Despite our cultural obsession with new technology, we forget that the idea of new technology is old. We also overlook that there are patterns for how new technologies impact cultures and societies that technologists are often ignorant of. Without understanding the social impact of past technologies, we’re more likely to repeat mistakes, since we don’t even know what to look for.
Recently I read The Real World of Technology, a short book by Ursula Franklin (Thanks Deb Chachra for the recommendation). It’s more academic in style than other culture/technology books I recommend, like my favorite book on the subject, Technopoly, but it had insights that were new to me. In a series of short chapters she identifies and addresses important observations about the sociology of technological change, and how, without us noticing, our choices have impacted us more than we think.
One of her primary observations is the distinction between holistic and prescriptive technology. A holistic technology means the person using the technology to create something controls the process of their own work from beginning to end:
Their hands and minds make situational decisions as the work proceeds, be it on the thickness of the pot, or the shape of the knife edge, or the doneness of the roast. These are decisions that only they can make while they are working. And they draw on their own experience, each time applying it to a unique situation.
Whereas a prescriptive technology is bound in defined steps and rules, with an obvious example being the assembly lines found at any factory in the last 150 years:
When work is organized as a sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager. The process itself has to be prescribed with sufficient precision to make each step fit into the preceding and the following steps. Only in that manner can the final product be satisfactory. The work is orchestrated like a piece of music — it needs the competence of the instrumentalists, but it also needs strict adherence to the score in order to let the final piece sound like music.
Many technologies, like a guitar or a word processor, involve holistic and prescriptive elements. To play a song on a guitar I’m confined to six strings and 19 frets, and to write a poem, I’m confined to a language (and a keyboard of a specific design). But within those constraints I’d be free to work holistically, or even, to the core of Franklin’s point, decide on my own if I’d prefer a different tool (perhaps a fretless guitar).
But her primary point in the distinction is that is often technology, is especially as applied by organizations, is prescriptive by design or accident. And that corporations and bureaucracies can use technologies in prescriptive ways that only serve their own longevity.
More salient quotes from the book:
“Any tasks that require caring, whether for people or nature, and any tasks that require immediate feedback and adjustment, are best done holistically. Such tasks cannot be planned, coordinated, and controlled the way prescriptive tasks must be.”
“Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing it.”
“Size is a natural result of growth, but growth itself cannot be commandeered; it can only be nurtured and encouraged by providing a suitable environment. Growth occurs; it is not made. Within a growth model, all that human intervention can do is to discover the best conditions for growth and then try to meet them. In any given environment, the growing organism.”
“Production, then, is predictable, while growth is not. There is something comforting in a production model — everything seems in hand, nothing is left to chance — while growth is always chancy.”
“The unchallenged prevalence of the production model in the mindset and political discourse of our time, and the model’s misapplication to blatantly inappropriate situations, seems to me an indication of just how far technology as practice has modified our culture.”
“Yet for people all around the world the image of what is going on, of what is important, is primarily shaped by the pseudo-realities of images. The selective fragments that become a story on radio and television are chosen to highlight particular events. The selection is usually intended to attract and to retain the attention of an audience. Consequently, the unusual has preference over the usual.”
“Anyone who has ever been at a demonstration and then seen their own experience played back on television knows what I mean. Frequently a small counter-demonstration to a large demonstration is treated as if it were the main event. Side-shows move into the centre and the central issues become peripheral.”
“I find it hard to imagine anyone actually standing next to a person who is being hurt or abused and enjoying the sight and sound of the experience, nor can I imagine such a direct observer not intervening or at least feeling guilty for having failed to do so. On the other hand, violence depicted on a screen appears to be acceptable and entertaining.”