Is Technology “Neutral”?

A kind of paradox is presented by modern technophiles. In the same breath they declare that technology is neutral while touting technology as the actuator of pro-democratic political change.37 In the academic community, many have argued that technology is not neutral but rather a profound “part of our very humanity.”38

In The Whale and the Reactor, Langdon Winner invites the reader to consider the political dimensions of technologies that generate electricity. A society that adopts nuclear power must also have a military-like police force to protect spent rods and by-products of atomic power from misuse. It must have extensive security to prevent a terrorist from flying a plane into the reactor or otherwise triggering a meltdown. Nuclear power distribution is centralized and owned by just a few people, so there are profound economic implications as well.

On the other hand, a society that adopted home solar power would have less of a need for a strong police force. Power generation and ownership would be decentralized and probably impossible to monitor. Simply put, nuclear energy requires a different set of political relationships, and thus Winner labeled it an inherently political technology. Winner suggests other examples of discrimination in design that “enhance the power, authority, and privilege of some over others,” including the allegation that Robert Moses built low bridge overpasses to prevent city buses (and thus the urban poor) from visiting Jones Beach.

Understood in this way, claims that “technology is neutral” may be a technique to mask the political motives of technology companies: “All too often the design of technologies simply conceals the ideologies and political agendas of their creators.”39 Evgeny Morozov thus recommends that policy “clearly scrutinize both the logic of technology and the logic of society that adopts it . . .”40

37 ERIC SCHMIDT AND JARED COHEN, THE NEW DIGITAL AGE: RESHAPING THE FUTURE OF PEOPLE, NATIONS AND BUSINESS (2013). (The authors say such things as “technology is neutral but people are not” and “Technology companies export their values along with their products, so it is absolutely vital who lays the foundation of connectivity infrastructure.”)

38 LANGDON WINNER, THE WHALE AND THE REACTOR (1986). See also Gary T. Marx, Coming to Terms and Avoiding Information Techno-Fallacies, in PRIVACY IN THE MODERN AGE: THE SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS (Marc Rotenberg & Jermaine Scott eds., 2015).

39  EVGENY MOROZOV, THE NET DELUSION (2011); Evgeny Morozov, Don’t Be Evil, THE NEW REPUBLIC (August 4, 2011).