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The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  196 ratings  ·  13 reviews
"The questions he poses about the relationship between technical change and political power are pressing ones that can no longer be ignored, and identifying them is perhaps the most a nascent 'philosophy of technology' can expect to achieve at the present time."—David Dickson, New York Times Book Review

"The Whale and the Reactor is the philosopher's equivalent of superb pu
Paperback, 214 pages
Published January 15th 1988 by University of Chicago Press (first published March 1st 1986)
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Apr 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: work-ish
I was looking for a book that would take a deep dive into ideas of "appropriate technology" and how we should define the goals of technological innovation. Winner does frame the thesis of the book as such and every chapter begins with a tease that the topic might actually be explored in some academic fashion. What you get, however, is a long-winded rant from a very narrow perspective of a white, privileged, older male american. His main argument is that everyone just knows that life was better w ...more
John Carter McKnight
Jun 01, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: academic
An inescapable classic of science and society. A couple of the essays ("Do Artifacts Have Politics?" and "Techne and Politeia") are near-masterpieces. The rest of the anthology will appeal more to the technophobic and "limits on growth" advocates: the arguments are stock, somewhat weak, and more extruded old-hippie academic product than truly first-rate analysis. ...more
Jan 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
In The Whale and the Reactor (1986), Langdon Winner argues that technologies have politics and should not be viewed as separate from us: they "become part of our very humanity" (12). He does not want to reduce technology to social forces, but wishes to understand "the characteristics of technical objects and the meanings of those characteristics." He defines "politics" as "arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangement ...more
Sep 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: distributism
Highly uneven, and perhaps even a little shrill at times (though justifiably so). It also shows all the hallmarks of an extended collection of essays. But nevertheless full of gems. Abounds with references, conceptual analysis and extended discussions of the political consequences of choosing technologies of varying scale. A keeper.
Sharad Pandian
In a strangely positive review, the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan wrote: "The Whale and the Reactor is the philosopher's equivalent of superb public history." I suppose that if we thought of the book's genre as public philosophy, it would be an interesting read - for someone entirely unaccustomed to thinking systematically about technology and wanted to, this is a clearly-written resource rich with illustrative examples. Unfortunately, this isn't a pop version of some other more subtantive text ...more
Bryan Kibbe
May 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Winner does an excellent job of mounting some well-placed and subtle criticisms of technological devices and the way in which we evaluate and discuss those technologies. In particular, Winner offers very thoughtful discussions of the technological imperatives embedded in technologies, the concept of "nature," and the meaning of decentralization. Ultimately, though, I felt a bit disappointed that Winner did not offer a more substantive proposal concerning how to evaluate technological devices. Th ...more
Jerrid Kruse
Nov 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Although Winner’s argument loses track from time to time and he is a bit of a romantic for a particular time, his analysis is sound and necessary as we continue toward an increasingly technocratic state. He predicted the inaccuracy of several predictions (e.g., more information = more voter engagement clearly didn’t happen). The book starts by identifying the politics and values (although he’d hate that word) embedded within technologies. Then, he explores how technology’s get developed, the ove ...more
Jan D
Dec 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Contains some excellent essays. “Do artifacts have Politics?” is a classic, but some others are also very interesting, e.g. “Decentralization Clarified” and “Brandy, Cigars and Human Values”. The style is accessible. One might criticize that the author is critical of technology in general. However, he does not advocate to return to some “natural state” or whatever, but suggests that more care is needed and that technologies are not politically neutral and that their introduction and use should b ...more
Aug 02, 2020 marked it as books-to-not-read
essays to read are "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" and "Techne and Politeia". See ...more
Gives a pretty good overview of changing conceptions of technology...particularly useful for the Frankfurt school as well as the appropriate technology movement in the US. In terms of the overall thesis that "technical decisions are political decisions," it falls too much into the "using technology for different ends" camp. ...more
Oct 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Another well-written, much needed work on our place in the increasingly technological world. Langdon Winner is currently my favorite living academic.
Lilly Irani
Mar 07, 2007 rated it liked it
Ranty but fascinating look into what various technologies mean, with a somewhat McLuhan-like tint.
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