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Do Artifacts Have Politics?
January 8, 2008, 7:08 pm
Filed under: 2008

Langdon Winner wrote a provocative and fascinating article in 1981 (later republished as a chapter in his book The Whale and The Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, 1986) called “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” where he examined how technological artifacts have political properties through their design or use…and how this relates to power and authority…

One of his famous examples is the development of Long Island automobile overpasses by the architect Robert Moses…Winner contended that Moses designed his overpasses to be too low for buses to go through, thus denying them access to the parkways and beaches. Who used public transit? Why, the less economically privileged, and also Black Americans…

This example has been contested and debated, most recently by Bruno Latour in Domus (June 2004) where he argues that…

“Fifty years later, New York City Departments of Transportation, Parks and Traffic Enforcement are still disputing how to keep trucks on or off parkways. Has Robert Moses discriminated against trucks? Surely, this was explicit in all the plans and this is why he made the bridges so low retaining the normal height for the other expressways: trucks had no truck going to the beaches. But has he discriminated against buses ‘full of blacks’? This is pure ideology, that of the social critique: to separate parkways from expressways is not the same as to keep whites and blacks apart. To jump too fast from one to the other is indulging into some sort of conspiracy theory.

When you begin to read artifacts not as neutral objects indifferent to goals and values, but as the central node of a power struggle, it’s true that you enter into politics, but the question then becomes which sort of politics? To read discrimination against blacks into a bridge is not doing politics. It’s simply doing architectural critique and the most innocuous at that, namely the one that sees artifacts as simply ‘embodying’ some type of oppression. “Give me the social structure, I will give you the shape technology should take.” But this means that buildings do nothing of their own: they simply carry forth the pure effect of domination. Which is going back precisely to the neutral idea of technology that was criticized earlier.”

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