Ursula Franklin on technology and “reciprocity”

“And now I’d like to focus for a moment on the human consequences which are particularly evident in what are called the communications technologies, and which I would like to call the “non-communications” technologies because very often that word, “communication”, is a misnomer. Whenever human activities incorporate human machines or rigidly prescribed procedures, the modes of human interaction change. In general, technical arrangements reduce or eliminate reciprocity. Reciprocity is some manner of interactive give and take, a genuine communication among interacting parties. For example, a face-to-face discussion or a transaction between people needs to be started, carried out, and terminated with a certain amount of reciprocity. Once technical devices are interposed, they allow a physical distance between the parties. The give and take —that is, the reciprocity— is distorted, reduced, or even eliminated.

Any reciprocity is ruled out by design. This loss of reciprocity is a continuing form of technologically executed inequality. It has very profound political and psychological consequences.

I’d like to stress that reciprocity is not feedback. Feedback is a particular technique of systems adjustment. It is designed to improve a specific performance. The performance need not be mechanical or carried out by devices, but the purpose of feedback is to make the thing work. Feedback normally exists within a given design. It can improve the performance but it cannot alter its thrust or the design. Reciprocity, on the other hand, is situationally based. It’s a response to a given situation. It is neither designed into the system nor is it predictable. Reciprocal responses may indeed alter initial assumptions. They can lead to negotiations, to give and take, to adjustment, and they may result in new and unforeseen developments.

I emphasized earlier the extent to which the new technologies of image procurement have invaded the real world of technology. By design, these technologies have no room for reciprocity. There is no place for response.”

Franklin is writing in 1990, shortly before mass uptake of the internet. The same point—if made today—would require a caveat about how the internet enables interactivity. Indeed, simulated reciprocity is a major part of many internet business models. In Franklin’s terms, much of this pseudo-reciprocity would actually be “feedback.” Beyond pseudo-reciprocity from “the source” of communication to the user, there are endless attempts to create contexts—”communities”—where users can provoke fellow feeling in one another so that they form a warm association with the product or service.

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