I thought starting a blog was difficult. But amidst the madness of architecture school, uploading new content regularly, is even harder. And being used to the cycle of designing-critiquing-designing-critiquing, I seem to be unable to put a stop and just go ahead and publish the post. So i decided to let go a little and add my research on certain references later. 🙂 Hope you enjoy this musing based on the first chapter of ‘The Whale and the Reactor-A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology’ by Langdon Winner.

While the thoughts about how deeply the virtual world affects our lives and relationships have been on my mind for a very long time, I had not engaged with any literary text that delved into that aspect. And Winner brings home that exact point- that not much thought has yet been given to the need for philosophical inquiry on technology. A force that dictates our time and generation, we all know that technology has changed our lifestyles in more ways than the intended.

He begins the chapter with the anecdote of simulation for space travel by the astronaut John Glenn which seems to become more real than the actual experience. In the architectural realm, one can see this happen when we treat paper and drawings as the building itself. It is in fact the simulation which is devoid of the tactility of real building materials but becomes more important than the building itself.

A philosophy of technology is meant to critically look at the nature and significance of artificial aids to human activity. He refers to Karl Marx’s historical materialism which is a methodological approach to the study of human societies and their development over time through products and Martin Heidegger’s ontology. In ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ Marx explains:

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production… The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness.

Winner goes on to rightly emphasize on the compartmentalization that we do when it comes to technology. It is either “make” or “use”. The makers, innovators can be the engineers, architects etc. who are so buried in the technical aspects of their field that they are not concerned with more fundamental questions about what their field means. The people who make products or buildings are often one group of people, mutually exclusive from the ones who use it. In terms of a building, the occupants/users are not very involved in the design process as the architect feels he knows better and is least concerned with the buildings use once completed. But it is in fact approaches like participatory design, which architects like Alejandro Aravena and John Habraken showcase through their design projects. It is an approach in which the needs of the people are understood not from an ivory tower approach but by more personally involving them to help ask the right questions and identify issues which then the architects can solve through design. (Check out Environment-Behaviour Studies)

For most of us living in the information age, it is true that we are subject to ‘technological somnambulism’, as Winner calls it. The idea of progress has exercised a hold on social thought. We have faith in progress, so much so that the environmental and social ills accompanying technology rarely dent this faith. The second reason is that the human relationship to technical things is too obvious to merit serious reflection. The ‘make’ refers to how things work which is related to the inventors and ‘users’ interact with the technology for specific purposes which is not more complicated than an occasional and non problematic interaction. When instead, better visions and social thought should be the idea of progress, it is technological advances that are seen as the solution to everything. Hence we need a philosophy of technology to understand and critically examine the ramifications of technology in our lives.
The experience of modern society shows that technology are not mere aids but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning. For instance, robots in medicine redefines people’s views about health and medical care.

Widespread alterations of this kind in techniques of communication, transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and the like are largely what distinguish us from earlier periods of history. The kinds of things we see as ‘mere’ technological entities become much more interesting and problematic if we begin to observe how broadly they are involved in conditions of social and moral life.

When something becomes a habit, it becomes an unconscious process we rarely pause to reflect upon. (For example-the techniques used for drafting with a pencil post first year in B.Arch) However, the first time we encounter something, we do contemplate consciously. Technology has forced us to negotiate boundaries of contemporary modern life. (While taking printouts, how much leeway should one be given for the submission if electricity goes off?) Some moral negotiations accompanying technology have become matters of law. Intellectual property theft is a serious matter. In this way it redefines human relationships, forces us to rethink procedures and affects us in more complex ways because of it’s use.

By using the analogy of a pedestrian and a person driving an automobile, Winner highlights the collision between their worlds and makes us think about the interface between competing technologies. A pedestrian on a street has a certain freedom of movement that a person enclosed in a car does not.The car has come to symbolize power and class superiority and hence vehicular access gets priority over pedestrian access. (New flyovers keep getting built, but how easy is it to cross a road in Delhi?) For designers especially-How do we design for all? How does one handle the politics of technology?

What is needed is an interpretation of ways, both obvious and subtle, in which everyday life is transformed by the mediating role of technical devices. Individual habits, perceptions, concepts of self, ideas of space and time, social relationships, and moral and political boundaries have all been powerfully restructured in the course of modern technological development.

In the technical realm, we repeatedly enter into a series of social contracts, the terms of which are only revealed after signing. What this means is that we look at the new device as a way to serve a particular need, perform more efficiently, make a profit. And then later when it’s broader significance becomes clear we call them ‘side-effects’. What is important to understand is that the terms of the social contract can be known before the technology comes into use. At the stage of ‘making’ one can be aware of its social implications and its inert qualities/potentials to affect human life. Technological determinism, that is the basic cause of change in society and humans have no choice but to sit back and watch the processes unfold. He calls this more appropriately-technological somnambulism, because the puzzle in our times is that we stick our heads in the sand, we sleepwalk through the process of reconstructing the conditions of human existence.

Social scientists often look at technology assessment, but technology as a cause and everything that follows as an effect. A more farsighted version is that which predicts the likely changes that are to happen. With such forecasts, the society is better able to navigate it’s path. It is assumed that no tampering with the source of change is possible, and we humans will adapt to these technological systems. Another view is of technological development, recognizing that as technologies are being built and put to use, significant alterations in patterns of human activity are already taking place, hence there’s nothing secondary about this phenomenon.

The very act of using the kind of machines, techniques, and systems available to us generates patterns of activities and expectations that soon become second nature. (important for architects because spaces facilitate these new patterns of behaviour) Sometimes a technology is a new way of handling an old task (variations of old patterns), sometimes they add fundamentally new activities to the range of activities. For instance,asking a question, waiting for an answer. Observe how from a person that translated into a computer-humanising computers by having assistants such as Siri or Cortana. (The movie ‘Her’ rightly portrays the kind of deep emotional effect that humanised technology can have on us.)

The philosophies of Marx and Wittgenstein share a fruitful insight: Social activity is an ongoing process of world-making. As we ‘make things work’, what kind of a world are we making?

Pay attention to not only the physical processes and instruments, but also to the production of psychological, social and political conditions as a part of any significant technical change. Are we going to design and build circumstances that enlarge possibilities of growth in human freedom, sociability, intelligence, creativity and self-government?

With significant social and economic investments, it pays to ask in advance about the qualities of artifacts, institutions and human experiences currently on the drawing board. We must admit responsibility for what we are making. And since architects play a huge role in that making, it becomes all the more important to understand this.


Thanks for patiently reading my ramble and some wise words from famous theorists. 🙂 Please share your views!

(I intend to read the whole book soon. If you do so before me, I would love a review!)

I referred to the excerpt of:

‘The Whale and the Reactor-A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology’ by Langdon Winner

Also check out:

Langdon Winner “Do Artifacts have Politics?” http://somereading.blogspot.in/2013/01/langdon-winner-do-artifacts-have.html

An Introduction to Historical Materialism http://www.marxist.com/an-introduction-to-historical-materialism.htm

John Habraken http://www.habraken.com/index.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7Mx7A-mpRM

Martin Heidegger http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/#BeiTim