March 15, 2012

Are technologies political? Facebook and more

Are technologies political? While baking vegan chocolate chip cookies for a class last week, I wondered if my hand mixer—one of those amazingly durable 1970s machines passed down from my mother—might be imposing some sort of value judgment on me. OK, let’s not anthropomorphize my kitchen gadgets. But Ruth Schwartz Cowan, a feminist historian of technology, would argue that even household technologies have politics behind them, as well as profound social impacts. Consider this recent article in Wired: the design of the keyboard I’m typing on might have a minor impact on the words I unconsciously gravitate towards. Or consider the impact of Facebook on how teenage girls present themselves to the world. Today’s hyper-connected teenagers grow up in a world that is always “on,” and there are social consequences. Maybe I was just a teenage freak, but I when I was in junior high it was cool to wear pajamas to school...

In The Whale and the Reactor, Langdon Winner argues that we should more closely examine the politics behind technologies. He writes, "Over many decades technological optimists have been sustained by the belief that whatever happened to be created in the sphere of material/instrumental culture would certainly be compatible with freedom, democracy, and social justice" (Winner, p. 50). The kicker is, of course, that many of our technologies are not compatible with these ideals. The classic example in agriculture is how the University of California extension system introduced mechanical tomato harvesters. This not only changed the physical properties of tomatoes in the supermarket (bred to be durable, rather than tasty), but created an economic barrier that made smaller farmers go out of business. Other agricultural technologies, such as the fertilizer/seed/pesticide packages of the Green Revolution, and genetically modified foods, also favor larger farmers. This seems to not just be because larger farmers have more capital, stronger networks, and are thus earlier adopters of innovation, but there also something inherently autocratic in the technologies and throughout their development.

These themes are central tenants of Science and Technology Studies’ co-production idiom. Politics shape science and technology, and these in turn shape society. But society pushes back, too. From housewives who started using telephones for social calls rather than ‘business’ to farmers who use cell phones to monitor their crops and commodity prices, we have both formal and informal social means to regulate technologies. These would be considered the “social construction of technology” point of view, as opposed to the co-production or even technological determinism I hinted at earlier.

A really great thought experiment on the social construction of technology is the history of privacy. Despite the ever-shifting impacts of technology on electronic privacy and security, there may be a time in the future where no password is safe and every Cory Doctorow explores this in his short story, “Knights of the Rainbow Table” in the Tomorrow Project. When hackers can crack every password code, perhaps new social norms will catch up with technological advancement, in the same way that we don’t constantly rifle through our roommates, officemates, and neighbors’ belongings (unless you are living with a sociopath, in which case, I recommend you leave now!). 

Back to Facebook, I believe that many of these new norms are starting to form. While it may sound silly, teenagers swap online passwords with each other as a sign of trust and intimacy. Before the days of smartphones, I’ve shared passwords with my roommates in cases when I needed to call to check an email, submit an assignment, or banish myself from Facebook (i.e. letting your roommate change your password). I also trust that my Facebook friends won’t share my embarrassing photos beyond the network, but I’m also coming to terms that nothing I do on the internet will ever be completely private.

Although I have a certain faith in how social norms mediate our interactions with technologies, legal regulation is still important. I might trust my friends with silly photos from last Friday night, but I definitely don’t trust a stranger with my bank account.


  1. Ah, Langdon Winner. I do enjoy Winner, so provocative, so incomplete. You've done a great job of reconstructing his argument with modern examples, but can we go further?

    I believe that it is Ellul who wrote about technologies of democracy and technologies of centralization. I believe that this characterization is not quite accurate. Let's be provocative, and look at the machine harvestable tomato. A technology of centralization according to the standard narrative. But it also allows ordinary people to enjoy fresh produce 365 days a year, anywhere in the world. Agriculture used to be centered on the land and the seasons, now it's centered on trucks, grocery stores, and refrigerators. Ellul and Winner attach a value to connectedness with the Earth, but this is a romantic/normative view, not an analytic one.

    Broadly speaking, we've seen a trend towards systems oriented towards command and control of humans and machines, and the replacement of natural systems with more manipulable technological ones. Why? Because efficiency and the ability to rapidly observe and react to changing circumstances beats distributed, autonomous individuals. How then, can we prioritize justice, sustainability, and so on?

  2. Ah, Michael, good thoughts as always. But to quote Winner, "Because the idea of efficiency attracts a wide consensus, it is sometimes used as a conceptual Trojan horse by those who have more challenging political agendas they hope to smuggle in" (p. 54). Who's version of "efficiency" prevails in global cold chains? From who's perspective are vertically integrated commodity chains more manipulable? And what about the tradeoffs that we now know, from environmental externalities to the proliferation of food-born illness?

    Finally, to quote my economics professor, "Supermarkets are financial institutions that just happen to store food." They don't actually make their profit on selling food, they make it off of investments and fees. If supermarkets aren't fighting for fresh, healthy, cheap food, who is?

  3. True enough, true enough. But for all its evils, Big Ag is actually really good at preventing famine in the places where they have market penetration.

    Let's take Casaubon, who's about as smart as any modern farmer type I know:
    If she'd been relying on those potatoes to feed her family, she'd be in a lot of trouble now. But thanks to the global agricultural system, she can buy food to tide her family over and replace her seeds. Casaubon relies on fat, stupid, unhealthy Americans like me to keep her back-up plan running.

    Things these days are pretty good, and we have a right to demand they get better, but it's like the hardcore naturopaths who demand the FDA get out of their way. The only reason they can think like that is that they've grown up in a world that has been made safe due to the hard work of the FDA.

    So, maybe we should just give Monsanto a big hug ;)

    1. Meh, famine and food security depend on a lot more than just access to food- it's also about "entitlements" i.e. do you have enough money to pay for that food?

      You know I could keep arguing for like 10 years, but I'm going to leave it at that.


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