Archive for January, 2014

Ursula Franklin speaks. We oughta listen.

January 28, 2014


Ursula Franklin’s talk “The Real World of Technology” is a visionary redefining of our understanding of technology in particular with regard to government priorities and how we think of progress. She places humans and nature in the centre, over industry, with regard to government policy. She questions whether we are really solving problems, or allowing technology to determine our priorities. She holds up several terms, and their contrasting priorities, to highlight the slight shifts necessary to realign ourselves as a principled and democratic society: holistic vs. prescriptive technology, a growth model vs. a production model, divisible vs. indivisible costs, planners vs. plan-ees, maximizing gain vs. minimizing disaster, the natural environment vs. the built environment. Holistic approaches have a greater ability to respond to changes in circumstance, which is lacking in prescriptive approaches that imagine that context is of little importance. Her final call is for us to talk to each other, and to be like earthworms, preparing the soil and being seeds of change. By discussing our common future, we can then take a principled stand against government policy that would take industry as a priority over the lives of its citizens.


It is equally important to realize that there are, in principle, two different planning strategies. There is planning in order to maximize gain, and there is planning in order to minimize disaster. I gave two examples of public planning for the latter purpose—the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry and the report by the Science Council of Canada, Canada as a Conserver Society—in order to show that planning to minimize disaster is possible, not only in theory but in practice.

                  In this context I felt it necessary to stress that the concept of “the environment” includes two separate components. One refers to the built and constructed environment, which is truly a product of technology; the other is nature, which is not. I made a plea that we get away from the egocentric and technocentric mindset that regards nature as an infrastructure to be adjusted and used like all other infrastructures. I said that if I had one wish, I would wish that the government of Canada would treat nature with the same respect with which all governments of Canada have always treated the United States [pause] as a great power, and a force to fear. When suggestions for political actions are given to Canadian government the first response is often “What will the Americans say?” I really wish we would look at nature as an independent power and when planning ask, “What would nature say?” (118-119).


My strongest impression upon first hearing Ursula speak the words of her Massey Lectures were of her presence with her audience. Each section began with a sincere thanks to those in attendance, and in the second part, a short reference to the prohibitive weather. She makes herself accessible to audiences of any level or education by using simple examples, such as asking why we have come to read such very large newspapers when it is not done elsewhere in the world, or comparing planning at the government level to the necessity of shifting her own planning paradigm when she became a mother. She also uses stories as examples, instead of isolated “evidence” in the scientific sense (i.e. examples divorced of their context). She is constantly making a human connection, rather than implying that scientific evidence is useful in a vacuum. Her approach underlines her main point of considering context, relationships, and reciprocity. When she describes the ways that technology can eliminate the possibility of reciprocity (mostly in Part II), I am reminded of the example she used of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which breaks down the systemizing of various institutional works (prison, military, school). When I have read Foucault, I was impressed at the way his study of plans connected to how people moved physically in space: where they went and consequently, what they chose to do. Ursula’s story telling then connects this understanding of what we do with what we consider possible. She offers us a sort of reprogramming, through which we can examine the ways that our sense of possibility is limited by technology. I love the way she grounds these radical insights in physical presence, the necessity to be with one another. I find this to be a profoundly spiritual position, in that spiritual presence requires little more of us than being conscious in space, rather than distracted or dissociating in some way. By using story telling, presence with her audience, and accessible un-cryptic communication, Ursula boldly calls us back into our bodies, our minds, and through them, to our Spirit. It is exciting to use her testimony as the starting point in a course about technology, where one might imagine Spirit has little domain.