Ursula Franklin doesn’t like credit card door locks.
She’s not too keen on computer magazines, early Remington typewriters, or the arms race either.
But it’s the credit card door locks that really rankle.
Franklin, an experimental physicist who teaches at U of T, is the author of The Real World of Technology. It’s a book that, in six bite-sized chapters, pulls technology out of the realm of fuzzy triplespeak jargon and pushes it, raw and shivering, under the political and social microscope.
It’s an enlightening — if depressing — sight. To examine this “world,” Franklin redefines technology as “the way we do things,” rather than the specific devices we use to do them. In doing so, she makes some penetrating statements about the way political power and control are tied up with even the most innocuous little burps of modern technological life.
Like credit card door locks.
Ask Franklin about them, and she shifts into philosophic high gear. It’s not that they’re inherently evil, she explained in an interview, but that they’re inherently unquestioned.
“If at every floor and every door of a building some guy in battle fatigues with two machine guns would stand and say ‘You can’t get through here, but you, yes sir, come in, come right in,’ you would have a revolution,” she said.
“If instead of the guy with the gun in the battle fatigues, you have a little card that does exactly the same thing, people hardly notice it.”
It’s easy to get paranoid, reading this book. Franklin gives you example after example of how technologies have locked us into destructive patterns of behaviour, enslaving us while purporting to set us free. Orwell would have loved it.
But Franklin’s book is no work of fiction — it’s grounded firmly in case examples that reach into the most mundane facets of modern life. Nothing is exempt from the social effects of technology, and one of the best parts of the book is that she consistently takes the commonplace and makes it positively ominous.
Take, say, typewriters. They’re not what one would ordinarily classify as instruments of heavy-handed political control. But the reason was the alphabet was originally organized in they way it is on the keyboard was to slow down typists who were working far faster than the typewriters were able to, jamming the keys. And, as Franklin explains, it’s just another example of people using the way we do things to dictate what is done, instead of vice versa.
Ultimately, it’s this invisibility of technology’s social impact that Franklin is out to expose. Expose she does.
“That asset of technology that hides its impact because it is disembodied, makes it look so perfectly normal,” she said. “if one does not make people aware that they have to look at this and not say ‘This is normal, this is just life, you can’t stand in the way of progress,’ then that just invites doing what the guy with the gun would do.”
But if Franklin takes our perceptions of technology to task, she does an ever fiercer job with the prime wielders and fashioners of technology — the governments of the world. She’s not kidding when she says that a revolution could erupt if everyone suddenly saw clearly the politically charged goo that is technology. A good chunk of the book is devoted to a nearly proctological inspection of how our government has fostered technology in a way that benefits huge, salivating corporations and generally stiffs the average taxpayer. The environment, social self-determinism, and justice all fall by the wayside as humanity technologically gives control of itself over to governments without even realizing that it’s happening.
The Real World of Technology, even when it’s talking about word processors, is a deeply philosophical book. Any book that sets out to change the way you look at the world around you usually is. But Franklin wouldn’t want you to call her that — at one point, she actually pauses and claims she doesn’t want to get stickily philosophical. Within paragraphs, of course, she’s wading hip-deep in some serious ontological stews and dragging you along.
It’s a fun drag, though. Franklin’s prose style is accessible without being condescending. This might have something to do with the fact that The Real World of Technology was originally aired as a CBC radio program. The book retains many elements of vocal argumentation: she reiterates, illustrates, jokes, appeals directly to the audience. Its readability is probably also a tribute to her experience with the task of popularly communicating complex ideas — she has previously put together four CBC Ideas shows and other papers on topics ranging from nuclear arms to metallurgy in China.
Her experience in so many diverse fields shows; the book performs cross-disciplinary maneouvers that careen pell-mell from feminist theory to poetry to economics and back again, leaving no genre untouched by her re-evaluation of technology. Technically speaking, Franklin is a trained theoretical physicist; realistically speaking, she’s just smart as hell.
And she knows her audience. As far as scientific literature goes, she’s a close second cousin to Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist who claimed he wrote his Brief History of Time with the intent that it would be sold in Lablaw’s, right next to foil-embossed copies of Danielle Steel epics. Franklin doesn’t go quite to that extreme, but she does feel she was writing both for the average citizen and the technical specialist.
“I very much try to make it an open audience, that nothing in either the style or the verbiage prevents anybody from reading it,” she said. “Also there’s enough that ties it all together that someone who comes in with a very specific interest would see that this is part of a fabric and that they can’t really offer their own questions without thinking about other things.
“I think what I would envisage as the audience is sort of a citizen audience where people invite me to, say, talk about whatever — nuclear power, women in engineering, peace.”
It’s this attitude to the public that gives Franklin’s book its revolutionary edge. She believes the time is ripe for a mental renaissance in our relationship with technology similar to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when workers first began to protest the progress of machinery. The way Franklin sees it, the workers of the early nineteenth century weren’t so much rebelling against the way machines changed the way they did things as they were fighting a sense of powerlessness that came from the way technology took away their control over what was being done.
In the modern world, technology’s level of control is far stronger, but far more insidious, she feels.
“For the first time, you have devices that are really substituting for people,” she said. “you are on the next level of sophistication that you do in fact have machines that totally not just substitute for people but substitute for the control function of people. That’s the smart building type of thing, where you not only have a building that’s built by cranes or machines that dig, but you have in the building a devised system that does things controlling people.
“And I think control techniques, being able tot control without the presence of people, being able to control without the guy in the battle fatigues, is something new.”
Like most apocalyptic ideas of revolution, Franklin’s hinges on an awareness of injustice. Ultimately, The Real World of Technology is an attempt to give the reader the tools to see the invisible injustices of technology.
“I think all of this will come to a head on the concept of justice, people saying ‘Who has given anybody the right to exclude me from the fifth floor of this building without even knowing who I am?’ Or, together with the state of nature, who has given anybody the right to cut down trees purely to produce a weekend edition of the Toronto Star?
“The notion of the innocent bystander has gone. Just as in the war situation there was no neutrality, now there is no more technological neutrality.”