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Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1999)

The title of Franklin’s 1987 Massey Lectures are an homage to C.B. Macpherson’s 1964 Lectures, The Real World of Democracy. Macpherson saw the Soviet and Post-Colonial states of the mid-sixties as challengers to the Western Liberal Democracy to which he was committed:

We in the West have built up a system which we value very highly. It combines a large measure of individual liberty with a fair approximation to majority rule. None of the other systems have managed this, and we don’t indtend to be talked out of our achievement no matter how necessary a policy of co-existence with the other systems might be. (C.B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy, Toronto: Anansi, 2006, p. 4)

This point of view should be familiar these days: it’s the stubborn cry of liberals long-accustomed to the unquestioned supremacy (hegemony) of their values seeing those values attacked by subaltern activists under the banner, not of pluralism, but of equality. It is the cry of antediluvian liberal democrats arguing against “identity politics”, “cultural Marxism”, and relativism of all colours. Jordan Peterson is a good example of this, but examples are not hard to come by. The hegemony of the liberal ideology, which was so total as to seem like not an ideology at all, “neutral”, “value free”, is crumbling in the face of competing interests. Liberals call out for a renewal of the social contract, falling back on “fraternity” when the traditional call for “liberty” has failed.

Franklin’s work calls back to Macpherson’s in many ways, but especially in this defense of liberal values. It colours Franklin’s view of “the real world” in ways I’m not sure she was aware of. Nonetheless, her diagnosis of the effect technological change has had on our lives is succinct and potent. She’s not wrong, but in addition to being a liberal, she is also a positivist, and shares the positivist’s bias for “explaining that” over “explaining why”. Franklin’s book explains that certain technological and social changes have occurred since the late 1970s, but it can’t explain why.

Fundamentally, this is because - while claiming that nothing she writes should be taken as technological determinism - Franklin is in fact a technological determinist.

Nothing in my survey or its highlights should be interpreted as technological determinism or as a belief in the autonomy of technology per se. What needs to be emphasised is that technologies are developed and used within a particular social, economic, and political context. (51)

And yet, on almost every page, technology takes an ontological priority over the social. Nothing is written about the social, economic, and political context in which Franklin understands technology to arise. For example she writes that “technology as practice has modified our culture” (26), “[the speed of communications technologies] so completely changed the real world of technology that we now live in a world that is fundamentally different” (34), “new technical means restructure social and economic activities” (41). While technology is seen as “modifying” and “restructuring” our society, this is not due to any internal logic of the socio-economic system itself, but only to “inadequate modeling” (21) and a failure of the social contract. It is this liberalism – of social contract theory and morality (“was it morally right that, in the name of trade, prosperity, and efficiency, the mode of work could change so drastically that many people became uprooted and deprived of their livelihood?” (58)) – that makes Franklin unable to understand, for example, the nature and cause of technological innovation, which in her view, simply happens:

Inventions and innovations may lead to the development of a particular technology; this, in turn, can bring growth of the technology, social acceptance, and standardization of production as well as products. (92)

But what caused the inventions and innovations in the first place? Well, if inventions and innovations are technologies, then clearly they too were caused by inventions and innovations.

To my mind, this is due partly to the hegemonic nature of liberalism - the fact that liberalism is so dominant, so supreme, that it cannot see beyond its priorizing of individualism and the social contract. But it’s also due to the idea that neoliberal capitalism - the state of affairs Franklin is criticizing - is a deformation of the “good capitalism” of the long boom (the post-War Keynesian Welfare State period) and of classic liberalism. Capitalism, like liberalism itself, is seen as “rational” and “neutral”, a fact of life; therefore the problems of austerity and the cutting of social services (and all the other “deformations” of neoliberalism) can’t be due to the mode of production; they have to be ascribed to something else. For Franklin, this opens the door to seeing technology as some kind of objective agent, a thing in the world that is operating in some kind of causal relationship with us. If we have allowed this to happen, this is due - not to the logic and power relations inherent in the system - but to a failure of governance and the social contract. We have made mistakes, and “technology” has profited by those mistakes.

This is a classic example of what Marx called fetishism and Lukacs called reification, where the movement and dynamics of social relationships are mistaken for the movements and agency of things. The social consequences Franklin analyzes are definitely real, and problems we have to address, but the days of an unquestioned liberalism, of the free market, individualism, and the social contract, are over. Which all to the good, since it is precisely that liberalism which prevents Franklin from really getting to the heart of The Real World of Technology, and leaves the reader of these lectures fundamentally dissatisfied.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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