We fertilize machines like bees to flowers

Langdon Winner - Books and interview

We talk with Langdon Winner about technology policy, new technologies in education and whether we will become redundant because machines will replace us.

Langdon Winner – is a political theorist who focuses on social and political issues related to contemporary technological change.He is the author of “Autonomous Technology”, a study of the idea of „out of control technology” in contemporary social thought, “The Whale and The Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology”, and editor of “Democracy at the Technological Society.” Praised by The Wall Street Journal as „a leading tech policy scientist.”Langdon is the head of the Thomas Phelan Chair in the Humanities and Social Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Department of Science and Technology Studies in Troy, New York.

Rafał Górski, Michał Jarosławski: „The changes and disturbances constantly brought about in modern life by the evolution of technology have been taken for granted or inevitable only because no one has bothered to ask if there are other solutions”, these are your words from the book “Autonomous Technology”, published in 1977.Shoshana Zuboff recently recalled them in her book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”.Are they still valid despite the passage of 45 years?

Langdon Winner: There is a tendency in modern thought to take impressive developments in technology as inevitable and necessary sources of social development and human commitments. Very often the prominent pathways for widespread change are mapped by persons and organizations who succeed in becoming wealthy and powerful early in the introduction of whatever device or system is taking shape. Thus, Henry Ford’s views for the spread and use of automobiles in society became the dominant pattern in the USA. Roadways and housing patterns were altered to reflect his vision and the priorities of the Ford Motor company and similar firms. By the same token, in our time the distinctive patterns of research, development, production and use of computers were mapped by Silicon Valley personalities and corporations – Steve Jobs and Apple, for example – that emphasized product design and marketing for massive profit over other possible avenues for the social application of computing power.

In my view, the kinds of success one observes in relatively early triumphs of Ford and Apple do have a way of blinding society as a whole to important choices that might have shaped the development of these technologies and their presence in society. As regards transportation in the USA, proposals for widely available, publicly owned transit systems were completely obliterated by the marketing of automobiles. In similar ways, ideas for low cost, easily accessible, government funded systems of computing power never succeeded because the capitalist, consumerist model prevailed.

Do you think we should inhibit the progress of technology, limit technological innovation?If so why?

I would not state the much needed steps as those of inhibiting the progress of technology or of limiting technological innovation. An old saying goes, “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” In other words, it’s important first to emphasize the motives, social energies and possible outcomes you would like to achieve. Once those purposes are in mind, one can talk about patterns of technological change and innovation. What is a good society? What are its key features? How can purposes of that kind be realized?

During several decades in which tremendous accomplishments in technological progress and innovation have been achieved, the qualities of life and opportunities for improvement for much of the U.S. populace have drastically declined. The average wage level for most working people has not risen since the late 1970s. One might think that the great flood of technological marvels might have produced better ways of living for the populace during that half century. Alas, the key priorities for the nation’s economic and political leaders have favoredfavoured the wealthy few to disadvantage of most everyone else. Today’s metrics of societies around the world show that the USA has joined the growing group of nations that exhibit the “decline of democracy.” Within this dreary pattern “technological progress” does not seem to offer much help.

Over the years, you have criticized the excessive use of technology in the classroom, both in primary and higher education.Please tell me where this criticism comes from?How do you assess the situation of using technology in education today?

As I’ve followed a variety of promotions for so-called “educational technology” over the years, a recurring presence is the emphasis upon promoting new hardware and software but with little attention to questions about the basic ends of education. The word “education” derives from two Latin roots: “educare” which means “to train” or “to mold”; and “educere” that means “to draw out” or “lead forth.” Those terms suggest a starting point for asking: What do activities of education seek to achieve and how can that be accomplished? In contrast, promotions of educational technology in recent decades have begun by insisting that new varieties hardware and software offer a kind of magic that will enliven education by their very presence. In this commodity focused mode there is seldom any vision of what education is all about – it’s purposes and of fruitful activities by educators and studies that might achieve those ends.

A recurring feature of educational technologies over the years – from B.F. Skinner’s “Teaching Machines” of the 1950s to the supposedly educational varieties of movies, radio, television and computer devices dragged into classrooms in subsequent decades – was an emphasis upon the ways that technology offers “content”. Helping young minds to ask important questions and explore them in resourceful ways is seldom part of the program.

This year is the 90th anniversary of the release of Huxley’s Brave New World. The world today is more like the world in Huxley’s “Brave New World” than the world in Orwell’s “1984”. Did Huxley predict our future better than Orwell?

Huxley and Orwell offer powerful descriptions of two varieties of social and political blight. Both of these maladies – oppressive mass surveillance and mind numbing mass media – have achieved considerable prominence in today’s societies. It is difficult to judge which phenomenon is more powerful than the other. Unless something extraordinary and unexpected happens, both patterns will strongly shape humanity’s future.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in “Understanding the Media” that humans are becoming a little more than „the sex organs of the machine world.”With our technological innovations, we „fertilize” machines like bees pollinate flowers.We will become redundant when machines achieve the ability to reproduce themselves.What do you say to that?

I expect that some varieties of self-reproducing technological devices will emerge in the decades ahead. Will this render us redundant? Under current conditions in societies around world, much of the human population is already redundant and substantially impoverished. The marvelous new devices predicted for coming decades are unlikely to change that situation.

„The history of mankind probably boils down to the struggle of people with devices that are their creation,” wrote the world-famous philosopher Giorgio Agamben.What is your opinion on that?

As I study the history of humankind, I’m increasingly persuaded that struggles over technical devices are often less important than the creation of fundamental conditions of human governance. For example, in the USA the preferred story about the “industrial revolution” of the 19th century focused upon wonderful inventors, new machines, factories, and technological systems building in railroads, telegraph, etc. as the basic sources of prosperity and national development. Long excluded from this impressive picture, however, was the fundament role played by slavery over many decades. After all, who picked the cotton that fed the machines of the New England factories and enriched America’s industrial economy of the 19th century? The answer is: 4 million African American slaves. Not only were the material products of their work crucial in this picture, but at mid century the capital value of enslaved men, women and children slaves on the open market exceeded the net worth of all the factories, railroads and other kinds of productive equipment in the U.S. economy.

The underlying social and political patterns created in the era of slavery remain prominent features of American society to this day – racial discrimination, white supremacy, etc. From that point of view I consider “the struggle of people with devices” to be less important than basic social and political struggles.

What is your opinion on Ted Kaczyński’s (Unaboomber’s) manifesto today?I am asking in the context of the fragment of the manifesto that Bill Joy introduced to his famous text „Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”.

Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto draws heavily upon ideas of prominent mid-twentieth social critics who pointed to urgent issues in a technology obsessed culture. His statements, however, are deeply overshadowed by the fact that he drew upon ideas of this kind to justify acts of murder. To some extent his vile presence has strongly tainted themes and arguments that might otherwise have played a stronger role in contemporary thought.

The fact that Bill Joy’s essay – “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” – features Kaczynski’s text show’s how stupid and illiterate Joy was about the basic themes he wanted to explore. Evidently he was not aware of the earlier, vastly more substantial arguments and observations of Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Herbert Marcuse, and others in this intellectual tradition. Rather than open an important topic for lively discussion, Joy helped bury it.

Rafał Górski, Michał Jarosławski

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