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Do Artifacts Have Politics?

Do Artifacts Have Politics?
Author(s): Langdon Winner
Vol. 109, No. 1, Modern Technology: Problem or Opportunity? (Winter,
1980), pp. 121-136
Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences
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Do Artifacts Have Politics?
In controversies about technology and society, there is no idea more pro
vocative than the notion that technical things have political qualities. At issue is
the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture
can be accurately judged not only for their contributions of efficiency and pro
ductivity, not merely for their positive and negative environmental side effects,
but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and
authority. Since ideas of this kind have a persistent and troubling presence in
discussions about the meaning of technology, they deserve explicit attention.1
Writing in Technology and Culture almost two decades ago, Lewis Mumford
gave classic statement to one version of the theme, arguing that "from late neo
lithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have
recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the
first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other
man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable."2 This thesis
stands at the heart of Mumford's studies of the city, architecture, and the his
tory of technics, and mirrors concerns voiced earlier in the works of Peter
Kropotkin, William Morris, and other nineteenth century critics of industrial
ism. More recently, antinuclear and prosolar energy movements in Europe and
America have adopted a similar notion as a centerpiece in their arguments.
Thus environmentalist Denis Hayes concludes, "The increased deployment of
nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism. Indeed, safe
reliance upon nuclear power as the principal source of energy may be possible
only in a totalitarian state." Echoing the views of many proponents of appropri
ate technology and the soft energy path, Hayes contends that "dispersed solar
sources are more compatible than centralized technologies with social equity,
freedom and cultural pluralism."3
An eagerness to interpret technical artifacts in political language is by no
means the exclusive property of critics of large-scale high-technology systems.
A long lineage of boosters have insisted that the "biggest and best" that science
and industry made available were the best guarantees of democracy, freedom,
and social justice. The factory system, automobile, telephone, radio, television,
the space program, and of course nuclear power itself have all at one time or
another been described as democratizing, liberating forces. David Lilienthal, in
T.V.A.: Democracy on the
March, for example, found this promise in the phos
phate fertilizers and electricity that technical progress was bringing to rural
Americans during the 1940s.4 In a recent essay, The Republic of Technology,
Daniel Boorstin extolled television for "its power to disband armies, to cashier
presidents, to create a whole new democratic world?democratic in ways never
before imagined, even in America."5 Scarcely a new invention comes along that
someone does not proclaim it the salvation of a free society.
It is no surprise to learn that technical systems of various kinds are deeply
interwoven in the conditions of modern politics. The physical arrangements of
industrial production, warfare, communications, and the like have fundamen
tally changed the exercise of power and the experience of citizenship. But to go
beyond this obvious fact and to argue that certain technologies in themselves have
political properties seems, at first glance, completely mistaken. We all know
that people have politics, not things. To discover either virtues or evils in aggre
gates of steel, plastic, transistors, integrated circuits, and chemicals seems
just plain wrong, a way of mystifying human artifice and of avoiding the true
sources, the human sources of freedom and oppression, justice and injustice.
Blaming the hardware appears even more foolish than blaming the victims when
it comes to judging conditions of public life.
Hence, the stern advice commonly given those who flirt with the notion that
technical artifacts have political qualities: What matters is not technology itself,
but the social or economic system in which it is embedded. This maxim, which
in a number of variations is the central premise of a theory that can be called
the social determination of technology, has an obvious wisdom. It serves as a
needed corrective to those who focus uncritically on such things as "the comput
er and its social impacts" but who fail to look behind technical things to notice
the social circumstances of their development, deployment, and use. This view
provides an antidote to naive technological determinism?the idea that tech
nology develops as the sole result of an internal dynamic, and then, unmediated
by any other influence, molds society to fit its patterns. Those who have not
recognized the ways in which technologies are shaped by social and economic
forces have not gotten very far.
But the corrective has its own shortcomings; taken literally, it suggests that
technical things do not matter at all. Once one has done the detective work
necessary to reveal the social origins?power holders behind a particular in
stance of technological change?one will have explained everything of impor
tance. This conclusion offers comfort to social scientists: it validates what they
had always suspected, namely, that there is nothing distinctive about the study
of technology in the first place. Hence, they can return to their standard models
of social power?those of interest group politics, bureaucratic politics, Marxist
models of class struggle, and the like?and have everything they need. The
social determination of technology is, in this view, essentially no different from
the social determination of, say, welfare policy or taxation.
There are, however, good reasons technology has of late taken on a special
fascination in its own right for historians, philosophers, and political scien
tists; good reasons the standard models of social science only go so far in ac
counting for what is most interesting and troublesome about the subject. In
another place I have tried to show why so much of modern social and political
thought contains recurring statements of what can be called a theory of tech
nological politics, an odd mongrel of notions often crossbred with orthodox
liberal, conservative, and socialist philosophies.6 The theory of technological
politics draws attention to the momentum of large-scale sociotechnical systems,
to the response of modern societies to certain technological imperatives, and to
the all too common signs of the adaptation of human ends to technical means. In
so doing it offers a novel framework of interpretation and explanation for some
of the more puzzling patterns that have taken shape in and around the growth of
modern material culture. One strength of this point of view is that it takes
technical artifacts seriously. Rather than insist that we immediately reduce
everything to the interplay of social forces, it suggests that we pay attention to
the characteristics of technical objects and the meaning of those characteristics.
A necessary complement to, rather than a replacement for, theories of the social
determination of technology, this perspective identifies certain technologies as
political phenomena in their own right. It points us back, to borrow Edmund
Husserl's philosophical injunction, to the things themselves.
In what follows I shall offer outlines and illustrations of two ways in which
artifacts can contain political properties. First are instances in which the inven
tion, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a
way of settling an issue in a particular community. Seen in the proper light,
examples of this kind are fairly straightforward and easily understood. Second
are cases of what can be called inherently political technologies, man-made sys
tems that appear to require, or to be strongly compatible with, particular kinds
of political relationships. Arguments about cases of this kind are much more
troublesome and closer to the heart of the matter. By "politics," I
mean arrange
ments of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that
take place within those arrangements. For my purposes, "technology" here is
understood to mean all of modern practical artifice,7 but to avoid confusion I
prefer to speak of technology, smaller or larger pieces or systems of hardware
of a specific kind. My intention is not to settle any of the issues here once and for
all, but to indicate their general dimensions and significance.
Technical Arrangements as Forms of Order
Anyone who has traveled the highways of America and has become used to
the normal height of overpasses may well find something a little odd about some
of the bridges over the parkways on Long Island, New York. Many of the
overpasses are extraordinarily low, having as little as nine feet of clearance at the
curb. Even those who happened to notice this structural peculiarity would not
be inclined to attach any special meaning to it. In our accustomed way of look
ing at things like roads and bridges we see the details of form as innocuous, and
seldom give them a second thought.
It turns out, however, that the two hundred or so low-hanging overpasses
on Long Island were deliberately designed to achieve a particular social effect.
Robert Moses, the master builder of roads, parks, bridges, and other public
works from the 1920s to the 1970s in
New York, had these overpasses built to
specifications that would discourage the presence of buses on his parkways.
According to evidence provided by Robert A. Caro in his biography of Moses,
the reasons reflect Moses's social-class bias and racial prejudice. Automobile
owning whites of "upper" and "comfortable middle" classes, as he called them,
would be free to use the parkways for recreation and commuting. Poor people
and blacks, who normally used public transit, were kept off the roads because
the twelve-foot tall buses could not get through the overpasses. One con
sequence was to limit access of racial minorities and low-income groups to Jones
Beach, Moses's widely acclaimed public park. Moses made doubly sure of this
result by vetoing a proposed extension of the Long Island Railroad to Jones
As a story in recent American political history, Robert Moses's life is fasci
nating. His dealings with mayors, governors, and presidents, and his careful
manipulation of legislatures, banks, labor unions, the press, and public opinion
are all matters that political scientists could study for years. But the most impor
tant and enduring results of his work are his technologies, the vast engineering
projects that give New York much of its present form. For generations after
Moses has gone and the alliances he forged have fallen apart, his public works,
especially the highways and bridges he built to favor the use of the automobile
over the development of mass transit, will continue to shape that city. Many of
his monumental structures of concrete and steel embody a systematic social
inequality, a way of engineering relationships among people that, after a time,
becomes just another part of the landscape. As planner Lee Koppleman told
Caro about the low bridges on Wantagh Parkway, "The old son-of-a-gun had
made sure that buses would never be able to use his goddamned parkways."9
Histories of architecture, city planning, and public works contain many ex
amples of physical arrangements that contain explicit or implicit political pur
poses. One can point to Baron Haussmann's broad Parisian thoroughfares,
engineered at Louis Napoleon's direction to prevent any recurrence of street
fighting of the kind that took place during the revolution of 1848. Or one can
visit any number of grotesque concrete buildings and huge plazas constructed
on American university campuses during the late 1960s and early 1970s to de
fuse student demonstrations. Studies of industrial machines and instruments
also turn up interesting political stories, including some that violate our normal
expectations about why technological innovations are made in the first place. If
we suppose that new technologies are introduced to achieve increased efficien
cy, the history of technology shows that we will sometimes be disappointed.
Technological change expresses a panoply of human motives, not the least of
which is the desire of some to have dominion over others, even though it may
require an occasional sacrifice of cost-cutting and some violence to the norm of
getting more from less.
One poignant illustration can be found in the history of nineteenth century
industrial mechanization. At Cyrus McCormick's reaper manufacturing plant in
Chicago in the middle 1880s, pneumatic molding machines, a new and largely
untested innovation, were added to the foundry at an estimated cost of
$500,000. In the standard economic interpretation of such things, we would
expect that this step was taken to modernize the plant and achieve the kind of
efficiencies that mechanization brings. But historian Robert Ozanne has shown
why the development must be seen in a broader context. At the time, Cyrus
McCormick II was engaged in a battle with the National Union of Iron Mold
ers. He saw the addition of the new machines as a way to "weed out the bad
element among the men," namely, the skilled workers who had organized the
union local in Chicago.10 The new machines, manned by unskilled labor, ac
tually produced inferior castings at a higher cost than the earlier process. After
three years of use the machines were, in fact, abandoned, but by that time they
had served their purpose?the destruction of the union. Thus, the story of these
technical developments at the McCormick factory cannot be understood ade
quately outside the record of workers' attempts to organize, police repression of
the labor movement in Chicago during that period, and the events surrounding
the bombing at Hay market Square. Technological history and American politi
cal history were at that moment deeply intertwined.
In cases like those of Moses's low bridges and McCormick's molding ma
chines, one sees the importance of technical arrangements that precede the use of
the things in question. It is obvious that technologies can be used in ways that
enhance the power, authority, and privilege of some over others, for example,
the use of television to sell a candidate. To our accustomed way of thinking,
technologies are seen as neutral tools that can be used well or poorly, for good,
evil, or something in between. But we usually do not stop to inquire whether a
given device might have been designed and built in such a
way that it produces a
set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses.
Robert Moses's bridges, after all, were used to carry automobiles from one point
to another; McCormick's machines were used to
make metal castings; both tech
nologies, however, encompassed purposes far beyond their immediate use. If
our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only cate
gories having to do with tools and uses, if it does not include attention to the
meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be
blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial.
Because the point is most easily understood in the light of particular in
tentions embodied in physical form, I have so far offered illustrations that seem
almost conspiratorial. But to recognize the political dimensions in the shapes of
technology does not require that we look for conscious conspiracies or malicious
intentions. The organized movement of handicapped people in the United
States during the 1970s pointed out the countless ways in which machines,
instruments, and structures of common use?buses, buildings, sidewalks,
plumbing fixtures, and so forth?made it impossible for many handicapped per
sons to move about freely, a condition that systematically excluded them from
public life. It is safe to say that designs unsuited for the handicapped arose more
from long-standing neglect than from anyone's active intention. But now that
the issue has been raised for public attention, it is evident that justice requires a
remedy. A whole range of artifacts are now being redesigned and rebuilt to
accommodate this minority.
Indeed, many of the most important examples of technologies that have
political consequences are those that transcend the simple categories of "in
tended" and "unintended" altogether. These are instances in which the very
process of technical development is so thoroughly biased in a particular direc
tion that it regularly produces results counted as wonderful breakthroughs by
some social interests and crushing setbacks by others. In such cases it is neither
correct nor insightful to say, "Someone intended to do somebody else harm."
Rather, one must say that the technological deck has been stacked long in ad
vanee to favor certain social interests, and that some people were bound to
receive a better hand than others.
The mechanical tomato harvester, a remarkable device perfected by re
searchers at the University of California from the late 1940s to the present,
offers an illustrative tale. The machine is able to harvest tomatoes in a single
pass through a row, cutting the plants from the ground, shaking the fruit loose,
and in the newest models sorting the tomatoes electronically into large plastic
gondolas that hold up to twenty-five tons of produce headed for canning. To
accommodate the rough motion of these "factories in the field," agricultural
researchers have bred new varieties of tomatoes that are hardier, sturdier, and
less tasty. The harvesters replace the system of handpicking, in which crews of
farmworkers would pass through the fields three or four times putting ripe to
matoes in lug boxes and saving immature fruit for later harvest.11 Studies in
California indicate that the machine reduces costs by approximately five to sev
en dollars per ton as compared to hand-harvesting.12 But the benefits are by no
means equally divided in the agricultural economy. In fact, the machine in the
garden has in this instance been the occasion for a thorough reshaping of social
relationships of tomato production in rural California.
By their very size and cost, more than $50,000 each to purchase, the ma
chines are compatible only with a highly concentrated form of tomato growing.
With the introduction of this new method of harvesting, the number of tomato
growers declined from approximately four thousand in the early 1960s to about
six hundred in 1973, yet with a substantial increase in tons of tomatoes pro
duced. By the late 1970s an estimated thirty-two thousand jobs in the tomato
industry had been eliminated as a direct consequence of mechanization.13 Thus,
a jump in productivity to the benefit of very large growers has occurred at a
sacrifice to other rural agricultural communities.
The University of California's research and development on agricultural ma
chines like the tomato harvester is at this time the subject of a law suit filed by
attorneys for California Rural Legal Assistance, an organization representing
a group of farmworkers and other interested parties. The suit charges that
University officials are spending tax monies on projects that benefit a hand
ful of private interests to the detriment of farmworkers, small farmers, con
sumers, and rural California generally, and asks for a court injunction to stop the
practice. The University has denied these charges, arguing that to accept
them "would require elimination of all research with any potential practical
As far as I know, no one has argued that the development of the tomato
harvester was the result of a plot. Two students of the controversy, William
Friedland and Amy Barton, specifically exonerate both the original developers
of the machine and the hard tomato from any desire to facilitate economic con
centration in that industry.15 What we see here instead is an ongoing social
process in which scientific knowledge, technological invention, and corporate
profit reinforce each other in deeply entrenched patterns that bear the unmistak
able stamp of political and economic power. Over many decades agricultural
research and development in American land-grant colleges and universities has
tended to favor the interests of large agribusiness concerns.16 It is in the face of
such subtly ingrained patterns that opponents of innovations like the tomato
harvester are made to seem "antitechnology" or "antiprogress." For the harves
ter is not merely the symbol of a social order that rewards some while punishing
others; it is in a true sense an embodiment of that order.
Within a given category of technological change there are, roughly speaking,
two kinds of choices that can affect the relative distribution of power, authority,
and privilege in a community. Often the crucial decision is a simple "yes or no"
choice?are we going to develop and adopt the thing or not? In recent years
many local, national, and international disputes about technology have centered
on "yes or no" judgments about such things as food additives, pesticides, the
building of highways, nuclear reactors, and dam projects. The fundamental
choice about an ABM or an SST is whether or not the thing is going to join
society as a piece of its operating equipment. Reasons for and against are fre
quently as important as those concerning the adoption of an important new law.
A second range of choices, equally critical in
many instances, has to do with
specific features in the design or arrangement of a technical system after the
decision to go ahead with it has already been made. Even after a utility company
wins permission to build a large electric power line, important controversies can
remain with respect to the placement of its route and the design of its towers;
even after an organization has decided to institute a system of computers, con
troversies can still arise with regard to the kinds of components, programs,
modes of access, and other specific features the system will include. Once the
mechanical tomato harvester had been developed in its basic form, design altera
tion of critical social significance?the addition of electronic sorters, for ex
ample?changed the character of the machine's effects on the balance of wealth
and power in California agriculture. Some of the most interesting research on
technology and politics at present focuses on the attempt to demonstrate in a
detailed, concrete fashion how seemingly innocuous design features in mass
transit systems, water projects, industrial machinery, and other technologies
actually mask social choices of profound significance. Historian David Noble is
now studying two kinds of automated machine tool systems that have different
implications for the relative power of management and labor in the industries
that might employ them. He is able to show that, although the basic electronic
and mechanical components of the record/playback and numerical control sys
tems are similar, the choice of one design over another has crucial consequences
for social struggles on the shop floor. To see the matter solely in terms of cost
cutting, efficiency, or the modernization of equipment is to miss a decisive
element in the story.17
From such examples I would offer the following general conclusions. The
things we call "technologies" are ways of building order in our world. Many
technical devices and systems important in everyday life contain possibilities for
many different ways of ordering human activity. Consciously or not, deliber
ately or inadvertently, societies choose structures for technologies that influence
how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, and so forth over
a very long time. In the processes by which structuring decisions are made,
different people are differently situated and possess unequal degrees of power as
well as unequal levels of awareness. By far the greatest latitude of choice exists
the very first time a particular instrument, system, or technique is introduced.
Because choices tend to become strongly fixed in
material equipment, economic
investment, and social habit, the original flexibility vanishes for all practical
purposes once the initial commitments are made. In that sense technological
innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a
framework for public order that will endure over many generations. For that
reason, the same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles, and rela
tionships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of high
ways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seemingly
insignificant features on new machines. The issues that divide or unite people in
society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper,
but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete,
wires and transistors, nuts and bolts.
Inherently Political Technologies
None of the arguments and examples considered thus far address a stronger,
more troubling claim often made in writings about technology and society?the
belief that some technologies are by their very nature political in a specific way.
According to this view, the adoption of a given technical system unavoidably
brings with it conditions for human relationships that have a distinctive political
cast?for example, centralized or decentralized, egalitarian or inegalitarian, re
pressive or liberating. This is ultimately what is at stake in assertions like those
of Lewis Mumford that two traditions of technology, one authoritarian, the
other democratic, exist side by side in Western history. In all the cases I cited
above the technologies are relatively flexible in design and arrangement, and
variable in their effects. Although one can recognize a particular result produced
in a particular setting, one can also easily imagine how a roughly similar device
or system might have been built or situated with very much different political
consequences. The idea we must now examine and evaluate is that certain kinds
of technology do not allow such flexibility, and that to choose them is to choose
a particular form of political life.
A remarkably forceful statement of one version of this argument appears in
Friedrich Engels's little essay "On Authority" written in 1872. Answering anar
chists who believed that authority is an evil that ought to be abolished altogeth
er, Engels launches into a panegyric for authoritarianism, maintaining, among
other things, that strong authority is a necessary condition in
modern industry.
To advance his case in the strongest possible way, he asks his readers to imagine
that the revolution has already occurred. "Supposing a social revolution de
throned the capitalists, who now exercise their authority over the production
and circulation of wealth. Supposing, to adopt entirely the point of view of the
anti-authoritarians, that the land and the instruments of labour had become the
collective property of the workers who use them. Will authority have dis
appeared or will it have only changed its form?"18
His answer draws upon lessons from three sociotechnical systems of his day,
cotton-spinning mills, railways, and ships at sea. He observes that, on its way to
becoming finished thread, cotton moves through a number of different opera
tions at different locations in the factory. The workers perform a
wide variety of
tasks, from running the steam engine to carrying the products from one room to
another. Because these tasks must be coordinated, and because the timing of the
work is "fixed by the authority of the steam," laborers must learn to accept a
rigid discipline. They must, according to Engels, work at regular hours and
agree to subordinate their individual wills to the persons in charge of factory
operations. If they fail to do so, they risk the horrifying possibility that produc
tion will come to a grinding halt. Engels pulls no punches. "The automatic
machinery of a big factory," he writes, "is much more despotic than the small
capitalists who employ workers ever have been."19
Similar lessons are adduced in Engels's analysis of the necessary operating
conditions for railways and ships at sea. Both require the subordination of
workers to an "imperious authority" that sees to it that things run according to
plan. Engels finds that, far from being an idiosyncracy of capitalist social organ
ization, relationships of authority and subordination arise "independently of all
social organization, [and] are imposed upon us together with the material condi
tions under which we produce and make products circulate." Again, he intends
this to be stern advice to the anarchists who, according to Engels, thought it
possible simply to eradicate subordination and superordination at a single
stroke. All such schemes are nonsense. The roots of unavoidable author
itarianism are, he argues, deeply implanted in the human involvement with
science and technology. "If man, by dint of his knowledge and inventive genius,
has subdued the forces of nature, the latter avenge themselves upon him by
subjecting him, insofar as he employs them, to a veritable despotism independ
ent of all social organization."20
Attempts to justify strong authority on the basis of supposedly necessary
conditions of technical practice have an ancient history. A pivotal theme in the
Republic is Plato's quest to borrow the authority of techn? and employ it by analo
gy to buttress his argument in favor of authority in the state. Among the illus
trations he chooses, like Engels, is that of a ship on the high seas. Because large
sailing vessels by their very nature need to be steered with a firm hand, sailors
must yield to their captain's commands; no reasonable person believes that ships
can be run democratically. Plato goes on to suggest that governing a state is
rather like being captain of a ship or like practicing medicine as a physician.
Much the same conditions that require central rule and decisive action in orga
nized technical activity also create this need in government.
In Engels's argument, and arguments like it, the justification for authority is
no longer made by Plato's classic analogy, but rather directly with reference to
technology itself. If the basic case is as compelling as Engels believed it to be,
one would expect that, as a society adopted increasingly complicated technical
systems as its material basis, the prospects for authoritarian ways of life would
be greatly enhanced. Central control by knowledgeable people acting at the top
of a rigid social hierarchy would seem increasingly prudent. In this respect, his
stand in "On Authority" appears to be at variance with Karl Marx's position in
Volume One of Capital. Marx tries to show that increasing mechanization will
render obsolete the hierarchical division of labor and the relationships of subor
dination that, in his view, were necessary during the early stages of modern
manufacturing. The "Modern Industry," he writes, "... sweeps away by
technical means the manufacturing division of labor, under which each man is
bound hand and foot for life to a single detail operation. At the same time, the
capitalistic form of that industry reproduces this same division of labour in a
still more monstrous shape; in the factory proper, by converting the workman
into a living appendage of the machine. . . ."21 In Marx's view, the conditions
that will eventually dissolve the capitalist division of labor and facilitate prole
tarian revolution are conditions latent in industrial technology itself. The dif
ferences between Marx's position in Capital and Engels's in his essay raise an
important question for socialism: What, after all, does modern technology make
possible or necessary in political life? The theoretical tension we see here mir
rors many troubles in the practice of freedom and authority that have muddied
the tracks of socialist revolution.
Arguments to the effect that technologies are in some sense inherently politi
cal have been advanced in a wide variety of contexts, far too many to summarize
here. In my reading of such notions, however, there are two basic ways of
stating the case. One version claims that the adoption of a given technical sys
tem actually requires the creation and maintenance of a particular set of social
conditions as the operating environment of that system. Engels's position is of
this kind. A similar view is offered by a contemporary writer who holds that "if
you accept nuclear power plants, you also accept a techno-scientific-industrial
military elite. Without these people in charge, you could not have nuclear
power."29 In this conception, some kinds of technology require their social en
vironments to be structured in a particular way in much the same sense that
an automobile requires wheels in order to run. The thing could not exist as an
effective operating entity unless certain social as well as material conditions
were met. The meaning of "required" here is that of practical (rather than logi
cal) necessity. Thus, Plato thought it a practical necessity that a ship at sea have
one captain and an unquestioningly obedient crew.
A second, somewhat weaker, version of the argument holds that a given
kind of technology is strongly compatible with, but does not strictly require,
social and political relationships of a particular stripe. Many advocates of solar
energy now hold that technologies of that variety are more compatible with a
democratic, egalitarian society than energy systems based on coal, oil, and nu
clear power; at the same time they do not maintain that anything about solar
energy requires democracy. Their case is, briefly, that solar energy is decentral
izing in both a technical and political sense: technically speaking, it is vastly
more reasonable to build solar systems in a disaggregated, widely distributed
manner than in large-scale centralized plants; politically speaking, solar energy
accommodates the attempts of individuals and local communities to manage
their affairs effectively because they are dealing with systems that are more
accessible, comprehensible, and controllable than huge centralized sources. In
this view, solar energy is desirable not only for its economic and environmental
benefits, but also for the salutary institutions it is likely to permit in other areas
of public life.23
Within both versions of the argument there is a further distinction to be
made between conditions that are internal to the workings of a given technical
system and those that are external to it. Engels's thesis concerns internal social
relations said to be required within cotton factories and railways, for example;
what such relationships mean for the condition of society at large is for him a
separate question. In contrast, the solar advocate's belief that solar technologies
are compatible with democracy pertains to the way they complement aspects of
society removed from the organization of those technologies as such.
There are, then, several different directions that arguments of this kind can
follow. Are the social conditions predicated said to be required by, or strongly
compatible with, the workings of a given technical system? Are those conditions
internal to that system or external to it (or both)? Although writings that address
such questions are often unclear about what is being asserted, arguments in this
general category do have an important presence in modern political discourse.
They enter into many attempts to explain how changes in social life take place
in the wake of technological innovation. More importantly, they are often used
to buttress attempts to justify or criticize proposed courses of action involving
new technology. By offering distinctly political reasons for or against the adop
tion of a particular technology, arguments of this kind stand apart from more
commonly employed, more easily quantifiable claims about economic costs and
benefits, environmental impacts, and possible risks to public health and safety
that technical systems may involve. The issue here does not concern how many
jobs will be created, how much income generated, how many pollutants added,
or how many cancers produced. Rather, the issue has to do with ways in which
choices about technology have important consequences for the form and quality
of human associations.
If we examine social patterns that comprise the environments of technical
systems, we find certain devices and systems almost invariably linked to specific
ways of organizing power and authority. The important question is: Does this
state of affairs derive from an unavoidable social response to intractable proper
ties in the things themselves, or is it instead a pattern imposed independently by
a governing body, ruling class, or some other social or cultural institution to
further its own purposes?
Taking the most obvious example, the atom bomb is an inherently political
artifact. As long as it exists at all, its lethal properties demand that it be con
trolled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all
influences that might make its workings unpredictable. The internal social sys
tem of the bomb must be authoritarian; there is no other way. The state of
affairs stands as a practical necessity independent of any larger political system
which the bomb is embedded, independent of the kind of regime or character
of its rulers. Indeed, democratic states must try to find ways to ensure that the
social structures and mentality that characterize the management of nuclear
weapons do not "spin off' or "spill over" into the polity as a whole.
The bomb is, of course, a special case. The reasons very rigid relationships
of authority are necessary in its immediate presence should be clear to anyone.
If, however, we look for other instances in which particular varieties of tech
nology are widely perceived to need the maintenance of a special pattern of power
and authority, modern technical history contains a wealth of examples.
Alfred D. Chandler in The Visible Hand, a monumental study of modern
business enterprise, presents impressive documentation to defend the hypothe
sis that the construction and day-to-day operation of many systems of produc
tion, transportation, and communication in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries require the development of a particular social form?a large-scale cen
tralized, hierarchical organization administered by highly skilled managers.
Typical of Chandler's reasoning is his analysis of the growth of the railroads.
Technology made possible fast, all-weather transportation; but safe, regular, re
liable movement of goods and passengers, as well as the continuing maintenance
and repair of locomotives, rolling stock, and track, roadbed, stations, round
houses, and other equipment, required the creation of a sizable administrative
organization. It meant the employment of a set of managers to supervise these
functional activities over an extensive geographical area; and the appointment of an
administrative command of middle and top executives to monitor, evaluate, and
coordinate the work of managers responsible for the day-to-day operations.
Throughout his book Chandler points to ways in which technologies used in the
production and distribution of electricity, chemicals, and a wide range of indus
trial goods "demanded" or "required" this form of human association. "Hence,
the operational requirements of railroads demanded the creation of the first
administrative hierarchies in American business."25
Were there other conceivable ways of organizing these aggregates of people
and apparatus? Chandler shows that a previously dominant social form, the
small traditional family firm, simply could not handle the task in most cases.
Although he does not speculate further, it is clear that he believes there is, to be
realistic, very little latitude in the forms of power and authority appropriate
within modern sociotechnical systems. The properties of many modern tech
nologies?oil pipelines and refineries, for example?are such that over
whelmingly impressive economies of scale and speed are possible. If such
systems are to work effectively, efficiently, quickly, and safely, certain require
ments of internal social organization have to be fulfilled; the material possi
bilities that modern technologies make available could not be exploited
otherwise. Chandler acknowledges that as one compares sociotechnical institu
tions of different nations, one sees "ways in which cultural attitudes, values,
ideologies, political systems, and social structure affect these imperatives."26
But the weight of argument and empirical evidence in The Visible Hand suggests
that any significant departure from the basic pattern would be, at best, highly
It may be that other conceivable arrangements of power and authority, for
example, those of decentralized, democratic worker self-management, could
prove capable of administering factories, refineries, communications systems,
and railroads as well as or better than the organizations Chandler describes.
Evidence from automobile assembly teams in Sweden and worker-managed
plants in Yugoslavia and other countries is often presented to salvage these pos
sibilities. I shall not be able to settle controversies over this matter here, but
merely point to what I consider to be their bone of contention. The available
evidence tends to show that many large, sophisticated technological systems are
in fact highly compatible with centralized, hierarchical managerial control. The
interesting question, however, has to do with whether or not this pattern is in
any sense a requirement of such systems, a question that is not solely an empiri
cal one. The matter ultimately rests on our judgments about what steps, if any,
are practically necessary in the workings of particular kinds of technology and
what, if anything, such measures require of the structure of human associations.
Was Plato right in saying that a ship at sea needs steering by a decisive hand and
that this could only be accomplished by a single captain and an obedient crew?
Is Chandler correct in saying that the properties of large-scale systems require
centralized, hierarchical managerial control?
To answer such questions, we w7ould have to examine in some detail the
moral claims of practical necessity (including those advocated in the doctrines of
economics) and weigh them against moral claims of other sorts, for example, the
notion that it is good for sailors to participate in the command of a ship or that
workers have a right to be involved in
making and administering decisions in a
factory. It is characteristic of societies based on large, complex technological
systems, however, that moral reasons other than those of practical necessity
appear increasingly obsolete, "idealistic," and irrelevant. Whatever claims one
may wish to make on behalf of liberty, justice, or equality can be immediately
neutralized when confronted with arguments to the effect: "Fine, but that's no
way to run a railroad" (or steel mill, or airline, or communications system, and
so on). Here we encounter an important quality in modern political discourse
and in the way people commonly think about what measures are justified in
response to the possibilities technologies make available. In many instances, to
say that some technologies are inherently political is to say that certain widely
accepted reasons of practical necessity?especially the need to maintain crucial
technological systems as smoothly working entities?have tended to eclipse
other sorts of moral and political reasoning.
One attempt to salvage the autonomy of politics from the bind of practical
necessity involves the notion that conditions of human association found in the
internal workings of technological systems can easily be kept separate from the
polity as a whole. Americans have long rested content in the belief that arrange
ments of power and authority inside industrial corporations, public utilities,
and the like have little bearing on public institutions, practices, and ideas at
large. That "democracy stops at the factory gates" was taken as a fact of life that
had nothing to do with the practice of political freedom. But can the internal
politics of technology and the politics of the whole community be so easily
separated? A recent study of American business leaders, contemporary ex
emplars of Chandler's "visible hand of management," found them remarkably
impatient with such democratic scruples as "one man, one vote." If democracy
doesn't work for the firm, the most critical institution in all of society, American
executives ask, how well can it be expected to work for the government of a
nation?particularly when that government attempts to interfere with the
achievements of the firm? The authors of the report observe that patterns of
authority that work effectively in the corporation become for businessmen "the
desirable model against which to compare political and economic relationships
in the rest of society."27 While such findings are far from conclusive, they do
reflect a sentiment increasingly common in the land: what dilemmas like the
energy crisis require is not a redistribution of wealth or broader public partici
pation but, rather, stronger, centralized public management?President Carter's
proposal for an Energy Mobilization Board and the like.
An especially vivid case in
which the operational requirements of a technical
system might influence the quality of public life is now at issue in debates about
the risks of nuclear power. As the supply of uranium for nuclear reactors runs
out, a proposed alternative fuel is the plutonium generated as a by-product in
reactor cores. Well-known objections to plutonium recycling focus on its unac
ceptable economic costs, its risks of environmental contamination, and its dan
gers in regard to the international proliferation of nuclear weapons. Beyond
these concerns, however, stands another less widely appreciated set of haz
ards?those that involve the sacrifice of civil liberties. The widespread use of
plutonium as a fuel increases the chance that this toxic substance might be sto
len by terrorists, organized crime, or other persons. This raises the prospect,
and not a trivial one, that extraordinary measures would have to be taken to
safeguard plutonium from theft and to recover it if ever the substance were
stolen. Workers in the nuclear industry as well as ordinary citizens outside
could well become subject to background security checks, covert surveillance,
wiretapping, informers, and even emergency measures under martial law?all
justified by the need to safeguard plutonium.
Russell W. Ayres's study of the legal ramifications of plutonium recycling
concludes: "With the passage of time and the increase in the quantity of pluto
nium in existence will come pressure to eliminate the traditional checks the
courts and legislatures place on the activities of the executive and to develop a
powerful central authority better able to enforce strict safeguards." He avers
that "once a quantity of plutonium had been stolen, the case for literally turning
the country upside down to get it back would be overwhelming."31 Ayres antic
ipates and worries about the kinds of thinking that, I have argued, characterize
inherently political technologies. It is still true that, in a world in which human
beings make and maintain artificial systems, nothing is "required" in an absolute
sense. Nevertheless, once a course of action is underway, once artifacts like
nuclear power plants have been built and put in operation, the kinds of reason
ing that justify the adaptation of social life to technical requirements pop up as
spontaneously as flowers in the spring. In Ayres's words, "Once recycling be
gins and the risks of plutonium theft become real rather than hypothetical, the
case for governmental infringement of protected rights will seem compelling."28
After a certain point, those who cannot accept the hard requirements and im
peratives will be dismissed as dreamers and fools.
* * *
The two varieties of interpretation I have outlined indicate how artifacts can
have political qualities. In the first instance we noticed ways in which specific
features in the design or arrangement of a device or system could provide a
convenient means of establishing patterns of power and authority in a given
setting. Technologies of this kind have a range of flexibility in the dimensions of
their material form. It is precisely because they are flexible that their con
sequences for society must be understood with reference to the social actors able
to influence which designs and arrangements are chosen. In the second instance
we examined ways in which the intractable properties of certain kinds of tech
nology are strongly, perhaps unavoidably, linked to particular institutionalized
patterns of power and authority. Here, the initial choice about whether or not
to adopt something is decisive in regard to its consequences. There are no alter
native physical designs or arrangements that would make a significant dif
ference; there are, furthermore, no genuine possibilities for creative intervention
by different social systems?capitalist or socialist?that could change the intrac
tability of the entity or significantly alter the quality of its political effects.
To know which variety of interpretation is applicable in a given case is often
what is at stake in disputes, some of them passionate ones, about the meaning of
technology for how we live. I have argued a "both/and" position here, for it
seems to me that both kinds of understanding are applicable in different circum
stances. Indeed, it can happen that within a particular complex of technology?
a system of communication or transportation, for example?some aspects may
be flexible in their possibilities for society, while other aspects may be (for
better or worse) completely intractable. The two varieties of interpretation I
have examined here can overlap and intersect at many points.
These are, of course, issues on which people can disagree. Thus, some
proponents of energy from renewable resources now believe they have at last
discovered a set of intrinsically democratic, egalitarian, communitarian tech
nologies. In my best estimation, however, the social consequences of build
ing renewable energy systems will surely depend on the specific configurations
of both hardware and the social institutions created to bring that energy to us. It
may be that we will find ways to turn this silk purse into a sow's ear. By com
parison, advocates of the further development of nuclear power seem to believe
that they are working on a rather flexible technology whose adverse social ef
fects can be fixed by changing the design parameters of reactors and nuclear
waste disposal systems. For reasons indicated above, I believe them to be dead
wrong in that faith. Yes, we may be able to manage some of the "risks" to public
health and safety that nuclear power brings. But as society adapts to the more
dangerous and apparently indelible features of nuclear power, what will be the
long-range toll in human freedom?
My belief that we ought to attend more closely to technical objects them
selves is not to say that we can ignore the contexts in which those objects are
situated. A ship at sea may well require, as Plato and Engels insisted, a single
captain and obedient crew. But a ship out of service, parked at the dock, needs
only a caretaker. To understand which technologies and which contexts are
important to us, and why, is an enterprise that must involve both the study of
specific technical systems and their history as well as a thorough grasp of the
concepts and controversies of political theory. In our times people are often
willing to make drastic changes in the way they live to accord with technological
innovation at the same time they would resist similar kinds of changes justified
on political grounds. If for no other reason than that, it is important for us to
achieve a clearer view of these matters than has been our habit so far.
ll would like to thank Merritt Roe Smith, Leo Marx, James Miller, David Noble, Charles
Weiner, Sherry Turkle, Loren Graham, Gail Stuart, Dick Sclove, and Stephen Graubard for their
comments and criticisms on earlier drafts of this essay. My thanks also to Doris Morrison of the
Agriculture Library of the University of California, Berkeley, for her bibliographical help.
2Lewis Mumford, "Authoritarian and Democratic Technics," Technology and Culture, 5 (1964):
1-8. 3
Denis Hayes, Rays of
Hope: The Transition to a Post-Petroleum World (New York: W. W. Norton,
1977), pp. 71, 159.
4David Lilienthal, T. V.A.: Democracy on the
March (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1944), pp.
5Daniel J. Boorstin, The Republic of Technology (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 7.
6Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought
(Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1977).
7The meaning of "technology" I employ in this essay does not encompass some of the broader
definitions ofthat concept found in contemporary literature, for example, the notion of "technique"
in the writings of Jacques Ellul. My purposes here are more limited. For a discussion of the diffi
culties that arise in attempts to define "technology," see Ref. 6, pp. 8-12.
8Robert A. Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Random
House, 1974), pp. 318, 481, 514, 546, 951-958.
9Ibid., p. 952.
10Robert Ozanne, A Century of Labor-Management Relations at
McCormick and International Harvest
er (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 20.
The early history of the tomato harvester is told in Wayne D. Rasmussen, "Advances in
American Agriculture: The Mechanical Tomato Harvester as a Case Study," Technology and Culture,
9(1968): 531-543.
12Andrew Schmitz and David Seckler, "Mechanized Agriculture and Social Welfare: The Case
of the Tomato Harvester," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 52 (1970): 569-577.
13William H. Friedland and Amy Barton, "Tomato Technology," Society, 13:6 (September/Oc
tober 1976). See also William H. Friedland, Social Sleepwalkers: Scientific and Technological Research in
California Agriculture, University of California, Davis, Department of Applied Behavioral Sciences,
Research Monograph No. 13, 1974.
14University of California Clip Sheet, 54:36, May 1, 1979.
15Friedland and Barton, "Tomato Technology."
16A history and critical analysis of agricultural research in the land-grant colleges is given in
James Hightower, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times (Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1978).
17David Noble, "Social Choice in
Machine Design: The Case of Automatically Controlled Ma
chine Tools," in Case Studies in the Labor Process (New York: Monthly Review Press, forthcoming).
18Friedrich Engels, "On Authority" in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., Robert Tucker (ed.)
(New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 731.
20Ibid., pp. 732, 731.
21Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 3rd ed., Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (trans.) (New York:
The Modern Library, 1906), p. 530.
22Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: William Morrow,
1978), p. 44.
23See, for example, Robert Argue, Barbara Emanuel, and Stephen Graham, The Sun Builders: A
People's Guide to Solar, Wind and Wood Energy in Canada (Toronto: Renewable Energy in Canada,
1978). "We think decentralization is an implicit component of renewable energy; this implies the
decentralization of energy systems, communities and of power. Renewable energy doesn't require
mammoth generation sources of disruptive transmission corridors. Our cities and towns, which
have been dependent on centralized energy supplies, may be able to achieve some degree of auton
omy, thereby controlling and administering their own energy needs" (p. 16).
24Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cam
bridge, Mass.: Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 244.
26Ibid., p. 500.
27Leonard Silk and David Vogel, Ethics and Profits: The Crisis of Confidence in American Business
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 191.
28Russel W. Ayres, "Policing Plutonium: The Civil Liberties Fallout," Harvard Civil Rights-Civil
Liberties Law Review, 10 (1975):443, 413-4, 374.
This chapter is inspired by the webinar I was invited to give earlier in 2020 as part of the project Fair Data Cultures in HE. My doctoral research looks into the interplay between structure, culture and students’ agency in the context of open educational practices in HE from a critical realist perspective. Thus, this chapter is being addressed from that standpoint. That is, looking into the deeper levels of social reality where young people are embedded, in particular, students’ relationship with open and participatory tools in HE. I will explore how educators can offer pedagogical opportunities for open educational practices that enable students’ explorative and critical mindset, so that they transcend the blind acceptance of the socio-political structures within which they are embedded. In so doing, they can question apparatuses and structures that perpetuate mechanisms of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, S, The age of surveillance capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. Profile Books, 2019). Hopefully, students will be able to shape an alternative world in which they reflexively engage with alternative and more holistic digital practices.
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The launch of Postdigital Science and Education helped generate a burst of new scholarship about this emerging turn in educational research and theory. Yet, what it means to do postdigital research remains obscure to many. Ongoing debates around definitions, combined with the complexity of analysing digital activity within rich contexts that are also social, material, political, economic, and so on, make it challenging to understand what constitutes postdigital research. Meanings of the postdigital emerge from within the processes of postdigital research. Furthermore, while some individual contributions to postdigital research may be grounded in particular disciplines, we argue that postdigital research, in general, benefits from transdisciplinary knowledge. All of this points to a need for flexibility, and principled, rather than prescriptive, research and scholarship practices. It situates postdigital research in the tradition of compositional and inventive research approaches, and this paper traces that relationship.
This paper engages with history as a speculative space for the purpose of critically engaging with discourses around the politics of technology in HCI. Drawing on approaches within critical design and based on evidence from two different projects, we develop an approach, counterfactual actions , that moves beyond the creation of artifacts and towards more situated, embodied and performative engagements. In one project, Reimaging Work, we used a participatory game to engage stakeholders from social and economic justice organizations in Chicago. The other project, Future Design Studio, invited audience members at a futurist festival to create artifacts from the future and then invited improvisational actors to build worlds around them. We argue that a focus on counterfactual actions supports a more relational approach to understanding the politics of socio-technical systems and infrastructures, allowing participants to gain a meaningful understanding of the ways in which technology could be designed otherwise in line with ethics, values and social justice concerns.
Public institutions have increasingly responded to calls for more accountability by promoting ideas of data-driven governance. As this focus on using data tools to strengthen governance intensifies, it is important to examine how the tools that underlie such claims are made. In the context of US agri-environmental policy, policy leadership has spoken the language of data-driven decision-making for over thirty years, primarily in response to accountability demands. However, the reliance on metrics and calculation is most explicit in the newest initiative called the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Unlike other initiatives, the CSP used a single environmental scoring and decision-making algorithm to allocate approximately US$3.8 billion to 68,000 farmers. Applying a Social Construction of Technology approach to the development of the tool shows that different social groups – political aides, program officials, and subject-matter specialists – interpreted data-driven governance differently. Tool design emerges not despite but through the contestations over the purpose and practicality of doing data-driven governance. Social groups involved in tool development are themselves embedded in different accountability structures that shape the rationalities they marshal when negotiating practical decisions about tool design. The final tool used in the CSP was technically contested and the tool development process was poorly documented, yet it had an important legitimacy function: it deflected accountability pressures for more rationalization in public spending without causing major policy disruption. Centering analysis on the negotiations entailed in making the tools that come to underlie claims of data-driven governance can explain how and to what extent a push for more data in public policy can strengthen (and weaken) accountability relations.
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Increasing computational power and improving deep learning methods have made computer vision technologies pervasively common in urban environments. Their applications in policing, traffic management, and documenting public spaces are increasingly common (Ridgeway 2018, Coifman et al. 1998, Sun et al. 2020). Despite the often-discussed biases in the algorithms' training and unequally borne benefits (Khosla et al. 2012), almost all applications similarly reduce urban experiences to simplistic, reductive, and mechanistic measures. There is a lack of context, depth, and specificity in these practices that enables semantic knowledge or analysis within urban contexts, especially within the context of using and occupying urban space. This paper will critique existing uses of artificial intelligence and computer vision in urban practices to propose a new framework for understanding people, action, and public space. This paper revisits Geertz's (1973) use of thick descriptions in generating interpretive theories of culture and activity and uses this lens to establish a framework to approach evaluating the varied uses of computer vision technologies that weigh meaning. By discussing cases of implemented examples of urban computer vision—from LinkNYC and Numina's urban measurements to the Detroit Police's use of DataWorks Plus's facial recognition technology—it proposes a framework for evaluating the thickness of the algorithm's conclusions against the computational method's complexity required to produce that outcome. Further, we discuss how the framework's positioning may differ (and conflict) between different users of the technology, from engineer to urban planner and policymaker, to citizen. This paper also discusses how the current use and training of deep learning algorithms and how this process limits semantic learning and proposes three potential methodologies toward gaining a more contextually specific, urban-semantic, description of urban space relevant to urbanists. This paper contributes to the critical conversations regarding the proliferation of artificial intelligence by challenging the current applications of these technologies in the urban environment by highlighting their failures within this context while also proposing an evolution of these algorithms that may ultimately make them sensitive and useful within this spatial and cultural milieu.
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Following the publication of numerous ethical principles and guidelines, the concept of 'Trustworthy AI' has become widely used. However, several AI ethicists argue against using this concept, often backing their arguments with decades of conceptual analyses made by scholars who studied the concept of trust. In this paper, I describe the historical-philosophical roots of their objection and the premise that trust entails a human quality that technologies lack. Then, I review existing criticisms about ‘Trustworthy AI’ and the consequence of ignoring these criticisms: if the concept of ‘Trustworthy AI’ is kept being used, we risk attributing responsibilities to agents who cannot be held responsible, and consequently, deteriorate social structures which regard accountability and liability. Nevertheless, despite suggestions to shift the paradigm from ‘Trustworthy AI’ to ‘Reliable AI’, I argue that, realistically, this concept will be kept being used. I end by arguing that, ultimately, AI ethics is also about power, social justice, and scholarly activism. Therefore, I propose that community driven and social justice-oriented ethicists of AI and trust scholars further focus on (a) democratic aspects of trust formation; and (b) draw attention to critical social aspects highlighted by phenomena of distrust. This way, it will be possible to further reveal shifts in power relations, challenge unfair status quos, and suggest meaningful ways to keep the interests of citizens.
Dick Sclove, and Stephen Graubard for their comments and criticisms on earlier drafts of this essay. My thanks also to
  • Merritt Roe
  • Leo Smith
  • James Marx
  • David Miller
  • Charles Noble
  • Sherry Weiner
  • Loren Turkle
  • Gail Graham
  • Stuart