Technology, Moral Discourse, and Political Communities

According to Langdon Winner, neither ancient nor modern culture have been able to bring politics and technology together. Classical culture because of its propensity to look down its nose, ontologically speaking, at the mechanical arts and manual labor. Modern culture because of its relegation of science and technology to the private sphere and its assumptions about the nature of technological progress. (For more see previous post.)

The assumptions about technological progress that Winner alludes to in his article are of the sort that I’ve grouped under the Borg Complex. Fundamentally, they are assumptions about the inevitability and unalloyed goodness of technological progress. If technological development is inevitable, for better or for worse, than there is little use deliberating about it.

Interestingly, Winner elaborates his point by reference to the work of moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. In his now classic work, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, MacIntyre argued that contemporary moral discourse consistently devolves into acrimonious invective because it proceeds in the absence of a shared moral community or tradition.

Early in After Virtue, MacIntyre imagines a handful of typical moral debates that we are accustomed to hearing about or participating in. The sort of debates that convince no one to change their minds, and the sort, as well, in which both sides are convinced of the rationality of their position and the irrationality of their opponents’. Part of what MacIntyre argues is that neither side is necessarily more rational than the other. The problem is that the reasoning of both sides proceeds from incommensurable sets of moral communities, traditions, and social practices. In the absence of a shared moral vision that contextualizes specific moral claims and frames moral arguments there can be no meaningful moral discourse, only assertions and counter-assertions made with more or less civility.

Here is how Winner brings MacIntyre into his discussion:

“Another characteristic of contemporary discussion about technology policy is that, as Alasdair MacIntyre might have predicted, they involve what seem to be interminable moral controversies. In a typical dispute, one side offers policy proposals based upon what seem to be ethically sound moral arguments. The the opposing side urges entirely different policies using arguments that appear equally well-grounded. The likelihood that the two (or More) sides can locate common ground is virtually nil.”

Winner then goes on to provide his own examples of how such seemingly fruitless debates play out. For instance,

“1a. Conditions of international competitiveness require measures to reduce production costs. Automation realized through the computerization of office and factory work is clearly the best way to do this at present. Even though it involves eliminating jobs, rapid automation is the way to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number in advanced industrial societies.

b. The strength of any economy depends upon the skills of people who actually do the work. Skills of this kind arise from traditions of practice handed down from one generation to the next. Automation that de-skills the work process ought to be rejected because it undermines the well-being of workers and harms their ability to contribute to society.”

“In this way,” Winner adds, “debates about technology policy confirm MacIntyre’s argument that modern societies lack the kinds of coherent social practice that might provide firm foundations for moral judgments and public policies.”

Again, the problem is not simply a breakdown of moral discourse, it is also the absence of a political community of public deliberation and action in which moral discourse might take shape and find traction. Again, Winner:

“[...] the trouble is not that we lack good arguments and theories, but rather that modern politics simply does not provide appropriate roles and institutions in which the goal of defining the common good in technology policy is a legitimate project.”

The exception that proves Winner’s rule is, I think, the Amish. Granted, of course, that the scale and complexity of modern society is hardly comparable to an Amish community. That said, it is nonetheless instructive to appreciate Amish communities as tangible, lived examples of what it might look like to live in a political community whose moral traditions circumscribed the development of technology.

By contrast, as Winner put it in the title of one of his books, in modern society “technics-out-of-control” is a theme of political thought. It is a cliché for us to observe that technology barrels ahead leaving ethics and law a generation behind.

Given those two alternatives, it is not altogether unreasonable for someone to conclude that they would rather live with the promise and peril of modern technology rather than live within the constraints imposed by an Amish-style community. Fair enough. It’s worth wondering, however, whether our alternatives are, in fact, quite so stark.

In any case, Winner raises, as I see it, two important considerations. Our thinking about technology, if it is to be about more than private action, must reckon with the larger moral traditions, the sometimes unarticulated and unacknowledged visions of the good life, that frame our evaluations of technology. It must also find some way of reconstituting a meaningful political contexts for acting. Basically, then, we are talking not only about technology, but about democracy itself.

Langdon Winner On the Separation of Technology and Politics

The following excerpts are taken from Langdon Winner’s “Citizen Virtues in a Technological Order.” The article first appeared in the journal Inquiry in 1992. The version linked here is from Technology and the Politics of Knowledge, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Feenberg and Alastair Hannay.

Winner begins his essay by arguing that ancient Greek and Roman philosophy isolated technology from politics, an isolation that persisted through the medieval era. In the modern era, technology and politics are still sealed off from one another but for different reasons. Describing the modern view, Winner writes,

“Technological change, defined as ‘progress,’ is seen as an ineluctable process in modern history, one that develops as the result of the activities of men and women seeking private good, activities which include the development of inventions and innovations that benefit all of society. To encourage progress is to encourage private inventors and entrepreneurs to work unimpeded by state interference [....] The burden of proof rests on those who would interfere with beneficent workings of the market and processes of technological development.

If one compares liberal ideology about politics and technology with its classical precursors, an interesting irony emerges. In modern thought the ancient pessimism about techne is eventually replaced by all-out enthusiasm for technological advance. At the same time basic conceptions of politics and political membership are reformulated in ways that help create new contexts for the exercise of power and authority. Despite the radical thrust of these intellectual developments, however, the classical separation between the political and the technical spheres is strongly preserved, but for entirely new reasons. Technology is still isolated from public life in both principle and practice. Citizens are strongly encouraged to become involved in proving modern material culture, but only in the market or other highly privatized settings. There is no moral community or public space in which technological issues are topics for deliberation, debate, and shared action.”

To be clear, the problem, according to Winner, is not necessarily an absence of thinking about technology, although that thinking tends to be already mired in “technocratic” assumptions. Rather, it is an absence of political structures that might put such thinking into action. Hence, “The lack of any coherent identity for the ‘public’ or of well-organized, legitimate channels for public participation contributes to two distinctive features of contemporary policy debates about technology, (1) futile rituals of expert advice and (2) interminable disagreements about which choices are morally justified.”

When Silence is Power

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt wrote, “What first undermines and then kills political communities is loss of power and final impotence.” She went on to add, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are  not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”

In our present media environment, the opposite of this formula may be closer to the truth, at least in certain situations. Power, in these situations, is actualized only when word and deed are severed. In these cases, the refusal to speak is action. Silence is power.

The particular situation I have in view is the hijacking of public discourse (and consequently the political order) by the endless proliferation of manufactured news and fabricated controversy.

These pseudo-events are hyperreal. They are media events that exist as such only in so far as they are spoken about. “To go viral” is just another way of describing the achievement of hyperreality . To be “spoken about” is to be addressed within our communication networks. In a networked society, we are the relays and hyperreality is an emergent property of our networked acts of communication.  

Every interest that constitutes our media environment and media economy is invested in the perpetuation of hyperreality.

Daily, these pseudo-events consume our attention and our mental and emotional energy. They feed off of and inspire frustration, rage, despair, paranoia, revenge, and, ultimately, cynicism. It is a daily boom/bust cycle of the soul.

Because they are constituted by speech, the pseudo-events are immune to critical speech. Speaking of them, even to criticize them, strengthens them.

When speaking is the only perceived form of action–it is, after all, the only way of existing on our social media networks–then that which thrives by being spoken about will persist.

How does one protest when acts of protest are consistently swallowed up by that which is being protested? When the act of protest has the perverse effect of empowering that which is being protested?


Silence is the only effective form of boycott. Traditional boycotts, the refusal to purchase goods or patronize establishments, are ineffective against hyperreality. They are sucked up into the pseudo-events.

Finally, the practice of silence must be silent about itself.

Here the practice of subversive silence threatens to fray against the edge of our media environment. When the self is itself constituted by acts of speech within the same network, then refusal to speak feels like self-deprivation. And it is. Silence under these conditions is an ascetic practice, a denial of the self that requires considerable discipline.

But if we are relays in the network, then self-sabotage becomes a powerful act of protest.

Perhaps the practice of this kind of self-imposed, unacknowledged silence may be the power that helps resuscitate public discourse.

Weaponized Consumption

Boycotts and procotts are by now commonplace and predictable, the skirmishes involving a certain fast-food chain being only the latest prominent instance. This got me thinking about the boycotting impulse, particularly when it is aligned with social issues. It seems to reflect the breakdown of public reason. What I have in mind is the situation described by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening of After VirtueUnable to reasonably debate differences in a consequential manner because of the absence of a broadly shared narrative of what constitutes the good life, it would seem that we are left with acts of will. Of course, in a consumer society what other form could such action take than marketplace transactions. Perhaps we can describe it as the commodification of public debate. Like war, boycotting is politics by other means. It is weaponized consumption.

Play, Politics, and Worship

Here is a thought for the day:

“I assert that in all the cities, everyone is unaware that the character of the games played is decisive for the establishment of the laws, since it determines whether or not the established laws will persist.”

This assertion was made by Plato in The Laws (book VII) and it suggests that the political culture of a society is bound up with the nature of its games. More specifically, Plato goes on to observe that the persistence of a society’s laws is bound up with the persistence of its games:

“Where this is arranged, and provided that the same persons always play at the same things, with the same things, and in the same way, and have their spirits gladdened by the same toys, there the serious customs are also allowed to remain undisturbed; but where the games change, and are always infested with innovation and other sorts of transformations … there is no greater ruin than this that can come to a city.”

We typically remember that Plato treated music with a great deal of seriousness in The Republic, we less often hear of the seriousness with which he treated sports and games, but there it is (courtesy of James Schall from whose essay, “The Seriousness of Sports,” these quotations are drawn).

There’s a good deal to think about here.

It is not insignificant that with regards to the two great civilizations of the classical period, Greece and Rome, we readily think of games which seem to characterize their societies: the Olympics and the gladiatorial games respectively. In Constantinople, that enduring but infrequently remembered enclave of classical civilization, the Blues and the Greens which functioned as part gangs and part political associations not infrequently contributing to riots and coups began and were sustained as fans of popular charioteering teams. More recently, in Egypt, one not insignificant block of participants in the current political turmoil are bound together primarily by their love of soccer.

On a related note, perhaps at the root of soccer’s inability to take in American culture there is more than a hint about the national character (insofar as we may legitimately speak of one).

Moreover, what might it mean that for a time baseball could legitimately be called America’s sport? And what, in turn, might it mean that while baseball remains popular, it’s place in American culture has been challenged if not replaced by basketball and football? Both of these, of course, have been around for some time and it could be argued that they too are distinctly American. So perhaps we may create a political taxonomy of sorts based on the three dominate sports of American society: baseball, football, and basketball. I wonder, has anyone studied whether a preference for one of these sports is a reliable predictor of political inclinations?

Two titles come to mind in connection with the theme of play and culture. The earlier one is historian John Huzinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Elements in Culture, the first Dutch edition of which appeared in 1938. Huzinga aimed at demonstrating the elements of play that variously manifest themselves in culture. The other is a more recent work,  Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution, which similarly stresses the links between play and worship.

The link between religion and sports is frequently noted and perhaps there is more to it than we usually imagine, more than the surface similarities between the worship of the religious and the devotion of the fan.

In The Laws, Plato puts the following claim in the mouth of the Athenian:

“I assert that what is serious should be treated seriously, and what is not serious should not, and that by nature god is worthy of a complete, blessed seriousness, but that what is human … has been devised as a certain plaything of god, and that this is really the best thing about it. Every man and woman should spend life in this way, playing the noblest possible games, and thinking about them …”

This is all well and good, but it seems to describe less and less the reality of sports in America. Perhaps because sport has become an end to something other than itself. Schall also cites the following from Aristotle:

“Men have been known to make amusement an end in itself … for there is indeed a resemblance; the end is not pursued for the sake of anything that may accrue thereafter but always for its own sake.”

Sports at their best, Schall notes, approach a form of contemplation:

“Here, in a way, we near what is best in ourselves, for we are spectators not for any selfish reason, not for anything we might get out of the game, money or exercise or glory, but just because the game is there and we lose ourselves in its playing, either as players or spectators. This not only should remind us that what is higher than we are, what is ultimately serious, is itself fascinating and joyful.”

It is these realizations that explain our collective fury and anger when sports is tainted with betting scandals or steroid controversies and even haggling over the distribution of dollars in the billions. In each case, the happy myth of sport played and watched for its own sake as a kind of end in itself channeling even higher realities is shattered. It is not that men and women have disappointed us –although this also is true — it is rather that the vessel of a certain secular grace has been broken and we are all the poorer for it.