Ambivalence is defined by Merriam-Webster as:
  1. Simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or Feelings (as attraction or repulsion) toward an object, person or action.
  2. A.Continual Fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite
2. B. Uncertainty as to which approach to follow

In a sense, this is at the heart of the concept of ambivalence- when an object or a system of objects, have multiple uses and understandings. The object itself is not essentially a single function or state, but that instead, things exist with potentiality that can be activated by the social context that it exists in. It is it neutral, as it is not to an open state where all things are equally possible, but instead very powerful intentionalities exist even as they are contradictory.

Langdon’s/Moses’ Bridges

A particularly famous example of the ambivalence of artifacts can be understood through the Steven Woolgar and Geoff Cooper critique of the Langdon Winner Essay “Do Artifacts have Politics?” In the essay, Winner argues that the actual construction of the Long Island Bridge has the political and social motivations of it’s creator, Robert Moses, embedded in the physical reality of the structure because it is intentionally created to prevent poor people from being able to access the beach. Buses could not make it under the bridge because it was too low, and without sidewalks, the only way to reach the beach that was beyond the bridge was to be a car owning motorist who had time to use their car in that way. In this sense, the bridge also functions as a barrier to keep the ‘wrong sort of people’ out of the beach. The goal for Winner is then:

“...we ought to attend more closely to technical objects themselves is not to say that we can ignore the contexts in which those objects are situated. A ship at sea may well re quire, as Plato and Engels insisted, a single captain and obedient crew. But a ship out of service, parked at the dock, needs only a caretaker. To understand which technologies and which con texts are important to us, and why, is an enterprise that must involve both the study of specific technical systems and their history as well as a thorough grasp of the concepts and controversies of political theory.” (11)

However, Woolgar and Cooper point out, that while the story has a serious explanatory power and explains the concept of political artifacts, it is, itself, false. The bridges do not prevent the buses from reaching the beach. The specifics of why Winner’s account were wrong is difficult to discern, but trying to get a singular account is not the purpose here. Woolgar points out:

“The more important task is to engage the essential ambivalence of artefacts in general. This requires us to give centre stage to our mundane experiences of technology, and to all the contradictions and tensions involved: technology is good and bad; it is enabling and it is oppressive; it works and it does not; and, as just part of all this, it does and does not have politics. These tensions are a significant manifestation of the competing discourses to which our experience of technology is subject, and within which we make sense of them.” (1999, pg. 443)


The concept of ambivalence tries to direct our attention not merely at the intentions of the constructed artifact, of which there may be many, or the intentions of the those in positions of power, equally man. Ambivalence has much to do with agency then as the various ways in which a technological artifact’s politics can be deployed vary. The bridge very well could be a barrier, but it is not and the barrier is simultaneously a bridge. Again, this is not to say that it is neutral, but to suggest that a single object can have highly contradictory functions at the same time.

Woolgar and Cooper end by pointing out that while empirically, Winner is wrong, it isn’t that his account is wrong or that his premises are wrong. Objects DO have politics and the methodological attention due to them is a very real tension. It is in that spirt that the story of Moses’ Bridges might be better understood as Winner’s Bridges. The story remains the same even though it changes because regardless of it’s ambivalence, the story that is told is a relevant one.


Langdon Winner, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?", The Whale and The Reactor.
Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper, "Do Artifacts Have Ambivalence? Moses' Bridges, Winner's Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in S&TS," Social Studies of Science 29:3 (1999).