Andrew Barry (2001). Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society

London: The Athlone Press. ISBN 0-485-00634-0

Working the Differences

Katharine Sarikakis

Political Machines is about the politicisation of technology. The book brings together work already published elsewhere, in an attempt to develop the framework for innovative theorisation about the interconnectedness, or interactivity, between the political and the technological. Although often in the book the technological and the technical seem to remain indistinguishable, which may be intended confusion, it could be argued that the point made here is that of blurriness, interactivity, dependability and relativity between the two. Barry states:

A technological society is one which takes technical change to be the model for political intervention. The concept of a technological society does not refer to a stage in history, but rather to a specific set of attitudes towards the political present which have acquired a particular contemporary intensity, salience and form. (2)

The book is divided into two sections: ‘Governing Technology’, which deals mainly with regulatory and policy related questions, and ‘Technology, Politics and Citizenship’, which looks at spaces where the citizen becomes the protagonist, playing within the arenas defined in the title.

‘Governing Technology’ investigates important areas where technology has integrated the politics of the European Union and has been integrated into the institutional structure of the system. Barry argues that the EU itself is a technology, a structure, an invention that opens new possibilities of governance (to paraphrase his definition of technological invention as ‘creation of possibility’, 213). The book promises a radical rethinking of the relationship between politics, technology and government, a fascinating trio that has attracted the attention of political scientists, sociologists and media studies scholars, not to mention those working within analytical frameworks that move across disciplines, such as feminism.

The first part of the discussion relates to the fact that spaces of government are not simply defined by geographies of territorial and national space. They are also conceptualised in terms of ‘zones formed through the circulation of technical practices and devices’ (3) or, what European Union scholars might call policy issues, administrative levels and geographically defined governance (such as regional policy, decentralised authority, etc.). In that respect, Barry has many common points with those studying the formation of, and policymaking in, the EU. Indeed, he acknowledges the influence of Majone’s concept of ‘regulatory’ state as a description of the EU project on his own understanding of the polity. The ‘regulatory’ character of EU administration stems from its organisation around specific loci (i.e. spaces of government).

The first of the loci where the political intervenes is the technological zones created in the contemporary EU. The discussion offers a theoretical reflection on the problems of providing a strict definition of a technological zone and its separation from other zones. Southern England, for example, as a topos of symbolic representation of English (idyllic, rural) identity is juxtaposed to its function as a space of military bases. This militarised aspect of idyllic England creates the locus of resistance to the technologies of military machines and aerospace, planted within the stem of the English rose. This is where, according to Barry, some of the most important civic demonstrations have taken place. The argument made here is about the implausibility of describing the relation between technology and government — even though ‘governance’ might be a better term here – as one-way.

In ‘Harmonized States, the Network and Intellectual Properties’, Barry argues that the political construction of the EU is highly technological in the ways it is required to function as a system of systems, but also in its mission. Indeed, he claims that the political integration of the EU is a technological issue. Political integration, seen as a step beyond economic integration (although the latter is hardly ever mentioned in the book) derives from the intention to ‘forge technical connections across Europe (67). The issues expanded on further include the harmonisation of technological standards, the construction of technological zones – in particular those related to scientific research and development – and the question of intellectual property rights. Although this discussion offers an interesting perspective on the study of the political integration of the EU, it does not constitute a ‘radical reappraisal’. The argument does have its own internal logic but it uses a photographic — and not panoramic — view of the EU dynamics, which can be located, among others, in the domination of the internationalisation of trade activities and systems (or machines), and the need to create corresponding administrative systems. It would be interesting to see to what extent the metaphor of technology could be used to explain and analyse the political interventions of European states in earlier socio-political formations, such as the spatial organisation that emerged as a result of feudalism, the city and the confederation of laender dating back to the 16th century. Although Barry does make the statement that this relationship between technology and government is not about a stage in time, the examples used are located in a very specific time period. Furthermore, the object of study – that is the metropolises of decision-making (Brussels, London) – and the centres of technological innovation are also bizarrely identical. Brussels, London and other big cities function as both decision-making centres and international corporate hubs. Technology depends on the directions followed by ‘political machines’ and international capital, manipulated and expressed at a stock market level, national research funding, industrial R&D projections and, of course, on geographies of power and development. The analysis of those kinds of geographies is lacking in Barry’s book and there is no discussion of their relationship to issues of civic participation, political activity, access and knowledge.

Policy making in the EU has been characterised as a multilevel system, where no specific location holds absolute power. Policy studies scholars have been discussing for quite some time the need to understand the phenomenon of the diffusion of decision-making processes and to recognise the relativity of policymaking in terms of issues, institutional arrangements, spillover effects, etc. Although the ambition for the development of a grand theory has been (I suspect temporarily) abandoned, it is nevertheless a concern of some scholars that politics and policy do not and cannot constitute two separate realms. The overfragmentation of, and overconcentration on, instances of policy will not be particularly helpful when the EU project is to be studied within a historical, political, economic, social and cultural context.

But ‘where is the human in all this’? Barry must have asked the same question. After having talked at length about technology, policymaking, ‘political machines’ and techno-zones, he moves on to discuss the subject of the ‘citizen’. The second part of the book is devoted to the importance of interactivity and involvement of citizens in political processes. Barry uses case studies again to demonstrate such relationships. In particular, he examines the cases of museum interactivity, the technologies to be used in environmental control, and the implementation of technologies in demonstration sites. The discussion of these three distinct areas is stimulating and worthy of attention as it brings together an unusual combination of cases. In these cases, technology and the act of governing encourage initiatives – whether through policy making at a grand, national scale or even the EU level, such as the interactive museum and the car emissions control, or at a local level — through the management of museums. Barry also notes other forms of political machines at work: the decisions made by the Friends of the Earth to interact with the media and communicate with the public through media technologies, or the local authorities’ decision to use specific technology as part of a wider political goal of raising environment awareness.

Although there is no specific justification why these particular areas were selected for the examination of politics, government and technology from the perspective of the citizen, they lend themselves to an examination that covers some of the most prominent debates of our times – the cultural domain, issues related to the environment and political expression. The questions these analyses pose are by no means unimportant. In the era of mass produced, disinforming ‘entertainment’, the relationship between museum and citizen, as a space where scientific knowledge is demonstrated and consumer-meets-technology is orchestrated, is significant for many reasons. Science has been used as a device to create artificial gender segregation but also a separation of scientific knowledge from knowledge held by the public. (There is however hardly any discussion on the gendering of these sites.) The good parallelisms of demonstration in all three cases studied make more vivid the organic interconnection of technology and governance (a term that Barry avoids to use), for example in the form of self-governance.

The book makes a meaningful contribution to the ways that technology can be seen as an integral part of political existence, whether as a citizen or a state and state-like formation. However, in Barry’s attempt to emphasise this relationship, other crucial factors are ignored, while only passing comments on some of the most influential and significant lines of enquiry do not strengthen the central argument of the book. As an example, I am referring to the assumption that information as part of a technicised process and environment has an informational ability. The book gives the impression that technology surpasses its own context of construction; it becomes an independent agent, beyond social and cultural spheres. However, these are the spheres within which consumers (or citizens) are the objects and subjects of information. Without these spheres, a mere transmission of meaningless data would have no significance.

The author mentions Haraway’s name a few times, without doing justice to her insightful contribution on the matter, and without discussing the case she clearly makes against the assumption of the ‘God trick’ of seeing everything from nowhere. In other words, it is surprising that the author turns to Haraway’s analysis of technology without acknowledging that technological development and use go side by side and that ways of seeing and knowing depend on pre-existing social and cultural constructions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that developments in technology and the decisions over its use depend on preconditions that bear a range of disturbing inequalities based on dynamics of gender, race and class but also on territorial geographies. (The unequal use of media technologies to transfer and impose symbolic worlds through repetition from western to developing countries might be one example). Also the limited and restrictive understanding of the relationship of the consumer or user (and not citizen, implying that citizenship exists in clearly defined spaces) with the museum, and the unquestioned assumption that citizen participation in the networked era can be fulfilled through a sterile, reaction-driven ‘interaction’ of a human organism with a machine, are hardly convincing. I cannot share the enthusiasm of the commentators on the back cover (Latour and Thrift), who argue that Barry gives substance to the ‘ubiquitous notion of “technical culture”‘ as there is no discussion or attempt in the book to discuss culture, or what it would mean to define ‘technical culture’. Also it is hard for me to be convinced that this study is so significant that a new subdiscipline might emerge from, as the commentators claim. It is a book that brings together a number of case studies observed and analysed in the political world, in social movements and policymaking. It approaches the governance of these territories (which is claimed to be deeply rooted in technology) as a technology itself. An intelligent metaphor, yes, but not a subdiscipline.

Katharine Sarikakis, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in International Communications and Media Policy at Coventry University, UK. Her publications include ‘European Parliament and Paradigm Shift in Communication Policies’. In Raboy, M (ed.) Global Media Policy in the New Millennium, and ‘Pleonastic Exclusion from the European Information Society’ in Telematics and Informatics 17: 105-128. She is currently working on a manuscript on supranational governance and cultural policy.