Technology and the Social World 2

Technological Progress in Stages

Both Marx and Ursula Franklin (The Real World of Technology) argue that technology goes through stages, moving from good to bad.

Franklin argues that there is a basic distinction in technology between what she calls "
holistic technology" and "prescriptive technology". The distinction is on the level of practice, but does not concern what is being done, but how it is being done.

In holistic technologies, the artist controls the process of their own work from beginning to end. It is usually associated with crafts. People may work together on things, but there is not a division of labour like, one person gathers the clay, another person shapes it, another person fires it.

Prescriptive technology, on the other hand, has a division of labour by process. Different steps are carried out by different people.

Now, these two types of technology are not necessarily value-laden. In other words, the holistic is not good and the prescriptive bad. Some processes, in fact, would be unimaginable without the division of labour common in prescriptive technology. But they have different implications.
They require different social arrangements. Particularly, in prescriptive technologies, you have to have both the competence of the worker, as well as strict adherence to the plan. People cannot go doing their own thing. This is what Franklin calls designs for compliance.

The problem Franklin sees is that these designs for compliance are seen as useful technologies in areas other than material production. They are used in administrative and economic situations, and in areas of governance. The reason is that prescriptive technologies yield predictable results. Particularly, they eliminate the need for decision making on the part of the participant. If you live in a "smart" building, in which you gain entrance to certain areas with a carded barcode, you do not have to decide whether to go somewhere or not. Your card will allow you in certain places, and not others.

It is not just that the technology takes away decisions from you. It gives them to experts. Your car is more complex than it was 20 years ago. It means that you are part of the technical process of moving from one place to another. There was a time when people would take delight in tinkering with their cars, modifying them to get more power or to make them suit their own needs more. They had control over their cars. Now, only the experts have control over cars. This is enforced by more stringent warranty statements, such that if you do anything with the car other than use it in the prescribed way, you face a penalty.

This means that, in part, we have to figure out who technology is for. For instance, we could think of education as technology. Suppose that there were complaints about a program from two different places: the students, who thought it was too hard, and the professional world, who thought that the students coming out of the program were not equipped to operate in the profession. Who would be listened to? I suspect the second would carry more weight, which means that the program is really for the profession, not for the students. It also means that the education will be a prescriptive technology, in which the student must fit in or get out.

Franklin points out that the direction of development of technology is from the enthusiastic to the apocalyptic. Her example is the sewing machine. In 1851 it became commercially available, and was touted as the device that would free women from the chores of hand-sewing. There was the promise of liberation from toil. The authors of this assumed that the introduction of sewing machines would result in more sewing, and easier sewing, by those who had always sewn. They would do their work in an unchanged setting.

Actually, the new technology made for a changed social setting. In reality, you had sweatshops that exploited the labour of immigrants and women. Sewing machines became synonymous with exploitation, not liberation. Home sewing machines were used less, since you could buy market goods. So, you have a prescriptive technology, with the classic division of labour, that has the opposite effect that was predicted.

Franklin's argument (and she is not the only one to make it) is that it is not the technology itself that exploits, but the social structures that the technology demands that exploits. The usual promise of technology is that our lives will be the same, only better. Franklin points out that the social structures of technology have implications for all of us, particularly women. The social structures are like the technology -- linear, rational, designed to produce a certain output. If you are not as concerned with output as with process, the technology works against you.

Of course, it is a two-way street. Women also learn the technologies as well as anyone, even if the implicit social structures work against them. Women were the first telephone operators, for instance (male operators are very recent, and still an oddity). In the late 19th century, these operators were more than just women who plugged jacks into boards. They would relay information. They were a clearing-house of sorts. They could link up with other operators, and make conference calls. That was possible in 1890, and has only relatively recently become possible again. Why?

Because the human operators were replaced with circuitry. The circuitry had limited applications, and could not adapt to new situations. So, the telephone went from a technology that had some reciprocity inherent in it, to one that did not. With circuitry came the necessity of adhering to the demands of the system. It went from being holistic to being prescriptive. Now, we have the ultimate parodies of non-communication -- the Dating Game & the Party Line, Voice-mail, and all the various kinds of options the phone company offers. These are all designed to strictly control the kinds of communication possible, and protect you from having to communicate.