In technology studies, ambivalence is a state in which an artifact has multiple, simultaneous, competing meanings or interpretations. It is contrasted with technological politics, a single meaning or set of interlocking meanings that an artifact can project onto its social and political landscape.

Multiple forms of technological ambivalence have been described in the technology studies literature, and some scholars are hesitant to accept that ambivalent technology is possible. Martin Heidegger describes all technologies as being involved in the work of Gestell, or enframing, which imbues all technology with a sort of politics that performs work outside the control of human agency. In Bernstein's reading of Heidegger, ambivalent technology is impossible: “we are delivered over to [technololgy] in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we are particularly able to do homage, makes us blind to the essence of technology” (91).

Langdon Winner famously answered his question “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” with an emphatic “Yes.”

The theory of technological politics draws attention to the momentum of large-scale sociotechnical systems, to the response of modern societies to certain technological imperatives, and to the ways human ends are powerfully transformed as they are adapted to technical means. (2)

Winner's political technologies necessarily impose a structure on the social world they are built into; technologies can “require the creation and maintenance of a particular set of social conditions as the operating environment of that system” or they can be “strongly compatible with, but does not strictly require, social and political relationships of a particular stripe” (7). The bridges built by Robert Moses (originally) prevented bus traffic on New York's expressways, effectively blocking poor, predominantly non-white bus-riders from using the city's beaches. A nuclear power plant would not be able to function safely without hierarchies among its workers and strict security. In either of these scenarios, the technological system necessarily constricts the possible power relations in its social world.

But the technologies Winner uses to demonstrate the power of technopolitics are generally large, obdurate artifacts! It's easy to see bridges and nuclear power plants exerting their influence on social structures and power relations, but can't more malleable technologies take on some sort of ambivalence?

Arthur Mackenzie uses a handful of now-obsolete communication devices – Google Desktop, TV-B-Gone – to counter the argument that material technologies congeal social relations. He argues that “it is actually quite easy to challenge any simple opposition between technological action and meaning” (198) by demonstrating how these technologies allow for a certain flexibility in their implementation.

What can be learnt from technological action when it takes on this reticulatory, distributive character, when technological actions structure collective life? The opposition between technology and culture that underlies many critical accounts of technology begins to collapse. Technological action diverges from the overpowering figure of technology as a heavily socially pre-constructed system that crystallises or freezes relations. Technological action is provisional, historically and materially specific, and perhaps highly ambivalent. (209)

Andrew Feenberg describes another model of technological ambivalence that finds its best examples in networks: while the Internet we know and love today was invented for military purposes, its users have been able to reinscribe the network with their own politics. Writing in 1999, he uses the benign example of a group of people with ALS who are able to provide each other with medical and emotional support from far away(192), though more exciting examples could be found today. His description of technology is tied up inextricably with its social function. “Just as the parts of a clockwork mechanism lack true independence as such, even though they can be disassembled and identified as separate things, so technology is not truly independent of the social world. That world is not merely an external environment, it traverses them with meaning” (213).

Nonetheless, Feenberg accepts that some technological artifacts can be thick with politics. In order to navigate this divide between technological politics and the social construction of technology, he describes technological ambivalence as a wavering between two forces:
  1. Conservation of hierarchy:social hierarchy can generally be preserved and reproduced as new technology is introduced. This principle explains the extraordinary continuity of power in advanced capitalist societies over the past several generations,made possible by technocratic strategies of modernization despite enormous technical changes.
  2. Democratic rationalization:new technology can also be used to undermine the existing social hierarchy or to force it to meet needs it has ignored. This principle explains the technical initiatives that often accompany the structural reforms pursued by union, environmental, other social movements. (76)

This kind of technological ambivalence seems reasonable for describing communication technologies; after all, the users of some networks play a large role in the network's construction. Communication networks will necessarily contain a certain wavering ambivalence between their set structure and the possibility of change. But can technological ambivalence make sense when talking about bridges and power plants?

Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper argue that Robert Moses's bridges, instead of acting as an eternal barrier against bus traffic on the Long Island Expressway, have been worked around in such a way that buses can now pass under than. The politics of the bridges has been challenged, their technopolitical legislation was repealed. Woolgar and Cooper use this as a means of demonstrating how the bridges were reinscribed with new politics, how they have become essentially ambivalent. Winner's description of the bridges was his effort to demonstrate a politicized realism, but Woolgar and Cooper counter that “subscription to this form of naïve realism unnecessarily compromises our ability to challenge the more foundationally engrained sources of power” (443).

The kind of ambivalence that Woolgar and Cooper see in these bridges, though, seems less meaningful than the politics Winner originally saw; while the politics of bridges have been challenged, the challenge doesn't change the fact that they had a bearing on the social and political landscape for decades. The bridges are not so much ambivalent as they are tractable. They never demonstrated multiple meanings, but they had their meaning changed at a certain point in their history.

Itty Abraham uses the Indian nuclear program to argue for another sort of technological ambivalence. India performed an isolated bomb test in 1974, which it termed a “peaceful nuclear explosion”, but did not detonate another bomb unto 1998 (52). In international relations parlance, this intervening time was a period of nuclear ambiguity, during which it was unknown to the outside world whether India was maintaining a nuclear weapons program. Abraham suggests instead the term nuclear ambivalence, “in order to highlight the simultaneous presence of more than one meaning of nuclear practices” (55). Abraham uses ambivalence to highlight the uncertainty within the Indian government about whether to treat its nuclear program as weapons or energy; “both war and peace are always present in the meanings attributed to nuclear programs” (56).

While it makes sense to speak of ambivalence when describing a nuclear program and a set of nuclear policies, the reactors and laboratories that comprise the program are likely to be thick with politics. In The Radiance of France, Gabrielle Hecht describes how different models of nuclear reactor were built to promote different goals for the French nuclear program: gas-graphite reactors promoted the creation of French nuclear bombs, while light water reactors supported nuclear energy goals. The reactors that formed the material basis for the Indian nuclear program were built with specific aims in mind, even if the Indian government is ambivalent about how to make use of these reactors.

Furthermore, any nuclear program, whether it seeks to build bombs or power plants, necessarily imposes stronger security measures and authoritarian work practices. As Langdon Winner quotes environmentalist Denis Hayes, “the increased deployment of nuclear power facilities must lead society toward authoritarianism. Indeed, safe reliance upon nuclear power as the principal source of energy may be possible only in a totalitarian state” (1).

Feenberg and MacKenzie demonstrate an ambivalence within networks; a network can be structured through negotiation, and that negotiation can take into account new interpretations of the network and inscribe them in the system. Ambivalence is built into the formation of networks.

Woolgar, Cooper and Abraham all fall short when they try to demonstrate the ambivalence of large, solid technological artifacts. While meanings can be disputed and artifacts can be altered, artifacts by and large force a single, well-defined interpretation. An artifact at rest tends to remain obdurate, thick, and political.

In short, technological ambivalence is hard to find. An artifact may have multiple meanings, but in many cases, one of its meanings will have greater impact on its surroundings.

See also

Ambivalence (Boisvert)
Infrastructures (Jalbert)
Infrastructures (Wilcox)
Technological momentum (Brucato)
Thick objects (Brucato)


  • Winner, L. (1986). The whale and the reactor: a search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Woolgar, C. & Cooper, G. (1999). Do artifacts have ambivalence? Moses' Bridges, Winner's Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in S&TS. Social Studies of Science, 29(3), 433-449.
  • Abraham, I. (2006). The ambivalence of nuclear histories. Osiris 21(1).
  • Hecht, G. (2009). The radiance of France. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
  • Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning technology. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Mackenzie, A. (2006). The meshing of impersonal and personal forces in technological action. Culture, Theory and Critique, 47(2). 197-212.
  • Bernstein, R. J. (1998). The new constellation: the ethical-political horizons of modernity/postmodernity. Boston, MA: MIT Press.