Do Artifacts have Politics?
I have a brief summary of what we mean when we discuss the “politics” of technologies. Just like rhetoric, the term politics is popularly associated with a less-than-satisfying process of choosing between two unqualified, unimaginative candidates. Winner’s influential article “Do Artifacts have Politics” tells the story of Robert Moses and the ideology of his times.
Winner analyzes undemocratic technological systems. The often-cited example from Winner is that of the architect Robert Moses and his technological Jim Crowism: As “the master builder of roads, parks, bridges, and other public works of the 1920s to the 1970s in New York,” Moses “built his overpasses according to specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways” (Winner 23). Such an undemocratic system “limit[ed] access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones Beach, Moses’ widely acclaimed public park” (Winner 23).
Winner argues that Moses’ architecture reifies the systemic effects of a racist, classist society; certain groups’ access to public areas is denied by physical barriers, which “embody a systematic social inequality, a way of engineering relationships among people that, after a time, became just another part of the landscape” (23).
A similar situation exists in low-income, inner-city dwellings where property values dropped as a result of “urban planning” that sent highways, railways, and other eye sores through predominantly African-American communities. Racism, a systemic force, helped bring about the technological segregation of Moses’s “architecture.” Such a situation is representative of how white America treated African Americans throughout history. Moses’s setup was simply a microcosm of larger cultural oppression—legally upheld until 1954. As American history proves “all men are created equal” is relative to who’s in charge.
(However, Winner seems to go out of his way to claim that Moses’s racist plan was more than just reproducing cultural racism. The technology comes to be, is created, and people fall in line and continue deep-seated discrimination.)
Therefore, “democratic” societies stabilize technology from non-egalitarian social values, attitudes, and practices. Ironically, these undemocratic practices are still in accordance with social values as Winner’s example of Robert Moses shows.