Artefacts & politics

Many academic fields touch on areas relevant to this subject, from architecture to computer science. Perhaps the closest single exposition of many of the pertinent concepts is Langdon Winner’s 1986 “Do artifacts* have politics?” in which he discusses the idea that:

“The machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority” [1]

Winner uses examples to show both intended strategic architectures of control, and technologies which have had an unintended political or social effect (but which are not architectures of control). The former category, relevant to this subject, includes Baron Haussmann’s ‘new’ Paris (q.v.) and much of Robert Moses’ urban planning in New York City–most notably the low bridges on Long Island parkways to prevent buses (more likely to have poorer users) from travelling to areas such as Jones Beach, “Moses’ widely acclaimed public park”:

“Many of his monumental structures of concrete and steel embody a systematic social inequality, a way of engineering relationships among people that, after a time, became just another part of the landscape” [1].

Concluding by exhorting us to “achieve a clearer view” of the interactions between technology and society, and to consider and understand more fully the consequences of how “specific features in the design or arrangement of a device or system could provide a convenient means of establishing patterns of power and authority in a given setting,” Winner’s work was extremely prescient and the implications are even clearer today.

*I have retained the US spelling for this title


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  1. Pingback: Essay of the Day: Do Artifacts Have Politics ? | P2P Foundation

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