My notes and other stuff


The Real World of Technology

Here's a few quotes from The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin, which I'm enjoying a lot so far.

For just a glimpse of the extent of such developments, think for a moment about the new “smart” buildings. Those who work in the buildings have a card with a barcode that allows them to get into the areas of the building where they have work to do but excludes them from anywhere else. Here we have what Langdon Winner, [...] calls so nicely “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. [...] But, joking aside, 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.

To sum up, then: 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. The acculturation to compliance and conformity has, in turn, accelerated the use of prescriptive technologies in administration, government, and social services. The same development has diminished resistance to the programming of people.

Pushing the ideas of prescriptive vs. holistic technologies further:

When working within such designs, a workforce becomes acculturated into a milieu in which external control and internal compliance are seen as normal and necessary.


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."

As time went on more and more holistic technologies were supplanted by prescriptive technologies. After the Industrial Revolution, when machines began to be added to the workforce, prescriptive technologies spread like an oil slick. And today, the temptation to design more or less everything according to prescriptive and broken-up technologies is so strong that it is even applied to those tasks that should be conducted in a holistic way. 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.

And a third one, from a later chapter, on the costs of planning (which is often prescriptive) as opposed to holistic strategies (which are rooted in growth and deeply contextual):

The common theme that runs through many disasterminimizing endeavours is the conviction that ordinary people matter [...] But we must remember that, in the real world of technology, most people live and work under conditions that are not structured for their well-being. The environment in which we live is much more structured for the well-being of technology. It is a manufactured and artificially constructed environment, not what one might call a natural environment. While our surroundings may be a milieu conducive to production, they are much less a milieu conducive to growth.

I'm far from done yet, but it's a good read for sure.