns of human activity and human institutions are already taking place" (11). All the same, tech developments are absorbed into the ever mutating process of human activity so that they some to be taken for granted and are integrated into our view of what is natural and/or inherent in the world--they become "second nature," as Winner, taking after Wittgenstein, terms it, they become part of our "forms of life" (11). In this context we can best appreciate certain crossroads or perhaps better to say thresholds we are facing, such as genetic engineering and the possibility of founding human settlements in outer space. These "call into question what it means to be human and what constitutes 'the human condition'" (13). How do such developments change the fabric of everyday existence? Chapter 2: "Do Artifacts Have Politics

W asks, Can technology "embody specific forms of power and authority" (19). He reviews the ideas of Kropotikin, Morris Hayes, Lillienthal, Boorstein and Mumford on his way to answering his question. For example, Hayes states that "deployment of nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism" because of safety concerns (19-20). W believes "that technical systems of various kinds are deeply interwoven in the conditions of modern politics [and further, that the] physical arrangements of industrial production, warfare, communications, and the like have fundamentally changed the exercise of power and the experience of citizenship" (20). Indeed, "human ends are powerfully transformed as they are adapted to technical means" (21). Artifacts "contain political properties" in two ways: 1) via "invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system that becomes a way of settling an issue in the affairs of a particular community." 2) via "'inherently political technologies', man-made systems that appear to require or to be strongly compatible with particular kinds of political relationships." Here W means the term politics to stand for "arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements"; while the term technology is meant to stand for "all of modern practical artifices" (22). Examples cited...
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