The Real World of Technology

Last spring I finished a book on economics and in my review here on my site I talked about how Small is Beautiful had changed my thinking. And it has, I’m stilling thinking about that book. And now I have another book to add to that list of life changing books. The Real World of Technology by Ursula Franklin is an amazing book. And it’s made all the more amazing because the first two thirds of the book are lectures that were given in 1989 and the last third was written in 1999.

Franklin is looking at how we live with technology and how technology affects us. There is a lot in this book, her ideas of holistic vs prescriptive technologies, how we get used to technology and it moves from being amazing to necessary, how we interact with the bitsphere vs the biosphere.

It was chapter five that, for me, is sticking with me and rolling around in my head these past several days. How we use technology and talk about technology and try to have technology stand in for human interaction and relationships. Franklin frames much of this conversation around the telephone, and then in her added on chapters at the end she relates back to this (at least it did for me) when she talks about the bitsphere, her word for the world of information exchange in the internet era. Her words about the telephone and using it as cure for loneliness could just as easily be used to talk about the internet.

The other theme I’m thinking deeply about is the bitsphere vs the biosphere and how we desperately need to be pulled back into the biosphere. For more thoughts on this book, I recommend A Working Library, where Mandy delves into the holistic vs prescriptive technologies. But honestly, you should just read the book. I underlined like mad in my copy, this is but a fraction of my highlights since I had to type them out.

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 on to it, and they may reinforce it or destroy it, often in ways that are neither foreseen nor foreseeable. In this complex world neither the opiont that “everything is possible” nor the option that “everything is preordained” exists. (p 51)

Carefully selected phrases used to describe new technical advances could generate an image of chummy communities and adventurous users. But once a given technology is widely accepted and standardized, the relationship between the products of the technology and the users changes. Users have less scope, they matter less, and their needs are no longer the main concern of the designers. (p 101)

What does it say about our society, when human needs for fellowship and warmth are met by devices that provide illusion to the users and profits to the suppliers? (p. 108)

When human loneliness becomes a source of income for others through devices, we’d better stop and think a bit about the place of human needs in the real world of technology. (p 109)

Yet if sane and healthy communities are to grow and prevail, much more weight has to be placed on maintaining the non-negotiable ties of all people to the biosphere. (p 180)