Langdon Winner

Daedalus

Vol. 109, No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter 1980), pp. 121-136

 

Winner opens by countering the viewpoint that objects exist in a political vacuum – the idea that an object’s political significance is always shaped by the sociopolitical context in which it’s used and is never inherent to the object itself. According to Winner, political objects can exist in two states: non-political objects that are politicised through the way they are created or used and objects that are inherently political through the virtue of being created as such.

The text provides an interesting perspective on the issue but does leave a few questions hanging in the air.

For one, are objects ever not political? The argument of objects never being political because they are formed by the context in which they exist can be turned around to argue the exact opposite. What if object can’t be possibly taken to exist in a vacuum because the context in which it exists inherently shapes its meaning? A fork, for instance, might seem politically neutral at the first glance but without the context shaping it, the cultural understanding of ‘this is a utensil, you eat food with it’, it is just a meaningless chunk of metal.

I believe this issue is as much semantic as it is logical since the answer here very much depends on the definitions assigned to terms like ‘artefact’, ‘object’ and ‘politics’. The text on the whole seems to avoid definitions and never goes out of its way to clearly define the terms it works with.

Other questions were raised during the reading group meeting. For instance, what happens to the meaning of political objects after the collapse of the system they represent? Does the loss of context negate any prior meaning or do they acquire an extra level of historical significance? What about issues of feminism and the design of objects (such as consumer electronics) being influenced primarily by being marketed to men? Tobias brought up the point of phones being mostly flat so they can be easily carried around in men’s trouser pockets – and as far-fetched as this might seem at first, it gains a hint of credibility when you remember the line of lipstick-like phones that Nokia marketed to women in the early 2000’s.