Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology

Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology. CBC Massey Lectures Series.
Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1990.
Chapter One
In this first chapter, Franklin outlines her central project: to engage with both the
practices and ideas of technology to understand how technology changes social
relationships on macro- and micro-levels, and redefines concepts of power and
This chapter concerns technology as practice and system which “involves
organization, procedures, symbols, new words, and most of all, a mindset.” (p.12)
Like many other theorists, Franklin emphasizes the importance of an ethical
framework for directing new technological developments. In defining technology, she
stresses the importance, as does Wacjman, of contextualizing technology in its
various aspects, such that to speak of technology necessitates a specific
understanding of what is being examined. Technology involves both a body of
knowledge, discourse, and expertise as well as activities, uses and practices;
“structures as well as the act of structuring.”(p.14) Thus, Franklin is careful to note
that a context-based analysis is essential when examining technology.
She begins by looking at technology as practice, as “ways of doing something”. This
analytical stance has a few notable effects. First, it connects technology directly to
culture, in that technological practice requires a sort of defining of a knowledge
community. This imagining of community has implications for the gendering of
technological practice. As various theorists, such as Berner and Mellstrom, have
noted, communities of technological practice produce, or are produced by, particular
relations of gender. This kind of imagining of a knowledge community can also result
in “credentialling” of expertise, so that only certain groups of people are able to use or
control technology. In addition, the practice itself can define the content, so that “the
technology of doing something defines the activity itself.”(p.17)
Franklin argues that technology is developed in two ways: work-related technologies,
which enable the actual practice, and control-related technologies, which are geared
towards increasing control over the operation. She also identifies two forms of
technological development which are derived from to the relationship of the
maker/user to the technology: holistic technologies, which allow the creator/user in
control of the process of making/doing; and prescriptive technologies, which confines
each user to a particular function in the process of making/using technology. These
two forms of technological development can be thought of in relation to the capitalist
development of the division of labour (although, as Franklin points out, it is not
restricted to this particular economic/historical configuration). When work becomes
broken down into a linear progression of codified steps, control of the work shifts from
individual creators to a central organizer. As Franklin notes, “[in] political terms,
prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance.”(p.23) The shift of control from
creator to overseer ensures that the workforce is both interchangeable and compliant,
and that technological practices become codified and static. In the present historical
and economic context, prescriptive forms of technological practice are the norm,
since they have some distinct advantages: they yield predictably quantifiable results,
for example. However, they also “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 into the design and is not negotiable.” (p.25)
Thus, as Franklin proposes, “technology itself becomes an agent of ordering and
structuring…[which] has now moved from ordering at work and the ordering of work,
to the presciptive ordering of people in a wide variety of social situations.” (p.25) This
acknowledgement of the social dimension of technological practice is interesting, in
that it shifts the terms of the debate from the “nuts and bolts” of machines, to social
One concept which Franklin focuses on is that of scale, and its application to
production technologies. In the sense of production, scale became linked to merit in a
proportional relationship, although the question of who benefited from increased scale
was not asked. Fundamental to the different conceptions of scale are two tropes: a
growth model, which holds that size must be appropriate to function and context (and
that growth occurs, it is not made); and a production model, in which all components
are predictable, and context is irrelevant and reduced to “externalities” which need to
be eliminated. According to Franklin, it is the production, not the growth model which
has informed much of technological practice dealing with human beings (a particularly
interesting example of this, given the work of Balsamo and the authors in the Hynes
anthology, is that of new reproductive technologies). As a result, machines and
technological devices become the reliable, trustworthy, controllable elements of the
technological process, and people become messy, unreliable, data-skewing
“externalities”. At this point, production-based models are so entrenched in our social,
economic and political structures that they are difficult to resist or challenge.
Chapter Two
In this chapter, Franklin takes up the “real” in her title to talk about lived experiences
of technology and consciousness. She distinguishes four levels of reality: vernacular
reality, the personal and political everyday reality concerned with eating, sleeping,
working, and so forth; extended reality, the “body of knowledge and emotions we
acquire that is based on the experiences of others”(p.37); constructed or
reconstructed reality, which consists of imagined or archetypal representations of
reality; and finally projected reality, the reality of the future which has yet to be
imagined or brought into being.
Franklin then leaves the question of reality for a moment to discuss the relationship
between science and technology and the nature of experience. Like theorists such as
Wajcman who are careful to separate science from technology, Franklin questions
their facile connection in the familiar “science-and-technology” dyad. She argues that
at present, “[s]cience is not the mother of technology. Science and technology today
have parallel or side-by-side relationships; they stimulate and utilize each other.”
(p.38) Thus Franklin conceives of science and technology as both separate and
mutually constituting spheres of activity; while it is useful to make a critique of
scientific practice in relation to technological practice, one must remember the earlier
caveat against homogenizing technology. Following this somewhat reluctant
connection, Franklin touches on the role of the scientific method in technological
practice. The scientific method, as understood by Franklin, “provides a way to derive
the general from the particular and then, in turn, allows general rules and laws to be
applied to particular questions.”(p.39) This method is effective only when context is
inessential, which is to say rarely. The problem then occurs when this isolated method
of science becomes “the model of describing reality rather than one of the ways of
describing life around us.”(p.39) Science is here conceived of as a singular project
based on expertise, not experience (Harding also raises this concern around scientific
knowledge production). As feminists have noted, this privileging of expertise over
experience is firmly situated in gendered relations of knowledge production and
Returning to the issue of realities, Franklin argues that all levels of reality have been
affected by technological development. Drawing in the issue of knowledge and power,
she proposes that it behooves us as critics to closely examine which agenda and
whose realities are promoted in our society. Change, according to Franklin, requires
an understanding and appreciation for both the structure and the content of the
realities, and “[o]pting out by individuals doesn’t really change the agenda of what is
urgent and what is not, unless there is a collective effort to supplement and substitute
the images with genuine experience.”(p.45) Thus, choosing to disengage oneself
altogether is not really an option for those concerned with ethical technological
frameworks. Interestingly, new forms of reality created by technology are geared
towards precisely this kind of social disengagement. Communication has been
translated through technology into new forms of how to carry out shared experience
in private. In an implicit critique of technohype around such things as virtual reality,
Franklin notes cuttingly, “pseudorealities create pseudocommunities.”(p.46) Direct
experience is avoided in favour of virtual experience (which, one might add, then
becomes more “real” than the “real”).
Technological advances in a variety of areas have enabled us to address parts of the
future as if it were the present. Franklin cites the example of futures trading to
substantiate this point. The future is often seen as inevitable and in some ways
predetermined by technology (technological determinism). Franklin argues that rather
than viewing a linear narrative of technological “progress” as inevitable, we should be
engaging in “discussion of the structuring of the future which global applications of
modern technology carry in their wake. What ought to be of central concern in
considering our common future are the aspects of technological structuring that will
inhibit or prevent future changes in social and political relations.”(p.48)
Technological practices, according to Franklin, have also led to a decline in
reciprocity, which is “some manner of interactive give and take, a genuine
communication among interacting parties.”(p.48) She contrasts this to “feedback”,
which is related to prescriptive ordering and cybernetic theory as a specific technique
of systems management. Franklin here inadvertently anticipates the role of the
internet. Given that “interactivity” is often championed as an advantage of online
communication, this critique is timely. She argues that in minimizing or eliminating
reciprocity, technology produces “pseudorealities of ephemeral images… [which]
diminishes the sense of common humanity.”(p.51) When reciprocity diminishes, there
is no need to develop interactive communication skills which depend on active
engagement. However, Franklin acknowledges that technology use is not
deterministic, and we need not use technologies in problematic ways. Technology is
as yet ambivalent in its effects, and has provided some opportunities for new forms of
interpersonal relations.
Chapter Three
In this chapter, Franklin addresses technology as a potentiator for the expansion of
control and management. In viewing technology as a system and tool, it is useful to
ask, as she does, how tools redefine a problem, and what new technologies may
render us unable to do as well as what they enable us to do. In this sense, Franklin
casts technology as a complex and multifaceted problem and process. Again
inadvertently anticipating the internet, she uses the metaphor of a web of interaction
to denote the workings of technology, to signify that an action at one site affects other
sites (sometimes in unexpected ways) and that things can be re-woven into different
Franklin then moves to the issue of how technology has produced changes in social
and political patterns, particularly in the sphere of planning. She refers to Foucault’s
Discipline and Punish to show how regimes of social and political control developed
in relation to bodies and communities, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution to
implement mechanized systems of control and organization. She argues that while in
the eighteenth century, bodies were the machines through which systems operated,
by the nineteenth century machines alone became the agents of control. Here again
we see the move from holistic to prescriptive divisions of labour. Franklin notes
parallels between the nineteenth century and our present time: “[b]oth ages had
irrationally high expectations of the beneficial effects of science and technology
voiced by their respective proponents.”(p.64) Despite mechanization of production
aiming to eliminate messy “externalities”, systems of production still required buyers
for their products, and here the notion of the consumer as a social institution was
born (and, as Franklin points out, now the consumer can just as easily be a machine
as a person). The growth and expansion of technology in relation to systems of
production has required a substantial social infrastructure which previously had not
existed. Thus the role of governments in this case is to provide that infrastructure. As
a result, there is often little public discussion about the advantages or disadvantages
of a particular technology that the government may decide to adopt. In a sense, one
critique of technology is not even about the actual practices, but about the level of
public participation inherent in governmental processes. The relationship of
government to its citizens is changed so that governments are now more responsive
to the interests of technocrats and corporations than people whose lives may be
affected by the adoption of various technologies.
Chapter Four
In this chapter, Franklin expands on her thesis that institutional planning and
infrastructure building around technology has developed with minimal concern for the
role of actual human beings as users, developing the theme of “planners and
plannees”. “Many technological systems”, she writes, “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.”(p.76)
To illustrate her point, Franklin provides a discussion of the use of war and military
technology, not unlike Haraway’s notation of the cyborg’s birth in the military-industrial
complex. She argues that this aspect of technology has provided both “technological
imperative” (the drive to produce all things technological, regardless of cost or utility)
and the need for a credible long-term enemy to provide a reason for such
technological production. In this sense, technology develops from a position of
constant potential combat, and military service now translates into financial service in
citizen funding of military technology (of course, without citizen knowledge or
consent). Thus, “most activities in the real world of technology have been planned;
the spread of technology has resulted in a web of infrastructures serving primarily the
growth and advancement of technology; the presence of these infrastructures and
their ‘forward planning’ (often manifested as institutional inertia) severely hinder
political or economic changes, even if such changes are viable and appropriate.”
Despite well-orchestrated attempts to plan the lives of human beings, people have
resisted and developed alternative strategies. Franklin suggests that planning is
geared towards maximizing gain, while coping is geared to minimizing disaster. The
latter action requires knowledge of context and an awareness of constant change, as
opposed to the former which is predicated on stable systems. In discussing outcomes
of planning, Franklin stresses that “context is not a passive medium but a dynamic
counterpart.” (p.91)
Chapter Five
In this chapter, Franklin examines the consequences of the development of labour as
enabled by technology; namely, a culture of conformity and compliance. Since
prescriptive systems of technology only work when “externalities” are controlled, it is
essential that humans conform to technological processes in order for the prescriptive
process to function. The logic of prescriptive technology begins to be applied to other
facets of existence, and to subsume other kinds of logic. Franklin identifies a number
of stages in the process of technological development: invention/innovation, growth,
standardization, and stagnation/stabilization, which can be applied to larger social
contexts. Social response to technology moves from utopian imaginings through
increasingly reduced human involvement, and finally the elimination of user access to
the machine itself. Humans are transformed from creators and visionaries to users,
and finally indentured servants. The discourse around technology likewise is
transformed, from liberation and freedom to exploitation and resignation. Franklin
argues that “[w]hat turns the promised liberation into enslavement are not the
products of technology per se… but the structures and infrastructures that are put in
place to facilitate the use of these products and to develop dependency on them.”
Franklin then turns her attention to feminist critiques of technology, indicating the
“substantial body of documentation showing how teaching, research, and practice in
most areas of science and technology follow essentially male patterns by being
basically hierarchical, authoritarian, competitive, and exclusive.”(p.103) This is not a
surprise, given the relations of structural power which have already been discussed.
Franklin goes on to note that the gendering of technology leads to both personal and
institutional biases against women, not to mention structural absences of women as
technological users and creators. Prescriptive technologies tend to be coded as
apppropriately male, while holistic technology use tends to be coded as female; given
the differential valuation given to both the male-female and prescriptive-holistic
binaries, the consequences of such a designation are obvious. Franklin stresses the
integral importance of women’s work in the development of technology despite its
apparent absence, arguing (like Plant) that women have always worked with
technology, and moreover have been fundamental to its development. Within the
structures of prescriptive technologies, women tend to perform the kinds of jobs
(telephone operators, bank tellers, clerical workers) which mechanization phases out.
Chapter Six
Franklin concludes in her final chapter by addressing the subject of change. Again
rebutting the notion of technological determinism, she proposes that “[t]echnology is
not preordained. There are choices to be made and I, for one, see no reason why our
technologies could not be more participatory and less expert-driven.”(p.115)
Franklin answers her own question of, “What will it take to initiate genuine change?”
with the suggestion that “the crisis of technology is actually a crisis of governance.”
(p.120) Governance in this sense refers to the larger project of managing people and
systems. She argues that change must occur at both the grassroots and institutional
level, with the former influencing the latter through collective action and movement.
One important factor in this process is the transcendence of technological factors
which impede genuine reciprocity. Furthermore, “[w]e badly need an expanded
concept of justice and fairness that takes mortgaging the future into account.”(p.122)
Returning to the notion of privileging experience, she notes that critical discourse
around technology should “be authentic, giving weight and priority to direct
experience and reciprocal communication rather than to hearsay or second-hand
information.”(p.124) The question to be asked here is, “Whose benefits and whose
costs?”(p.124) Franklin identifies a “checklist” for public projects: does it promote
justice; restore reciprocity; confer divisible or indivisible benefits; favour people over
machines; maximize gain or minimize disaster; favour conservation over waste;
favour reversible over irreversible? (p.126) Advocacy around technology also
includes transforming people’s experiences from an appearance of marginality and
irrelevance to an active engagement in the technological decision-making process.
Focus should be shifted to an interest in what Franklin terms “redemptive
technologies” (p.127), in a bottom-up process which aims for an active interest in
utility and positive change for the people most affected.

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