THR Web Features   /   July 23, 2020

Still Searching

We need a new technical constitution.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Nuclear reactor diagrams/Library of Congress, Science Photo Library; diagram of a whale from an 1880s comparative zoology textbook.)

In July 2009, the American Journal of Sociology published something peculiar: a review of Michael Young’s 1958 book The Rise of Meritocracy. The review’s appearance so long after its publication wasn’t its only oddity. The review had, the journal’s editor explains, “arrived at AJS by snail mail, with a date stamp of 2048 in the postmark,” having been submitted by one Barbara Celarent, a professor at the University of Atlantis.

Professor Celarent—whose name derives from several sources, including a medieval mnemonic poem for remembering valid syllogistic forms—was later revealed to be the alter ego (or on his telling, sometime collaborator) of Andrew Abbott, the venerable sociologist at the University of Chicago. Over the ensuing six years, thirty-five more reviews would be published under Celarent’s name, her chosen authors scattered across the global and modern history, including Thoreau (Walden, 1854), the Senegalese writer Mariama Bâ (So Long a Letter, 1980), the Indian social reformer Pandita Ramabai (The High Caste Hindu Woman, 1887), and the midcentury French West Indian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (A Dying Colonialism, 1959).

Why do this? Celarent was invented, Abbott has explained, to aid his project of taking a broader view of social theory both in terms of time and space. But Abbott wasn’t simply informing his guild about titles due fresh attention. The Celarent project also issues a quiet challenge to readers to consider which books they’d choose for such a long-view review. It raises several intriguing questions about how we gauge the success or failure of a book. Perhaps the first question is the most interesting of all: What books would make your Celarent list? It’s a intriguing prompt to put to friends. If I had it my way, there’d be a Celarent column in all of the journals I read regularly, including this one.

One of the books on my own Celarent mental list has reappeared in a second edition thirty-four years after its initial publication: the political theorist Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. The new edition confirms the book’s status as a classic on the topic of technology’s social meanings. Yet that we are receiving a fresh edition of this book—largely unchanged from its 1986 text—is also troubling. As Winner points out in the new preface, he’s left the original chapters largely “as is” because their counsel remains applicable even if some of his examples (such as the “appropriate technology” movement of the seventies) are historical material now. Reading the book, one receives regular reminders of just how little progress has been made on the core issues that Winner addressed in the mid-eighties: the digital revolution, the environment, and what was already called the “energy crisis.” Winner hoped to invigorate the search for limits on technology in the first edition. The second edition underscores what we already know: We’re still searching for those limits over three decades later. 

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.

What are we supposed to do in the face of such challenges? Back in the eighties, Winner’s answer was that readers needed, first of all, to wake up to the true nature of technical systems. Winner aptly described his own experience of rousing from the state of “technological somnabulism”: We must stop unthinkingly submitting ourselves, he argued in turn, to the regimes of technologies whose sweeping consequences for the human condition are rarely considered as they are rushed to market.

In the thirty years since the book’s original publication, Winner’s point about technologies representing “forms of life” has no doubt gained wide acceptance, a point that the author acknowledges in the new edition’s preface. But simply waking up to the fact that this or that technology imposes a social contract isn’t enough. This is one of the enduring insights of the book. We must look deeper. We must recognize what Winner calls the “technical constitution of society.”

Alongside our official constitution, Winner would show us, Americans have long bought into a set of ideas about how technologies build a good society, most importantly, the “equation of abundance and freedom.” Winner traces this equation back to the nineteenth century when the continent’s natural resources and new technologies like railroads and telegraphs looked liked the means to produce so large a material abundance that “class conflict, the scourge of democracy in the ancient world,” could be avoided. Inequality wouldn’t matter because there would be so much wealth to go around. Perhaps we are living at a moment when this second “constitution” is starting to look rickety, as so many recent surveys of the economy emphasize that the abundance isn’t being shared.

Once we wake up to these realities—once we’ve started reading fine print of all the social contracts we’ve signed—though, what are we supposed to do?  Winner’s practical answer back in the eighties was to imagine a new kind of civic space in which technical experts would engage with a democratic citizenry “face to face.” In such a space, he hoped, “the political wisdom of democracy” might discipline the ongoing process of technological change, promoting those technologies most fruitful to the greater good. In this last regard, The Whale and the Reactor can only be seen as a noble failure—at least, the first edition. In the decades since the book’s publication, no grand institutions have arisen for the examination of the consequences of new technologies.

More troublingly still, one of Winner’s key questions still has no clear answer: “Are there no shared ends that matter to us any longer,” he asks early in the book, “other than the desire to be affluent while avoiding the risk of cancer?” Rereading The Whale and the Reactor in this second edition has reminded me of a what a powerful critique it offers, and not only of those technical systems like Moses’s overpasses and Big Tech’s “walled factories." He is also a skilled critic of the basic terms on which the limits of technology can be discussed. When those who oppose a technology on moral grounds make pragmatic decisions to use “impact surveys” and assess “risk management,” they are not only prone to make weak arguments. They inadvertently buttress a whole discursive system that crowds out serious discussion about any human goods other than affluence and low cancer risks.

The Whale and the Reactor remains a valuable book, one that I recommend to all of my fellow some-time somnambulists. But the book also leaves one with a clear sense that we are reaching the limits of the practice of critique itself. What’s needed now is a new set of terms, a fresh set of assumptions, even a new set of conversation partners to begin fashioning tools—discursive and institutional—for the management of the bevy of technologies that shape our lives. We need, in short, a new technical constitution.

With this second edition, The Whale and the Reactor has become a classic in the art of critiquing Technopolis, taking its rightful place alongside forerunners that Winner cites—Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society (1977), Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964), Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934), and even Thomas Carlyle’s “Signs of the Times” (1829). But “criticism” (as Winner calls his work) can only take us so far, as The Whale and the Reactor itself shows. The work now is to locate new resources or to enliven old ones that can reshape our technical constitution.

That need brings us back to Abbott’s search for an expanded bibliography of “classics” of social theory in the guise of Barbara Celarent. We would be wise to open our search in time and space to listen with fresh attention to old voices and to discover new ones. Sufficient instruments to scatter stones lie at hand. Needed now are materials with which to build something new.