Category: Ursula Franklin

How Ursula Franklin made me a technology journalist

Ursula Franklin

Ursula Franklin is a Canadian scientist, philosopher, feminist, and a thoroughly remarkable person. As Robinson Meyer described her over at the Atlantic web site …

The 92-year-old metallurgist pioneered the field of archeometry, the science of dating archaeologically discovered bronzes, metals, and ceramics. Her research into spiking levels of radioactive strontium in baby teeth factored heavily into the U.S. government’s decision to institute a nuclear test ban. She delivered the Massey Lectures—an important, annual series of talks delivered by Canadian public intellectuals—in 1989, and she was the first woman to be named University Professor at the University of Toronto, the university’s highest position.

She was also born in Munich in 1921, and was imprisoned in a Nazi work camp for the last 18 months of the war.

As it turns out, Franklin also completely changed the arc of my writing career. She’s why I write the journalism that I do.

I recently talked about this with Suw Charman-Anderson on the debut episode of her new Ada Lovelace Day podcast! It’s here if you want to hear it — I’m on at the 25:00 point:


But if you prefer scannable text, here’s the short version of how Franklin changed my life:

I decided in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. Though I’d been a nerd child who tinkered with computers, I didn’t think I’d ever write about that stuff. A real journalist wrote about serious things … which meant, well, politics, right?

So I went to the University of Toronto and did a major in English with a minor in Political Science, the latter at which I was pretty dreadful. Which ought to have been some sort of warning sign, yes? But on I persisted. I learned journalism by getting deeply involved in the campus newspapers, writing and editing a bazillion stories, and training myself to be — my top aspiration at the time — a city hall reporter for the Toronto Star. (A job I never actually got, since my proffered resumes and clips were met with the sound of crickets.) But anyway, that was the goal: To write about politics — municipal, provincial, federal, international, what have you. I kept all the nerd stuff in check. Nobody, I thought, gave a toss about that stuff.

Then in August of 1990 I picked up a copy of Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology. It was a print-up of her “Massey Lectures,” an annual series broadcast by a notable Canadian thinker on the CBC.

In brief, the book pointed out how technology was increasingly affecting the warp and woof of everyday life. She lays it out crisply on her opening, comparing technology to a house in which we all live …

A page from Ursula Franklin's "The Real World of Technology"

As the book goes on, Franklin elegantly used then-contemporary examples to show how technology was tweaking the ways we related to each other — and particularly how digital tools were being used to centralize power. One lovely example is her discussion of credit-card-style keycards to unlock doors. Back around 1990 they were a hot new tech, but as Franklin pointed out, they weren’t just a “better” key. They were a different key, with new abilities. A regular metal key can let you in a room. But a credit-card key can gather information on how often you access that room, reporting back to the building-owner on your comings and goings. Or the owner can, on the fly, reprogram the lock from afar to suddenly lock you out. High-tech keys conferred new powers on those who owned the locks.

When you read the book today, it’s astonishing how forward-looking it is. That discussion of locks feel like she’s writing about Facebook or GPS chips in phones.

The point is, as a 22-year-old kid in 1990, I had never thought about technology in this way. I was completely ignorant of the tradition of philosophers who scrutinized the social, political and cultural effects of technology — from Harold Innis to Lewis Mumford to Jacques Ellul and many others, all of whom with Franklin herself was deeply familiar. But once she’d opened the door, I could see everything that lay within that room. I could see how my interest in politics and culture overlapped with my interest in computers.

And I decided, pretty much upon putting down the book, what I was going to do with the rest of my life: To report on technology’s impact on everyday life. How weird new tools were changing the way we talk to each other, learn new things, waste time, work, and play.

So that’s what I’ve done, for 25 years. It’s all due to Franklin.