Langdon Winner, Technologies as Forms of Life




2.       Winner’s broad understanding of technology

         a.      Artificial aids to human activities, including

                   i.       Instruments: computers, law mowers, guitars, guns

                   ii.      Techniques: Division of labor, assembly line

                   iii.     Systems: Transportation systems (car versus bus/train/bike/walk), educational systems, agricultural systems (factory farming, non-local foods, industrial ag)


3.      Philosophy of technology "Examines critically the nature and significance of artificial aids to human activity"

         a.      Importance of philosophy of tech for a society "so firmly based on countless sophisticated instruments, techniques and systems"

4.      Our modern society has not seriously engaged in philosophy of tech because

         a.      One: “Astonishing hold idea of progress has on society;” progress = new tech

                   i.       Taken for granted that the only reliable source for improving human condition is new tech (machines, techniques and chemicals)

                            (1)    What are some alternatives routes to improving human condition?

                   ii.      A faith that has not been dented by all the environmental and social ills that have come along with tech advancement

                            (1)    For example?

         b.      Two: Assumption that technologies are neutral

                   i.       According to this assumption, technologies are "tools that can be used well or poorly or for good or bad purposes"

                   ii.      Can use my knife to slice loaf of bread or stab a person

                   iii.     The knife itself is neither good nor bad, but neutral



6.      Problem with idea that tech is neutral:

         a.      Ignores that techs provide structure for human activity and are forms of life

7.      Techs not simply aids to human activity, but powerful forces that reshape activities and their meaning

         a.      E.g., Introduction of robot to industrial workplace not just increases productivity but redefines what work means in that setting

8.      Tech devices tend to engender distinctive worlds of their own

         a.      Driver/walker example, p. 106

                   i.       Driver tries to ask his walking neighbor over for dinner

                   ii.      Honks (annoys walker), slows and shouts invitation

                   iii.     Walker wonders who is shouting at him and can't hear him

                   iv.     Driver slowed traffic, so person behind him honks

         b.      How do automobiles affect texture of modern life?

                   i.       + Allows great distances to be traveled w/o planning

                   ii.      - Sprawl, difficulty of walking/biking, danger/deaths

                   iii.     Auto enhances freedom? Yes and no

9.      Techs as forms of life

         a.      As techs built and put to use, new worlds being built, new patterns of human activity, new human institutions created

         b.      Not a "secondary consequence" or “side effect” but a primary accomplishment of any new tech

         c.      A tech system that involves people won't work unless the people change their behavior to suit how it works (so technologies require that people change how they live)

                   i.       Consider answering machines or email or text messaging

10.    Modern tech developments change important facets of our lives

         a.      Individual habits (i.e., letter writing gone)

         b.      Concepts of self (People define themselves in terms of their cars, the computer games they play, their facebook/twitter page)

         c.      Ideas of space and time (blueberries in winter, spring break in Africa, get an email at home at 6pm and have it done by tomorrow morning, motorboat vs kayak)

         d.      Social relationships (Facebook)

11.    Eventually new techniques shed tool-like quality and become part of our very humanity

         a.      We are beings who work on assembly lines, talk on cell phones, eat process foods, clean our homes with powerful chemicals, drive everywhere, spend our days in front of a screen

         b.      Has the adoption of recent information technology changed the kind of people we are?

12.    Many times tech allow us to do in a different way what we always did (work, talk, eat, clean)

         a.      But they can radically alter how we do these things

         b.      TV example

                   i.       TV as a universal babysitter, as what we spend a 1/4 of our lives doing, as what we talk about

                   ii.      In some sense, can't really turn off TV

13.    Though typically new tech transforms very old patterns of human behavior, sometimes they generate entirely new types of behavior

         a.      Examples

                   i.       Air flight

                   ii.      Altering human biology via genetic engineering

                   iii.     Permanent settlements in outer-space

         b.      Latter two “call into question what it means to be human and what constitutes the human condition”

14.    Tech as from of life is illustration of idea that people are what they do

         a.      View held by existentialists, pragmatists, and Marx

         b.      Marx: "As individuals express their life, so they are"

         c.      Is it true that people are what they spend their time doing? What about working a job you hate so you have money and can do what you want outside of work? Are you the person that works that job?



         a.      Somnambulism” (=sleepwalking)

         b.      We create, adopt and use technologies w/o considering their effects on us and our lives;

                   i.       This is a huge problem                              

16.    Vast changes in structure of our common world due to tech undertaken with little attention to what they mean

         a.      For example, biotech food (3/4 quarters of processed food on grocery selves contain genetically-engineered ingredients)

17.    We only pay attention to whether or not the new technology

         a.      Provides a convenient service, or

         b.      Performs a service more efficiently, or

         c.      Makes a profit

18.    Tech's broader significance only show up later as surprising "side effects" or "secondary consequences"

19.    We seldom examine pending innovations with careful awareness of what those changes mean

20.    With new technologies we enter a series of social contracts whose terms revealed only after signing them

         a.      Though tech innovation we make a world for us to live in

21.    Winner recommends that we make sure we understand and examine the important psychological, social, and political changes that are part of any significant tech change

         a.      Are we designing a world that will enlarge possibility for growth in human freedom, sociability, intelligence, creativity and self-government?

         b.      Or doing the reverse?



         a.      Though he believes we are guilty of technological somnambulism

23.    Tech determinism: Idea that tech innovation is basic cause of change in society and that humans have little choice than to watch this ineluctable process unfold

         a.      Social and moral critique and guidance of technology not possible

         b.      E.g., Kirkpatrick Sale’s 1997 Editorial “Ban Cloning? Not a Chance”

24.    Winner thinks tech determinism is:

         a.      Too strong/sweeping a claim

         b.      To passive: Ignores genuine choices that arise in course of tech/social transformation

         c.      He rejects idea that we will just have to endure tech change, for "its going to happen anyway" and we just have to adapt

25.    We are guilty of tech somnambulism:

         a.      We willingly sleepwalk though the process of reconstituting conditions of our lives

         b.      He thinks we do this, but that we should not

Study questions Winner, Technologies as Forms of Life


1.         How does Winner define/understand technology?

2.         What are the two reasons Winner gives for why our society has not engaged in the philosophy of technology?

3.         Explain the idea that “technology is neutral” and then explore Winner’s views on this idea.

4.         Explain, using examples, in what way technologies are forms of life according to Winner.

5.         What does Winner think about the idea that it is important to pay attention to the “side effects” of adopting a new technology? Are social changes that accompany the adoption of new technologies important “side effects”?

6.         What is technological somnambulism and what does Winner think about it?

7.         What is technological determinism? Is Winner a technological determinist?

8.         What does it mean to say “people are what they do?”

9.         Has the adoption of information technology changed the kind of people we are?