Winner, Langdon. "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" In The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, edited by Langdon Winner, 19-39. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Though he rejects what he calls "naïve technological determinism," Winner argues that "certain technologies in themselves have political properties." He indicates two ways in which this occurs:

The most commonly cited example from Winner's essay is the height of the bridges over park ways on Long Island. Robert Moses build them according to specifications that would discourage the presence of buses. "One consequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, Moses' widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Roach to Jones Beach. This is a demonstration of technological design that enforced a particular political agenda. Lessig cites this as a case of architecture being used as a modality of constraint on behavior.

Winner provides other examples of consciously political design:

Winner points out, however, that "to recognize the political dimensions in the shapes of technology does not require that we look for conscious conspiracies or malicious intentions." There are other interesting cases in which "the technological deck has been stacked in advance in favor of certain social interests," even though this stacking may not have been a conscious choice on anyone's part:

Inherently Political Technologies

Many technologies, Winner argues, are inherently political, since their very creation and operation requires specific social arrangements:


Winner's arguments can be important to both creators and consumers of new technology. Winner points out that the political nature of certain technologies have been used by both ends of the political spectrum. And designers of roads have purposely specified the height of bridges to keep populations of lower socio-economic status out of certain areas.

When considering technological change, Winner identifies two broad types of choices:

  • "yes or no" on whether to adopt a new technology and
  • "special features in the design or arrangement of a technical system" for which the answer to the first choice was "yes." The most important thing to recognize about these choices is that they often go far being pragmatic concerns about what tool would be best or most cost-effective for a given job. Many amount to the selection of "forms of life," since they embody certain possibilities more than others. The "greatest latitude of choice exists the very first time a particular instrument, system, or technique is introduced," so "the same careful attention that one would give to the rules, roles, and relationships of politics must also be given" to such technological choices.

In contemporary society, such decisions are often not recognized as such. The advancement of certain ends has become so ingrained in our thinking that we fail to recognize reasons other than those of practical necessity toward those ends. "In many instances, to say that some technologies are inherently political is to say that certain widely accepted reasons of practical necessity—especially the need to maintain crucial technological systems as smoothly working entities—have tended to eclipse other sorts of moral and political reasoning."

For many areas of ICT implementation, we are still fortunate to be at an early enough stage that such a latitude of choice is available to us. ICTs that are introduced into an environment can embody specific social arrangements and continuously reinforce those arrangements through the possibilities (what are often called "affordances") for action that they imply.

Considering such consequences is essential, in order to introduce technologies in ways that will advance, rather than hinder, the social values that the Kellogg Foundation espouses. It is important not to simply accept the incentive to join the forces of technological "progress" at face value. "In our times people are often willing to make drastic changes in the why they live to accommodate technological innovation while at the same time resisting similar kinds of changes justified on political grounds. If for no other reason than that, it is important for us to achieve a clearer view of these matters than has been our habit so far."

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