Ursula Franklin


Ursula Franklin : biography

16 September 1921 –

Holistic and prescriptive technologies

According to Ursula Franklin, technology is not a set of neutral tools, methods or practices. She asserts that various categories of technology have markedly different social and political effects. She distinguishes for example, between work-related and control-related technologies. Work-related technologies, such as electric typewriters, are designed to make tasks easier. Computerized word processing makes typing easier still. But when computers are linked into work stations—part of a system—word processing becomes a control-related technology. "Now workers can be timed," Franklin writes, "assignments can be broken up, and the interaction between the operators can be monitored."Franklin (Real World), p.18.

ding. Franklin describes the prescriptive methods used in producing such ritual vessels.]]

Franklin extends the distinction between work and control-related technologies to the larger concept of holistic and prescriptive ones. This enables her to consider the social implications of how work is performed. She writes that holistic technologies are usually associated with craft work. "Artisans, be they potters, weavers, metal-smiths, or cooks, control the process of their own work from beginning to finish." Artisans may specialize in a particular kind of product, but they are always in total control of the process of production and each thing they make or create is unique.Franklin (Real World), p.19. Prescriptive technologies, on the other hand, break work down into a series of discrete, standardized steps. "Each step is carried out by a separate worker, or group of workers, who need to be familiar only with the skills of performing that one step."Franklin (Real World), p.20.

Although the division of labour inherent in prescriptive technologies is usually associated with the industrial revolution, Franklin points out that such production methods have been used since ancient times. Chinese bronze casting before 1200 BC for example, required a tightly controlled and closely supervised production process as well as a strict division of labour.Franklin describes Chinese bronze casting in some detail in Real World, pp.20–23. Franklin writes that when she studied Chinese bronze casting as a metallurgist, "the extraordinary social meaning of prescriptive technologies dawned on me. I began to understand what they meant, not just in terms of casting bronze but in terms of discipline and planning, of organization and command."Franklin (Real World), pp.22–23.

Technology’s culture of compliance

Franklin argues that in modern society, control-related and prescriptive technologies are dominant. "When work is organized as a sequence of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves to the organizer, the boss or manager," she writes. "In political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance."Franklin (Real World), p.23. Emphasis in original. For Franklin, workers accustomed to following prescriptive rules become used to seeing external control and internal compliance as normal and necessary. They also come to believe that there is only one prescribed way of performing a wide variety of tasks. "While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are often exceedingly effective and efficient, they come with an enormous social mortgage. The mortgage means that we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing ‘it’."Franklin (Real World), p.24

Franklin points out that prescriptive technologies have moved beyond materials production to the realms of administration, government and social services. She argues that tasks which require nurturing or caring for people, in health and education for example, are best done holistically. Yet such tasks are increasingly coming under the sway of prescriptive technologies based on what Franklin calls a production model. Professor Heather Menzies, an admirer of Franklin, describes for example, how nursing tasks are performed in keeping with preset, computerized check lists which leave little discretionary time for dealing with the unexpected or talking with patients who are lonely or distressed.Menzies, Heather. (2005) No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., pp.126–130. Franklin herself notes that schools and universities test and promote students based on strict production schedules yet "if there ever was a holistic process, a process that cannot be divided into rigid predetermined steps, it is education."Franklin (Real World), p.29.