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Franklin // The Real World of Technology

Rob recently shared these with me. Ursula Franklin’s Massey lectures epub / audio.

I really enjoyed how Franklin takes technology not only to mean tools/machines, but also organizing processes and systems. This feels right.

Some of my favorite bits…

Before continuing with some thoughts on planning strategies, let me suggest a few general reflections on planning itself. I don’t want to talk here about the grand designs of the past — the sort of thing one finds in majestic cities, in palaces and temples; the sorts of layouts that brought a friend of mine to sum up his first impression of Washington D.C. by saying, “The place seems to be designed to be ruins.” I want to talk about planning in the modern sense of prescriptive technologies, the kind of thing that Webster defines as “making plans … arranging beforehand.” I like this simple definition because it says that there are planners as well as plannees; there are those who plan and those who conform to what was arranged beforehand. Just as it is easier to give good advice than it is to accept it, it is much more fun to plan than it is to be subjected to plans made by others. The degree of effectiveness of participation by the plannees in long-term planning operations seems to me a true measure of democracy in the real world of technology.

“Context is not considered as stable and invariant;” - a key for a certain kind of planning

I am very fond of a Ben Wicks cartoon which illustrates this point beautifully. The cartoon shows a repairman in a living room removing a television set with a smashed screen. Next to the set stands a man on crutches, one foot heavily bandaged, to whom the repairman says, “Next time Trudeau speaks, just turn the set off.” I think that says it all. It says that a personal response of the kind that the man in the cartoon was obviously eager to give can neither be given nor received when communication is mediated by technology. Any reciprocity is ruled out by design. This loss of reciprocity is a continuing form of technologically executed inequality. It has very profound political and psychological consequences.

I’d like to stress that reciprocity is not feedback. Feedback is a particular technique of systems adjustment. It is designed to improve a specific performance. The performance need not be mechanical or carried out by devices, but the purpose of feedback is to make the thing work. Feedback normally exists within a given design. It can improve the performance but it cannot alter its thrust or the design. Reciprocity, on the other hand, is situationally based. It’s a response to a given situation. It is neither designed into the system nor is it predictable. Reciprocal responses may indeed alter initial assumptions. They can lead to negotiations, to give and take, to adjustment, and they may result in new and unforeseen developments.

Production models vs growth models:

A common denominator of technological planning has always been the wish to adjust parameters to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Underlying the plans has been a production model, and production is typically planned to maximize gain. In such a milieu it is easy to forget that not everything is plannable. Actually, most things are properly described by a growth model — and that means many activities of living — and are ultimately not plannable. A quick example from my own experience: Although I was intellectually quite well prepared for the birth of my first child, I was stunned by the degree of randomness that this event created in my life. It took me a while to understand that it was pointless to plan my days the way I used to. This did not mean that I didn’t plan or prearrange, but that I needed different schemes to deal with the unplannable.

Women in particular have developed such schemes over the centuries — arrangements that are not a surrender to randomness, but an allotment of time and resources based on situational judgements, quite akin to what I described earlier as the characteristics of holistic technologies. Such schemes require knowledge, experience, discernment, and an overview of a given situation. These schemes are different in kind from those of prescriptive planning. What makes them so different is that holistic strategies are, more often than not, intended to minimize disaster rather than to maximize gain.

Berit As, the well-known Norwegian sociologist and feminist, has described this difference in strategies. She sees traditional planning as part of the strategy of maximizing gain, and coping as central to schemes for minimizing disaster.6 A crucial distinction here is the place of context. Attempts to minimize disaster require recognition and a profound understanding of context. Context is not considered as stable and invariant; on the contrary, every response induces a counter-response which changes the situation so that the next steps and decisions are taken within an altered context. Traditional planning, on the other hand, assumes a stable context and predictable responses. Planning protocols for prescriptive activities, whether they’re industrial, administrative, or educational, can be transferred from one application to another without regard to context.

Her recommendations:

To move from the specific to the general: Let’s make a checklist to help in the discourse on public decision-making. Should one not ask of any public project or loan whether it: (1) promotes justice; (2) restores reciprocity; (3) confers divisible or indivisible benefits; (4) favours people over machines; (5) whether its strategy maximizes gain or minimizes disaster; (6) whether conservation is favoured over waste; and (7), whether the reversible is favoured over the irreversible? The last item is obviously important. Considering that most projects do not work out as planned, it would be helpful if they proceeded in a way that allowed revision and learning, that is, in small reversible steps.