We can all tell this story: The rails of human advancement stretching from the Enlightenment to a Bitcoin start-up; innovation measured by increased reach, increased uniformity, increased predictability and size and quickness. The telegraph to the landline to the mobile phone to the Bluetooth wearable; the abacus to Pascal’s mechanical calculator to the room-sized computer to the palm-sized device a million times more powerful than equipment a thousand times its size from only ten years ago; the stone tablet to the book to the internet offering everything, no excuses. We are all connected. We’re at the bright tip of a comet hurtling forward. We can place ourselves, with mild satisfaction. Thank god it’s not then. What kind of person uses a BlackBerry? (Old people!)
But “who isn’t depressed after half an hour on Facebook?” to quote my therapist. It doesn’t smell right. I work so much. I see fewer people. Everyone’s worried. I have a twitching compulsion to always check alerts, to smooth out the notification bar forever. And yes, of course there are long-standing critiques of positivism and the Western notion of objectivity and totalizing systems and bold technocratic visions. But that’s up there, and this is now, and it’s still lonely, this unsettled feeling at the cutting edge of the best time ever made.
I work in high tech, the leading border of innovation, according to the story. My job is designing research and development practices to make secure and private internet communications easier to use and easier to validate. I do this work at a big company, and I love this work. It feels real and necessary, and I can explain it clearly to everyone on the inside. So while the whole thing may not sit comfortably, here I am, in a closed system, shaped by a ubiquitous, glitzy positivism, where it’s hard to imagine what else could be true.
I stumbled upon Ursula Franklin’s 1989 The Real World of Technology,1 when I was looking to clean the house to a podcast. I thought it would be funny—discussions of technology from 1989 would be wrong in interesting ways! It wasn’t funny. It was wonderful. It brought that kind of recognition that you read novels for, when something familiar and inexpressible is put into words. Who was this person, and how was it that her voice seemed so much more urgent, real, and relevant than the petabytes of breathless journalism comprising our current discourse?
Franklin was born in 1921 in Munich, Germany. She and her family survived the Holocaust and reunited miraculously in Berlin, where she earned a PhD in experimental physics before leaving for a research fellowship in Canada. She is a feminist, a pacifist, a Quaker, a physicist, a metallurgist, and a pioneer of archaeometry (applying modern materials analysis to archaeological objects). She was the first woman to be awarded the highly prestigious title of “University Professor” at the University of Toronto, and she made key contributions to art and cultural history, to the cessation of nuclear testing (her research exposed increasing levels of radiation in children’s teeth), to the anti-war movement, and to the social and political analysis of technology. Weaving through her work is a deep respect for systems, interrelationships, and complexity (the interaction between culture and technology or art and materials, for example). She approaches her subjects not as things to be simplified and mastered, trimmed to fit convenient models, but as parts of larger wholes that could possibly be mapped, but not controlled.
The Real World of Technology can be read as a remapping of the common story of progress; it looks not at the stuff progress makes but at the systems it instantiates and the imprint they leave on us.
Echoing French sociologist Jacques Ellul, Franklin defines technology as a shared practice.2 It is the way we do something, not the familiar description of “the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters.”3 Instead, it is a practice that consists of “organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.”4
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?
There is no technology for justice. There is only justice.
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.
Not that there isn’t resistance. From the Luddites to Occupy, resistance percolates and ruptures. But when it does, it is most often characterized as a natural if unpleasant effect of innovation’s “disruptive” tendencies (to use the current lingo). In this we note that our story of progress views “people as sources of problems and machines and devices as sources of solutions.”9 New, better, faster ways of doing things, ways that produce more things more quickly, are right and inevitable. People’s anger, fear, and resistance to new modes and machines are characterized as regressive, stubborn. A problem to be minimized and tolerated.
Franklin connects this propensity to favor “progress” over human experience to our particular reliance on scientific method. “Scientific constructs have become the model for describing reality, rather than one of the ways of describing life around us.”10 The problem with this is not that science is “wrong,” necessarily, or that it fails to provide a powerful tool with which to understand and confirm general truths in shared ways. At issue are the practice’s overly broad application and its weakness when approaching contexts from which a constant variable can’t easily be isolated. Human experience, emotion, and affect, with their infinitely rich and shifting contexts, is not conducive to scientific “proof.” In a world in which science is the model, individual and shared experience does not “count” alongside other much more easily “provable” facts. The requirement that something be proven scientifically for it to be legible also means that the experts, those with education, standing, and access to scientific authority, become the de facto arbiters of whose experience and concerns are valid—and whose aren’t. A position with significant power. This privileging of the generalizable and scientifically “provable” at the exclusion of lived individual experience is central to the way in which our shared story of progress can so comfortably (and conveniently) focus on the artifacts extruded by innovation, and leave the human cost to the side. “The plural of anecdote is not data,”11 we’re reminded.
“There is no technology for justice. There is only justice.”12 Ursula Franklin answered when I asked her in December 2015, what to do. I reached out because I wanted her to tell me how to act on the perspectives she brings to the traditional story of progress. As someone building internet technologies, working within this received wisdom, I wanted a recipe, something I could share with others (with you!) and throw my body into.
She was warm and generous and incredibly insightful, and she gave me no smooth answers, no simple way.
Central to our conversation was my worry about the massive surveillance capacities enabled by internet technologies and the way in which public assent to surveillance is fueled by the racism and militarism of the now eternal “War on Terror.” What could we do to combat this narrative? What could we do to change the underlying technologies such that they respect human agency and privacy?
Franklin agreed. This is a grave problem. But not a “technological” problem:
“Whether it’s heathens, witches, women, communists, whoever, the institution of an enemy as a political tool is inappropriate. The only solution is an insistence on a civilized democratic society. A civilized democratic society combats this and the wish of an authority to collect personal information on citizens and their activities and loyalties. Whether it’s done by spying, by bribing children, by workplace monitoring, by confession in the confession box of the church—the collection is the issue. The means—the technology—is secondary. The problem is a problem of authoritarian power. And at the root of this problem is the issue of justice, and justice is political.”
While justice can be understood, can be felt, there is no template to follow, or checklist to work through for ensuring a just outcome. The requirements are humility, a respect for context, and a willingness to listen to the most marginalized voices. Let these define the basic requirements of whatever you do. You must “put yourself in the position of the most vulnerable, in a way that achieves a visceral gut feeling of empathy and perspective—that’s the only way to see what justice is.”
Understanding justice, honoring those most vulnerable and including them as authors of any plan that impacts them, is a necessary starting place. But the problems associated with our current technologies won’t be solved by tweaking gears or redesigning mechanisms. A roadmap that centers on justice is only the first step. “For a very long time gadgets and machinery have been anti-people. If one wants to get away from the anti-people component, then you don’t argue technology as much as you argue capitalism.” Even with a view of what justice would look like and could be, attempts at radical change will, of course, be repulsed by powerful actors who benefit richly from the unjust status quo. Political change must be a part of the equation.
This isn’t a frenzied call for revolution. The bigger the scale, the bigger the vision for just change, the more difficult it will be to “get it through” a system in which power is aligned against justice (and, of course, the more difficult it will be to truly understand this vision’s vast impact on vulnerable populations and thus ensure it really supports justice.) Not that working to build practices and plans isn’t worthwhile—it is incredibly worthwhile. But you’re unlikely to have much real impact if you start with a grand announcement. “To proceed in a hostile world,” Franklin suggests, “call it an experiment. Admit that you don’t know how to do it, but ask for space and peace and respect. Then try your experiment, quietly.” In conditions not conducive to success, situate yourself out of the spotlight and proceed subtly, humbly, and be willing to downplay expectations while new forms incubate.
“My favorite word is an old Quaker term, ‘scrupling,’ used as an activity,” Franklin begins, addressing how to approach the vastness of the political and social problems we were discussing. “It comes out of the anti-slavery movement, originally. People would get together to ‘scruple,’ that is, discuss and debate a common problem, something they had scruples about—say, justice—for which they did not have a solution. This is scrupling, and this is something you and your friends can do.”
Gather and talk. Empathize and listen. Don’t chase the spotlight, and accept that some problems are big, and difficult, and that what you’re good at may not fix them. These are not the ways of charismatic executives and flash-bang inventors. These are not instructions for entrepreneurial success. These won’t produce bigger faster newer ways of doing things.
Her parting words were meant to comfort me. “For your own sanity, you have to remember that not all problems can be solved. Not all problems can be solved, but all problems can be illuminated. If the eggs are scrambled, they’re scrambled. You can’t unscramble them. All you can possibly do is cook them and share them with somebody.”
1 The lectures are the basis of Ursula Franklin’s book, originally published in 1990: The Real World of Technology (Toronto, 1999). The lectures can be streamed for free: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-1989-cbc-massey-lectures-the-real-world-of-technology-1.2946845
2 Jacques Ellul (1912–94) was a French sociologist, philosopher, and Christian anarchist who authored, among other things, The Technological Society (1954), in which this definition is laid out. When outlining her definition, Franklin cites Ellul as an influence.
3 Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology (Toronto, 1999), p. 2.
5 Ibid., p. 16.
6 Julien Offray de La Mettrie was an eighteenth-century physician and philosopher who wrote L’homme machine, in which he envisions humans as complex machines. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a late-nineteenth-century engineer and author of The Principles of Scientific Management. He analyzed factory workers, compartmentalizing their actions with the goal of defining the most efficient way to produce commodities (i.e., get the most out of workers). CrossFit is a twenty-first century fitness fad that aims to “optimize fitness” through a carefully regimented series of targeted and intense exercises.
7 This is an echo of James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which looks at legibility and standardization as requirements for centralized authoritarian planning and control.
8 The Real World of Technology, p. 17.
9 Ibid., p. 25.
10 Ibid., p. 31. The italics are Franklin’s.
11 A quip variously credited to about a dozen authors according to the internet.
12 Ursula Franklin’s statements in this section come from a Skype call on December 19, 2015, between Ursula Franklin, Jane Freeman, and myself. I would like to offer my immense and warmest gratitude to Jane Freeman and to Ursula Franklin for the time and care they spent considering and answering my questions, including many emails, and for all the logistical organization necessary to ensure that Skype was set up and that we were ready to go.
MEREDITH MEREDITH is an internet researcher and poet living and working in New York. Her daily practice focuses on measurement and the use of public data to enforce net neutrality; the application design and artistic thinking to the creation of more delightful, more respectful cryptographically secure technologies; and the ethics, power relations, and affect of the internet—in all it’s unclear definitions—as it inoculates the world’s daily reality.
IMAGES: Jon Rafman, You Are Standing in an Open Field (Gale), 2015. Archival Pigment Print, Wood, Urethane Casting Resin. Courtesy of the Artist. Ursula Franklin at the launch of The Ursula Franklin Reader: Pacifism as a Map, at Massey College, Toronto, 2006