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Thursday, September 07, 2006

you say tomato/ and I say/ oppression

Langdon Winner’s essay, Do Artifacts have Politics, in 1986, makes the following thematic point about the relationship between technology and politics:

“[There are] … two ways in which artifacts can contain political properties. First are instances in which the invention, design, or arrangement of a specific technical device or system becomes a way of settling an issue in the affairs of a particular community. Seen in the proper light, examples of this kind are fairly straightforward and easily under stood. Second are cases of what can be called "inherently political technologies," man-made systems 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 the term "politics" I mean arrangements of power and authority in human associations as well as the activities that take place within those arrangements.”

Winner gives a number of examples of politically conditioned artifacts. One is the height of the overpasses over Long Island parkways, which are set at a default nine feet. Winner claims that the long bridges are in accordance with the intention of the man who devised the Parkway system in the twenties, Robert Moses. Moses did not want blacks from New York City to get out to Long Island by way of his Parkways. Since New York City blacks were, disproportionately, bus users, the discouragement of buses, which were two high for the underpasses, discouraged blacks from getting on the Parkways.

This example has spawned a little subset of pro and contra pieces. There are two points that are disputed here. One is the general political point. As Latour has pointed out, designed objects have what Donald Norman calls affordances – that is, multiple uses. Some of them are unexpected, revealing themselves over time. According to Latour, then, the prevailing intention when a design is introduced shouldn’t be analyzed as if it were equivalent to the function the design really plays:

“That designers use detours through material objects to enforce types of behaviour, everyone who has been made to slow down near a school because of the silent presence of a speed trap (also called a 'sleeping policeman') would readily agree. Yes, we are made to do things we would not have done otherwise every time we enter into contact with an artifact: when we want to boil water for our morning coffee, lock a door behind us, fasten our seat belt before our car engine starts, and so on about two hundred times a day. This doesn't mean however that only oppression and discrimination are expressed through those humble and devious techniques. We are also, thanks to them, 'allowed', 'permitted', 'enabled', 'authorised' to do things.
Thus, to say that our ordinary course of action is intermingled with artifacts does not mean that they have politics —at least, not yet. Does politics begin when the irreversible built in techniques are taken into account? Architects are well aware of the heavy weight bequeathed to them by their predecessors. My own Haussmanian building in Paris, has the perverse tendency to force the students inhabiting its coveted 'chambre de bonnes' to climb six stories through a steep and narrow staircase, while the happy owners of the flats are allowed to glide through a comfortable lift inserted inside a wide staircase. Are the students ‘discriminated’ against? Undoubtedly, but the reason is that during the Belle Epoque it was unthinkable to have the servants and valets take the same stairs as the Zolaesque bourgeois for whom those buildings had been designed. In the meantime, though, servants have disappeared, students have come in and the discriminating power of two incompatible stairs has remained: it is now, literally, cast in concrete. To undo Hausmann's political bigotry would mean destroying my house, stone by stone... Does it mean, however, that buildings in the Latin Quarter ‘have’ politics?”

Although I usually like Latour, I admit that this is an unusually sloppy response. Winner is certainly not equating politics with oppression, although that can be an aspect of politics – it is the most striking aspect, so it makes for the most striking example. And that the social scene around an artifact changes doesn’t mean that the Latin Quarter buildings don’t ‘have’ politics. To use an example Winner uses in another essay, the American constitution is an imminently designed program. Yet, over time, the program has meant different things, and been used in different ways. Does that mean that the constitution doesn’t ‘have’ politics?

A more disturbing response to Winner was given by one of Latour’s pupils, Woolgar, who claimed in “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses' Bridges, Winner's Bridges and Other Urban Legends in S&TS” that the whole story of Moses’ decisionmaking rests on mythical grounds – buses, back in the twenties, weren’t twelve feet high; the assistant who attributed the decisions about the Parkways to racism was simply one source in Caro’s biography of Moses; and other highway structures in NYC are also nine feet high – lower than the national standard.

This should put us on our guard about the stories that collect around artifacts. However, Winner’s other examples haven’t been so disputed – Cyrus McCormick’s pneumatic molding machines, which did a less efficient job of molding metal for his threshers, but which kicked the skilled workmen, who were largely union supporters, out of his factories; and .. the reason for this post … the tomato picker.

Tomatoes, it turns out, are a much studied subject. If you want the very scoop of the long saga of tomato ‘improvement’, you could turn to the fascinations, such as they are, that stock every page of Bill Pritchard and David Burch’s Agri-Food Globalization in Perspective: International Restructuring in the Global Tomato Processing Industry. For those of you with a train to catch, however, I will quote a long excerpt from Winner’s essay:

“The mechanical tomato harvester, a remarkable device perfected by researchers 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 factories. To accommodate the rough motion of these harvesters in the field, agricultural researchers have bred new varieties of tomatoes that are hardier, sturdier, and less tasty than those previously grown. The harvesters replace the system of handpicking in which crews of farm workers would pass through the fields three or four times, putting ripe tomatoes in lug boxes and saving immature fruit for later harvest.9 Studies in California indicate that the use of the machine reduces costs by approximately five to seven dollars per ton as compared to hand harvesting. 10 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 re shaping of social relationships involved in tomato production in rural California.
“By virtue of their very size and cost of more than $50,000 each, the machines 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 4,000 in the early 1960s to about 600 in 1973, and yet there was a substantial increase in tons of tomatoes produced. By the late 1970s an estimated 32,000 jobs in the tomato industry had been eliminated as a direct consequence of mechanization. 11 Thus, a jump in productivity to the benefit of very large growers has occurred at the sacrifice of other rural agricultural communities.
“The University of California's research on and development of agricultural machines such as the tomato harvester eventually became the subject of a lawsuit filed by attorneys for California Rural Legal Assistance, an organization representing a group of farm workers and other interested parties. The suit charged that university officials are spending tax monies on projects that benefit a handful of private interests to the detriment of farm workers, small farmers, consumers, and rural California generally and asks for a court injunction to stop the practice. The university denied these charges, arguing that to accept them "would require elimination of all research with any potential practical application." 12
“As far as I know, no one 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 the original developers of the machine and the hard tomato from any desire to facilitate economic concentration in that industry.13 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, patterns that bear the unmistakable stamp of political and economic power. Over many decades agricultural research and development in U.S. land-grant colleges and universities has tended to favor the interests of large agribusiness concerns.14 It is in the face of such subtly ingrained patterns that opponents of innovations such as the tomato harvester are made to seem "antitechnology" or "antiprogress." For the harvester 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.”

Ohoho – as Peter Pan used to cry, before he engaged with Captain Hook. I spy something going on here. About which I will write in my next post.

5 comments:

Brian Miller said...

As Kevin Carson would put it "Oh ho ho, indeed." It's a vicious circle: private corporations combine with The State through coercion (taxation) to support enhancements to the private corporation's control.

Anonymous said...

oh, oh, I know, I know: war culture as perpetual tomato picking?

roger said...

Anonymous -- you know I'm flattered as hell about any reference to my obsessions. Like all crazy people, I'm always looking for the signs and wonders of my own psychosis abroad in the world, and so it happens that I pick on the tomato industry. And yes yes yes, I am being a bit too capacious about the war culture. It does too much conceptual work here. But after all -- this is merely a fuckin' blog. If I were a scholar, I'd be much more rigorous. Luckily, I'm not, so I have sluttishly low standards here.

roger said...

PS -- perhaps not sluttishly low standards. Hmm, let's just say that I want to stretch my concepts to that limit beyond which the stress overwhelms them.

Anonymous said...

Well, that's good.