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Ada Lovelace Day: Ursula Franklin

March 24th, 2009     by Stark Koenig     Comments

A couple of months ago I pledged to blog for Ada Lovelace Day, an initiative put forth by Suw Charman-Anderson, digital rights activist, journalist and blogger. The initiative seeks to challenge the notion that women are absent from science by shedding light on women who have excelled in science.


I have chosen to look at some of the achievements and theories of Governor General’s Award winner, U.N. Pearson Peace Medal Honouree, award-winning physicist and metallurgist Ursula Franklin, who has had a formative influence on how I see the world around me. I first read The Real World of Technology when I was 19, taking a class on the anthropology of technology, a course that I had only added to my schedule to fulfill a science requirement for my undergraduate arts degree. The course ended up being enlightening and transforming, mainly thanks to Dr. Franklin.

To go into all of Franklin’s achievements and ideas would require a textbook rather than a blog post, so I will focus only on two areas: her assertion that technology is a practice rather than an accumulation of objects and her theories on a feminist scientific method.

Technology as Practice

In The Real World of Technology, Franklin says:

“Looking at technology as practice, indeed as formalized practice, has some quite interesting consequences. One is that it links technology directly to culture, because culture, after all, is a set of socially accepted practices and values. Well laid down and agreed upon practices also define the practitioners as a group of people who have something in common because of the way they are doing things… .I think it is important to realize that technology defined as practice shows us the deep cultural link of technology, and it saves us from thinking that technology is the icing on the cake. Technology is part of the cake itself.” (P. 15 - 17)

To say that technology is a practice recognizes the system of interactions that make up technology. This system includes not only the “hard science” and formal processes that leads to the creation of a technological innovation, but the cultural and social processes that are involved as well. She attests that the technology we create and the society in which it is created are inextricably intertwined. Thus much of the way that technology is practiced reflects existing norms, privileges, and oppressions dominating the greater society.

Franklin also distinguishes between what she calls “Holistic” and “Prescriptive” technologies, the former being those practices most often associated with the artisan who is involved with all aspects of the technology’s creation from beginning to end, and the latter comprising those technologies characterized by ancient Chinese bronze-casting and later by the Industrial Revolution, dividing labour into specialized bits and creating products that are uniform.

“When work is organized into a series of separately executable steps, the control over the work moves [from the artisan] to the organizer, the boss or the manager. The process itself has to be prescribed with sufficient precision to make each step fit into the preceding and the following steps. Only in that manner can the final product be satisfactory… Prescriptive technologies constitute a major social invention. in political terms, prescriptive technologies are designs for compliance. When working within such designs, a workforce becomes acculturated into a milieu in which external control and internal compliance are seen as normal and necessary.” (P. 23)

She argues that the prescriptive technological process applies in our society to governing, education and economics in addition to the production of materials. While the rise of prescriptive technological practice has brought about many important innovations and contributed to a rise in living standards (for some), it has also fostered a social environment more complicit, more susceptible to conformity and less resistant to social programming.

Feminist Scientific Method

Looking at technology as practice entails recognizing science as more than an objective, formal discipline free of cultural assumptions that might cloud the results of a given study. Beyond looking at how objectivity is compromised by the subjectivity of a scientific practitioner, Franklin points to the ways that a discipline becomes the realm of one group over another through a series of social interactions and traditions:

“When certain technologies and tools are predominantly used by men, maleness becomes part of the definition of those technologies. It is for these deep-rooted reasons that it is so very difficult for women to enter what are now called “non-traditional” jobs. If engineers are male and maleness is part of engineering, then it’s tough for men to accept women into the profession… And so year after year, engineering faculties go through initiation procedures that are crude, sexist, and obscene in order to establish that the profession is male, even if some of the practitioners are female.” (P. 16)

In addition to looking at how practices become gendered, Franklin emphasizes the need for experience to influence the scientific method.

“Today scientific constructs have become the model of describing reality rather than one of the ways of describing life around us… . Because the scientific method separates knowledge from experience, it may be necessary in case of discrepancies to question the scientific results… rather than to question and discount the experience. It should be experience that leads to a modification of knowledge, rather than abstract knowledge forcing people to perceive their experience as being unreal or wrong.” (P. 39 - 40)

Franklin argues that bringing experience into the scientific method would open up knowledge to new discoveries as new kinds of questions are asked. Women, she has argued, ask different questions and discover new knowledge that has otherwise been largely ignored or overlooked.

“The great contribution of women to technology lies precisely in their potential to change the technostructures by understanding, critiquing, and changing the very parameters that have kept women away from technology. Happily, I am beginning to see small beginnings of such structural changes… However, it’s barely a start.” (P. 104)

Over ten years later, Franklin notes that women who challenge the mainstream of scientific study by challenging objectivity with experiential questioning are still marginalized within their areas of study. But she hasn’t stopped transforming the world of technology around her or encouraging other women to do so in turn.

Franklin has been named a Companion of the Order of Canada, awarded a slew of prestigious honours, from the Governor General’s Award to the U.N.’s Pearson Medal of Peace as well as numerous honourary doctoral degrees, and has even had a high school named after her. She has inspired generations of women to bring their experiences to the world of technology and has herself transformed the way we think about technology with her ideas and practices.

Work Cited: Franklin, Ursula. The Real World of Technology. Concord, Ontario: House of Ananasi P., 1990.

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