Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: Social constructivism and the philosophy of technology

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Citation: Langdon Winner (1993) Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: Social constructivism and the philosophy of technology. Science, Technology & Human Values (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1177/016224399301800306
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1177/016224399301800306
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1177/016224399301800306
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Upon opening the black box and finding it empty: Social constructivism and the philosophy of technology
Tagged: Philosophy (RSS) STS (RSS), Science (RSS), Politics (RSS), Technology (RSS)


Published in Science, Technology, and Human Values, Langdon Winner's article is adapted from a presidential speech given at the conference for the Society for Philosophy and Technology. The speech is an extended critique of social constructivism in technology from the perspective of a philosophy in general and morals in particular. The article is prompted by the groups of sociologists studying science and technology and the growth of STS more generally (he cite Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar in particular as authors he responding to).

Winner praises the sociological study of science for bringing empirical rigor to the study of science and the means through which it is created. Although he argues that these social constructivists have paid less attention to technology, he argues that provided a useful service in calling into questions the highly arbitrary divisions between the social sphere and the technical sphere. But Winner also argues that social constructivists are essentially fighting for primacy against more traditional considerations of technology like those by Marx, Lewis Mumford, and Heidegger that are more closely aligned with the philosophy of technology. Winner cautions that we should, "notice what one gives up as well as what one gains in choosing this intellectual path to the study of technology and human affairs."

  • Winner argues that the social consequences of technical choice are almost left out of view completely by the more empirically minding approaches which calls things constructive, provides the evidence, and goes home.
  • He argues that with its focus on "relevant social actors" it ends up discounting the experience or values of "irrelevant" groups who are indeed affected by technology noting that unpacking black boxes will end up concealing as much as it reveals.
  • It's focus on social structure ignores other important factors that a focus on the technology itself or on other factors might leave out.
  • It leaves out moral questions that make it impossible to evaluate technological choices. In Winner's terms, "the methodological bracketing of questions about interests and interpretations amounts to a political stance that regards the status quo and its ills an injustices with precision equanimity."

The paper ends with a response to Steven Woolgar who made an exemplary argument against Winner's description of the primacy of political interpretation of Robert Moses's bridges in Do artifacts have politics? and a memorable quote from Winner:

Although the social constructivists have opened the black box and shown a colorful array of social actors, processes, and images therein, the box they reveal is still a remarkably hollow one.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Winner's paper has been cited over 300 times since it's publication nearly 20 years ago.