Langdon Winner in his article, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” defines
technology not only as having functional values but also as embodying specific
forms of power and authority in which he calls politics. Winner defines
technology as “Smaller or larger pieces of systems of hardware of a specific
kind.” (Winner, 1980, p123). The central point to Winner’s article is that we
need to look past technology being seen as a neutral tool and instead we need
to analyse whether it has been designed or built so that it produces a set of
possible consequences (Winner, 1980). Winner argues that technology embodies
power and authority in two ways. Firstly, power and authority is often embodied
in the design of the technology (Winner, 1980). Secondly, properties of technology
are interconnected to institutions of power and authority. Critics of Winner
such as social constructivists argue that we as a society are in control of
technology (Kirkpatrick, 2008). On the other hand, technological determinists
argue that the technology has the power over us. This essay is going to
critically evaluate Langdon Winner’s claim that technology embodies power and
authority (Winner, 1980), using the two different theories technological
determinism and social constructivism. In order to evaluate Winner’s claim this
essay will draw upon two contemporary technology examples closed-circuit
television and the mobile telephone.

 

The first argument presented by Winner is that technology embodies
specific forms of power and authority through its design and build (Winner,
1980). In Winner’s words “We usually do not stop to inquire whether a given
device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a set
of consequences..” (Winner, 1980, p122). Take the example of a BlackBerry mobile phone, functionally a
BlackBerry is a platform for voice based communication. Winner however
critically looks beyond this functional value and rather analyses the
individual components of the mobile technology. Firstly, a key component of a
Blackberry mobile is its push email feature so at any time users are able to
receive email messages (Orlikowski, 2007). If we apply this to a workplace
setting, employees are constantly connected to work. In support of Winner, the
‘push email’ design feature has been added to produce a direct consequence of
continual attachment. At first this may appear positive as people are
constantly connected, however research carried out proves the negative effects
of 24/7 connectivity especially in the workplace “..and another on addiction to
mobile devices/email, we found that each correlated with higher employee desire
to leave the job and reduce organizational commitment.” (Tarafdar and Monideepa
et al, 2015, p64). Here, the embodiment of power and authority comes into play
as (Mazamanian et al, 2006, as cited in Orlikowski, 2007) found that employees
had a strong duty to check incoming messages, especially late at night “One
junior associate reports checking his BlackBerry late at night, even when he
knows it is unnecessary.”  (Orlikowski, 2007, p1442).  Consequently, rather than the human having
control over the mobile technology, the mobile technology is built and designed
in such a way that it has the control over the human. Furthermore, in support
of this Orlikowski (2007) notes how employees experienced a sense of addiction
“Members portray their experience of compulsion as an addiction” (Orlikowski,
2007, p1143). As noted by Orlikowski (2007) the instant connection feature
attaches people and the BlackBerry is often referred to as a “Crackberry”. As a
result, it does appear accurate that technology embodies the power rather than
the user/consumer being in control. However, with this being said Winner does
fail to recognise societies influence on technology. For example, the Blackberry
is being used as a political tool as it is the managers who in fact hold the
power because in this case by supplementing employees with mobiles this is an attempt
to gain tighter control over them This tighter control is achieved through the employees
being available 24/7 in any location, whereas previously work and home were
separated. For this reason, then, it is incorrect to say that technology fully
embodies power and authority because as discovered there is also a human
influence involved.

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A second way in which technology embodies specific forms of power is
through the ability of the technology to control people’s behaviour. Take the
second technological contemporary example of closed-circuit television.
Firstly, functionally closed-circuit television is designed to prevent citizens
from committing crimes. Yet, if we look beyond the functionality power is
embodied within the camera as the closed-circuit television camera has been
designed to cause and deliver punishment if citizens are caught breaking the
law. This is what Brey (2007, p12) refers to as “delegated coercion”. The
camera element on the device has purposefully been designed so that the public
must act in accordance with the law otherwise if they don’t they will face a
consequence. Here then, the camera is in control of our actions and thinking
rather than ourselves. Closed-circuit television further embodies power and
authority as it holds “delegated force” (Brey, 2007, p14) this means that the
technology has been purposefully positioned and embodied in certain areas to
prevent criminal behaviour. However, social constructionists would criticise
this as they argue that social interactions alone determine individual
behaviour as opposed to technological factors. According to constructionists it
is the language that we have attached to closed-circuit television that places
the power within it (Kirkpatrick, 2008). “..It focuses on how the language
people use to understand what they are doing in connection with the artefact
plays an explanatory role in its development..” (Kirkpatrick, 2008, p26) so according
to social constructionists if we did not attach language such as “criminality”,
“deviance” and “imprisonment” then the contemporary technology would not have
such power to prevent crimes in society. Thus, meaning that closed-circuit
television is not in control of our behaviour, but rather we are as we have
attached the significance and meaning to it.

A further argument that is presented by Winner is that technology
embodies power and authority through its properties being linked to particular
institutionalized patterns of power and authority (Winner, 1980). In Winner’s
words “Intractable properties of certain kinds of technology are strongly,
perhaps unavoidably, linked to particular institutionalized patterns of power
and authority.” (Winner 1980, p134).  To some extent he makes a valid
point. Given the example of the camera property on the closed-circuit
television if this was not linked up and accessible to an institutionalized authority
such as the police force, closed-circuit television would arguably fail as the
general public would be less inclined to monitor their behaviour. To put this
into context, if people are aware that they are being monitored by the police
they will be less likely to commit a crime due to fearing punishment and a
possible prison sentence. To
arguably prove the success of closed-circuit television and its embodiment of
power Norris states “It has been suggested
that twenty cameras can actually equal twenty police officers” (Norris,
2003, as cited in Morgan, p254). As a result, we no longer require the
physical presence of a police officer because as Winner argues technology
rightfully does embody and authority. This is a technological deterministic way
of looking at closed-circuit television as it believes technology determines society “According to
technological determinists, certain key technologies are the primary movers in
developments in organizations, the economy, or even society itself” (Knights
and Willmot, 2012, p40). Therefore, instead of suggesting our attitudes
towards committing crime have changed instead the technology becomes the main
praise for the fall in crime rates. The belief is that people fear the power of
the camera and so do not commit crime. On the other hand, it would be incorrect
to say that closed-circuit television prevents all crimes as in fact crimes
such as burglaries, rapes and murders still happen under the watchful eye of
the camera. To use a recent example “Suspected serial rapist caught on camera
grabbing 58-year-old woman in lift” (Campbell, 2016). Therefore, Winner should
be criticised for assuming that technologies full embody power and authority.
If technology, such as closed-circuit television did embody such heavy forms of
power and authority that was beyond human control then debatably such incidents
and crimes would not happen under the watchful eye of the camera.

Social constructionists argue that technology does not embody power and
authority (Winner, 1980) but rather technology is really shaped by our society.
Society attaches a meaning to a technology and we as a consumer give it the
power “Technology is actually embedded in culture, actively shaped by social
actors who invest it with meanings..” (Kirkpatrick, 2008, p25). The mobile
phone is a good contemporary example of how technology is embedded in our
culture and then shaped by society and consumers.  Firstly, the mobile
phone means different things to different people in various cultural settings
(Kirkpatrick, 2008). For example, Finnish teenagers keep handwritten “diaries”
of text messages in fear of losing them (Kaseniemu and Rautiainen, 2002, as
cited in Kirkpatrick, 2008, p28). In japan the mobile phone is viewed as
fetishized object (Ito, 2001, as
cited in Oksman and Turtianien, 2004) and in Italy the mobile phone is seen as
a fashion accessory (Fortunati, 2002, as cited in Oksman and Turtianien, 2004).
 Here as demonstrated then arguably we as consumers do hold the
power as we have the ability to attach a given meaning to the mobile phone.
Another way in which users aid a given meaning to the mobile phone is through
the different ways in which they use it. For example, some consumers use it to
functionally communicate, others play mobile games and it can also be used to
pass time. A mobile phone can also be used politically to track attendance,
such as in the case of a university whereby students confirm individual
attendance.  If the mobile phone did embody power and authority, we would
undoubtedly have no control over how we choose to use it and the meanings for
the technology would also be the same in each country. However, to criticise
the consumer holding the control and having the ability to shape meaning we
need to consider the role of the mobile and the capitalist ability to shape our
attitudes. Firstly, our lives have become embedded within technology
(Kirkpatrick, 2008). For instance, in terms of mobile usage 93% of people in
the UK personally own a mobile phone (Ofcom, 2016). Owning a mobile phone is
essential today as it is now viewed as an essential tool for communication.
Therefore, arguably we are highly dependent on mobile technology for
communication and without it at times we experience feelings of normlessness
and being lost. This therefore suggests that the mobile phone does embody power
as it has taken over our daily lives and ultimately the mobile dominates our
lives “Mobile phones have penetrated most aspects of everyday life” (Holloway_____). This
supports the technological determinist viewpoint that “technology is beyond
human control” (Buchanan, 1980, p558).  Additionally, despite social
constructionist theorists viewing the mobile phone as embodying different
meaning in the end all consumers have surrendered to a controlled capitalist
society whereby needs are manufactured “Many modern needs are inventions, the product of an economy that stimulates
consumption so that it can make and market things for a profit” (Pursell, 1994,
p40. Therefore, we think we are in control of mobile technology but in
fact it is the mobile technology that is in control of us. To give an example,
as mobile companies introduce new models we feel the need to upgrade as we
‘need’ the latest model. However, this is just another way in which the
capitalist society is exploiting us. Therefore, Winner is correct in saying
that technology does embody specific forms of power and authority (Winner,
1980) as it has manufactured our needs as we think we need the latest mobile in
order to fit into society. Furthermore, the mobile also embodies power as it
has evidently taken over our daily lives and as a result it has increased our
technological dependence as a society.

 

Above all, it is evident then that Langdon Winner’s
argument is correct. As discussed throughout this essay using two contemporary
examples of the mobile telephone and closed-circuit television technology not
only has its functional values but it also does embody specific forms of both power
and authority. Power and authority is embodied through the technologies design
and interconnections to institutions of power such as the police and as
discovered in this essay this power results in ngetaive consequence such as
addiction and stress. It is important to remember that technology has an even
more growing power in our capitalist society today as we have become technomlogically
depedent and it is in all aspects of our life. Therefore, we have little choice
but to subit to the power of technology.

 

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