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30 August 2010

Second Philosophy of Technology Essay

I decided to truly challenge myself with this writing assignment and find the most wrong-headed concept it this essay. It was tough competition: I could easily have gone with his personification of machines (that unconscious lumps of metal have “points-of-view” and “function as virtual members of society”), or the closely related confusion he has between people being lazy in their use of technology and the idea that an inanimate lump has somehow “mastered” them. I might have focused on the UTOPIA project, the closed-circuit of which seems the most perfect plan for destroying human advancement ever created. However, I have elected step back a bit and discuss the entire concept of “democratizing”—that is, politicizing—science and technology.

Mr. Winner’s argument in proposing the politicization of science and technology seems rational and straightforward: technology affects everyone, therefore, everyone should have a say in what technologies are created. It seems clear. It seems fair.

Of course, Mr. Winner’s arguments are based in the context of a rather stunning number of logical errors and fallacies. First, there is the aforementioned pathetic fallacy; Mr. Winner assigns human attributes to inanimate objects (“does a computer in the workplace function as a servant, slave, controller, guard, etc.?”) (“They can be seen as ‘forms of life’”). He also commits the fallacy of faulty causation: he believes that technologies change society (“What matters is that a whole new kind of society was created.”). He makes the error of believing that technological innovation can be controlled (“No innovation without representation.”), and the dependant error, the culmination and “purpose” of his essay, that such control would somehow be a means of preserving “human liberty and dignity.”

If a teacher used a computer to grade tests, Mr. Winner would not acknowledge the teachers’ use of technology to free himself of a repetitive task, or his greater responsibility to discuss the test with his students. Instead, Mr. Winner would whine that the computer now ran the classroom, with the teacher subservient. The truth is that technologies don’t change societies; societies change—they always have and always will. If new technologies are present, they will be incorporated into that change; but change is inevitable, regardless of technology. Technological innovation cannot be controlled—even in the most perfect vision of Mr. Winner’s anti-scientific fantasy, somebody somewhere will eventually have a new idea of how to do something. The idea that attempting to prevent people from coming up with new ideas will somehow preserve “human freedom and dignity” is ludicrous once it’s clearly examined; even if it were possible, by nay-saying one technology “democratically,” you are almost certainly passing up later insights which will lead to much better technologies.

There is a fairly obvious connection between all of these essays: not matter how they may couch their language to pretend otherwise, they are all ultimately anti-scientific. Saying that we “must create a new science” really means that science must be abandoned. A philosophically-inclined reader will find that this common anti-science is based in the school of post-modernism, in which “feeling” is given primacy to logic. It doesn’t matter that if Mr. Winner’s “three guiding maxims” were retroactively applied to human history, we would all be living at the mercy of the elements to ripe old age of maybe 40; it feels good for Mr. Winner to imagine that we can “take control” and force the world to conform to our fantasies. It doesn’t matter that sectional sofa cushions are popular because they’re easier to clean beneath; it feels good for Mr. Sclove to imagine that it’s some Western anti-Communist plot (much like eating utensils that only feed one mouth at a time—I shudder to imagine the alternative). It doesn’t matter that phrases like “male machines rather than female fabrics” are the utterest gibberish; it feels good for Ms. Wajcman to imagine that she has enlightened herself to some ages-old conspiracy to control women.

Will Mr. Winner’s essay have any practical influence on my use of technology? Absolutely not. Is there an important call to action to be found? Absolutely—in the entire selection of essays. Post-modern “thought” (and I use those two terms together in the loosest of arrangements) is a cancer which has metastasized throughout academia, the news media and the political sphere. The longer it is allowed to grow, the worse our condition will become. The only antidote is logic, which I will both introduce and encourage it at every opportunity.

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