Technology is Culture
Refactor Camp 2014
Humans ?¿ Technology
• Do humans control technology,
Or the other way around?
• Wrong Question
• Technology is [part of] culture.
• We’re prejudiced because “culture” seems to
be in a different university department.
• But culture is no more or less than what
humans do and make.
• Agency is a fiction
• Nothing controls anything
• Humans and technology are part of the same
• Humans are agents, technology is agents,
everything is agents
• Actor-Network Theory
(Bruno Latour, sociology of science)
• Science (eg) is a network of “bacillus, microscope,
laboratory, funding agency, food industry” (Latour
• Humans and non-human actors considered in a
single network (a “flat ontology”)
• New scientific humanities MOOC
Latour against everyday dichotomies
• “Truth and falsehood. Large and small. Agency
and structure. Human and non-human. Before
and after. Knowledge and power. Context and
content. Materiality and sociality. Activity and
passivity…all of these divides have been
rubbished in work undertaken in the name of
actor-network theory” (John Law 1999)
His approach is the opposite of 2x2s
• Not a new idea…
• (Langdon Winner,
• “Do Artifacts Have
Politics?” (LW, 1980)
Example: The Internet
• an open and decentralized systems
• because of conscious design decisions,
• not because of any inevitable evolution of
• There were walled-garden competitors; they
failed not because of any technological reason
• And its political structure is being
renegotiated today (net neutrality, NSA
Extreme Historical Irony
• The open Internet was the creation of a
massively centralized state bureaucracy (post
WWII defense research)
• Hated by both progressives and libertarians,
and with good reasons
• The libertarian do-what-you-please SV culture
is trying to yank us back into walled gardens
where the public sphere is privately owned.
tl;dr – Technology has Politics
• Technology doesn’t happen free of political
and social influences.
• These are huge forces, nonetheless we are
part of them and have a human obligation to
• “Obligation” in a stronger-than-moral sense –
we can’t help having and expressing opinions
about this stuff.
What do we do about that?
• We are in charge as much as anyone
• It is a professional responsibility to take into
account the social consequences of
• The more software eats the world, the more
technologists are in charge of society – we
better get good at it.
Putting the control inside was ratifying what de facto had
already happened — that you had dispensed with God.
But you had taken on a greater, and more harmful,
illusion. The illusion of control. That A could do B. But
that was false. Completely. No one can do. Things only
happen, A and B are unreal, are names for parts that
ought to be inseparable...
— Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow