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Racist Bridges

24/05/2013 16:54 BST | Updated 24/07/2013 10:12 BST

Maybe there are racist bridges.

The claim sounds as bizarre now as it did the first time I heard it some years ago. But it's what came to mind when asked to take part in a panel discussion about technology at HowTheLightGetsIn, the philosophy and music festival in Hay-on-Wye. The possibility of racist bridges is raised in a paper by the political theorist Langdon Winner, called 'Do Artefacts Have Politics?' The idea is that Robert Moses, the celebrated New York architect, built unusually low bridges over the roads from Long Island to Jones Beach. It's said that the bridges were designed in this way so as to prevent the poor and mostly African-American locals from travelling to the beach by bus - the more affluent, white car owners could of course slip underneath with ease. The set up prevents certain members of the community from enjoying the beach as surely as a phalanx of clansmen. Perhaps the strongest moral drawn from the story is the claim that the bridges are not merely neutral objects: they 'have politics'. Perhaps less jarringly, they have inbuilt political effects. They bring about a goal in line with a certain political outlook.

I still don't know whether or not to buy this way of thinking of it, but what's interesting about Winner's suggestion is not that bridges are used politically, but that they are political. Technology, for him, is not a neutral tool, a thing that could be used for good or ill. Technology does what it does, sometimes whether we like it or not, because of the thing that it is, not the way it is used.

You might disagree, and in fact I think most of us do. Neutrality is our default way of understanding technology. Guns don't kill people, people kill people - a gun is a neutral thing which might be used as a paper weight or a hammer. But maybe this is too quick or anyway too simple. No one disputes the claim that objects can be used in different ways, but does this force us to accept the further claim that objects are not for anything in particular? I know that a gun can be used in all sorts of different ways, but that doesn't stop me from joining Kurt Vonnegut in thinking that guns are 'for putting holes in people from a distance'.

Winner thinks objects can have political effects in less obvious ways too, perhaps by being particularly compatible with a certain sort of political set up. A hippy commune probably won't be powered by nuclear fission, not least because you can't have nuclear power without some measure of authoritarianism, some centralised control. Nuclear power and a hierarchical political structure reinforce one another.

Whatever Winner's worries, he probably didn't see information technology coming, and I wonder what he'd make of it. We're sometimes critical of recent innovations, but usually all we question is the content they deliver or the privacy they undermine. It's harder to see which political set up might be reinforced by such things as the web or smart phones. I sometimes think again about racist bridges, and wonder who or what is slowed or stopped as I speed around online.

James Garvey will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org