Prescriptive technologies

A Reading Note

In the The Real World of Technology, Franklin defines two forms of technological development: holistic technologies and prescriptive technologies. In the former, a practitioner has control over an entire process, and frequently employs several skills along the way. In Franklin’s words:

Holistic technologies are normally associated with the notion of craft. Artisans, be they potters, weavers, metal-smiths, or cooks, control the process of their own work from beginning to end. Their hands and minds make situational decisions as the work proceeds, be it on the thickness of the pot, or the shape of the knife edge, or the doneness of the roast. These are decisions that only they can make while they are working. And they draw on their own experience, each time applying it to a unique situation….Using holistic technologies does not mean that people do not work together, but the way in which they work together leaves the individual worker in control of a particular process of creating or doing something.

Franklin, The Real World of Technology, page 11

By contrast, a prescriptive technology breaks a process down into steps, each of which can be undertaken by a different person, often with different expertise. Franklin calls this specialization by process, as opposed to holistic technologies’ specialization by product. The classic prescriptive technology is the factory model that emerged in the Industrial Revolution, but Franklin locates much earlier examples, in particular, Chinese bronze casting from 1200 BC. This I’ll quote at length:

Imagine, then, it is 1200 BC, the height of the Shang Dynasty. A large ritual vessel has to be cast—let’s say a cauldron, a three-legged Ding, examples of which can be seen in the Royal Ontario Museum. First a full-sized model of the Ding is to be made. It is usually made in clay, although it could be wood. Archaeologists have discovered lots of these models; such a model is a complete likeness of the vessel and all its decorations. From this model, a mold is made. This is done by putting layers of clay—first very fine clay, then coarser material—onto the model and letting this coating dry. The mold is then carefully cut into segments and taken off the model in the way we take the peel off an orange. Because the mold is taken off in pieces one speaks about a “piece mold” process. The mold segments are then fired so they keep their shape and their decorations. They must be fired at temperatures that are higher than the temperature of the molten copper or bronze which the mold later contains. Consequently this casting technology became possible only in a civilization that had developed the techniques for producing high-fired ceramics.

Once the piece molds are fired, they are reassembled around a core, leaving a gap between the core and the mold large enough to receive the molten metal. The mold assembly has, of course, to include a means of pouring the liquid metal into that gap between the core and mold as well as ways for the air that the liquid metal displaces to escape completely so that the casting is of good quality. Once the mold assembly is finished and properly positioned in a casting pit, the liquid bronze can be poured.

Up to this point in the process, essentially two main steps have been executed. The designer and model builder have constructed the model in a manner that allows the formation and the cutting away of the mold. This involves design expertise as well as a full knowledge of all subsequent steps in the process, because they all depend on the proper design of the model.

The next steps of building up the mold, of cutting it away, firing it, and reassembling it around the core in order to make it ready for casting, constitute a series of operations where the expertise is essentially that of pottery work.

The casting steps that follow the assembly of the mold require different expertise. Here the metal has to be prepared; the alloy has to be mixed in proper proportions and fused to a temperature high enough to allow a successful casting. Most, if not all, Chinese bronzes contain, in addition to tin, enough lead to make possible the casting of objects with very finely and elaborately designed surfaces. We are here talking about large castings. It is astonishing that towards the end of the Shang Dynasty, the Chinese cast cauldrons that weighed eight hundred kilograms or more. From technical studies, such as X-rays of the vessels, we know that they were cast in one pour. This means that groups of metal workers were handling about a thousand kilograms of liquid bronze to cast a large vessel. These alloys melt at above 1000°C. They were poured from crucibles; a large number of them had to be ready for pouring at approximately the same time.

Franklin, The Real World of Technology, page 13

Whereas holistic technologies support a certain amount of improv, prescriptive technologies require each person to operate with precision, according to a pre-arranged plan. With holistic technologies, the worker is in control; with prescriptive technologies, the worker is under control.

Today’s real world of technology is characterized by the dominance of prescriptive technologies. Prescriptive technologies are not restricted to materials production. They are used in administrative and economic activities, and in many aspects of governance, and on them rests the real world of technology in which we live. While we should not forget that these prescriptive technologies are 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.”

Franklin, The Real World of Technology, page 17

Prescriptive technologies give rise to management structures and surveillance: someone has to watch over everyone preparing to pour molten bronze into an enormous mold, lest a step be missed or executed incorrectly. An entire subgenre of technology emerges in that surveillance: punch clocks, key cards that record when someone is in their office, monitoring systems that show how much time each worker spends on specific tasks, records of activity that attribute every minute action to a particular person, noted with a timestamp. If a company also has access to a worker’s location and health data (say, via a company-supplied mobile device), they can further control that worker’s movements and habits. Each prescriptive technology begets additional prescriptive technologies. Franklin, again:

The acculturation to compliance and conformity has, in turn, accelerated the use of prescriptive technologies in administrative, government, and social services. The same development has diminished resistance to the programming of people.

Franklin, The Real World of Technology, page 19

(Emphasis mine.) I’m thinking here of rumors of Apple employees standing up en masse because their watch told them to do so. Ordinarily, a program instructs machines to perform tasks in certain ways; here, a program instructs a person to do so. And there are all kinds of reasons to support that: using machines to help us be better humans is entirely reasonable. (I’m using a machine to write this, of course, and you’re using a machine to read it.) But something about the spectacle of watch-wearing Apple staff spontaneously standing up in response to a buzz on the wrist is, well, unsettling. We shouldn’t be so quick to shake that off. We should be unsettled.

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