The impact of technology artefacts on politics must be studied

Social media platforms are engineered to maximize user engagement and data extraction, often at the cost of user privacy and societal cohesion.
Social media platforms are engineered to maximize user engagement and data extraction, often at the cost of user privacy and societal cohesion.

Summary

  • We should be vigilant because what look like mere tech tools are actually political participants.

Technological innovations are not merely about efficiency or progress but are deeply intertwined with the dynamics of power and control. Few discussions are as thought-provoking as those on the politics embedded within technological artefacts. An intricate dance is observable between tech advancements and their socio-political ramifications. Politics here does not refer to a particular political party or the political ethos of any country. It simply means arrangements of power and authority and the activities that occur within those.

First, I’ll draw upon Adrian Daub’s book, What Tech Calls Thinking, and also touch upon Langdon Winner’s seminal work, ‘Do Artifacts Have Politics?’ from the anthology Technology and Society, edited by Deborah Johnson and Jameson Wetmore, to explore the inherently political nature of technological design and innovation. This anthology has pieces that channel theories ranging from those of Schumpeter to Marx and Engels, so it offers a comprehensive view of the ramifications of technology beyond the mundane view of tech for tech’s sake alone.

Daub’s book tackles the intellectual underpinnings of Silicon Valley’s ethos. It tries to make us reconsider the assumptions and ideologies driving innovations that shape our world. He questions the narrative of innovative disruption that tech leaders champion, suggesting that such thinking often masks deeper political and economic interests. In his view, the ‘disruption’ of old businesses, the stuff of legend in global startup circles, is a sham. He claims the changes are nothing but points on a technological and social change continuum. Take the tech disruption of the cab business. Taxi drivers were individual contractors under the old paradigm; it is just that their guilds (and rules) had different power structures and contracts than what Lyft, Ola and Uber introduced. A good hard look at many start-ups’ claims of ‘disrupting’ a market would produce similar results.

Winner’s essay explains how tech artefacts are not merely tools but embodiments of specific world-views and power structures. What is critical here is his definition of politics. Integrating insights from Joseph Schumpeter, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Winner illuminates the complex relationship between tech innovation, capitalism and social change. Schumpeter’s ‘creative destruction’ concept highlights the relentless churn of capitalist innovation, where old industries and ways of life are continually dismantled to make way for the new. Marx and Engels elaborate on this theme, arguing that the capitalist mode of production fundamentally reshapes societal structures and relationships. In this view, technologies are not neutral tools but are deeply implicated in the economic and social transformation processes that underpin capitalist societies. And these wither as their tech artefacts age, only to be replaced with new technologies with their own artefacts.

Winner’s analysis goes beyond the mere functionality of artefacts to examine how they can embody specific forms of power and authority. His most enduring contribution may be his concept of “technological politics," the idea that technology can be inherently political, not just in its use but in its design and implementation. This perspective challenges the neutral view of technology as merely a tool, highlighting how design choices can encode specific values and priorities. He cites the example of Robert Moses’ low-hanging overpasses on Long Island, near New York City, designed to prevent buses (and thus poorer people) from accessing specific public beaches; as alleged, this was a case of design aimed at social segregation, since people with cars, mostly Caucasian back then, could easily reach those beaches.

Likewise, the design of social media platforms reflects and reinforces economic imperatives and power relations. These platforms are engineered to maximize user engagement and data extraction, often at the cost of user privacy and societal cohesion. The algorithmic curation of content can amplify certain voices and suppress others, shaping public discourse in ways that reflect the interests of platform owners and their commercial and political partners. The fact that politics is intricately woven into technological artefacts is particularly relevant to current debates around technology governance, data privacy and the digital divide. The march of artificial intelligence (AI), which requires separate thought, adds its own spin to these power structures.

As we grapple with new challenges and embrace opportunities presented by new technologies, we should also examine the political dimensions of technological artefacts and the interests they serve. Often, the interests start out being the company’s commercial imperatives. These are often overtaken by efforts to re-order human associations that arrange power within a country or the globe. Elon Musk’s takeover of X (formerly Twitter) is an example of one man’s politics eclipsing the profit motive.

Both Daub’s critique and Winner’s analysis offer frameworks for understanding the politics of technology artefacts. As we continue to grapple with the profound impact of technology on society, we should remain vigilant about how these artefacts can shape and be shaped by the distribution of power and authority in society. I posit that politicians and technocrats across the world understand this intuitively. One hopes they focus on the common good rather than the interests of narrow constituencies.

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