Two Quotations on Intention & Adversarial Design

“Technologies of control” can frustrate human intention, prioritizing a productive logic of scale over a more humane logic of growth.

Two Quotations on Intention & Adversarial Design

In a recent issue of the Front Porch Republic newsletter, Jeff Bilbro shared an excerpt from the Ursula Franklin Reader that I want to republish here. First, a brief word.

Renowned Canadian scientist Ursula Franklin dead at 94 | CBC News
Ursula Franklin, one of Canada’s most accomplished scientists and educators, died Friday in Toronto at age 94.

Franklin gave the 1989 CBC Massey Lectures entitled The Real World of Technology in which she, much like Neil Postman, critiques the assumptions and logic of the technological society. It’s a theme that has returned to the centre of our public debates and I’m glad to be among those rediscovering their clear and civic-minded thinking. In fact, the 2020 Massey Lectures can be seen as growing from the soil that Franklin prepared more than 30 years ago. Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, delivered the 2020 lectures and they're collected in the excellent Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society.

But the Franklin quotation stood out to me thanks to its direct link with James Williams’ Stand Out of Our Light: Freedom and Resistance in the Attention Economy. Williams, a former Google advertising strategist turned Oxford-trained philosopher, is attempting to enlarge the definition of attention. Starting with the “spotlight” form, analogous to active focus, he then offers both the “starlight” and “daylight” of our attention as images for how we chart a path towards our goals and how we even begin to “want what we want to want.”

The excerpt from “Every Tool Shapes the Task: Communities and the Information Highway,” in the Ursula Franklin Reader:

You may ask, “What should we do? We live in this world. The Internet obviously has great potential. How should an organization conduct itself?” First of all, I think we have to remember that every tool shapes the task. When you get a new tool, it affects your task. It might be a trivial tool in the kitchen; if someone gives you one of those machines that slice and dice, you suddenly find yourself slicing and dicing instead of using your old recipes. Does anyone here know what an electronic microscope does to a research group? Suddenly everything has to be observed at two thousand magnifications because you now have this expensive beast.
Be mindful of how tools shape your tasks. You will only find out when you learn about the tool. Learn about the Internet, but keep your head clear and refer back to your goals. What, in the best of all worlds, do you want to do? Do any of the applications of your new electronic microscope bring you closer to your goal? When do you need to go back to traditional tools: talking to people face to face, meeting with groups, organizing a potluck? Can you recognize the moment when the intangibles of the potluck far outweigh the elegance of an electronic message? Because in the end, what we are all concerned about is people.

And this from James Williams in Stand Our of Our Light:

A perceptive and critical reader may object here that I’ve given too much airtime to the problems of the digital attention economy and not enough to its benefits. They would be quite right. This is by design. “Why?” they might ask. “Shouldn’t we make an even-handed assessment of these technologies, and fully consider their benefits along with their costs? Shouldn’t we take care not to throw out the baby with the bath water?”
No, we should not. To proceed in that way would grant the premise that it’s acceptable for our technologies to be adversarial against us to begin with. It would serve as implicit agreement that we’ll tolerate design that isn’t on our side, as long as it throws us a few consolation prizes along the way. But adversarial technology is not even worthy of the name “technology.” And I see no reason, either moral or practical, why we should be expected to tolerate it. If any- thing, I see good reasons for thinking it morally obligatory that we resist and reform it. Silver linings are the consolations of the disempowered, and I refuse to believe that we are in that position relative to our technologies yet.

At the outset of the world wide web, Franklin’s understanding of tools led her to be cautious. Writing with a pen and inkwell is different from writing with a ballpoint pen, which is different again from working on a typewriter or a word processor. Franklin, although unaware of the “adversarial technology” Williams describes, was keenly aware of how what she called “technologies of control” can frustrate human intention, prioritizing a productive logic of scale over a more humane logic of growth.

Franklin and Williams believe that technology should work to further, not frustrate, the intentions of the people who use a given tool. Insisting on this should be the minimum ethical price of entry, but I still can’t choose to not receive bullshit notifications whose only intention is to direct me to ends that are not my own.


You can listen to Ursula M. Franklin’s Massey Lectures on CBC Ideas or read Stand Out Of Our Light for free under Open Access.

Photo: Old Book Illustrations

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