Bitcoin and Artifact Politics: Through the Lens of Langdon Winner

Bitcoin is the first virtual currency of its kind: completely conducted through the Internet and transacted anonymously with the use of a peer-to-peer network. But who controls bitcoin? What central authority regulates its value and production? The unique thing about bitcoin is that it lacks a governing body. Without a company to oversee it, bitcoin operates solely through users and their computers, and value is based on demand and how often bitcoins are being “mined.” The question which arises with this system is whether or not bitcoin will be sustainable without a central organization to monitor and guide it. Langdon Winner, in his work The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, offers insight into the political aspects of such advanced technologies, and the necessity for either an authoritative power or government regulation.

In Winner’s writing, he analyzes how new forms of technology serve as “political artifacts.” Many advanced technological forms serve as a way to build order in our current society.1 Winner explains that “Consciously or unconsciously . . . societies choose structures for technologies that influence how people are going to work, communicate . . . and so forth over a very long time.” Bitcoin as a virtual currency can similarly be analyzed. Because currency is traditionally maintained by the government in order to ensure security and stability, there is debate over whether bitcoin should be federally regulated. In fact, some users have confidence in bitcoin specifically for its separation from the government. It offers an alternative for those who mistrust the money supply stability and fear an abrupt and purposeful inflationary period. If bitcoin continues to grow in popularity, it could signal general dissatisfaction with the management of U.S. currency.

The social form of many technological systems can be a major determinant in its effective function. In The Whale and the Reactor, Winner discusses a specific study in which it was found that routine operation of many systems requires “a large-scale centralized, hierarchical organization administered by highly skilled managers.”1 This hierarchy specifically relies on executives to keep track of and coordinate responsibilities. Bitcoin, however, does not have a central authority and is therefore run by no single person or organization. This also means that there is not a “contractual relationship” between the people mining bitcoins and the initial creator of the system. 2 According to the previously stated theory, bitcoin would consequently not serve as an efficiently-working system with a proper social organization.

Some may argue that the solution to this lack of central authority is simply government regulation. The anonymity of bitcoin transactions creates an additional fear of its use for illegal activity and money laundering. However, some inherent characteristics of bitcoin make regulation difficult. Primarily, its existence as a virtual currency, rather than a physical coin or paper, prevent it from regulation as a “community currency,” or any medium of exchange that is not the national currency.­2 Additionally, an injunction or other action to terminate the use of bitcoin is impossible, given bitcoin’s lack of a central company against which to act. According to Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor, bitcoin’s nonexistent principal authority and resistance to government regulation classifies it outside of the structure of traditional technological advancements.


1Langdon, Winner. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

2Kaplanov, Nikolei M. “Nerdy Money: Bitcoin, the Private Digital Currency, and the Case Against its Regulation.” Loyola Consumer Law Review 25:1 (2013). Web.

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Artifact Politics – Gun

As human beings,  it is in our nature to equate real-world objects with a certain set of outcomes.  A wailing ambulance alerts us to the fact someone is in injured.  A waiter’s tray full of steaming food as he walks by causes us to be more hungry as we await our own food.  Whatever the object is, we use it as a symbol for something else, a symbol that has been enhanced and reinforced in our minds since the day we were born, from television programs to lessons from our parents.  One object that is a symbol of danger, something that is deadly in the wrong person’s hands, is a gun.  Since the first guns, basically mini cannons [1], of the 1200’s to the enhanced, super-powered rifles of today, guns have always been a medium through which one can efficiently use force to get what he wants.

Guns have received lots of criticism over the past few years.  Gun critics have blamed these objects for the flurry of recent school shootings, calling for them to be banned.  Advocates have replied that a gun does not shoot by itself; if the person behind the gun has malicious intent, it is his fault for what happens.  Discussions over the Second Amendment have raised some interesting questions.  Are we better off without guns?  What kind of political arraignment does a gun support? And, finally, how can a gun upset the balanced order of society?

In the past, having a gun was one way to stay alive.  People would hunt wild game with guns as a source of food and clothing.  People still do this, but to a lesser extent because of the increased domestication of animals.  People also use guns as a measure of self-defense in their homes in case of any attacks.  Finally, guns can add to a criminal’s threatening demeanor.  Others are less likely to confront him, and he can be more intimidating, and use it as a weapon, when committing crimes.  These are just a few of the many forms of life that a gun can provide.

Many people ask if we are better off without guns, or, if laws should be put into place to prevent them.  One study by JAMA Internal Medicine looked at which gun laws worked best to reduce violent deaths.  The study showed that “they can provide “no firm guidance” about which gun laws work to reduce violence and how” [2].

When asked if a gun implies a democratic or authoritarian arraignment, one could answer either way.  Some say that it is every person’s right to own a gun, and that taking this right away cannot possibly be fair.  In this sense, guns are democratic, though potentially very dangerous.  On the other hand, guns can easily be authoritarian.  If no one is allowed to have guns except, perhaps, the military of a nation, the leader of the nation could order his military to use deadly force in carrying out his goals.  All that do not comply would be killed.  If only a select few have guns, they could push their own agenda onto the citizens of a nation, erasing any hopes of a democracy.

Guns can disrupt social institutions in a very clear way.  By pulling the trigger, one’s life can be over in snap.  This can be the murder of a parent, tearing a family apart.  This could also be as huge as the assassination of a world leader, causing huge amounts of people to act in frenzy.  There is no limit to the power of a gun.

In conclusion, as long as there are guns there will always be opponents and proponents of them.  We have to remember that they are very dangerous, whether in the hands of the few or the hands of the many.

Footnotes:

[1] Supica, J. (n.d.). A Brief History of Firearms. Retrived from

http://www.nramuseum.org/gun-info-research/a-brief-history-of-firearms.aspx

[2] Healy, M. (2013, March 7). More Gun Laws Reduce Violent Deaths. Or do They?. Retrieved from

http://articles.latimes.com/2013/mar/07/news/la-heb-gun-laws-violent-deaths-20130306

Image: [Bullet Stop Handgun]. Retrieved January 28, 2015

from bulletstopguns.com

Artifact Politics

During the Thanksgiving break, I watched the movie Interstellar. And I was impressed by a robot in the movie called “TARS”. TARS is just like a human being, it can talk, finish some work and move quickly. Of course, we haven’t seen a robot like TARS so far. However, the technology is approaching the functions which TARS has. For instance, when President Obama visited Japan in 2014, he met one of the most advanced robot in the world, Asimo. Asimo was designed by Honda several years ago and Honda is improving it continuously. It can run, dance just like us. President Obama said “too lifelike” to describe Asimo. Making robots which can move like a human being, that’s what people can make right now. But Asimo is too expensive for the mass production, it’s just a mark of the most advance technologies, not some kind of revolution in the industry. So actually most of the robots we can see in the assembly line are like arms or something else, not humanoid. And there are designed to finish one or some certain tasks and work according to the default programs. In some factories, there are only some robots in the assembly line, especially in the developed countries. Nonetheless, in many developing countries, people get lower income so although some products or parts which have to be produced precisely by robots, the assembly of some electronic devices and products which can be produced without high technologies will be finished by these workers. Now China is the main country who makes such kind productions. Robots are only used in the certain situation in China. But even in this case, robots have changed our life a lot. People get cheaper products with better quality especially if we compare some new electronic devices with many devices which were designed decades ago.

Although we haven’t seen Asimo all around but in the near future, that kind of robots may change the society in political dimensions. Now the trend can be seen from Foxconn from Taiwan, the huge supplier of Apple. Foxconn set up many big factories in China in order to use the advantage of the lower labor cost in China, and Foxconn itself is just like an authoritarian institution to these workers. They were taught and ordered to do the fixed procedures to produce something like iPhones. But during the recent years, workers in China can earn more money than they can before. So Foxconn shrank the workforce in order to cut costs recently. Some managers of Foxconn had to admit that the automation may be the key in the future to cut costs. As we can see from what Foxconn did, with the development of robots and the economy of many developing countries, robot may be cheaper when a manager wants to find labors decades in the future. Assembly line may be filled with various kinds of robots, humanoid and non-humanoid ones. Who will hire people then? Robots can do works better and seldom make mistakes. And there is no need to meet the standards set by unions. Robots won’t be tired. No 8-hour limit. No complaint about the situation of the workplace and salaries. Just tap the switch and the factory will run automatically. It seems that the authoritarianism in the assembly line as we can see in Foxconn and other factories in many developing countries right now will come to the end, but other problems may occur. In this situation, people who don’t have advanced skills or a higher education degree will lose jobs just like some workers in Foxconn. And as for politics, in democratic countries, politics may become more polarized than we can see today. We may never see the cooperation between different parties because they stand for the completely opposite groups in the society—people who have more knowledge and people who don’t. And in the countries without democracy, some new dictators may appear because their society is split into two parts as well. One stands for people in poverty and another one stands for people who still have their jobs.

Robots changed our life and set political arrangements just like steam engine in the industrial revolution, and in the future, the politics may be more deeply changed by the robots.

Footnotes:

  1. Juliet Eilperin, “Obama finds Japanese robots ‘a little scary’”. The Washington Post. Apr 24, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/04/24/obama-finds-japanese-robots-a-little-scary/
  2. Michael Gold and Yimou Lee, “Exclusive: Apple supplier Foxconn to shrink workforce as sales growth stalls”. Reuters. Jan 27, 2015. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/27/us-hon-hai-labor-idUSKBN0L00Z520150127
  3. The Image: American Honda Motor Co. Inc., “Meet Asimo”. http://asimo.honda.com/gallery/

Artifact Politics – Pen

Pen

Few objects, especially those without vital necessities, have been rooted in the everyday lives of humans for as long as the pen. One of the most simplistic of all methods of recording and sharing information, the pen has inescapable political qualities in itself. Being used consistently for well over a century, it has impacted the lives of every person that possesses the basic skills of literacy.

When in use, the pen can be used to express and infinite amount of facts, opinions, images, and emotions. The person creating the words or pictures in a way has an authoritarian rule over others; the artist or author decides what others see and what others have the opportunity to learn. Obviously, the final creations are not the only source of information taken in by the recipient. Therefore, unlike the output, the intake of information is not solely authoritarian.

It is easy to see some of the daily effects that such an important artifact has all over the world, but there are plenty unseen to the common person. For instance, there is always the subject of agreements. Verbal agreements are made all the time, but there is no real weight behind them; there is nothing to back up those agreements. Whenever an official, legal agreement of any type needs to be made, inking a signature is the only way to carry out the process. Ranging from contracts for professional athletes to official laws and agreements between international governments, the pen holds the power to make it happen.

In instances where legalities are far less essential, the pen is still a tool of choice for a large amount of composers of documents. Families or friends who want to communicate can always use the means of the internet or a mobile phone, but some like to add a more personal touch. Even with the use of email becoming more prominent, approximately one-hundred fifty-eight billion letters were still sent in 2013 (2). For those with a desire to get in touch in a more connected way, writing letters has remained a popular decision. Also, before recent advancements in technology that have helped spawn inventions such as the internet, it was not as easy to keep personal communication with those not near geographically.

As previously stated, the creations of authors can be seen as authoritarian when it is only one author distributing work. When history was being recorded by large masses of respected and renowned human beings, the authoritarian aspect of those works being put out was lost upon those reading. There was now a large selection of works from which to choose. With such a large pool of works, a democratic type of historical recording took over. The words displayed in history books and taught to the youth are not necessarily the exact facts of the past. Rather, those words are rough facts that have been selected to be passed on to younger generations. The author did not choose which representation of the past survived, the people did. The words written in pen have paved the paths for the future. What we as humans know today as history is a democratic selection of works representing the past from the viewpoint of others.

The pen has always been a vital part of everyday functions, and it still holds that position today. It is also fundamentally political. Whether it is being used for international government communication, or communication between family members a few area codes apart, the pen is unable to be removed from its political dimensions.

Footnotes:

(1)“The Evolution of Classroom Technology” http://www.edudemic.com/classroom-technology/ 18 April 2011

(2)“Number of Letters Mailed Each Year.” Statistic Brain http://www.statisticbrain.com/number-of-letters-mailed-each-year/

Artifact Politics – GPS

In modern society, it is often difficult to escape the clutches of technology and disconnect from the rest of the world. Even in our own homes, constant buzzing from cell phones and other devices reminds us that we are very much functioning in a new realm of technology. In most cases, simply ignoring text messages and social media seems like an adequate solution to this problem. However, rest assured that despite your best efforts, a GPS could still be tracking your every move. Within the last decade, GPS, or Global Positioning Service, has been a hotly contested issue for its powerful abilities and intrusion into politics.

GPS devices use satellite navigation to provide location and time data. Although maintained by the government, its capabilities are accessible to anyone with a GPS receiver. This form of technology was originally created for the use of the military, government, and other pragmatic protection services. However, GPS has evolved and is now used in many other forms. Cell phones, for example, all have internal GPS in order to provide navigation services, among other things.1

While this may seem harmless on the surface, Global Positioning Service has stealthily become an authoritarian political artifact. The location data collected from cell phones and other devices may not all necessarily be used, but the data still exists and is continuing to be collected by wireless service providers and, in some cases, the government.2 It is almost inescapable for the average person not to be tracked at all times. This creates an authoritarian political force in which the population is subordinate to a system that knows our past and present location. Consequently, people can be held accountable for acts committed when no one else may have been around to witness it, or limited other evidence exists.

This political artifact can be looked at in two ways: firstly, as an invasion of privacy and unnecessary tracking measure, or secondly, as a beneficial technological advancement that allows for improved safety among the American public. The greater question is whether the benefits of the latter outweigh the drawbacks of the former. When it comes to protecting our nation from foreign terrorism, as well as domestic crimes that endanger the population every day, GPS can act as positive political force.

There is always a limit to how far technology should go, though, and this very question was challenged in the 2012 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Jones. In this case, a GPS tracker was placed on the underside of Antoine Jones’ car, which the police used to track his whereabouts for 28 days and accuse of him of drug trafficking. The Court ruled that this was indeed a violation of unreasonable search and seizure and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.2 The ruling boiled down to the fact that because this tracking was done by a machine, rather than humans, it was a greater intrusion of privacy.

This court case may have ruled against such an extended use of GPS tracking, but GPS technology is still being used in many other forms. As with any new technological advancement, Global Positioning Service can be used for good or bad. Whether it is utilized for tracking down felons or unnecessarily recording innocent location data, GPS is here to stay and will only continue to dominate the politics of society.


1 “The Global Positioning System,” http://www.gps.gov/systems/gps/.

2 “FBI Still Struggling with Supreme Court’s GPS Ruling,” http://www.npr.org/2012/03/21/149011887/fbi-still-struggling-with-supreme-courts-gps-ruling.

Artifact Politics

firelite-pull-station

There are only a few technologies that cause every student in a classroom to get out of their seat and out of the door in a matter of seconds, without needing to hear a word from the teacher. This technology is the fire alarm, which detects the presence of fire by monitoring the changes in the environment. It is found in many public areas, especially schools, and it sets off an alarm in the presence of smoke or fire in order to inform people of a potentially dangerous situation. Fire alarms contain an authoritarian power unlike many other devices. Every child learns from a young age the steps to take when a fire alarm goes off: leave everything at your desk, line up at the door, leave the school to a designated area outside in a single file line, and wait quietly until the teacher takes attendance. This means that the fire alarm requires a cooperative “form of life” from everyone present in the building. If a student refuses to line up and leave the room, the student holds back the teacher and other students, which may put everyone in danger.

In the case of the fire alarm, it holds all of the power over the students and instructors within a school. This idea disrupts the social arrangement within a school in which the teachers hold the power over the students, because overall the alarm makes everyone in the school (students, teachers, and the principle) equal in that everyone must exit the building when it goes off. Unlike other technologies that tend to hold authoritarian power over people, there is a small amount of people who would argue against fire alarms due to their overwhelming help in events of danger. However, the fire alarm might also give authoritarian power to a certain student or faculty member. The fire alarm is available for anyone to pull it, meaning one person can easily cause 2,000 people to feel a sense of nervousness and make them leave the building. To be able to affect a large group of people’s feelings and actions gives both the fire alarm and whoever decides to control it an intense amount of power.

In many places, it is a law that all schools in the area must have a fire alarm (and an evacuation plan). All states have some kind of laws about fire alarms. This means that every school is similar due to their system of protecting everyone under the authoritarian power of a specific law.

Another aspect of fire alarms, however, has a democratic sense. Some fire alarms trigger either a sprinkler system within the building or an automatic call to the nearest fire station, which sends a fire truck to the building. In the case of fire alarms in schools, the faculty, students, and firemen must work together in order to solve the problem. It is due to the fire alarm going off that everyone is able to share the power and do their part in order to keep everyone safe.

Footnotes:

1. Work Safety Blog: “What is the Difference Between Fire Alarms and Smoke Alarms?” http://www.blog4safety.com/2012/06/what-is-the-difference-between-fire-alarms-and-smoke-alarms-guest-post/ 25 June 2012.

2. AVS Systems Inc: “Fire Alarm Systems”  http://avsecurityinc.com/corporate-security-2/fire-alarm-systems/ 2010