Reprising the Real World of Technology


Discussing the legacy of Ursula Franklin's work on culture and technology with Dr. Leslie Shade, Yasmin McDowell and Kanishka Sikri, members of our Reprising the Real World of Technology working group.

McLuhan Centre: What sparked the creation of this working group?

Leslie Shade: In 2019 the University of Toronto announced the receipt of a considerable gift to build the Schwartz Reisman Innovation Centre and establish the Schwartz Reisman Chair in Technology and Society. In the announcement, UofT’s legacy of scholarship around technology and society was applauded, notably citing the work of Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and Northrop Frye. The announcement, however, oddly neglected to mention the original and pioneering work of Dr. Ursula Franklin — the first woman professor in the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Science, the second female professor in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering, and the first woman to be named a University Professor at the University of Toronto. For several of us, it thus became both essential and propitious to set up a McLuhan Centre Working Group in order to examine Franklin’s durable legacy on society and technology, and how the themes and concerns she addressed throughout her career map onto contemporary scholarly and policy endeavours in technology and society.


Photo of Ursula Franklin. Photo Mark Neil Balson via UofT News

MC: Why is Franklin’s legacy so important for the field of media studies? What stands to change by revisiting her work in the ways that your group is?


LS: In 2004 Barbara Crow and I wrote an essay in Topia, examining Canadian feminist perspectives on digital technology, citing Franklin’s work as pivotal and influential for a burgeoning array of feminist interventions in technology. We noted the importance of  Franklin’s insistence that technologies be used for social justice, whether to ensure equitable access to technological knowledge in the workplace, universities, and domestic contexts; to debunk the dominant masculinist mythos surrounding technology; and to create environmentally sound communities and technological methods. Revisiting her work today highlights how utterly prescient these concerns still are! For instance, applying a ‘Franklin-esque’ reading to issues within contemporary ‘innovative’ and ‘disruptive’ technologies and practices of datafication, algorithms and AI, allows us to ask probing questions about their impact on data discrimination, privacy, social justice, design and data justice, the creation and sustenance of resilient communities, and equity, inclusion, and diversity.


MC: Your group makes particular mention of Franklin’s 1989 Massey Lecture series, The Real World of Technology. Why is this series particularly important?


LS: The Real World of Technology is an exemplary book that I’ve returned to again and again in my teaching and scholarship. Describing technology as practice and as a system, Franklin encourages us to examine the social class of experts, the changing nature of community and issues of power and control, arguing for an attentiveness about how technologies affect relations of time, space, and individual and collective responsibilities. It’s an incredibly accessible book for students to dive into, and her distinctions between holistic and prescriptive technologies, and the earthworm theory of technological change provide a solid basis for enriching and energizing discussions.

Yasmin McDowell: The lecture series definitely functions as a very readable primer on Franklin’s wide-ranging ideas. As someone who believes in the power of the people, Franklin writes in an unpretentious and accessible manner that encourages all types of readers to reflect on their relationship with technology.

Franklin encourages us to examine the social class of experts, the changing nature of community and issues of power and control, arguing for attentiveness about how technologies affect relations of time, space, and individual and collective responsibilities.

MC: Why is your group’s work significant to the current moment? What connections (if any) can you make to the COVID-19 pandemic?


LS: The pandemic has magnified the importance of universal access and connectivity to digital technologies, and also amplified risk factors amongst certain populations, exacerbating digital inequalities. Franklin asked, how can we design and deploy technologies as if people matter? A Franklin lens also leads us to ask, how can we create and build out “infrastructures of care”  to be promoted by robust public policies?


MC: What does your group hope to achieve with the publication of your special essay series?


LS: Through a variety of short writings and other creative work, our authors will engage with Franklin’s contributions to technological discourse, mapping it onto their own research or practice. 


MC: Anything else that you’d like people to know about your group’s work?


Kanishka Sikri: Our website (designed by Kanishka Sikri) serves as a hub for our working group’s events and activities, and as a space to situate Ursula Franklin’s brilliant scholarship as we navigate her work in the contemporary context of local and global inequities. Emphasizing the value of holistic and collaborative iteration, we welcome thoughts and feedback on how we can better reflect Franklin’s legacy and map her work onto the various turbulent contexts and technological landscapes of our society today. 

The Reprising the Real World of Technology working group is composed of the following faculty members and students.

Leslie Shade [Professor, Faculty of Information, UTSG; Senior Fellow Massey College; Faculty Affiliate, Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society]

Leslie Chan [Associate Professor, Centre for Critical Development Studies, UTSC]

Peter Pennefather [Professor Emeritus, Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy]

Sara Grimes [Associate Professor, Director of the Knowledge Media Design Institute, Faculty of Information]

Monica Jean Henderson [PhD Student, Faculty of Information]

Katie Mackinnon [PhD Candidate, Faculty of Information]

Saman Goudarzi [MI Student (UXD), Faculty of Information]

Yasmin Macdowell [MI '21, Faculty of Information]

Stephanie Fielding [MI' 20, Faculty of Information, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, Digital Design + Digital Transformation Service Sector]

Kanishka Sikri [B.A. Hons '21, International and Critical Development Studies; Incoming PhD Student, York U]