Code4lib 2019 lightning talk: The Real World of Technology (transcript)

Below is a tidied-up transcript (a transcript++?) of a lightning talk I gave about “a great book I’ve recently re-read.” This is perhaps understating the weight and impact this book has had on me and how I try to work over the past several years, but nevertheless, here it is.

Ursula Franklin was a Canadian feminist philosopher and she performed these utterly massive series of lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, called The Real World of Technology, and I re-read the book version of these lectures on the plane over here and I just continually find this to be so overwhelmingly relevant to the work that I do today and the times we are living in. In addition to this I had read an article of hers about appreciating silence, and in the modern world we are so rarely in silence with each other (and this was written in the 90s), so I think much like the public domain Frost poem read by Eric this morning, I think its nice to slowly ruminate over some of these concepts. I also recommend reading this book in silence on a plane for sure.

I can loosely summarize some of the concepts here that really struck me as being relevant to our profession:

technology as practice

technology and democracy

infrastructure work / tragedy of the commons – I feel this deeply working in open source. A quote: “If someone robs from a store, it’s a crime and the criminal gets nabbed. If someone steals from the commons, it is seen as an entreprenual activity and the state cheers and gives out tax breaks”

holistic versus prescriptive technologies – Holistic technologies are things with the “do-er” at the core, with quick iteration and change, and can be thought of as artisinal craftmenship, whereas prescriptive is when you are a cog in a machine and following rules that have been laid out for you, and she speaks on how much of technologies is taking away holistic work and becoming prescriptive work, and puts the power in the hands of management rather than the people doing the work.

reciprocity – Working with this concept of reciprocity and exchange and value between people, strengthening the former concept of holistic/prescriptive tech, strengthening people and relationships. In modern technology design, frequently any reciprocity is ruled out, by design. She emphasizes that the tech we use and may call “communications technology” is often the opposite of that, “non-communications technology,” as it is reducing actual communication.

new tech sold as liberation but actually the opposite – This was covered succinctly by theBlockchain is snake oil talk yesterday, but she uses sewing machines as an example of something that is sold as liberation (less time spent toiling over clothes-building) but ends up being used as exploitation, like the garment industry and its labor practices.

when technology is anti-people and anti-nature - (self explanatory)

nature – That nature is a strong and powerful source, and we should be asking “What will nature do?” rather than (as a Canadian) “What will the Americans do?” This is increasingly difficult to read as we find ourselves completely backed in an unescapable climate collapse corner.

Some quotes I had pulled, but only had time for the last one, which I felt would most strike a chord with people in the libtech community:

“Technology needs to be examined as a method of power and control” (Essential to her argument)

“Technology, like democracy, includes ideas and practices, it includes myths and various methods of reality.”

“Tools often redefine a problem.”

“What needs to be emphasized is that technologies are developed and used within a particular social, economic, and political context. They arise out of a social structure, they are grafted to it, and they may reinforce it or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen nor foreseeable.”

“All these infrastructures could have been designed differently if the first design priority had been human development rather than technological development. Many technological systems, when examined for context and overall design, are basically anti-people. People are seen as sources of problemes while technology is seen a source of solutions.”

“Should one not ask of any public project 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 favored over waste 7 whether the reversible is favorable over the irreversible.”

“Social change will not come to us like an avalanche down the mountain. Social change will come through seeds growing in well-prepared soil, and it is we, like the earthworms, who prepare the soil. We also seed thoughts and knowledge and concern.”