Power in Subtle Arrangements

29 May 2020

I’ve interrupted my study of Quine’s Word & Oject to read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. In this master-piece, which has recently received attention as a prop for political video-calls,[0] I stumbled upon an example of how physical arrangements matter for power relations. It illustrates the subtle impact of artefacts on power and is delicious enough to justify a short blog post.

In the relevant passage, Caro describes the unusual set-up of Robert Moses’ office while the latter served as Secretary of State for New York and president of the Long Island Park Commission.

Then there were intercoms; he [Robert Moses] liked to see his men face to face when he was giving them orders. His intercom was thrown out and it in its place on his desk there was installed a panel with buttons that, when prssed, triggered a harsh buzz in the offices of his top executives. When the buzzer sounded in an executive’s office, he was expected to drop everything and get to Moses’ office fast. “He didn’t want any intercom,” says Assembly Speaker Perry B. Duryea, Jr., who, in 1962, succeeded Moses as president of the Long Island Park Commission and moved behind Moses’ desk at Belmont Lake. “When he hit that button, he wanted Shapioro at the door. I tried it and I’ll tell you, it certainly throws off an aura of power. You just press a buzzer and you look up and there’s a man standing in your door waiting for your orders.” (p. 267-268)

Even without saying a word or writing a line, taking a position in this arrangement of artefacts bestows power.

The description reminded me of Brian Epstein’s (2015) work in social ontology and its emphasis that not just facts about individuals matter for social facts.[1] The extent of the power of an official, a social fact, depends on facts about the office arrangement. Moses abolishes the intercom, which would allow symmetrical communication, and instead has one-sided buzzing buttons installed. The person at the button decides the start of the interaction. Moses does not have to provide a reason for calling someone in before this person has to appear. The selection and arrangement of artefacts creates a power imbalance.

The paragraph from Caro’s book does not only illustrate that social facts rest upon non-individual artefactual arrangements,[2] but also shows why it matters beyond the individuals causally responsible for these arrangements. Robert Moses accumulated an immense amount of power and some of it depended on his specific individual features, such as his determination and his skill as a political operator. But some of that power was also built into the buzzing buttons. Even when Moses finally left office, even with a less powerful figure in place, the button-arrangement still “throws off an aura of power”. Those seeking to explain the power relations in the department and their persistence across individuals would have to point to the button-arrangement.

Of course, the installation of buzzing buttons was about the smallest change Moses made to artefactual arrangements. As the “master-builder” of New York, Moses had ample opportunity to structure the artefacts as he saw fit. Describing the dubious long-term effects of Moses’ work is a major theme of Caro’s master-biography. What makes the example stand out is that illustrates how a subtle arrangement can yet have signficant and lasting consequences. Even those who happily accept that bridges and highways leave marks might neglect the difference made by buzzing buttons.


Footnotes

[0] See this article in the New York Times.

[1] Epstein has not been the only one to notice the relevance of inanimate material objects. Many practicing social scientists are well aware of it. He is just particularly close to my own research in social ontology.

[2] I very generically write here of “resting upon”. The causal and other metaphysical relations such as grounding are very intricately linked in this example. Presumably the arrangement partially grounds a capacity of a certain agent which in turn partially grounds the power they hold.

References

Epstein, B. (2015). The Ant Trap: Rebuilding the Foundations of the Social Sciences. Oxford University Press.

Caro, R. A. (2019 [1974]). The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Vintage.