By chance, Ursula Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology happened to fall into my grasp recently. In the book, she builds on observations about technology as practice and experience (hence the “Real World”), bringing and keeping context at the forefront of discussion.
Buried in one of the final four chapters that were added in 1999 to the original collection of lectures from ten years earlier, is a discussion on what she calls “the evolving destructuring by asynchronicity” of society (p.151). In the discussion she warns about the increasing prevalence of asynchronous activity in our lives, linking the synchronous/asynchronous divide to the concepts of organism and mechanism. A dominantly asynchronous society has more to do with being a mechanism rather than an organism, she suggests.
To touch on her discussion a bit more, technology is born from the world around us. Some of the first instances of technology came from the acts of recording the cycles and patterns of the moon, the stars, and the seasons in the sun. From these first stone etchings grew newer and newer asynchronous technologies – oral mnemonic devices, papyrus, paper, the printing press, radio, tv, electronic text, Smart phones, and now Smart-wristwatches that adequately impress onlookers. Each asynchronous development changed the established patterns and cycles that originated from nature, but these established patterns still existed as a base, or as the background, on which asynchronous technology developed.
Society has come to a point, thinks Franklin, where the prevalence of asynchronous activity is so dominant over synchronous activity that there is little reciprocity left between the two. Our human social world is becoming detached from the real-time context where it began and has always dwelled. These origins of technology also comprise the basis of our human identity, a common knowledge that unites us under the concept of ‘civilization’ as we know it. Without this external context, humanity is less like a living organism and more like a machine – ‘being’ is reduced to our transactions in and of an asynchronous world.
If there is only structure that is human, it seems to me what Franklin is trying to say, then we have no context. Humans become the phonemes of a dead language.
Compared to Franklin, my own narrative of the prevalence of asynchronicity has been a bit more optimistic, and perhaps a bit more naïve: Long ago, at some rather extended point, humans developed spoken language. This was and still is synchronous communication. Also long ago, humans looked at world around them (sun, moon, stars, etc) and recorded their activity. The technology of etchings on stone was about as asynchronous as it can get, if that makes sense – the recordings used minimally varied and simplistic symbols, they deteriorated easily, and they were not very transportable over distance. Since then, humans have been developing technologies that were either faster or that could travel over distance easier.
With the development of digital technology, the spectrum between these two extreme technologies – spoken language and etchings on stone – has been filling in much more rapidly, especially at the end towards the synchronous where we are approaching it closer and closer with very rapid and very durable, but still asynchronous technology. This spectrum of communication technology now provides humanity with a (nearly) full set of interaction options, or tools, removing the restraints of technology access and discarding idea of technology progress, for the better. I may choose to listen to Radio, for example, because Radio is not inherently better than the newer technologies of TV or YouTube, it just holds different communication obligations.
I like to think that the big picture here is not that asynchronous patterns replace other asynchronous patterns, but that the collection of asynchronous technology over time, with all of its varieties of communication frequency and durability, which is now fast filling in, gives humans more choice and autonomy over how we interact. It is not really a shift that we have been experiencing, but a liberation of technology progress. I still generally believe this narrative, however my thoughts are now tempered by this chance reading of Franklin’s ideas, also for the better.
The worries of Franklin are realized when the world is much more suited for technology progress over the progress of humanity. Evident in some newly forming foundational educational goals is the omission of our past. 21st Century Skill slogans like “prepare our children for their world, not ours” is a path that originates from today, a day defined by our asynchronous prowess. In attempting to recognize the multitude of options that future generations have the luxury of exploring, these options are unnecessarily limited when society answers the WHAT questions with the HOW of practice.
When we prioritize preparing our future generations, dominantly and from a young age, for the world of asynchronous technology we are feeding an environment that is structured for the development and well-being of technology rather than the development and well-being of humans. (p71, p84) This is what I imagine it means to be infatuated by technology.
If we want to keep our context relevant, at the forefront and in our foundations then it is not enough to not ignore the “real world,” our synchronous, non-human environment needs to be part of educational prescriptive technology. This is what Ursula Franklin seemed to understand in her own practice, in how she lived her life. People like her, writing at the dawn of the digital age but before the social media boom, provide a remarkable and rare perspective that can help our often much too short-sighted world today. They remind us that the human heartbeat is a pattern as much a part of nature and as recognizable as the sun, the moon, and the stars.