Heather Menzies is an Ottawa-based writer and sometime film-maker whose books include Women and the Chip and Computers on the Job, whose articles include "Women's Work is Nearly Done" for This Magazine and "A Chip on Her Shoulder" for Broadside. She has just scripted and directed a video-documentary on Ursula Franklin for Carleton University, Women's Studies and is working on a new book including the social and political context of reproductive and other biotechnologies. She was interviewed by Aisla Thomson for WOMEN'S EDUCATION DES FEMMES .
AISLA: Years ago the "new" technology was the typewriter, the vacuum cleaner, the telephone. Each was promoted as a labour-saving device, a machine which would relieve the drudgery of routine work. How do you define the "new" technology today?
HEATHER: Easy question to begin with, I see. I think it's necessary to distinguish between technology at the level of tool and technology operating as a system and I don't mean to suggest a simple difference in scale here. As Lewis Mumford writes, when the Egyptian rulers commanded slaves to swing their primitive hand tools to build the pyramids, the slaves weren't in charge of how they'd use their tools; they and the tools were organized and unified into a primitive technological system: what Mumford called the fist of the megamachine.
I once cited the paring knife as a tool and the cuisinart as integral to a system which includes not only the kitchen utensil itself, but also the rule of "labour-saving" efficiency and the exalted standards for cooking and dining projected by the media. One doesn't just buy a piece of hardware when one buys a cuisinart; one buys into a set of assumptions and a certain conception of the good life. I still think it's a good analogy. But a friend of mine and a scientist, Marilyn MacDonald, has taken me to task for it, pointing out that even the paring knife is part of a system, a system of product design, production and distribution over which the users have virtually no control. That's important to understand, because if resources are being siphoned away from improving the design and durability of a paring knife and diverted into more elaborate generations of cuisinarts, then the "choice" of a paring knife over a cuisinart will be about as real a choice as that of the condom over the pill as an effective method of birth control.
You mentioned the cliches about labour-saving devices liberating people from drudgery. It's instructive to recall how the typewriter was promoted in those terms for women who worked in the l800s at longhand copying, since the word- processor was introduced with the same promotional adage. The prophecy has remained about as unfulfilled for the women-users this time around as it did a century ago, and for the same reason: the women operating word processors and typewriters have not been free to use the technology as they wished any more than the women before them were free to use their quill pens for anything more creative than copying. If anything, the situation for many women is worse today, for the technology operating at the level of software in a management information system defines not only what work will be done but how it will be done; at least the quill pen wasn't monitoring your every move, or forcing you to work at a certain pace. The subordinate drudge status wasn't as blatant.
It's interesting: people who are used to being in control of their work lives, who are in charge of the technology they use and who get to use technology as tools to accomplish goals they define tend to extrapolate from their situation onto others. They assume that others have the necessary power and autonomy to step from drudgery into more creative, challenging and fulfilling work. Those who see themselves as cogs in a technological system have relatively little power over their work situation, and often their lives in general. What is unfortunate is that the images tend to be mutually exclusive; yet it's more appropriate to recognize where technology does operate as tools and where, as a system.
What bothers me is that I see technology at the level of system becoming a more important determinant in our daily lives. I see it transforming our lives without our even being aware of its shaping influence. Just like a system of roadways or communication lines strongly determines where we can go and how we communicate and know ourselves as communities and society. But people raised on liberal individualism believe they are making all their own choices and determining their own way with technology. They don't see the systemic biases influencing which technologies will be developed over others. They don't see that the choice they have is often a highly directed one.