Ursula Franklin’s tech project checklist

Dr. Franklin at the Fate of the Earth, third biennial conference, 1986. University of Toronto Archives. B1996–0004/001P(26). Photo by Robert Del Tredici

While I’m in the beginnings of a new tech-oriented research project, I’m getting a lot from Ursula Franklin’s “Real World of Technology” lectures, which contain the following checklist for projects:

“… 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 favoured over
waste; and
(7), whether the reversible is favoured over the irreversible?”
I’ll pull out a few more quotes to underline these, but encourage you to listen to the lectures, or read the published transcriptions in book form. I’m doing this for my own purposes so will link this to my own project with my very Euro-centric point of view.

Justice

“The viability of technology, like democracy, depends in the end on the practice of justice and on the enforcement of limits to power.”
Speaking in the late 80’s, Franklin saw Justice in ecological terms:
“.. one can ask, “Who has given the right to publishers to suddenly dish out their newspapers in individual plastic bags that just add to the already unmanageable waste? Who gives the right to owners of large office buildings to keep wasting electricity by leaving the lights on all night in their empty buildings?” These are not questions of economics; they are questions of justice — and we have to address them as such.”
So a sense of justice needs to be central in decision making. Not to choose what is most time-efficient, or cheapest, but also consider ecological damage, and other community gains and losses. Not to take unnecessary flights, when buying tech consider the people making it, to make things so they can be taken apart and the parts reused, share them in accessible ways, and so on.

Reciprocity

“Reciprocity … is situationally based. It’s a response to a given situation. It is neither designed into the system nor is it predictable. Reciprocal responses may indeed alter initial assumptions. They can lead to negotiations, to give and take, to adjustment, and they may result in new and unforeseen developments.”

Here Franklin notes that technological development and often comes with loss of reciprocity. A phone conversation can contain genuine reciprocity despite the loss of body language, but much technology comes between people and real give and take. I’ve certainly felt terrible after doing online performances where any audience has no way of responding. Online ‘webinars’ are very hard to engage with when you aren’t allowed to ask questions directly. ‘Communications technology’ too often comes between us and stops us from communicating.

Divisible or indivisible benefits

Franklin makes the difference clear:

“If you have a garden and your friends help you to grow a tremendous tomato crop, you can share it out among those who helped. What you have obtained is a divisible benefit and the right to distribute it. Whoever didn’t help you, may not get anything. On the other hand, if you work hard to fight pollution and you and your friends succeed in changing the practices of the battery-recycling plant down the street, those who helped you get the benefits, but those who didn’t get them too. What you and your friends have obtained are indivisible benefits.”

Of course Franklin is not coming out against growing tomatoes here, but is highlighting that indivisible benefits are rarely of interest to technologists, despite their greater potential value to the society and the common good.

This connects well to open access, free/open source, and datalove in general – not investing in scarcity, but making stuff that only increases in value as you share them. But it goes far beyond licenses, which only takes down one barrier of many. Who really feels able to access the technology you make? Who really ends up doing so?

People over machines

An important, but I think self-explanatory checklist item. Are we making systems for computers and machines or the people using them?

Maximizing gain or minimizing disaster

This is again an ecological but also feminist point, characterising two quite different strategies.

“A common denominator of technological planning has always been the wish to adjust parameters to maximize efficiency and effectiveness. Underlying the plans has been a production model, and production is typically planned to maximize gain. In such a milieu it is easy to forget that not everything is plannable.”

Interestingly as an environmentalist, Franklin describes the approach of minimising disaster in terms of growth. But she contrasts this against overgrowth, or what we would think of as economic growth. This is about a relationship with technology as craft, a kind of activity where we craft in close interaction with a material, with unpredictable results:

“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 develops at its own rate.”

Accordingly, minimising disaster is always about taking in the full context of a technology:

“Berit As, the well-known Norwegian sociologist and feminist, has described this difference in strategies. She sees traditional planning as part of the strategy of maximizing gain, and coping as central to schemes for minimizing disaster. A crucial distinction here is the place of context. Attempts to minimize disaster require recognition and a profound understanding of context. Context is not considered as stable and invariant; on the contrary, every response induces a counter-response which changes the situation so that the next steps and decisions are taken within an altered context. Traditional planning, on the other hand, assumes a stable context and predictable responses.”

I find this really interesting. Aiming to create technologies that enable us to cope almost seems unambitious! Why would we aim to ‘just cope’? But to focus only on maximising (divisible) gains means that collectively we are failing to cope. We can only maximise gains by ignoring the very real disasters we are causing by doing so, usually through wilful ignorance.

Conservation over waste

Again this is an important but largely self-explanatory point, which follows from the previous one. We shouldn’t waste things, and we should also build things that are not wasted, or are reusable or remake-able into something else.

Reversible over the irreversible

“The last item is obviously important. Considering that most projects do not work out as planned, it would be helpful if they proceeded in a way that allowed revision and learning, that is, in small reversible steps.”

I really like this one. What we make should be hackable, reconfigurable, not beholden to ‘sunk costs’. We should be prepared to challenge preconceptions, embrace our errors and mistakes, change our minds, improvise, try something else. This also implies not making a break with the past, avoiding succumbing to futurism (at least, the fascist flavour of it) where we work in ignorance of what we have done before.

Ok this was just some rushed thoughts, extrapolated from a single paragraph, which is hidden two-thirds of the way through this really excellent book/lecture series. I really encourage you to jump into the whole thing, Franklin’s characterisation of technology-as-activity, and of prescriptive technologies of control vs holistic technologies of craft is incredibly lucid and prescient.

You can listen to the lectures here, and read it in book form here. Note that the second lecture seems to be missing from the recorded version, although it is really great to hear Franklin’s voice!

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