138: Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology

Published in 1977, Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political Thought examines the idea of autonomous technology as a “convenient receptacle for a host of  contemporary anxieties.” Using literary and political writings from a wide range of historical moments, he shows how autonomous technology has been associated with fears about a loss of human agency and self-governance, both at the individual and the societal level, to machines of our own creation.  Technology therefore has a politics, and if humans are to regain control and autonomy, we need to dismantle technologies, learn how they work, and rebuild them so that they serve human needs rather than their own dominance and reproduction.

Winner argues that while technology has been central to political thought for some 200 years, the 20th century proliferation of technologies and their integration in everyday life has made technology into a “vast, diverse, ubiquitous totality that stands at the center of our modern culture.”  This diversity makes the word “technology” so complex as to be meaningless, or at least illegible, with the result that technology itself becomes a rather terrifying black box, appearing to usurp political power and move forward of its own volition.  In modernity, the complexity of technology requires a new ruling class, engineers, to interface with it, and an environment conducive to its operations, with which architects and engineers happily comply.  Technology also requires a particular social order to fulfill its operational requirements – which is to say that technology creates a particular form of technological politics, where the claim that “man controls technology” looks more irrational than the opposite.

Against this politics of autonomous technology, with its binary opposition between humans and machines, Winner proposes a more egalitarian relationship, using Shelley’s Frankenstein as his starting point.  In Frankenstein, which is usually read as a story of autonomous technology run amok, Winner identifies a theme of “the plight of things that have been created but not in a context of sufficient care,” where the monster is angry and destructive not because he wants to take over humankind but because he is “an unfinished creation, largely forgotten and uncared for, which is forced to make its own way in the world… a grotesquely animated, autonomous force reflecting our own life, crippled, incomplete, and not fully in our control.”  The way to solve the problem of autonomous technology is not to stop developing technologies but to pay more attention to the social, political, economic, and technological context in which we develop them, and to consciously work a more egalitarian relationship between humans and technology into the machines themselves.

Winner’s argument, that in order to regain control over technology, we need to make all current technologies legible and work a more egalitarian politics into future technologies, does not take into account the logistical difficulties of carrying it out (and it would be even more difficult today than in 1977), but he is kind of right – the only way to get power is to take it.

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