Beware of the Status Quo Values of Social Technologies

I’ve heard Nora Young the smart host of CBC’s Spark end her radio show with the wish that her listeners understand that all technologies come embedded with values and assumptions. Furthermore, she emphasizes, those values are those of the dominant culture.

Young is part of a grand tradition of Canadian thinkers who have cautioned about the negative side effects of technologies. Ursula Franklin, for example, distinguishes between holistic technologies which should leave “the doer in total control of the process” and prescriptive technologies which keep control in the hands of managers or specialists. She argues that the dominance of prescriptive technologies in modern society discourages critical thinking and promotes “a culture of compliance.” 

Franklin is a remarkable academic, pacifist and feminist whose work, life and insights deserve to be in constant circulation.

Technologies are not just things likes I-phones and cars or platforms like google and facebook. They are also social processes, methods and techniques including those bundled under the headings of social innovation and social finance.   

It is a mistake to assume these social technologies are benign, harmless or neutral.

I’ve detected inequity, sexism, racism, intellectual elitism, patriarchy, exclusion, competition, cynicism about government and belief in unbridled economic growth embedded in the social technologies I’ve used or become enamoured with. These are values that are bound to preserve the status quo unless we are careful.

It is hard to ignore new social technologies. They are so seductive when they are shiny, fancy and new aren’t they? But it’s best to use them with eyes wide open.

Here are four suggestions to minimize their harmful effects and maximize their potential to be life enhancing. I call these suggestions, ‘The Ursula Test.’

  1. Assume there are hidden status quo values in the concepts, theories and methodologies you are using. See how many you can spot.   
  2. Play the field with technologies and concepts. Date them as I do. Carefully weigh their advantages and disadvantages. Determine which are holistic versus prescriptive. Look for those that honour self-sufficiency, resilience, inclusion, reciprocity and our responsibilities to each other and the environment.
  3. Celebrate our complexity – Remember that technological ingenuity is about certainty. It doesn’t like mystery, humility or uncertainty. Yet without those mindsets, the breakthroughs we are looking for won’t happen.
  4. Don’t substitute social technologies for the natural order of things such as outrage, common sense, intuition and face to face relationships, particularly with those who are experiencing injustice and inequity.

There are no magic cures. Citizens have been successfully confronting injustice and inequity for centuries. And they will continue to do so long after the latest social technology has been replaced.

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“Many technological systems, when examined for context and overall design, are basically anti-people. People are seen as sources of problems while technology is seen as a source of solutions. As a result, people live and work under conditions structured for the well-being of technology even though manufacturers and promoters always present new technologies as liberating.

     Ursula Franklin

Bonus: Listen to Ursula Franklin’s Massey Lectures, “The Real World of Technology.”

For your listening pleasure check out Jenn Grant’s, ‘Stranger in the Night’ from her new album Compostela  Listen here. Buy here.


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