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.”
4 thoughts on “Langdon Winner On the Separation of Technology and Politics”
Michael, you never stop creating enlightening and thought provoking issues to ponder and bringing those less than well versed (like myself) into the light, that provides serious pondering to folks like me! You are an incredible talent and I TRULY appreciate your putting these kinds of issues out to reflect upon. Many thanks, Kind regards as well, Mark Allison
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I am reading Small is Beautiful, and it’s all about technology and its economic impact on society and the spirit of the individual. It’s by Schumacker if you’re interested. Thanks for this, as I am thinking a lot about it lately!
Jami, That book has been on my mental “to read” list for a long time. I’m definitely interested, and will hopefully get to it soon. Thanks!