It is pretty easy to mistake most technologies as politically neutral. For example, there is nothing inherently radical or conservative about a hammer. Washing machines don’t necessarily impose capitalism on whoever uses one, and televisions have nothing to do with communism. You might hear about communism through television, and there is certainly no shortage of politically motivated programming out there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that says the technology itself has a certain kind of politics. This sort of thinking (combined with other everyday non-actions) is what philosopher of technology Langdon Winner (@langdonw) calls technological somnambulism: the tendency of most people to, “willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence.” It is difficult to see the politics in technology because those politics are so pervasive. The fact that technological artifacts have politics is kind of like Call Me Maybe, once you’re exposed, it is hard to get it out of your head.
Technologies may appear to us as neutral or unbiased but those are constructed categories. In other words, neutral and unbiased are qualities of things in relation to the environment in which you find them. Being surrounded by water is totally normal for a fish, but humans might feel otherwise. Television is politically neutral to the extent that we cannot imagine life outside of certain political arrangements. If we didn’t have large state or corporate bureaucracies filled with experts that have impassioned and nuanced opinions about how the electromagnetic spectrum should be allocated, we could not have broadcast television in its current form. There was a decision, at some point in history, to allocate spectrum via human decision-making and not with an algorithm. This is a political decision. It is political because it requires large governing entities and the concomitant legitimacy and promise of sanction necessary to enforce their decisions. Television for an anarchic society has yet to be invented.
What has been invented, is a decentralized network of peer-to-peer machines that share data and information over a variety of hardware and software governed by an equally diverse amalgam of intellectual property rights and service contracts. It is called the Internet, and it is fraught with politics. The Cold War is usually associated with big, hulking organizations that rely on strategic planning and mathematical theory: Historical accounts are replete with continental super powers strutting along each others’ borders with military technologies that are, themselves, highly centralized and ordered entities. Both sides tried to out-maneuver the other by decentralizing resources and populations. In America, it meant spending lots of defense money on building the first peer-to-peer computer networks and the nation’s first interstate highways. Decentralization and redundancy is the best defense against centralized power. Again, the decision to decentralize cities and computer systems was a political (not to mention military) decision.
Perhaps the Cold War logic that birthed the Internet has such a tenuous bearing on how we currently use the Internet, that it barely warrants mentioning. The intentions of the early Internet’s designers probably do not factor into my choice of Tumblr theme, or the Instagram filter I put on a photo of my houseplants. But intentions aren’t even half the story. Technologies live and act beyond their creators’ intentions and quite often produce unintended consequences. Think about all of the decentralized, rhizomatic organizations and social movements that have been earmarked or popularly associated with the digital technologies they used so well: the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Anonymous, and the BART protests have all out-maneuvered (at least for a time) the state and corporate bureaucracies that sought to shut them down. The Internet doesn’t unilaterally impose or determine certain political organizations, but it does assist and afford their continued existence.
To sum up thus far: Technological systems and artifacts have politics, and communications technologies are particularly interesting in this regard. They can be designed to decentralize organizations and resources, or they can require the continued existence of large bureaucracies. Communications technologies are politics frozen in silicon. Not only because these systems mediate our relationships at multiple scales, but also because looking at what is not there says a lot about who is and is not allowed to politically organize. Again, this isn’t about the intentions of engineers or designers per se, rather the technologies are imperfect and incomplete physical manifestations of the current political order.
For example, consider the last time you used a public library computer terminal. It was probably uncomfortable and generally unpleasant. The greasy keyboard might have grossed you out, and there might have been a creepy dude trying to look at your screen. There are many ways computers could be designed to better serve the unique needs of libraries and their patrons, but mainly they buy the same computers that are meant for homes and offices. Now consider that, according to a study released in 2010, households below the poverty line reported using library computers more than any other socio-economic demographic. Anti-bacterial keyboards, monitors with modifiable viewing angles, and countless other non-existent inventions stand in silent testament to the more egalitarian augmented society that never was. The collective resources of government and industry have largely ignored the innovations that might make for better public computing.
Did Twitter cause the Arab Spring? A million times no. Were the two similarly structured and, perhaps, mutually shaping one-another throughout those historic few months? Yes, probably. The politics of technology are difficult to see because technologies that “work” are very compatible with the dominant political order, or a community that is large enough to provide and sustain the practical necessities for its continued existence. Technologies’ perceived “neutrality” is the up shot of this compatibility. The inherent politics of a technology are revealed by either cataloging how it “fits” within the given order, or by engaging in a thought experiment wherein one seeks out the technologies that never were. These exercises are especially important as our technology becomes more semantic and adaptive to the world around it. Little loops of recursion surround us all the time, and I want to know what exactly they’re compounding and reifying. I worry that Winner’s observations, written in the mid 80s, are more pressing today than when he wrote them: “The excruciated subtleties of measurement and modeling mask embarrassing shortcomings in human judgment. We have become careful with numbers, callous with everything else. Our methodological rigor is becoming spiritual rigor mortis.”
I know this is predictable. And this pun is lazy. But here’s my twitter. So tweet me Maybe? @da_banks