From the PLSJ archives: An Extraordinary Mind

Posted on Jul 17, 2012 in Science, Technology & Society

I used to write a blog called purselipsquarejaw and every so often I miss it.

So I’ve decided to re-publish some of the archive here, hopefully on a semi-regular basis, with updated links wherever possible, and sometimes with new commentary.

Monday, January 27, 2003
An Extraordinary Mind

German-Canadian experimental physicist Ursula Franklin is one of the scholars I most admire – even if I do not always agree with her. I was first introduced to her work during my BA. She was a pioneer of archaeometry (materials analysis in archaeology) and has studied the metallurgical material culture (and technological processes) of many ancient cultures. And in my technology and culture class, we read her 1989 Massey Lecture, The Real World of Technology. [CBC audio here and the expanded book version here.]

There’s a stack of books I read in my undergrad that changed the way I think – and that was one of them. She never separates technology from people:

“I think what we are all discussing are political issues. They are political in the best sense of the word, in the original Greek sense of the word, in that they affect the community, the very citizens who have to work and live together. When all the technology is disposed of, when we have understood or put aside all the details, what is left are the issues of how people live together. These political issues have existed ever since people have lived together and were articulate about their relationships.

To me, it is important to understand that technology is practice, it is the way we do things around here. This definition takes machines and devices into account, as well as social structures, command, control, and infrastructures. It is helpful for me to remember that technology is practice. Technology, as a practice, means not only that new tools change, but also that we can change the practice. If we have the political will to do so, we can set certain tools aside, just as the world has set slavery and other tools aside. It is also the nature of modern technology that it is a system. One cannot change one thing without changing or affecting many others.”

And today – instead of arguing details – I just want to let myself be inspired by her general concerns.

I still admire Ursula Franklin, and I think I’ve even come around to more of her thinking since my original post.

In 1967, Franklin became the first woman Professor of Metallurgy and Materials Science at the University of Toronto, and in 1984 she was the first woman appointed University Professor, U. of T.’s highest rank. At this stage in my own academic career, I can better appreciate what a big deal that is.

She’s also a convinced Quaker, and her work continues to be guided by feminist and humanitarian principles. You can learn more about her views in a 2010 interview for CBC’s The Current – here’s the video part 1 and part 2.

Plus, if I had children I’d want them to consider attending the Ursula Franklin Academy – it sounds interesting.

But really, I chose this post to start with because I’d forgotten how good Franklin is at explaining the human dimensions and political stakes of technology. I think I’ll start re-reading The Real World of Technology tonight.