Langdon Winner’s book, The Whale and the Reactor, is meant to be a critique of modern technology and more specifically, nuclear power. Langdon Winner begins the book by describing the perspective that activists in the 1960s had of technology; they believed that all new technologies were fundamentally opposed to their values. This perspective led many activists into the non-violent anti-nuclear power movement. Winner provides examples of the types of hazards associated with nuclear power, including health risks to uranium miners, operators of the plant, and people living in its vicinity.
He also gives examples of experiments where animals have shown negative reactions to radiation exposure. Langdon Winner describes how modern technologies are fundamentally different from older ones in that they are based on large-scale economic ventures—and therefore need a lot more resources to operate at their stated capacity. The economies of scale lead companies to produce huge amounts of waste in order for them to be profitable economically. Langdon Winner states that technologies are inherently political because their production is so resource intensive.
To support his claim, he shows statistics about how many resources go into producing one gallon of gas. Langdon Winner goes on to argue that modern technologies are products of their time period and always embody the values of their time period. Langdon Winner states that technologies can be examined by looking at how they fit into power structures, whether they benefit certain groups more than others, and whether or not they are democratic entities.
Langdon Winner believes that fossil fuels are a prime example of non-democratic entities because oil companies have great political clout in our society—and it is difficult for anyone who stands against them to win elections. Langdon Winner also talks about how different technologies facilitate different types of power structures, citing examples in which nuclear plants allow the government to exercise authoritarian control over its citizens. As an alternative to traditional centralized forms of power Langdon Winner puts forward the idea of distributed energy production, which he claims would be more democratic.
To support his claim Langdon Winner states that large-scale utilities are easier to disrupt than independent solar panels because they require an entire system to be turned off in order for them to shut down—whereas if anything goes wrong with a solar panel it will function minimally enough so that other systems can keep running. Langdon Winner goes on to state that decentralized forms of energy production might actually work better than centralized ones, citing examples of how localized food systems have become more prominent in our society due to globalization.
Langdon Winner also talks about how decentralized forms of technology can minimize ecological impacts while still allowing people access to modern amenities—because he believes that modern technologies are not necessarily bad. Langdon Winner also states that decentralized systems are more likely to be small-scale, which means they are easier to control—and less likely to produce hazardous waste because each system will be too small for it to pose a hazard if something goes wrong.
Langdon Winner concludes his book by stating that the only way we can make democratic decisions about technology is by involving everyone in the process of research and development. Langdon Winner cites examples of how nuclear energy research at universities has become increasingly privatized, leading corporations with their own vested interests to have increasing influence over who gets funding for projects.
Langdon Winner then states that maybe all other forms of energy production have been just as hazardous, but because nuclear power became associated with nuclear bombs it ended up gaining a negative reputation. Langdon Winner claims that the only way we can make our technologies democratic is if everyone has input into what research gets funded and how it progresses — which would require us to give up on the idea of perfection. Langdon Winner writes about how nuclear power plants are always tied to national security.
Langdon Winner discusses how during times of war, even more resources are poured into creating weapons of mass destruction—and at this point, more money goes towards building centralized forms of energy production like nuclear reactors because they are more efficient than distributed sources like solar panels or wind turbines Langdon Winner then states that cheaper ways of producing nuclear power lead industry leaders to push for projects that will cut costs—even if they are dangerous Langdon Winner, states that nuclear power plants have a “radical monopoly” over the kinds of energy sources we have available to us, which means that even renewable forms of energy production are dependent on these centralized technologies. Langdon Winner claims that the only way to decentralize power structures is for people to push for localized forms of production.
Langdon Winner’s book, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, was written as a criticism of modern society’s addiction to technology. According to Langdon Winner, we have become so dependent on modern technology that we no longer use our own reasoning faculties; we simply follow what we are told by those who create and sell the technologies (technicians) without question. To Langdon Winner, “The whale is large and powerful, but it has limits” (Winner 348).
Whales cannot swim through solid matter; they depend on sonic guidance systems which can only function at certain speeds; they even die if kept away from water too long because their skins dry out. Humans are much more adaptable than whales, but Langdon Winner claims that we too have limits. Just as the whale’s sonic guidance systems can only work at certain speeds, modern technologies cannot operate at all if used outside of their respective ranges – and these ranges are often very narrow.
He argues that “technology has become a way of life” (Winner 348), and we do not even think about it anymore: we simply follow what technicians tell us to do. Langdon Winner points out that many modern technological devices were built to solve problems for which they now exacerbate; chemicals now pollute our air because industries originally created them as tools for fighting those same pollutants; nuclear reactors now produce enough energy to annihilate millions of lives because scientists originally built them as safe sources of energy.
Langdon Winner argues that this is because modern society subscribes to an extremely simplistic philosophy: “if it works, use it” (Winner 373). According to Langdon Winner, many of the problems we face now are not even real problems; they are just the result of faulty thinking. Langdon Winner uses numerous examples to prove his point, including one that remains highly relevant today: global warming. He writes that “the myth of unlimited resources assumed the earth was a limitless dumping ground for wastes…and any attempt to limit pollution would interfere with economic growth” (Winner 374).
What he means by this is that originally, no-one thought about pollution or how it affected our planet, but after someone did think about these things, they realized that pollution is making us sick. Langdon Winner argues that modern society should have never assumed the earth could be treated as a limitless dumping ground for wastes in the first place because it could not possibly sustain itself if everyone started to treat the land this way.
Langdon Winner concludes his book by pointing out that technology has become an addiction comparable to drugs or alcohol (“technological soma”) (Winner 368). He warns readers that “the only solution is clear thinking” (Winner 375) and calls on them to think critically about their relationship with modern technology rather than blindly following technicians’ orders.