“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.
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.
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.
“The act of rebellion left to us in a cyber dystopia is that we give a damn about people, even if it profits us nothing. Especially when it profits us nothing.”
I was living in LA at the time, commuting to a cubicle job down in Irvine on the five every morning, reading “The E-Myth Revisited”, and teaching myself to code on and off when I had the brain cells to spare. When you look at it that way, it seems almost inevitable that I started writing cyberpunk. The Glitch Logs was almost a foregone conclusion. What took me by surprise, however, was stumbling across a description of The Glitch Logs thought-project in a book written the same year I was born, by a Canadian experimental physicist who I will tragically never get to meet, due to her passing in 2016.
Ursula M. Franklin’s “The Real World of Technology” takes on the formidable task of looking at how technology has shaped and continues to shape the world in which we live. She does so clearly, eloquently, and there’s a lot I have to learn not only from examining what she says, but also how she says it. One of the interesting ideas of the book is the effect of what she calls “prescriptive technology” on society.
In order to understand this ideas, first consider technology not exclusively as a collection of electronic gadgets or lines of code, but rather, ways of doing things. These systems sometimes involve tools, and sometimes do not.
Prescriptive technology is a system in which the doing of a thing is broken down into clearly identifiable steps. Each step is carried out by a different worker or group of workers who are required to have only that one particular skill. The goal of such a system is a well defined, replicable product that reliably gives you the same result over and over again. If you’re picturing a factory assembly line right now, then yes, that’s a good touch-point.
Some hallmarks of this prescriptive technology are that it is a-contextual and that it’s necessary effect is to enforce compliance. Prescriptive technologies also have a tendency to replicate themselves by designing fresh prescriptive technologies for any problems they encounter along the way.
(Quick note before we go any further: I don’t hate prescriptive technology. It’s really useful in some cases. It does, however, create significant, systemic problems when applied too broadly or incorrectly.)
Building Your Business Like a Factory
To anyone who’s read “The E-Myth Revisited” by one Michael E. Gerber, this should sound very familiar. To anyone who hasn’t let me give you a quick run down. The point of the book is pretty well surmised in its delightful tagline “Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work And What To Do About It”.
I’ll spare you the suspense by giving you the “why” and the “what” right now: they don’t work because they aren’t well defined or systematized and the way to fix it is to define and systematize it.
Specifically, the author wants you to find out what makes your product unique, and then break down every single facet of your business into its modular components, then quantify, refine, and categorize those components until a literate monkey with a three-ring-binder could do any given task. Do some vision-casting for your employees about how they really-super-are making the world a better place by being a cog in your machine so that they’ll comply with what you tell them to do. After that, automate what you can, hire what you can’t, and boom, you’re in business, baby.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
If you think that sounds suspiciously like a franchising model, you’d be right.
[There, I just saved you the $19.10 (on sale!) it’s going for on Amazon at the time of the writing of this blog. Also, in case that glowing recommendation prompts you to pick up the book, be warned that it’s both condescending and misogynistic. Recommend watching Mad Max: Fury Road in the background or something similar, for balance.]
In all fairness there are some useful ideas in the book. Read it if you want to understand how most businesses in America are run right now. Come to think of it, the condescending tone the book includes might be a pretty good indicator too. But anyway.
The E-Myth Re-Examined
The difference between myself and the author of The E-Myth Revisited is that Mr. Gerber is clearly delighted with the process he designed whereas I shifted from animated interest to slowly growing horror the longer I considered what Mr. Gerber was in effect proposing.
You’ll recall that I was attempting to teach myself to code during this time, and the similarity between the process Gerber described and the logic of code seemed suspiciously similar. Mr. Gerber proposes that all businesses design aggressive prescriptive technologies for themselves and their customers.
In effect, such businesses would become giant computer programs, run on the code of their carefully crafted policies and handbooks which describe in minute and painstaking detail exactly how a thing is done. What human elements remain after automation are still interchangeable parts in a machine.
This is very good for the machine, and very bad for the human.
Such a system assumes that people are the problem, and the system is designed to weed out problems.
As Franklin puts it, “Many technological systems, when examined for context and overall design, are basically anti-people. People are seen as a source of problems while technology is seen as a source of solutions.”
It is only a matter of time until we build a machine that can do “it” — whatever tiny incremental part “it” is in the system — harder, better, faster, stronger. We are engineering ourselves out of the systems we designed, and historically, that has not worked out well for the majority of us as humans.
When machines take over the job a human previously held in our society, the human is not sent home to rest, or make art, or contribute in some way to society. Instead, the human is out of a job and viewed as a drain on society. The extra resources are not put to work for the general good; they are hoarded by the system’s owners, who sometimes also happen to be the designers.
The AI of Business
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything if I tell you that one of the premises of The Glitch Logs is that corporations run the world. It’s one of the big markers of the cyberpunk genre, and doesn’t seem that unrealistic to me, given the current push to treat “government as business”.
(Incidentally, Franklin also has a lot to say on how prescriptive technologies have reshaped modern governments, but that’s another blog post for another time.)
I conceived of these corporations first as behemoths of our own making vying for dominance in a world becoming rapidly inhospitable to humanity. As my thought project developed, I later came to think of them instead as slow-moving AI following their prime directive — to amass wealth — regardless of consequence, scale, or scope. The two are not particularly dissimilar.
No one wants to live under such a system — those that say they do actually want to be living just outside it, where they profit from it, but the rules of the system do not apply to them.
The pressing question is “what are we going to do about it?”
Systemic problems aren’t easy to unravel, but there’s a few places we can start.
Second, we can act in opposition to the mindset that a person’s value is determined by the work they produce. The act of rebellion left to us in a cyber dystopia is that we give a damn about people, even if it profits us nothing. Especially when it profits us nothing.
Beyond that, we stop building for the goal of what Franklin calls “divisible goods” such as money, and start designing instead for “indivisible goods” like clean air, and justice. I’m also extremely interested in prescriptive technology’s counterpart, “growth technology”. There’s a really interesting case study I’m privileged to be a part of going on right now that shows some very promising results. More on that next time.
In the meantime, go out there and think about technology. Think about the systems and who or what they benefit. And the next time you’re put in a position to design a system, big or small, for a huge company, or a child’s daily routine, think about who it’s good for. Reach out. Help someone even if it doesn’t benefit you.