Assignment - Select a technology and explain how it has politics
In his article, “Do artifacts have politics?” Langdon Winner (1986) discusses the provocative notion that technical things have political qualities. The best example he gives is the invention of the atomic bomb. The fact that the atomic bomb exists at all brings with it a host of political controversies about its care and operation. All bombs must be controlled by a centralized, authoritarian social system in order to safeguard them from actually being used. The atomic bomb is clearly a technical artifact surrounded by political implications.
One can think of many other examples of artifacts and technologies having political qualities. The first example I thought of was guns and the endless debate over gun control here in America. Very few people have a neutral opinion on guns and their influence on society. For some, gun rights are absolute, enshrined in the Constitution. Others believe that guns are a threat to society and must be highly regulated or even banned. But a gun is just steel and a bullet is just metal, lead, and gunpowder. The artifact does nothing on its own. How it is used is political.
The famous saying, “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” comes to mind when examining whether guns, or any other artifact for that matter, have politics. Iterations of the quote could be used to define the political element of any artifact. Atomic bombs don’t kill people; people use atomic bombs to kill people (they could leak, but you get my point). People are in charge of artifacts and determine what the artifact does or does not do.
As Winner (1986) discussed in his article, “blaming the hardware appears even more foolish than blaming the victims when it comes to judging conditions of public life.” Gun rights advocates would certainly agree with that quote. Many supporters of gun rights believe that guns can be used responsibly for hunting and self-defense and that anyone who uses a gun for a nefarious purpose is already breaking the law. You can’t blame the gun for what someone does with it.
However, gun control advocates could point to another Winner quote: “what matters is not technology itself, but the social or economic system in which it is embedded,” to describe their desire to regulate guns. Gun control advocates have long sought restrictions on access to guns because many gun deaths arise from areas with depressed social and economic systems that have guns embedded in the culture (inner cities, etc.).
While mass shootings may get the media attention, two-thirds of all gun deaths are from suicide. Keeping guns out of the hands of anyone, the argument goes, will reduce gun deaths overall. If it takes someone longer to get a gun, he may be less likely to go through with a planned suicide. Gun control is a multi-faceted topic that includes reducing mass shootings, suicide, and gun-related crimes.
Those in favor of gun rights first point to the constitution when defending the right to own a gun. But what if the Founding Fathers hadn’t mentioned guns at all in the Constitution? What if there was no Second Amendment? Things would probably be far different today. Winner (1986) generalized such a scenario when he wrote, “although one can recognize a particular result produced in a particular setting, one can also easily imagine how a roughly similar device or system might have been built or situated with very much different political consequences.” Using his logic, Americans likely wouldn’t have as many guns as people if the Constitution hadn’t expressly mentioned the right to own a gun. If guns had been regulated by the government since the beginning, a gun culture and industry in our country may not have ever been created.
But that is just dealing in hypotheticals. The gun culture in America is tremendously active and controversial, and self-reinforcing. In other words, individuals who own guns tend to favor gun rights and those who do not own guns tend to support some sort of gun control. Gun owners and non-gun owners alike do support background checks and preventing mentally ill people from purchasing guns, which have broad support among the general public.
Since guns are legal and constitutional, a different Winner quote applies to the gun debate: “Inherently political technologies are man-made systems that appear to be strongly compatible with particular kinds of political relationships.” The gun culture is a man-made system that exists because guns are legal. Guns are a political technology compatible with the political relationship of the second amendment to the Constitution.
Guns are engrained in American culture and will continue to be controversial and political. The controversy surrounding guns and their proper place in society (if any) is a clear example of the politics surrounding technologies.
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