A Wake-Up Call for Technological Somnambulists

The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Langdon Winner. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986. 214 pp. $17.50. These 10 graceful essays, grouped under the headings A Philosophy of Technology; Technology: Reform and Revolution; and Excess and Limit, explore the intimate connection between technologies and the political structures in which they are embedded. Winner insists that since many of today's technologies threaten our ecological and social well-bein

By | January 12, 1987

The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Langdon Winner. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986. 214 pp. $17.50.

These 10 graceful essays, grouped under the headings A Philosophy of Technology; Technology: Reform and Revolution; and Excess and Limit, explore the intimate connection between technologies and the political structures in which they are embedded. Winner insists that since many of today's technologies threaten our ecological and social well-being, they must be subjected to limits. His book is a sort of wake-up call for the "technological somnambulism" he believes has engulfed our modern technological society.

Winner is at his best as an artful social critic. In three essays, he asks the important questions about appropriate technology, decentralization and computers that one is embarrassed to ask for fear of being too elementary: Is appropriate technology really appropriate? Do decentralists really know what they mean by decentralization? Are the expansive claims of those who see computers as introducing a more participatory, freer society grossly overblown?

All this is done with an impressive erudition. One learns, for example, that Lewis Mumford, in the early 1960s, was first to insist that some technologies were compatible with free political structures, others were not; that Marx and Engels introduced the idea of technology as a "Form of Life;" that Robert Moses actually built the overpasses on the parkways around New York City so low that passenger cars but not buses could traverse them, and thus the undesirable poor (who at the time could not afford cars) were kept out of the suburban recreational areas!

In his preface, Winner distinguishes between being a critic of technology and being "antitechnology." He is as devastating in his criticism of the overblown claims of the soft path as he is of the most ardent of technological optimists.

Yet, in the last, almost poetical essay, The Whale and the Reactor, Winner betrays a disbelief in the perfectability of technology that belies his claim to technological neutrality. The juxtaposition of the blowing grey whale a mile off the California coast, easily sighted from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Station, epitomizes the conflict between technology and society that the book seeks to illuminate. Winner makes no bones about his preference for the whale and his abhorrence of the reactor—an abhorrence that he attributes to the "indelible features of nuclear" that inevitably must extract a toll in human freedom.

We nuclear optimists can never agree with so pessimistic an assessment of our technology: despite Chernobyl, we continue to place our faith in the possibility achieving a nuclear system devoid of the features Winner regards as "indelible," and this without reduction in human freedom. Indeed, though Winner hardly prescribes, since his is a book of social and philosophic criticism much more than it is a recipe for correcting the social disorders induced by technology, what little prescription he offers tends toward political interventions which themselves are beset with "indelible features which extract a toll in human freedom."

As a technologist unversed in politics, I would claim that technical fixes are easier than social fixes. Brilliant, absorbing tours de force like Winner's book are necessary wake-up calls for the technological somnambulist. But, once the somnambulist awakens, social critics like Langdon Winner will still have to turn to technologists, even nuclear technologists, for a technically-based world in which they can live comfortably.

Weinberg is at the Institute for Energy Analysis, Oak Ridge Associated Universities,
Oak Ridge, TN 37831-0117.

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