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Ursula Franklin passed away several weeks ago. Although I'd been exposed to her work via several (Canadian, feminist) technologies and scientists, I hadn't ever read this book. I have to say: it's the best book I've read on technology in a very, very long time.
technology has built the house in which we all live. The house is continually being extended and remodelled.
Technology, like democracy, includes ideas and practices; it includes myths and various models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the social and individual relationships between us. It has forced us to examine and redefine our notions of power and of accountability.
technology as practice
Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.
Technology also needs to be examined as an agent of power and control, and I will try to show how much modern technology drew from the prepared soil of the structures of traditional institutions, such as the church and the military.
technology’s social impact. I myself am overawed by the way in which technology has acted to reorder and restructure social relations, not only affecting the relations between social groups, but also the relations between nations and individuals, and between all of us and our environment. To a new generation, many of these changed relationships appear so normal, so inevitable, that they are taken as given and are not questioned. Yet one can establish clear historical trends. In order to understand the real world of technology and cope with it, we need to have some knowledge of the past, as well as to give some thought to the future.
Central to any new order that can shape and direct technology and human destiny will be a renewed emphasis on the concept of justice. The viability of technology, like democracy, depends in the end on the practice of justice and on the enforcement of limits to power.
The historical process of defining a group by their agreed practice and by their tools is a powerful one. It not only reinforces geographic or ethnic distributions, it also affects the gendering of work.
The common practice that a particular technology represents, in addition to leading to an identification with culture and gender, can also lead to the “right” of the practitioners to an exclusive practice of the technology.
Another facet of the concept of technology as practice is the fact that the practice can define the content.
Work-related technologies make the actual practice easier.
control- and work-related technologies
holistic technologies and prescriptive technologies
Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft.
Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.
It is the first kind of specialization, by product, that I call holistic technology, and it is important because it leaves the doer in total control of the process. The opposite is specialization by process; this I call prescriptive technology.
“division of labour”
a production method.
The amount of material found, and the knowledge that this constitutes only a small fraction of what was produced, assures us of the presence of a large, coordinated production enterprise. It was only when I considered in detail – as a metallurgist – what such a production enterprise would entail, that the extraordinary social meaning of prescriptive technologies dawned on me. I began to understand what they meant, not just in terms of casting bronze but in terms of discipline and planning, of organization and command.
When work is organized as a sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager.
invention. In political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance.
Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing “it.”
Any tasks that require caring, whether for people or nature, any tasks that require immediate feedback and adjustment, are best done holistically. Such tasks cannot be planned, coordinated, and controlled the way prescriptive tasks must be.
When successful, prescriptive technologies do yield predictable results. They yield products in numbers and qualities that can be set beforehand, and so technology itself becomes an agent of ordering and structuring.
The ordering that prescriptive technologies has caused has now moved from ordering at work and the ordering of work, to the prescriptive ordering of people in a wide variety of social situations.
“the digitalized footprints of social transactions,” since the technology can be set up not only to include and exclude participants, but also to show exactly where any individual has spent his or her time.
prescriptive technologies eliminate the occasions for decision-making and judgement in general and especially for the making of principled decisions. Any goal of the technology is incorporated a priori in the design and is not negotiable.
As methods of materials production, prescriptive technologies have brought into the real world of technology a wealth of important products that have raised living standards and increased well-being. At the same time they have created a culture of compliance.
Underlying the different uses of the concept of scale are two different models or metaphors: one is a growth model, the other a production model.
A production model is different in kind. Here things are not grown but made, and made under conditions that are, at least in principle, entirely controllable.
Production, then, is predictable, while growth is not.
choosing a particular university, following a particular regimen, will turn the student into a specifiable and identifiable product.
If there ever was a growth process, if there ever was a holistic process, a process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education.
The real world of technology seems to involve an inherent trust in machines and devices (“production is under control”) and a basic apprehension of people (“growth is chancy, one can never be sure of the outcome”).
extended reality that body of knowledge and emotions we acquire that is based on the experience of others.
constructed or reconstructed reality. Its manifestations range from what comes to us through works of fiction to the daily barrage of advertising and propaganda. It encompasses descriptions and interpretations of those situations that are considered archetypal rather than representative. These descriptions furnish us with patterns of behaviour. We consider these patterns real, even if we know the situations have been constructed in order to make a particular pattern very clear and evident.
projected reality – the vernacular reality of the future.
today there is no hierarchical relationship between science and technology. Science is not the mother of technology. Science and technology today have parallel or side-by-side relationships; they stimulate and utilize each other. It is more appropriate to regard science and technology as one enterprise with a spectrum of interconnected activity than to think of two fields of endeavour – science as one, and applied science and technology as the other.
Today scientific constructs have become the model of describing reality rather than one of the ways of describing life around us.
As a consequence there has been a very marked decrease in the reliance of people on their own experience and their own senses.
the downgrading of experience and the glorification of expertise is a very significant feature of the real world of technology.
the message-transmission technologies have created a host of pseudorealities based on images that are constructed, staged, selected, and instantaneously transmitted.
Media images seem to have a position of authority that is comparable to the authority that religious teaching used to have.
Media images seem to have a position of authority that is comparable to the authority that religious teaching used to have.
As a community we should look at what the new technologies of message-forming and -transmitting do to our own real world of technology and democracy. This is why I have a sense of urgency to map the real world of technology, so that we might see how in our social imagination the near is disadvantaged over the far. We should also understand that this does not have to be so.
Viewing or listening to television, radio, or videos is shared experience carried out in private. The printing technologies were the first ones that allowed people to take in separately the same information and then discuss it together. Prior to that, people who wanted to share an experience had to be together in the same place – to see a pageant, to listen to a speech.
there are new, high-impact technologies and these produce largely ephemeral images. The images create a pseudocommunity, the community of those who have seen and heard what they perceive to be the same event that others, who happened not to have watched or listened, missed for good.
Since normally only a fraction of the pseudocommunity become members of the real and active community, the possibility of forming such groups may be greater in the case of broadly based international concerns that are “the far” for most viewers than in the case of specific problems of “the near.”
There is a lot of talk about global crises and “our common future.”8 However, there is far too little discussion of the structuring of the future which global applications of modern technologies carry in their wake.
Whenever human activities incorporate machines or rigidly prescribed procedures, the modes of human interaction change.
technical arrangements reduce or eliminate reciprocity. Reciprocity is some manner of interactive give and take, a genuine communication among interacting parties.
For example, a face-to-face discussion or a transaction between people needs to be started, carried out, and terminated with a certain amount of reciprocity. Once technical devices are interposed, they allow a physical distance between the parties. The give and take – that is, the reciprocity – is distorted, reduced, or even eliminated.
reciprocity is not feedback. Feedback is a particular technique of systems adjustment. It is designed to improve a specific performance.
Reciprocity, on the other hand, is situationally based.
It is neither designed into the system nor is it predictable. Reciprocal responses may indeed alter initial assumptions. They can lead to negotiations, to give and take, to adjustment, and they may result in new and unforeseen developments.
these technologies have no room for reciprocity. There is no place for response. One may want to speculate for a moment whether this technological exclusion of response plays a part in the increasing public acceptance of the depiction of violence and cruelty.
technologically induced human isolation:
even in the universe of constructed images and pseudorealities there still exists a particular enclave of personal directness and immediacy: the world of the ham-radio operator. It is personal, reciprocal, direct, affordable – all that imaging technology is not – and it has become in many cases a very exceptional early warning system of disasters. It is a dependable and resilient source of genuine communication. I am citing this example so as not to leave the impression that the technological reduction of meaningful human contact and reciprocal response is inherently inevitable.
the growth of prescriptive technologies provided a seed-bed for a culture of compliance.
Technology has been the catalyst for dramatic changes, in the locus of power.
Any task tends to be structured by the available tools.
Tools often redefine a problem.
The real world of technology is a very complex system. And nothing in my survey or its highlights should be interpreted as technological determinism or as a belief in the autonomy of technology per se. What needs to be emphasized is that technologies are developed and used within a particular social, economic, and political context. They arise out of a social structure, they are grafted on to it, and they may reinforce it or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen nor foreseeable. In this complex world neither the option that “everything is possible” nor the option that “everything is preordained” exists.
A change in one facet of technology, for instance the introduction of computers in one sector, changes the practice of technology in all sectors. Such is the nature of systems.
I much prefer to think in terms not of systems but of a web of interactions.
When women writers speak about reweaving the web of life,5 they mean exactly this kind of pattern change. Not only do they know that such changes can be achieved but, more importantly, they know there are other patterns. The web of technology can indeed be woven differently, but even to discuss such intentional changes of pattern requires an examination of the features of the current pattern and an understanding of the origins and the purpose of the present design.
1740s, a very influential book was published by La Mettrie called L’Homme-machine
the discovery of the body as object and instrument of power led to a host of regimes of control for the efficient operations of these bodies, whether they were the efficiencies of movement, the measured intervals of the organization of physical activities, or the careful analysis and timing of the tasks bodies could perform, usually in unison.
It was into this socially and politically well prepared soil that the seeds of the Industrial Revolution fell. The factory system, with its mechanical devices and machines, only augmented the patterns of control. The machinery did not create them.
To plan with and for technology became the Industrial Revolution’s strongest dream. The totally automated factory – that is, a factory completely without workers – was discussed by Babbage and his contemporaries in the early nineteenth century.
While the eighteenth century exercised control and domination by regarding human bodies as machines, the nineteenth century began to use machines alone as instruments of control.
For the British manufacturers, machines appeared more predictable and controllable than workers. The owners of factories dreamt of a totally controlled work environment, preferably without any workers. If and where workers were still needed, they were to be occupied with tasks that were paced and controlled by machines.
Industrial layout and design was often more a case of planning against undesirable or unpredictable interventions than it was of planning for greater and more predictable output and profit.
a clearly perceived loss of workers“ control and autonomy. It was not resistance to technology per se so much as an opposition to the division of labour and loss of autonomy that motivated the workers” resistance.
What the Luddites and other groups of the period clearly perceived was the difference between work-related and control-related technologies.
somehow I find no indication that they realized that while production could be carried out with few workers and still run to high outputs, buyers would be needed for these outputs. The realization that though the need for workers decreased, the need for purchasers could increase, did not seem to be part of the discourse on the machinery question. Since then, however, technology and its promoters have had to create a social institution – the consumer – in order to deal with the increasingly tricky problem that machines can produce, but it is usually people who consume.
Technology has changed this notion about the obligations of a government to its citizens. The public infrastructures that made the development and spread of technology possible have become more and more frequently roads to divisible benefits. Thus the public purse has provided the wherewithal from which the private sector derives the divisible benefits, while at the same time the realm from which the indivisible benefits are derived has deteriorated and often remains unprotected.
The global environ mental destruction that the world now has to face could not have happened without the evolution of infrastructures on behalf of technology and its divisible benefits, and corresponding eclipsing of governments" obligation to safeguard and protect the sources of indivisible benefits. Whether the task of reversing global environmental deterioration can be carried out successfully will depend, to a large extent, on understanding and enforcing the role and obligation of governments to safeguard the world’s indivisible benefits.
Prescriptive technologies are a seed-bed for a culture of compliance.
Many technological systems, when examined for context and overall design, are basically anti-people. People are seen as sources of problems while technology is seen as a source of solutions.
the “technological imperative.”
whatever can be done by technological means, will be done.
the need for a credible long-term enemy.
the changes that technology has brought to the part of citizens in war preparation and warfare. Just as fewer and fewer unskilled workers are needed in a modern technological production system, a country now has little practical need for raw recruits to operate its modern technological destruction system. Abandoning compulsory military service is not so much a sign of peaceful intentions as it is a sign of galloping automation.
Military service from citizens is no longer a prerequisite for war. What is a prerequisite is the compulsory financial service of all citizens, well before any military exchange begins.
Planning, in my sense of the word, originated with prescriptive technologies. As prescriptive technologies have taken over most of the activities in the real world of technology, planning has become society’s major tool for structuring and restructuring, for stating what is doable and what is not. The effects of lives being planned and controlled are very evident in people’s individual reactions to the impingement of planning on them. The real world of technology is full of ingenious individual attempts to sabotage externally imposed plans.
A common denominator of technological planning has always been the wish to adjust parameters to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.
holistic strategies are, more often than not, intended to minimize disaster rather than to maximize gain.
planning as part of the strategy of maximizing gain, and coping as central to schemes for minimizing disaster.
the real world of technology denies the existence and the reality of nature.
the prediction of a senior official at IBM, in an article called “The Banishment of Paperwork.” He confidently forecast the total absence of paperwork in 1984: Computers, within two decades, would have become the sole medium of communication, while all that burdensome paper would have vanished from our desks.
Ivan Illich pointed out in his 1981 essay, Shadow Work,1 that prescriptive technologies, particularly those in the administrative and social-service sectors, produce the desired results only when clients – for instance, parents, students, or patients – comply faithfully and to the letter with the prescriptions of the system. Thus, advanced applications of prescriptive technologies require compliance not only from workers, but also from those who use the technologies or are being processed by them. Illich stressed the role of individual and group compliance by citizens in this process of making prescriptive technologies work.
as more and more of daily life in the real world of technology is conducted via prescriptive technologies, the logic of technology begins to overpower and displace other types of social logic, such as the logic of compassion or the logic of obligation, the logic of ecological survival or the logic of linkages into nature. Herbert Marcuse, in One Dimensional Man, speaks of this overpowering.
a “mechanical bride,” the term used by Marshall McLuhan to describe the relationship between car and owner.
It is aimed at creating an atmosphere of harmless domesticity around the new technology to ease its acceptance.
If one doesn’t watch the introduction of new technologies and particularly watch the infrastructures that emerge, promises of liberation through technology can become a ticket to enslavement.
The authors of this prognostication evidently assumed that the introduction of the sewing machine would result in more sewing – and easier sewing – by those who had always sewn. They would do the work they had always done in an unchanged setting. Reality turned out to be quite different. With the help of the new machines, sewing came to be done in a factory setting, in sweatshops that exploited the labour of women and particularly the labour of women immigrants. Sewing machines became, in fact, synonymous not with liberation but with exploitation.
What turns the promised liberation into enslavement are not the products of technology per se – the car, the computer, or the sewing machine – but the structures and infrastructures that are put in place to facilitate the use of these products and to develop dependency on them.
To recap: many new technologies and their products have entered the public sphere in a cloud of hope, imagination, and anticipation. In many cases these hopes were to begin with fictional, rather than real; even in the best of circumstances they were vastly exaggerated. Discussion focused largely on individuals, whether users or workers, and promised an easier life with liberation from toil and drudgery. Discourse never seemed to focus on the effects of the use of the same device by a large number of people, nor was there any focus on the organizational and industrial implications of the new technologies, other than in the vaguest of terms.
once a given technology is widely accepted and standardized, the relationship between the products of the technology and the users changes. Users have less scope, they matter less, and their needs are no longer the main concern of the designers. There is, then, a discernable pattern in the social and political growth of a technology that does not depend on the particular technical features of the system in question.
how teaching, research, and practice in most areas of science and technology follow essentially male patterns by being basically hierarchical, authoritarian, competitive, and exclusive.
Major facets of technology are related to prescriptive practices and thus to the development of instruments of power and control.
The great contribution of women to technology lies precisely in their potential to change the technostructures by understanding, critiquing, and changing the very parameters that have kept women away from technology.
What does it say about our society, when human needs for fellowship and warmth are met by devices that provide illusions to the users and profits to the suppliers?
as a response to loneliness, it seems to me deceitful and fraudulent.
the disregard that technical designers can have for the needs of operators. Typists not only got awkward machines, but they – and the telephone operators – also encountered the usual division of work that has become part of mechanization and automation. As the technologies matured and took command, women were left with fragmented and increasingly meaningless work.
The way of doing something can be “holistic” when the doer is in control of the work process. The way of doing something can also be “prescriptive,” when the work – whatever it might be – is divided into specified
steps, each carried out by separate individuals. This form of division of labour, historically quite old and not dependent on the use of machines, is a crucial social invention at first practised in the workplace.
I hold that, in fact, we have lost the institution of government in terms of responsibility and accountability to the people. We now have nothing but a bunch of managers, who run the country to make it safe for technology.
I firmly believe that when we find certain aspects of the real world of technology objectionable we should explore our objections in terms of principle, in terms of justice, fairness, and equality. It may be well to express concerns as questions of principle rather than to try to emphasize merely pragmatic explanations – for instance, that objectionable practices may also be inefficient, inappropriate, or polluting.10 The emphasis on a pragmatic rationale for choice tends to hide the value judgements involved in particular technological stances.
When my colleagues in the field of cold-water engineering speak of “ice-infested waters,” I am tempted to think of “rig-infested oceans.” Language is a fine barometer of values and priorities. As such it deserves careful attention.
Let’s make a checklist to help in the discourse on public decision-making. Should one not ask of any public project or loan whether it: (1) promotes justice; (2) restores reciprocity; (3) confers divisible or indivisible benefits; (4) favours people over machines; (5) whether its strategy maximizes gain or minimizes disaster; (6) whether conservation is favoured over waste; and (7), whether the reversible is favoured over the irreversible?
the development and use of redemptive technologies ought to be part of the shaping of a new social contract appropriate for the real world of technology, one that overcomes the present disenfranchisement of people.
“protest and survive.”
“Let us understand, and on the basis of our common understanding, protest.” We must protest until there is change in the structures and practices of the real world of technology, for only then can we hope to survive as a global community.
If such basic changes cannot be accomplished, the house that technology built will be nothing more than an unlivable techno-dump.
many such communications have to be regarded as messages looking for receivers.
I have never liked the term cyberspace because it neither describes a space nor does its current use reflect the concepts of control and systems-design implied in the term cybernetics, after which the term cyberspace was patterned.
I got into real trouble once, when I suggested that the Internet could be looked at as one giant dump: people and organizations dump information in bits and pieces; they also retrieve whatever is of use and interest to them. What is found by the scavengers depends on where they dig, what was dumped, and what is considered useful or relevant enough to be retrieved. There is no pattern in the digging or reassembly, no one path through the dump, no compulsory reference to the scource of the bounty. And since the Internet contains information rather than stuff, the same treasures, or junk, can be retrieved again and again.
measured time and experienced time.
The role of asynchronicity in unravelling social and political patterns without apparent replacement with other patterns cannot be overestimated.
Many people have experienced the asynchronous forms of labour and have felt their consequences; the impact often includes the lack of work-related solidarity and selfidentification that can have profound social implications.
Women in particular have often treasured the opportunity to work asynchronously – getting a bit of writing done when the kids are asleep, sneaking in a slice of private life into their tightly structured existences. But I see a real difference between supplementing a rigidly patterned structure with asynchronous activities and substituting synchronous functions by asynchronous schemes.
The inhabitants of the City of Bits are still real live human beings, yet nature, of which humans are but a small part, appears to have no autonomous space in the bitsphere. There are no seasonal rhythms, no presence of the land nor the ebb and flow of individual lives, even though these are the synchronous patterns that have shaped culture and community throughout the time and, through their patterns, have provided a source of meaning to people for many generations.
the difference between a mechanism and an organism.
the biosphere and the bitsphere
Within the biosphere, human beings have attempted to codify and transmit their understanding of the world around them by ordering their experiences into general schemes and structures.1 Myths, religion, and science have endeavoured to transmit knowledge and experience so ordered as to convey sequence and consequence as ordering principles. Learning to recognize such ordering principles has been traditionally part of growing up in a given society. Ordering schemes help us to evaluate and interpret new knowledge and experience.
One of the most striking attributes of the bitsphere, on the other hand, is the absence of structure.
Unfortunately, the new technologies have entered the realm of education largely because they were regarded as production improvements, promising better products and faster or bigger production runs, and not because they were deemed to offer enrichment to the soil. Thus it is not surprising that the electronic classroom raises the same types of problems and exhibits the same social and political difficulties that one encounters in the realm of work or governance in the real world of the new technologies.
the displacement of people by devices
When external devices are used to diminish the need for the drill of explicit learning, the occasion for implicit learning may also diminish.
As considerations of efficiency and cost-cutting shift the balance of synchronous and asynchronous classroom activities, the balance of explicit and implicit learning is changing. While the pool of information available to the students may increase, the pool of available understanding may not. This has considerable consequences for social cohesion and peace and deserves careful attention.
how and where, we ask again, is discernment, trust, and collaboration learned, experience and caution passed on, when people no longer work, build, create, and learn together or share sequence and consequence in the course of a common task?
where, if not in school and workplace, is society built and changed?
the practice of democratic governance is in grave question and the advancement of social justice and equality appears stalled in a labyrinth of random transactions.14 This does not have to be so. The interface of the biosphere and the bitsphere not only poses problems and precipitates crises but it offers new opportunities to advance the common good. It will take the collective thought, moral clarity, and strong political will of many people to move towards this goal rather than away from it.
This is a collective endeavour that no group or conglomerate can do on its own. Most of our social and political institutions are both reluctant and ill-equipped to advance such tasks. Yet if sane and healthy communities are to grow and prevail, much more weight has to be placed on maintaining the non-negotiable ties of all people to the biosphere.