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Ursula Franklin (1921-2016): Imagining a world of technology where people and nature matter

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 (University of Toronto/Mark Neil Balson)

Ursula Franklin was a metallurgist who studied early Chinese bronzes, a crystallographer, a professor of physics, a pacifist, an advocate of women's rights, a Quak­er, a moralist, a pioneer in the study of what technology does to us and our environment, a recipient of some 20 honorary degrees, a public intellectual of the first order, and a truly wonderful human being whose eyes actually twinkled, with a mischievous look on her face. She was all of these things rolled together, each of them informing the rest. 

She was fond of E.F. Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful with the subtitle Economics as if People Matter. She rewrote the latter as "Technology as if People Matter and Nature Matters" because she thought they were neglected in the real world of technology.

For many of us "technology" may conjure up machines that do things better than we do without them. Others have an even broader definition, with technology meaning technique. Franklin was of the latter persuasion. Technology was simply: "How we do things around here." Her definition is given pride of place in Wikipedia's entry on Technology. It is the most comprehensive of definitions, an extraordinary challenge to scholarship and to the goodness of life.

Within that broad conception, Franklin's focus was on the division of labour, on how the task was divided up. She made a distinction between holistic technology and prescriptive technology, which occurred to her when studying large early Chinese bronzes, and that became central to her thinking.

Holistic technology is about the craftsperson who is in control of what they are doing, is responsible for what is produced and is responsible for its impact, its consequences, for the world around it. It is about specialization, of the division of labour by-product, and it is judged by the quality of the product. It does not easily lend itself to mechanization. It evolves like an organism rather than a mechanism.

It is a technology which has a long history but is no longer the dominant technology. I think of an uncle of mine, the village blacksmith who shoed my father's horses. The occupation itself has disappeared, along with the horses, replaced by Canadian Tire.

What dominates today's "real world of technology" -- which is the title of her best-known book -- is prescriptive technology. It imposes itself, literally prescribing how it works and what it does. It is about process. It is about efficiency, cost-effectiveness. It is about the division of labour by process, about discrete steps in production. Each step can be done repetitively. It is about quantity, about economies of scale, increasing returns to size, and makes a virtue of bigness. It lends itself to mechanization, its epitome being the assembly line.

Let me think like an economist, something I can't imagine Franklin doing: the larger the market the greater the scope for the division of labour; and the larger its practice, the lower the cost and price and the larger the market. Each feeds on the other, which is what made the Industrial Revolution revolutionary.

It leaves slight room for autonomy by the practitioner on the ground, for it is about control from on high -- for the good of all of us, of course, though there is no need to consult us because experts know best. 

It creates a culture of compliance. Its essential features exist independently of the context in which it is embedded, so its management -- for it has, by its nature, to be managed -- ignores that context, like the human and natural environment in which it takes place. Context "adapts" to process, not process to context. It is a mechanism in motion, permissive of manipulation. Franklin speculates that the bureaucracy for which China became famous -- a stunning example of a culture of compliance - had its roots in the early use of prescriptive technology.

All of this bothers Franklin, but what worries her most is that the prescriptive technology comes to be applied not just to the production, or manufacture, of goods -- and services, think today's fast food outlets -- but to the administration of public sector services such as education and caring for people. In such matters, the holistic approach, which is adaptable, flexible, sensitive to the nurturing of the individual on the receiving end, is much to be preferred over the prescriptive. 

Franklin is aware of the economic benefit, of the high standard of living that has resulted from prescriptive technology. She thinks we have paid too high a price, sold our soul, put our humanity -- even, we must today add, our existence as a species -- at risk. A simple distinction by Franklin about the division of labour turns out to have truly pervasive consequences.

Adam Smith's famous book The Wealth of Nations, that bible of industrialism and industrial capitalism, actually begins with a discussion of the division of labour in pin manufacturing -- meaning nails -- which is solely about how the process of manufacturing pins has been broken down into a number of discrete steps by means of which the production of pins by the same number of labourers is greatly increased.

Smith is notable for the paeans of praise he heaps on the prescriptive technology -- I drew from him in my discussion above of the relationship between the division of labour and the extent of the market - which is at that time still relatively novel and potentially revolutionary, and is replacing the holistic kind. Though Franklin stands Smith on his head -- he sees each worker with a specific task as becoming inventive, she sees that worker becoming more conformist -- both are clearly talking about something that is of the very first importance in our understanding of modernity.

What Franklin sees, and Smith does not, is that prescriptive technology is not just about efficiency, it is also about control. It is inherently destructive of the autonomy of labour and hence of democracy. (Franklin takes her title The Real World of Technology, from political theorist C. B. Macpherson's The Real World of Democracy, and is in fact eliding the two.) With the world moving toward political democracy, workplace democracy was being drastically constrained.

And with all that division of labour and size, and the resulting complexities, who's responsible for the consequences? Michelle Swenarchuk, compiler of The Ursula Franklin Reader, writes: "no one will admit responsibility for the construction of nuclear weapons; although each weapon is planned and built deliberately, what we have is the apparent 'virgin birth' of nuclear weapons." 

Likewise, we risk losing touch with nature. We can literally live in the bitsphere rather than the biosphere and not even know whether it's snowing and blowing. (Does that explain why we live our lives as if climate change is not happening?) Franklin herself, who came to Canada as an adult, noticing how Canadians always wanted not to upset Americans by what we did, thought we should treat nature the way we treat Americans. 

There is a Canadian intellectual tradition that focuses on technology, celebrated by Arthur Kroker in his book Technology and the Canadian Mind, featuring Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and George Grant. (With limited academic interest in Canada in American Studies, technology studies may be its stand-in.) Franklin's name must be added, the first woman, with a woman's point of view on technology -- this point must be emphasized - and the only one actually competent in, familiar with, the inner world of technology.

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Image:  University of Toronto/Mark Neil Balson

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