Long Island overpasses

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The story of Long Island overpasses is one of the most typical examples brought about the societal impact of technology. Elaborated by Langdon Winner in his 1980 article Do artifacts have politics?, New York urban planner Robert Moses planned low overpasses on the parkways to Long Island so that the roads were inaccessible by any mode of transport higher than cars. Effectively, this setting prevented low-income and Black people accessing Long Island beaches. Winner considers this as an example that Moses was racist or enacted the racist bias of his time.

Depicting this case, Misleading Innocence is a documentary where Langdon Winner, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar debate the mutual impact of society and technology.

Some researchers argue that there were other highways to the island that buses could access, and that parkway was a special type of road where buses weren’t allowed in any case, thus trying to show that this design choice isn’t racist per se.

However, as Winner argues in the documentary, his—arguably provocative—example was not to initiate a debate about the threshold for enacted racism. His actual concerns “have to do with the proliferation of artificial devices in modern life, and how they either support democracy or discourage it; whether they make possibilities for people to participate in shaping he environments around them more likely or less likely” (30:05).

Even while Latour and Woolgar argue in the film that it is very difficult to infer the creators’ attitudes and intentions from the technology itself. However, technologies still have material and social consequences well beyond their immediate time and context. The case of the overpasses exemplifies how the design choices made by a few people impact other people and communities by objectivating, institutionalising and legitimising certain practices, attitudes and policies. In this sense, the case also demonstrates how racism is systemic and structural.


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