Friday, February 1, 2013

Do Computers Have Politics?

by Karen Hamilton - Tuesday, June 15, 2010, 03:43 PM

Are computers a "mechanism for centralized control and surveillance "or a "marvelous experiment in radically democratic social innovation?"

Do pencils have politics?

If you have been seduced by Langdon Winner’s argument in his 1986 article “Do Artifacts Have Politics,” then the answer to the question do pencils have politics, should be yes. A pencil or any writing instrument has the power to convey information that has political implications, and a computer too, which is more encompassing and complex could certainly be seen as a political instrument. But do they themselves have politics or is it their process that is guided by human hands? If we assume that objects have politics are we not giving them human characteristics, anthropomorphizing them?

I’ll be the first to admit that I am one of those wacky Mac lovers who have an unnatural fondness for my machines, but I’m not so sure I’ll give them full fledged humanity and assign them political values even though I’m sure mine would be lefties. In one of the college courses I teach, Psychology of Consumer Behaviour, I talk about the different versions of self identity that marketers are interested in. There is our real self, our imagined self, our looking glass self and our extended self. Marketers see us as a fragmented lot, open to persuasion if they can only know us. One place they would like their product to be is in the extended self. The extended self is made up of those things that become a part of you. They are often the objects we would run into our houses to get if there were a fire- the photos and mementos that help define who we are. I’ll admit, for me, my Macs have become a part of my extended self, and for sure I won’t be leaving the house without at least one. I’ll allow that my computer is close to my “me.” but it is not quite a person so how can it have politics?

If we allow computers to be seen as the determinants of our future we have the potential to see technology as the big bad Frankenstein-like bogeyman out to get us. In a June 6, 2010 New York Times article, “Your Brain on Computers: Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price,” author Richtel gives evidence on both sides of the argument about the effect of computers on the brain. He notes studies that show the detrimental effects of multitasking and studies that show Internet users who become more efficient at finding information and video game users who develop better visual acuity. Yet, in spite of these two sides, he tells the story of a family who is facing the effects of technology- mom is burning the cookies, dad is always on the computer and the son is getting C’s. Woe is us! In articles like these, we see the demon technology sucking the lives out of its innocent victims. The blame here is squarely on the technology, and all would be well if they just turned it off. And of course any person can turn it off or turn it down, so who exactly is to blame? -The technology or the people, or both? For me, categorizing technology or computers as semi human political beings makes them the easy scapegoat, and removes responsibility from we the people and I’m not so sure that is a good thing at all.

Both argument one where computers and the Internet are a “mechanism for centralized control and surveillance” and argument two where computers are a “marvelous experiment in radically democratic social innovation” lead to political ends, and for me both are true. Humans acknowledge the dual nature of man- good and evil; emotional and reasonable; enlightened and animalistic. So, then, it is completely consistent that we see objects in our world in the same way. A pencil can be a writing instrument or a deadly weapon. It depends on what we do with it.

In argument one we see the fight for control of the individual. For marketers the information tracked through cookies and other techniques on computers allows behavioural targeting and addressable ads where we are no longer just the mass receiver of an ad, but rather the recipient of one message specifically directed to us. Marketers know us in ways they had never before dreamed of. Massive amounts of information are being collected on social networking sites like facebook. And the so-called freemium movement where internet applications are free is no different than the “free lunch” we were warned about. We pay the cost with our information. Politicians like former presidents create laws like the Patriot Act that allow intrusions into the privacy of its citizens. Actions like this have caused institutions to require that no information be stored on American servers to protect students or staff. Countries ban parts of the internet, and some K-12 schools have restricted access. There are several big brothers watching us.

In argument two we have the democratic social innovation that allows us easy access to information and people and networks. It has allowed everyday users to not just be the recipients of information but to also be the creators of media. Media is no longer just pushed at us, but is pulled by us, and pushed back in. Everybody can contribute and create. (At least everyone with access and tools) Of course when everyone is a creator and using and reusing and reshaping the artefacts of our culture, the issue of copyright will be raised and those in positions of power will try to impose old laws on all that is new. We have seen the open source movement rise and the creation of sites like Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons for people to share creations on their own terms and for others to use those creations in a legal way. And at least one country Brazil is leading the way to allow more open use of materials. Their Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil fights against what he calls the “fundamentalists of absolute property control” who are in the way of the “digital world's promises of cultural democracy and even economic growth.” He believes that "A world opened up by communications cannot remain closed up in a feudal vision of property…No country, not the US, not Europe, can stand in the way of it. It's a global trend. It's part of the very process of civilization. It's the semantic abundance of the modern world, of the postmodern world - and there's no use resisting it." (Dibbell, 1994)

Having accepted that both arguments are true and that both of these have political consequences, can I still say that computers do not have politics?

I’ve already complained that I didn’t want to have technology framed as an evil entity that gets blamed for our failings, and said that a pencil could be a weapon it just depends how it is used. But is that all there is to it? Not really.

The things we create can have political consequences. While I was at first seduced by Winner’s story of Moses’ racist bridges, it wasn’t long before I questioned how he came upon his evidence. Before I read the next article, I was off on an internet journey where I found much that questioned his analysis. (Oh that is the democratic web!) Then I read Joerges’ Do Politics Have Artefacts where I found a more moderate view of things. After Joerges’ I read Woolgar & Coopers, “Do Artefacts have Ambivalance” and then Joerges response, “Scams Cannot Be Busted: Reply to Woolgar and Cooper.” All of these, lead me off in many directions in search of what I could believe.

So here it is: I’m not buying Moses bridges as racist or intentionally political. I’m not buying that artefacts in themselves can be political. I would allow that sometimes technology may be created for a political end; for me, political ends may more often be unintentional. Id’ think that the creators are many times self serving and their creations reflect their own needs which are not necessarily the needs of everyone else. Joerges talks about alternatives to control and contingency theory and speaks about thinking of artefacts as “expressive values” that induce nothing but indicate something and he suggests treating artefacts as boundary objects. To me this middle ground makes sense. But I also feel that the technology we choose has an effect on us. (423-424)

Neil Postman says, 'to a man with a pencil, everything looks like a list. To a man with a camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data” (Postman, 1993) To a certain extent, I agree with Postman here. We tend to see things through our own lens and our choice of media may influence the way we see things but I’m not about to go as far as to say that technology is the driver. We humans are in the driver’s seat and responsible for the political consequences of the technologies we develop.

What’s important for me in the arguments is to fight the entities who would seek to use our information and fight to ensure that what we have remains open and democratic.

The computer is neither good nor bad nor neutral; and it is certainly not the big bad bogeyman. The only bogeyman is the one we see in the mirror.


Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or media determinism, Retrieved from Prifysgol Aberystwyth University, The Media and Communications Studies Site.

Dibbel, J. (Nov, 2004). We pledge allegiance to the penguin. Wired. Retrieved from

Ensmenger, N. (July-Sept 2007). Computers as Ethical Artifacts, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing University of Pennsylvania (p 85-87). Retrieved from

Joerges, B. (June 1999). Do politics have artefacts? Social Studies of Science, London: Sage publications 411-31

Joerges, B. (1999) Scams cannot be busted: Reply to Woolgar & Cooper), Social Studies of Science, JSTOR, 29 (3) 450-457. Retrieved from

Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage

Reed, L. (Dec,1958). I, pencil: My family tree as told to Leonard E. Read. The Freeman. Reprinted 1999 -Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. Retrieved from

Richtel, M. (June 6, 2010). Your brain on computers: Hooked on gadgets and paying a mental price, New York Times. Retrieved from

Social Determinism, Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Winner, L. (1986) The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. “Do Artefacts have Politics?” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 19-39.

Woolgar, S. & Cooper, G. Bridges and other Urban Legends in S&TS
Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence: Moses' Bridges, Winner's,Social Studies of Science 1999; 29; 433. Retrieved from

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