Not Just Gizmos

Ursula Franklin posited an alternative view of technology – as complex systems of practice and culture

Karen Hurley

Photo by Gerd Leonard CC, cropped from original

When we think of “technology,” what usually first springs to mind is a gizmo or machine, and today it often means a computer or phone-based thing or an app/program. But to metallurgist Dr. Ursula Franklin, as described in her book The Real World of Technology, technology is a system – a practice that includes ideas and myths.

According to Dr. Franklin, technology is not all the wheels and gears and electronics, but rather “involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most important of all, a mindset.” Therefore, the thing that is created (such as tool, dam, subdivision, or even a film) results from systems of production, which include people and practices that “[link] technology directly to culture, because culture, after all, is a set of socially accepted practices and values.”

For example, the people and practices in a housing subdivision would include: the engineers, landscape architects, and surveyors that design the proposal; the universities that trained them; their professional codes of practice; local government planners, policy, and politicians; the developer; their lawyers; the builders and trades; the banks; the community; and sometimes activists. 

So if we want to change how technology is affecting nature, our communities, and our bodies (which I think we do), we have to evolve our mindsets towards technology – complex systems of practice and culture. 

If we want to change how technology is affecting nature, our communities, and our bodies (which I think we do), we have to evolve our mindsets towards technology.

And here it gets even more complicated. According to scholar Judy Wajcman, technology remains the domain of men to “the almost complete exclusion of women from the technological community,” including those who offer a critique of technology. Indigenous peoples are also not generally included in Western technological systems of practice. This limits not only important critiques of technology, but the knowledge available for defining problems and solutions. Rethinking technology, therefore, will require that we rethink culture and our roles within in it.

Indigenous laws and practices have much to inform non-indigenous technology systems of practice towards mindsets that privilege nature, community and care. Ursula Franklin believed that women have a unique role because they know there are other patterns and ways of approaching webs of interaction within practices of technology.

For example, climate change and its “solutions” are predominantly discussed in terms of the masculinized technologies of cars and electricity production. Women and Indigenous peoples could bring additional nuance and ideas, both to defining the climate change problem and to broadening solutions to include how our lives and societies could change to require less energy and moving around.

Dr. Franklin also urges us to understand the distinction between technology systems that are holistic and those that are prescriptive, based on how processes are conducted and by whom – who has power and control within the process.   

Holistic technologies are associated with craft, where individual artisans “control the work from beginning to finish.” With prescriptive technology (often referred to as the division of labour), the making of a thing is broken down into distinct steps, with different people doing the work at each stage and needing to be skilled in the task only within their step of production. Control over production or work becomes the responsibility of a boss or manager – increasingly corporate and removed from the localities where their decisions play out. 

Ursula Franklin explains that prescriptive technology systems of practice come with an “enormous social mortgage” because to work in a particular industry is to participate in a “culture of compliance … conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing ‘it.’” She goes on to argue that “understanding the social and political impact of prescriptive technologies is … the key to understanding our own real world of technology.”  We often see a strong culture of compliance in technologies that affect nature and our communities: the “I’m just doing the job as I’m told” argument. What will it take to break down the culture of compliance? 

In considering technology, Dr. Franklin urges us to “ask new and different questions” which could include:

Are systems hierarchal or integrated?

What is the purpose of the design?

Does it encourage fragmentation?

Is creativity encouraged?

Is there a denial of personal responsibility?

I would also add the questions:

Are any groups being dominated?

Are First Nations lands and waters and laws respected? 

Are women involved in the process? 

Dr. Franklin also suggests that we use interdisciplinary inquiries of technology that include nature. She urges us to “look at technology in context … the context of nature and people” and to take up the “urgent task of cleaning up the technocentric and egocentric mindset, to get rid of the notion that nature is just one more infrastructure in the real world of technology.”

Cleaning up our old mindsets about technology will not be easy, but we are in a time of change and awakening. As we continue to deepen our understanding of humanity’s place within an interconnected world we will come to know that, in being kind and caring towards ecosystems, non-human-beings, and other people, we are being kind to ourselves.

Karen Hurley, PhD. is senior policy analyst at Islands Trust, but has written this piece outside of that role and in her role as an independent futures thinker (ecoandjustfutures.com).

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