In 1989, Canadian activist, engineer and thinker Ursula Franklin gave a series of extraordinary lectures on the politics of technology design and deployment called "The Real World of Technology."
Meredith Whittaker, a googler, human-centered design advocate, and co-founder of the nonprofit Simply Secure, had her life profoundly upended by those lectures, which she listened to as a lark while doing some housework, thinking that a 20-year-old collection of technology predictions would be hilarious.
In a new essay, Whittaker reflects on Franklin's message, and the subsequent discussions she had with Franklin herself about how technology design choices can (and can't) make the world a better and more place.
At the root of Franklin's analysis is the idea that some technology is "prescriptive," limiting the actions of the people who use it, and that a world of prescriptive technologies — our world — is ripe for other kinds of control, such as political authoritarianism.
Propelling our current innovation juggernaut are what she calls prescriptive technologies. These are practices that split the doing of something into small, identifiable tasks, each performed by a separate person or specialized unit (i.e., the division of labor, as in the assembly line or the production of complex software). Under prescriptive technologies, "control over work moves to the organizer, boss, or manager."5
Backstopped by an eighteenth-century Western worldview that imagines humans as mechanical entities whose activities can be calibrated for increasingly efficient output (from La Mettrie to Taylor to CrossFit)6 and driven by the introduction of mechanized labor during the Industrial Revolution and by the high-modernist vogue of master planning,7 prescriptive technologies are accepted today as the way activities are organized. Enabling management from afar, mass scale, and the ability to measure outcomes across finely tuned variables.
Not coincidentally, prescriptive technologies also provide the necessary conditions for modern capitalism and global consumer markets. How else could we ceaselessly make more and better things faster? How else could we provide the raw materials that feed financial markets—the ability to quantify, structure, control, and predict that provides gamblers a shared perspective to bet on?
While producing wonderful artifacts and mind-blowing techniques, prescriptive technologies create a world in which it's normal to do what we're told, and to do so without the ability to control and shape the process or the outcome. They also require a command and control structure. A class of experts—the architects, the planners—and others who follow the plans and execute the tasks. This structure creates a "culture of compliance . . . ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal and to accept that there is only one way of doing 'it.'"8 A view through Franklin's lens reveals that, as a "byproduct" of what we call progress, we have created societies easily ruled and monitored— and accustomed to following orders whose ends they don't question.
All Problems Can Be Illuminated; Not All Problems Can Be Solved
[Meredith Whittaker/Berline Biennale]
The Real World of Technology (CBC Massey Lectures series) [Ursula M Franklin/House of Anansi]