More broadly, however, Winner’s book is an examination of the terms by which technology is conceived of, discussed, and reasoned about within Technopolis, the cultural and technological condition that, at the time of the first edition’s publication, many readers only dimmed perceived. Winner’s contention, novel in the eighties and still illuminating now, is that technologies are not only instruments handy for this or that task; they are “forms of life.” The adoption of a technology—especially on a widespread basis—brings with it all kinds of potential changes to our personal lifestyles, social relations, and perhaps even political institutions. “In the technical realm,” Winner writes, “we repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are revealed only after signing.”
This notion of the tacit “social contract” is memorably illustrated by one of the book’s first examples: certain conspicuously low-hanging overpasses on the Long Island Expressway. With clearance as slight as nine feet, these overpasses make the road inaccessible to large vehicles such as buses. That, Winner points out, was the point. Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder” of midcentury New York, purposefully kept the overpasses low so that buses wouldn’t ferry undesirables to destinations like Jones Beach, which Moses envisaged as a haven for polite, middle-class whites who could travel by car. Thus what might have just seemed like a quirky feature of the Long Island Expressway turns out to be a part of a system for discrimination predicated on technological access.
Moses’s scheme is, of course, an egregious, even diabolical, example of how technologies can be used to, in Winner’s phrasing, “make a world.” It was unequal by design. Winner’s argument, though, is that even when there’s no one actively managing the controls, the advent of a “technical system” can engender a new world, with its own problems. Indeed, such a world may be even more potent, and potentially pernicious, than one built to order.
The obvious contemporary example is the Internet. The “Open Web” imagined by the scientists who created it in the late eighties–one where anyone could build a website out of a few simple tools–hasn’t disappeared. But for so much of the populace, the Internet now boils down to a few so-called “walled gardens,” that is, such self-contained ecosystems as Facebook and Google where developers, service providers, or advertisers set up shop. In a THR piece two years ago (“Tending the Digital Commons: A Small Ethics toward the Future”), Alan Jacobs rightly argued that the garden metaphor is too benign. These are “walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell.”
There is much more to say on this topic, of course. But for present purposes, we need only recognize how superbly the history of the Internet illustrates Winner’s argument: Here is a technical system that has reshaped social roles and relationships in ways that we are at this point far from fully understanding. We are living out the terms of the new social contract.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor