Peter Sachs Collopy

Assignment on the Politics of a Technology

In his essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Langdon Winner examined a number of ways in which a technology might embody political intentions, have political consequences, or even require a particular social system in order to function. He mobilized a number of examples, from Robert Moses’ overpasses to ships to mechanical tomato harvesters.

Your assignment is to pick a technology that interests you, either historical or contemporary, and write an essay arguing either that it has politics in some particular way or that it does not. Your essay should present your original analysis of this technology, but also demonstrate how other accounts—whether technical, journalistic, sociological, historical, etc.—have informed your analysis. We’ll talk in class on September 16 about where you might find such sources, so please come with an idea of what technology you’d like to write about.

Writing about technology often draws on the author’s experience of the technology itself. You’re welcome (but not required) to use your personal experience as a source in your essay, and—unlike in some other genres of academic writing—you can also absolutely use the word “I” in your essays for this course.

I’ll also expect you to refer to Winner’s analysis in some way, perhaps by explaining how the technology you’re writing about fits into his categories of political technologies, or drawing an analogy between it and one of the technologies he analyzes. You might also find helpful a list of “76 Reasonable Questions to Ask About Any Technology” by the sociologist Jacques Ellul, one of the thinkers who influenced Winner. I don’t think it would be possible to address all 76 of these questions in your short essay, but you might find that two or three of them help you think about your technology.

Your essay should be five pages long, plus or minus a page. You should cite your sources, but you don’t have to use any particular citation style as long as you’re consistent throughout the paper. You’re welcome to use Wikipedia and other casual online sources as starting places to find more formal sources (journal articles, books, museum and academic websites, etc.), but please do not treat Wikipedia itself as an authority.

Finally, some notes regarding what sort of technology you might choose to write about:

A draft is due on September 23, I’ll give it back to you with comments on September 30, and the final version of the paper is due on October 7. Please let me know if you have any questions about this assignment.