4.0356 The Real World of Technology? (1/66)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Fri, 3 Aug 90 18:47:57 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0356. Friday, 3 Aug 1990.

Date: Fri, 03 Aug 90 07:24:18 EDT
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: what is the real world of technology?

Several fellow Humanists have, in effect, pointed out that Ursula
Franklin (in her book _The Real World of Technology_) is telling a
certain kind of story. In this story an original condition of goodness
is somehow corrupted, and as a result the world falls into an evil
state, from which we can be rescued only by a kind of return at great
cost to a renewed form of the original condition. The opposite story,
the one usually told by technologists, tells us that once upon a time we
lived in primitive savagery, beset by ignorance and disease of all
sorts, from which we were elevated by some miraculous gift, and by
cleverness we have progressed to our present heights.

I am of course grossly oversimplifying Franklin's argument by extracting
from it the edenic story of a fall from a golden (holistic) to an iron
(prescriptive) age, but at least as I read the book that story is there.
It is not surprising to find a culturally sophisticated scientist
reacting to the equally false myth of progress in that way. At the same
time, we should not let the influence of the edenic story on her
argument obscure the truth in it. Here on Humanist we can hardly do
justice to Franklin's book (or any other, for that matter) because we
cannot all obtain and read it. (Remember the discussion of Halio's
article on the influence of Macs and PCs on the quality of writing?) We
can, however, deal intelligently with the problems Franklin is pointing

Holistic vs. prescriptive technologies. The scholar is (or was) an
holistic craftsman, working on some problem in the manner he or she
thinks best, controlling the pace of work, more or less, the shape of
the whole, its attributes, and so forth. The craftsman's care with work
and practical concern for its perfection -- always a struggle against
the demands of the client or need to make a living, but nevertheless
recognized as a virtue to be admired -- is something that we as scholars
can recognize. (If you are an academic but can't, then find another
occupation.) We also, I think, know what a prescriptive manner of work
is, and how demeaning and repugnant it is, and we can all sense the
tendencies in modern life to impose prescriptive formulas if not
technologies. What, do you think, are the implications of the thrust
towards greater "productivity" -- the making or more "products"? The
equation of the academic's life with the factory worker's?

The tools of our tools. I think we also have no difficulty understanding
that the adoption of a technology means the adoption of a new manner of
work, the asking of a new set of questions, the alteration in our
perception of what is there to be questioned. To me what is so
interesting about our common field is this reordering of things. But
there is a danger, don't you think, that we forget what we're about,
that the important questions become obscured by those we can now so
easily answer, that the real problems of the humanities are put aside
because there is no external support to work on them? Franklin has
worried for years, and very intelligently too, about how research is
controlled by those with the money. Isn't there a danger threatening us
here too, esp. if we get knee-deep in expensive equipment? Aren't we in
need of some fundamental public relations (to put it crudely) so that
our fellow citizens outside the academy understand what the academy is
for? Don't we ourselves need to refresh our understanding of why we do
what we do? And, finally, what impact do computers have on the asking of
such basic questions?

Enough. Let me observe one thing more before decamping for my office.
The people I've met because of a common interest in humanities computing
are among the most well equipped to tackle such questions. That to me is
a hopeful sign, an indication of renewal rather than corruption. Am I

Willard McCarty