4.0332 The Real World of Technology (1/102)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 30 Jul 90 21:05:46 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0332. Monday, 30 Jul 1990.

Date: Fri, 27 Jul 90 22:18:11 EDT
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: realities of technology?

Let me recommend to you a recently published book, originally a series
of six lectures by Ursula Franklin, formerly a professor here in the
department of metallurgy, now a university professor emeritus. It is
_The Real World of Technology_, published by CBC Enterprises, P.O. Box
Station A, Toronto, Canada M5W 1E6.

Dr. Franklin is interested in the cultural impact of technology. She
argues the ancient but often ignored thesis that we tend to be ruled by
our own creations. To do this, she speaks about technology not so much
as the products we all admire but as practice, as a way of thinking
about and structuring the world. She draws the distinction between
"holistic technologies" (chiefly done by craftsmen, who control what
they are doing while doing it) and "prescriptive technologies" (mostly
what we think of as "industry", in which the work is controlled by the
short-term efficiency of the process). One of her examples of the latter
is the manufacture of Chinese bronze vessels in the Shang
Dynasty, but there are many from more recent times. She shows how
"Prescriptive technologies constitute a major social invention. In
political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance"
(p. 23). They have also, she argues, brought about all the benefits we
daily hear of and enjoy, but at a cost we seldom think about very
clearly. The intention of her book is to bring this cost to light, and
so to assist her readers to resist programming by those who have the
most to gain from our compliance.

Perhaps the part of Franklin's book closest to the concerns of computing
humanists is the fifth chapter, in which she describes the impact of new
technology from the perspective of the society that accepts it. First
the enthusiasm and imaginative appeal, stressing liberation from toil
and drudgery, creating social bonds and sense of excitement from people
grateful to be participants in such a progressive time. Then the growth
and standardization of the technology, with a greatly reduced
involvement of people, and a very strong tendency for users to become
captive supporters of both the technology and the infrastructures. The
technology becomes impossible to do without (no longer high, just free
from withdrawal pains). Since there is much money to be made from the
enthusiasm of the initial phase, it gets embedded in upbeat advertising
and official policies in the second phase. It becomes doctrine.

An example. Franklin quotes from an article about the sewing machine,
written in 1860:

"The sewing machine will, after some time, effectively banish ragged and
unclad humanity from every class. In all benevolent institutions, these
machines are now in operation and do or may do 100 times more towards
clothing the indigent and feeble than the united fingers of all the
charitable and willing ladies collected through the civilized world
could possible perform."

The result? Sewing done in sweatshops, exploiting the labour of women,
and women immigrants in particular. "Sewing machines became, in fact,
synonymous not with liberation but with exploitation." Less sewing done
at home, more in factories according to prescriptive technologies.

I think that's about enough to give you the flavour of the book. I
cannot resist, however, passing on to you a poem she quotes, ironically
humorous, to illustrate the increasingly modern phenomenon of
meaningless work.

by Helen Potrebenko

The nature of typing is such that
there are none but silly errors to make:
renowned only for pettiness
and an appearance of stupidity.
I don't want to make silly little errors;
I want to make big important errors.
I want to make at least one error
which fills my supervisor with such horror
she blanches and almost faints
and then runs to the manager's office.
The manager turns pale and stares out the window
then resolutely picks up the phone
to page the big boss at his golf game.
Then the big boss comes running into the office
and the manager closes his door
and hours go by.
The other women don't talk
or talk only in whispers,
pale as ghosts but relieved it isn't them.
An emergency stockholder's meeting has to be called
about which we hear only rumours.
To make sure I don't accidentally get a job
with a subsidiary, allied company, or supplier,
I am offered a choice of either
fourteen years severance pay or early retirement.
A question is asked in Parliament
to which the Prime Minister replies by assuring the House
most typists only make silly typing errors
which only rarely affect the balance of trade.
The only time I get to talk about it
is when I am interviewed (anonymously) for an article
about the effect of typing errors on the economy.

(from _Life, Love, and Unions_, Vancouver: Lazara Publishers, 1987).

Ok, this is a story at least partially about our world. Does it fit? If
it does, what do humanists do about it?

Willard McCarty