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

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"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 public history. In its pages an analytically trained mind confronts some of the most pressing political issues of our day."—Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Isis

200 pages, Paperback

First published March 1, 1986

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Langdon Winner

17 books15 followers

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Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for John Carter McKnight.
470 reviews74 followers
June 14, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Jessica.
58 reviews12 followers
October 14, 2015
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 when he was a kid because milk came in glass bottles, women stayed home, and men built their own houses with craftsmanship. QED. He laments a lot of technology as simply "progress for progress' sake", but he doesn't give any way to evaluate what is good technology and what is bad. The polio vaccine was good (it seems because it saved the lives of white American kids like the author). And nuclear power is bad, obviously, because he saw a whale at Diablo Canyon and he just *knew*. All other technological development is only being pursued by greedy corporations. He doesn't even mention new vaccines, poverty alleviation, or the liberation of women through domestic technology.
Profile Image for Michael.
214 reviews52 followers
January 25, 2009
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 arrangements" (22). He argues that the adaptation of some technologies has shown that "reasons of practical necessity . . . have tended to eclipse other sorts of moral and political reasoning" (36). He argues that the reasons people have for limiting technology (such as threats to health, resources, environment), while valid, "restrict the range of moral and political criteria that are permissible in public deliberations about technological change" (51).
91 reviews
November 13, 2021
Belles idées sur la relation particulière entre politique et technologie. J’ai beaucoup aimé la critique de l’utilisation du terme « révolution » pour parler des débuts de l’ordinateur. Winner défend bien l’importance d’ajouter une composante « soft » aux « sciences dures » pour réfléchir en profondeur aux conséquences de la technologie afin d’éviter le « somnambulisme technologique ». Prose agréable, mais la structure du texte est un peu éparpillée.
Profile Image for unperspicacious.
124 reviews37 followers
September 24, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Bryan Kibbe.
93 reviews31 followers
May 16, 2011
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. The subtitle of the book is "A search for limits in an age of high technology," but at the end of the book I was still left wondering, precisely what are these limits. I can find evidence of some limits implied and gestured to throughout the book, but it would have been nice to see a more deliberate and extended treatment of the topic. Nonetheless, still a good book to read in conjunction with other philosophical treatments of technology.
Profile Image for Sharad Pandian.
410 reviews134 followers
October 1, 2020
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 - this is mean to be the text. Therefore it deserves scrutiny, and unfortunately does not hold up.

The summary is this: People don't think about technology properly since they ignore how it has social dimensions.

Winner has 10 unconnected chapters probing this.

The closer Winner sticks to the work of other people, the better his work. There is one good chapter - 4. Building the better Mousetrap - which concerns the historical trend of "appropriate technology" since empirical details form the spine of the essay. As for the others, the original contribution is negligible, but interesting examples make some of them worthwhile - for example, the drawing on the story of Robert Moses' racist bridges from Robert A. Caro's biography of Moses makes 2. Do Artifacts have Politics? an interesting read. And the summary of views like those of ecofeminists makes 7. The State of Nature Revisited bearable.

Winner admittedly makes some interesting observations, but these are more apt for the first paragraph of a sustained analysis, instead of being stretched into essay-length chapters. A whole chapter on how different aspects of centralization - namely, "number, location, power, diversity, and vitality of centers" (88) makes political calls for decentralization tricky is just wasteful. Vacuity isn't the biggest problem though - Winner feels free to make all kinds of big claims without backing them up - for example, we're told "The social history of modern technology shows a tendency-perhaps better termed a strategy-to reduce the number of centers at which action is initiated and control is exercised" (93). This isn't impossible, but how does one even identify and quantify such a thing as a centre of action? This is standard operating procedure in the book, to deliver statements without backing it up and hoping its vague plausibility lets it slip under the radar.

The reason Winner's approach is doomed from the beginning is because of his epistemology - one that's personal instead of social. Right at the beginning, in a story that's not hard to believe isn't parody, he writes:

Engineers have shown little interest in filling this void. Except for airy pronouncements in yearly presidential addresses at various engineering societies, typically ones that celebrate the contributions of a particular technical vocation to the betterment of humankind, engineers appear unaware of any philosophical questions their work might entail. As a way of starting a conversation with my friends in engineering, I sometimes ask, "What are the founding principles of your discipline?" The question is always greeted with puzzlement. Even when I explain what I am after, namely, a coherent account of the nature and significance of the branch of engineering in which they are involved, the question still means nothing to them. The scant few who raise important first questions about their technical professions are usually seen by their colleagues as dangerous cranks and radicals. If Socrates' suggestion that the "unexamined life is not worth living" still holds, it is news to most engineers. (4-5)

Winner goes in with a particular view of what the relevant knowledge consists in - general first principles that can summarize a whole field and be accessible to outsiders like himself. A lot of work gets done though his constant talk of "our society" as if it were a single monolothic thing graspable by anyone:

In our society's enthusiasm to rationalize, standardize, and modernize, it has often thoughtlessly discarded qualities that it might, on more careful reflection, have wanted to preserve. (174)

What gets lost here is the basic sociological fact of the social character of society, including the division of labour, specifically intellectual labour. This differentiated system doesn't have to be affirmed, but it has to be taken into account! Winner steadfastly refuses, however. So while he notices that:

A widely held notion in the twentieth century is that political life is little more than getting other people to do things for you. One delegates power and authority to representatives, to bureaucrats, to the President, or other such distant persons to get the business of government out of your way. These are not matters for which ordinary citizens want to be responsible. People watch public events on television, sense that these matters are beyond their reach, and then complain that the "government" is getting too large and powerful. (95)

He simply explains this as the mindless working of a society that is unreflective, instead of the outcome of work being partitioned, leaving most people at any time non-experts (in terms of knowledge and judgement) on most issues.

Given this, Winner needs to ask what makes him equiped to develop a general philosophy of technology. He's not even a historian, which means that he's twice removed from any actual case-study. He spends no time reflecting on the epistemology of the situation - eg: what do you do when the politics of an artifact is contested? After all, even his example of the Moses bridges is now contentious.

Even ignoring this and assuming he can access the present and historical state of technolgy unproblematically: he still doesn't help his case with his essay on how the internet is and isn't going to change things (6. Mythinformation), one that reads pretty vacuous 30 years later. While he notices rightly that there is a lot of hype about how the internet would bring about greater democracy, he misses how there is a lot of democratizing and that the people who benefit aren't simply those with power at his time- Bezos after all is the richest person today. Or even worse:

The vitality of democratic politics depends upon people's willingness to act together in pursuit of their common ends. It requires that on occasion members of a community appear before each other in person, speak their minds, deliberate on paths of action, and decide what they will do. This is considerably different from the model now upheld as a breakthrough for democracy: logging onto one's computer, receiving the latest information, and sending back an instantaneous digitized response. (111)

The internet is a vibrant political space today, so this seems wildly incurious. And again:

One consequence of these developments is to pare away the kinds of face-to-face contact that once provided important buffers between individuals and organized power. To an increasing extent, people will become even more susceptible to the influence of employers, news media, advertisers, and national political leaders. Where will we find new institutions to balance and mediate such power? (116)

Such a lack of imagination.

So when he writes that

How far a society must go in making political authority and public roles available to ordinary people is a matter of dispute among political theorists. But no serious student of the question would give much credence to the idea that creating a universal gridwork to spread electronic information is, by itself, a democratizing step. (110)

he just makes his own field sound myopic and incompetent.

Such failures don't only indicate a personal failing - if we're so bad at predicting anything, what kind of serious conversation can be had about technology? This point gets somewhat obscured because he provides just about no serious, sustained philosophical analysis of technology himself. He resigns himself to lamenting the way moral language has become blunted and subjective, and drawing attention to "a loss of attention paid to shared reasons for action" (158-9). My suspicion is that if he actually tried to analyze something, he would realize right away that given the splintered nature of the modern political topography and lack of shared foundations, simply tweaking some concepts wouldn't change much. So while we don't have to think that language is unimportant, his own focus on a couple of concepts and how they spell the doom of discourse is both paranoid and misses the point:

Another important consequence of this way of talking and thinking is to exclude much of what was for-merly contained in traditional moral and political language. That language includes a rich multiplicity of categories, distinctions, arguments, modes of justification, and areas of sensitivity that are simply over-looked in many contemporary conversations. The category of "values" acts like a lawn mower that cuts flat whole fields of meaning and leaves them characterless. Where previously we might have talked about what was good, worthy, virtuous, or desirable, we are now reduced to speculating about "values." Where formerly it made sense to speak of rights and attempt to justify claims to those rights, one is inclined to moan plaintively about "values." Where not too long ago one could make a case for the wisdom of a particular action, one must now show how it matches someone's "values." Increasingly rare is the ability to make what were once fairly obvious distinctions and arguments. If there are any distinctions between an opinion and a principle, bias and belief, desire and need, one's individual interest and what one wishes for the community at large, people are less and less able to make them.

Perhaps the most important consequence of this state of affairs is a loss of attention paid to shared reasons for action. When values are looked upon as subjective, it makes little sense to raise questions of why or to ask for reasons. For the answer will inevitably be something like, "Because those are my values and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing." When basic moral and political ideas are bypassed with such alacrity, any hope for finding a rational basis for common action vanishes. Skill in making or understanding a complex moral argument becomes yet another of the lost arts. Max Horkheimer once described the decline of an objective sense of truth in the modern age as the "Eclipse of Reason." But what we encounter today is more accurately called an eclipse of reasons. (158-9)

People certainly contested visions earlier, when objective-concepts were used. And they still argue fiercely when more subjective-seeming notions are employed. To obsess about this instead of studying the hugely differing communities in detail remind us of why philosophers are mocked with the image of the "armchair."

To end, it's more insightful than he intended to consider the single original analysis he does provide in his last chapter (10. The Whale and the Reactor), an analysis of a nuclear reactor he loathes built in his hometown:

But beyond the sophisticated studies of scientists and policy analysts concerned with these issues lies another consideration, which, if we ever become incapable of recognizing it, will indicate that our society has lost its bearings, that it is prepared to feed everything into the shredder. To put the matter bluntly, in that place, on that beach, against those rocks, mountains, sands, and seas, the power plant at Diablo Canyon is simply a hideous mistake. It is out of place, out of proportion, out of reason. It stands as a permanent insult to its natural and cultural surroundings. The thing should never have been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit calculations may have shown. Its presence is a tribute to those who cherish power and profit over everything in nature and our common humanity. To write any such conclusion in our time is, I realize, virtual heresy. (176)

At this point, its clear that this is ultimately less the beginning of a new discipline based on new tools for deeper insight.

Perhaps we do need a philoosphy of technology (assuming "technology" is analytically useful), but Winner is of no help in this regard.
Profile Image for JC.
488 reviews32 followers
May 24, 2023
This book includes Langdon Winner’s now classic essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” which famously discusses how the bridges Robert Moses designed also helped facilitate racial segregation by the way the infrastructure prevented public buses largely used by poorer African Americans from accessing Jones Beach. But it also is a text that talks about how machinery was deployed by capitalists to keep out agitating highly skilled workers and dissolve unions, and famously comments upon Engels’ famous text “On Authority” where he suggests:

“Because these tasks must be coordinated, and because the timing of the work is "fixed by the authority of the steam," laborers must learn to accept a rigid discipline.”

and Marx’s famous lines about how:

"Modern Industry... sweeps away by technical means the manufacturing division of labor, under which each man is bound hand and foot for life to a single detail operation. At the same time, the capitalistic form of that industry reproduces this same division of labour in a still more monstrous shape; in the factory proper, by converting the workman into a living appendage of the machine…”

Honestly I hate driving because I literally do feel like a living appendage of a machine and it requires that stoic discipline and attention that Engels described. At the heart of Winner’s essay is a dichotomy asserted by Lewis Mumford:

"from late neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable."

Along with this classic essay by Winner are two other chapters that explore the meaning of technology. He shows how technologies can become “enduring frameworks for social and political action” and also asks what sort of theoretical frameworks can help move us to a political philosophy of technology.

As a quick detour, Winner in his introduction laments the scarcity of serious thinkers who write on the philosophy of technology. He comments on engineers in this way:

“Engineers have shown little interest in filling this void. Except for airy pronouncements in yearly presidential addresses at various engineering societies, typically ones that celebrate the contributions of a particular technical vocation to the betterment of humankind, engineers appear unaware of any philosophical questions their work might entail. As a way of starting a conversation with my friends in engineering, I sometimes ask, “What are the founding principles of your discipline?” The question is always greeted with puzzlement. Even when I explain what I am after, namely, a coherent account of the nature and significance of the branch of engineering in which they are involved, the question still means nothing to them. The scant few who raise important first questions about their technical professions are usually seen by their colleagues as dangerous cranks and radicals. If Socrates’ suggestion that the “unexamined life is not worth living” still holds, it is news to most engineers”

As someone who both studied and worked in engineering, I'd have to say this is on average true.

The second part of the book is very interesting to me because it addresses alternative technology movements that I became interested in as a master’s student. One chapter is on appropriate technology which Winner calls:

“a form of radicalism characteristic of the 1970s, tried to reform society by suggesting we change our tools and our ways of thinking about them. What did the appropriate technologists accomplish? Where did they fall short? For more than a century utopian and anarchist critiques of industrial society have featured political and technical decentralization. While it has wonderful appeal, decentralization turns out to be a very slippery concept. How can it have any importance in a society thoroughly enmeshed in centralized patterns?”

I was really into appropriate technology as a master’s student and it features significantly in my thesis. But I have since become very critical of it, for some of the reasons Winner outlines. The next chapter of Winner’s is related to appropriate technology:

“Many of the passions that have inspired appropriate technology and decentralism have been reborn in the excitement surrounding the so-called computer revolution.”

And he explains this romantic fantasy that this computer revolution would enable a more democratic and egalitarian society.

Finally, in Part 3, Winner performs a sort of discourse analysis and points out how language around technology, society, and the environment are often reduced to issues of efficiency and risk. Winner is critical of this linguistic narrowing and the way terms like “nature,” “risk” and “values” become terms that are too commonly thought to encapsulate the important issues at stake, when they by no means do.

The book title, in my opinion, sounds a lot more interesting than it actually is. Winner sees a large whale surface from the water during a moment he is gazing out at a nuclear reactor and it reminded him of something he read:

"In “The Virgin and the Dynamo” Henry Adams tells of an epiphany he experienced during his visit to the Great Exposition in Paris in 1900. As he gazed upon the forty-foot dynamo, Adams sensed something more than the power of the mechanical accomplishment: “the dynamo became a symbol of infinity.” He began to feel the machine “as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. . . . Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before the silent and infinite force.” From these feelings of awe and mystery Adams was able to formulate a “law of acceleration” in human history, one that he believed could explain the increasingly complexity and rate of change in civilization.”

“The chance juxtaposition of the whale and reactor that day at Diablo Canyon opened my eyes to the fact that this fascination had much earlier sources. Here were two tangible symbols of the power of nature and of human artifice: one an enormous creature swimming gracefully in a timeless ecosystem, the other a gigantic piece of apparatus linked by sheer determination to the complicated mechanisms of the technological society. The first offered an image of things as they had always been, the other an image of things as they were rapidly coming to be. I realized that somehow I’d gotten caught in the middle.”
Profile Image for Jan D.
138 reviews10 followers
December 8, 2019
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 be treated as such.
Profile Image for Valenttina.
33 reviews1 follower
October 17, 2021
Aunque fue escrito en el 87, es muy vigente la crítica que Langdon hace a la idea de que la tecnología y el desarrollo son incuestionables. Su visión algunas veces parece determinista ("la tecnología no es neutral y crea una sociedad de masas") pero también es instrumentalista ("la tecnología no es un fin, sólo es un medio y la humanidad define sus objetivos"). Me quedo con la idea de que el desarrollo tecnológico se puede reconfigurar y que la noción que tenemos de que la tecnología nos arrasa y es incontrolable no es real.
Profile Image for Chris.
136 reviews1 follower
October 17, 2021
The chapter on computers is still highly relevant and offers important arguments that are still a big part of the debates around the value of computers.

My only complaint about the book in general is he never really offers us a path towards actually preventing the diffusion of technology that is inconsistent with the kind of society we want to live in. He makes a good case for trying, but offers no efficacy for those efforts.
February 21, 2010
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.
Profile Image for Dylan.
106 reviews
February 8, 2011
Another well-written, much needed work on our place in the increasingly technological world. Langdon Winner is currently my favorite living academic.
Profile Image for Owen L.
23 reviews
May 6, 2023
This book stands up reasonably well, even with 40 years of technological changes. The critiques of the endless praise of "efficiency" and "technological improvements" that offer no meaningful change in the quality of human existence is an extremely refreshing change of pace from the Silicon Valley types who would burn down the Amazon themselves if it meant they could make a quick buck.

However, the discussion of the titular "reactor" was very weird. The last section(s) made my remove 1-2 stars simply because they are so different from the rest of the book. Winner never really takes a strong stance throughout much of the books, preferring to ask questions and posit tentative answers (while acknowledging other viewpoints). Then, out of no where, there is a long tirade again Diablo Canyon. It isn't remotely philosophical, and is so out of place in the book. He criticizes the startup carbon footprint of nuclear reactors, then turns around and praises the uses of solar to replace Diablo Canyon. The exact same critiques are valid (perhaps even more so, to get 16 GWh of energy from solar, you need a huge amount of rare earth metals) for solar but that is just better than nuclear because it isn't "hideous" I guess. If Diablo Canyon had been turned into a park, as suggested by Winner, those 16 GWh would have to come from somewhere else (and in the 80s, that wasn't going to be solar). As a comparison 16 GWh is the same production of Plant Miller, the largest coal power plant in the United States. Plant Miller was also the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States in 2017. This sort of myopia is all to common among environmentalists, nuclear is not a perfect source of power, but rather than using it as some sort of stepping stone to full renewables, it is cast aside and replaced with things far worse (e.g. coal, as we can literally see happening before our eyes in Germany).
Profile Image for Jerrid Kruse.
650 reviews15 followers
November 29, 2019
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 overarching goals of technological innovation, and how the public is sold on those innovations. Finally, he explores the thesis of the book by searching for limits. The first limit considered is ecological, then human danger, and finally he concedes that we must simply be more honest about the downfalls of technology.
Profile Image for MC.
12 reviews
November 26, 2022
most of this book was pretty good… for an academic book i had to read for class large amounts of it presented new and useful ideas. the last four chapters were so confusing and muddling though.
Profile Image for Lilly Irani.
Author 4 books46 followers
March 8, 2007
Ranty but fascinating look into what various technologies mean, with a somewhat McLuhan-like tint.
Profile Image for 'Jj.
60 reviews10 followers
April 23, 2012
I would like to reread his chapter about 'values not being the answer' or whatnot
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