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The Real World of Technology (CBC Massey Lectures series) Revised Edition Paperback – June 1, 1999
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About the Author
Ursula Franklin is an experimental physicist, University Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, a former board member of the National Research Council and the Science Council of Canada, and a companion of the Order of Canada.
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Unfortunately, her book only looks at one side of the coin. On the opposite end of any sweatshop laborer are potentially hundreds of people clothed. It doesn't exactly work like that, but it's hard to make the case that the sewing machine has caused more harm than good by 'enslaving sweatshop laborers.' She is a thinker, not an economist, and her writing evokes more of the philosophical treaties of the 1950s than a practical guide to change.
She highlights in her book the need to consider the environment, the changing social norms (in particular the lack of 'reciprocity' that technology enables). She envisions solutions that don't keep us captive. However, she never does more than rally against these developments.
Technology and human society works in permutations and increments on what is currently there. Zipcar was seen as a social revolution in car sharing, but they failed to realize the ultimate 'car sharing' would be Uber, with a decidedly less 'egalitarian' bent towards its riders and drivers.
Good technologies inspire awe and then become entrenched in our daily lives because of that awe, not because of some insidious corporate agenda. Here's what Ursula misses: our desires drive our 'enslavement' (via habit) to our machines. We want to do spreadsheets faster and easier, so we rely on our computer and take care of it--not because of some lurking, unthinking presence, but because of our needs and desires.
It is useful to question the needs, but invariably email provides more communication than memos and meetings; Facebook and Slack provide more communication still, with generally positive effects (though we'll have to have a more nuanced view there).
The economy does not play favorites - it's in many ways a race to the bottom. The reason we don't have telephone operators anymore (another example) is basic cost benefit. There's no doubt having a human touch on the telephone line made it more 'human' and allowed a richer interaction. However, not having telephone operators allowed many more people to afford more minutes on the phone - creating more bridges, saving more lives, etc. She doesn't argue that the costs outweigh the benefits, only that we don't accurately measure or choose the costs.
She talks about 'telephone dating' (you could say the same about Tinder) in terms of swiping profiles and sending messages without seeing the other's reaction. But here again, while I agree that it changes the character of dating, it merely leverages human behavior. We aren't 'slaves' to this technology as much as willing participants.
Her most extravagant claim comes 2/3rds of the way of the book where she suggests government is 'nothing but a bunch of managers, who run the country to make it safe for technology.' A kind of overstatement that undercuts tens of thousands of people who serve their communities (and themselves, to be fair) everyday.
She ultimately proposes a 7 step checklist for any project
1) Does it promote justice?
2) Does it restore reciprocity?
3) Does it confer benefits to all or to some?
4) Does it favor people over machines?
5) Does it maximize gain or minimize disaster?
6) Does it favor conservation over waste?
7) Does it favor the 'reversible' over the 'irreversible'?
In the end it's interesting because intellectually she seems to understand: "The world of technology is the sum total of what people do." There's the key.
The author shows how peoples' motives and attitudes can actually be embedded within the technology *itself*, and impossible to pull out after the technology has been implemented. It also shows how various technologies can have side-effects on society, changing people's attitudes. The belief that technology is born pure and then used for ideological goals is misleading.
Technology (not just man) has had an important role in the early emergence of a burocracy in China, startling psychological effects of the evening news, and racial segregation in the United States. You'll have to read it to appreciate the power behind these conclusions.
However, this book is not anti-technology, nor is it proclaiming an apocalypse. It offers real insights into how we must be aware of sociological and philosophical issues BEFORE we expand technological frontiers. Those in the sciences must stop saying "that's not my responsibility, I only invented it."
As well, people on the whole will be more aware of subtle side-effects of technology, allowing them to reap the intended benefits of technology in a more direct way. I repeat, this book is not anti-science. It is quite scientific and balanced in its arguments. I highly recommend it.
This book is essential reading for anyone studying Technology & Society or Ethics, and is a wonderful pleasure to read. Buy it!