“Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters. Technology is a system.”

– Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology

The use (and abuse) of technology to reshape the individual, society, and the world is at the beating heart of every good cyberpunk story. The flashy augmented limbs and flying vehicles get all the love on the big screen, but the underpinning systems that stratify society and turn it into one huge profit machine are more interesting to me. Such systems are already present in our world today, and are a far greater force propelling us into a cyber dystopia than the drones encroaching on our streets and skies or the latest and greatest in surveillance technology. 

I’ve written before about what Ursula Franklin calls “prescriptive technology” and corporations as slow-moving AIs, so instead of retreading old ground, I want to take some time to explore, briefly, a different paradigm for how we think about technology.

Designed for Compliance

As a quick refresher, prescriptive technology involves looking at your final product, breaking it down into its component parts, and then figuring out the most efficient way to manufacture those parts as quickly as cheaply as possible. Humans within such a system function as parts of the machine, and are seen almost exclusively as the problem, rather than the solution. Prescriptive technologies are, by necessity, systems of compliance. We have reached a point as a society where most of the systems you encounter and inhabit on a daily basis are prescriptive technology to the extent that it can be difficult to imagine a system of technology that isn’t prescriptive. As Franklin points out:

“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”. 

If a world engineered towards compliance — one that by its very nature limits our ability to imagine new solutions — doesn’t give us pause, then its failure as a practical solution should. Prescriptive technologies demand products that can be broken down into discrete parts, are replicable on command, and result in the exact same thing every time. That’s wonderful if you’re building toasters, but when you are designing systems aimed at human welfare, the idea that people are best served by prescriptive systems would be laughable if it didn’t result in so much harm to very beings the systems purported to help.

Growth Technology

Instead of centering out efforts on systems that favor technology over the human, Franklin proposes a growth model over a production model. 

“Growth occurs,” she explains. “It is not made. Within a growth model, all that human intervention can do is to discover the best conditions for growth and then try to meet them.” 

If that seems a little abstract, imagine a plant, say a tomato plant for example. The gardener doesn’t get tomatoes by assembling roots and a stalk and leaves and flowers finally the tomatoes. Instead the gardener drops a seed in the ground and then creates an environment of good dirt, plenty of sunshine, and water. The seed handles the rest and in the end you get not only delicious, sun-ripened tomatoes, but also more seeds than you could ever need to plant. 

I find growth technology to be a fascinating solution to the cyber dystopia because it requires us to consider the wellbeing of the subject and the environment. It demands a holistic approach. It demands that we reckon with the many interacting systems that make up our world. 

So for example, if I want to create an environment in which to grow healthy humans, I can’t simply mandate that they walk 10,000 steps a day. Instead I start having to ask difficult questions such as “Is there good space for walking?”, “Is the air fit for breathing,” and “Is there time in the day for walking”, and above all, “if not, why?” Prescriptive technologies rip their subjects out of their contexts whereas growth technology doubles down on understanding the space. This is especially critical in our modern world as we need technologies that have inherent to them an environmental consideration. 

Rethinking Our Present

There is so much more to be said about growth technology (I cannot recommend Franklin’s The Real World of Technology highly enough) but for now, consider the space around you. Think about the systems that drive how, where, and when you work. Think about the food you eat: how it’s prepared and how it gets to you. Think about where you live, the architecture and the city planning. If you’re feeling really brave, think about your healthcare system. What was done in those spaces to make the product easier to fit into a prescriptive system? Did that make it better or worse for you, the human at the center of it all?

Prescriptive technologies are not in and of themselves bad, but they cannot be our first and only solution to a living, growing world.