Ideas

The humane world of Ursula Franklin, a scientist who wanted us to question technology

Phones and tablets, fitness trackers and smart speakers, We think of technology as devices — as any Black Friday/Cyber Monday banner will tell you. But Ursula Franklin saw technology as more than devices. The scientist and thinker defined technology in its broadest sense, simply as the way that we do things.

Her influential 1989 Massey Lectures explored technology's power to shape our world

Ursula Franklin in 1980. She was the first woman ever to be given the University of Toronto's honorary title, University Professor, in 1984. (University of Toronto Archives)

Phones and tablets, fitness trackers and smart speakers. We think of technology as devices — as any Black Friday/Cyber Monday banner will tell you. 

But Ursula Franklin saw technology as more than devices. The scientist and thinker defined technology in its broadest sense, simply as the way that we do things.

"Technology involves organization, procedure, symbols, new words, equations, and most of all, it involves a mind set."

Franklin spoke those words more than three decades ago, delivering her 1989 Massey Lectures, called "The Real World of Technology." In these lectures she analyzed the way technology and society are each shaped by the other.

Power and responsibility

Although the talks were first written and broadcast before the rise of digital technology, they have influenced a general of writers and thinkers. They confront questions that are fundamental, and may still apply to our own era. 

Both the broadcast talks and book version of Ursula Franklin’s 1989 Massey Lectures have influenced a generation of writers and thinkers. (Anansi)

For example, Ursula Franklin acknowledges that important products and services have resulted from "prescriptive technologies": externally-controlled processes broken down into steps. 

She argues that a "culture of compliance" and division is created when people don't see the whole picture. And this "culture of compliance" encourages us to accept that there is a system and only one way of doing things.

As she says in her first lecture: "Any critique or assessment of the real world of technology should...involve serious questioning of the underlying structures of our (production) models, and through them, of our thoughts."

A life of activism

Before her death in 2016 in Toronto at the age of 94, Ursula Franklin was dedicated to critiquing the way that corporations, institutions, societies and nations choose to "do things."

Surviving the Holocaust and seeing tyranny and injustice firsthand was a formative experience.

Ursula Franklin lived her life not only as a scientist and thinker. She was a pacifist and social justice advocate who protested and acted for women's rights and the natural environment, and fought against nuclear testing and war.

Ideas revisits some of Ursula Franklin's Massey Lectures on December 2, 8, 9, and 16. The Real World of Technology, Revised Edition is available as a book, published by Anansi.

These lectures were originally produced by Max Allen, and these episodes by Lisa Godfrey.

Guests in the program: 

Ursula Franklin (1921-2016) was a physicist and metallurgist who spent her groundbreaking career at the University of Toronto.  She was widely honoured for her teaching and mentoring, and for her activism as a pacifist, feminist, and humanitarian. A high school in Toronto is named for her.

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