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Manitoba History: Review: R. Douglas Francis, The Technological Imperative: An Intellectual History

by David Balzer
Communications & Media, Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg

Number 64, Fall 2010

R. Douglas Francis, a University of Calgary Canadian historian, has done us all a great service in his most recent book, The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History. In this aptly described “wide-ranging, engaging book” (back cover), Francis grapples with the necessary and perplexing question of technology’s role in shaping society. What makes this book ‘wide-ranging’ is the sweeping scope (from the late nineteenth century to the present) of Anglo Canadian thinkers that Francis investigates. What makes the book ‘engaging’ is the colorful detail, intellectual rigor and fresh insight that Francis brings to his work.

As Francis explains in his introduction, the evolution of Anglo Canadian thought on technology is an intellectual journey that is profoundly marked and shaped by the tension between what he calls “the technological imperative” and the “moral imperative.” The technological imperative is the realization that technology is “the most pervasive and dominant force in the modern world” (p. 1). The moral imperative is an attempt to retain a moral order “that instills values essential for the advancement of society and Western civilization” (p. 1-2). Some thinkers saw these two imperatives as complementary, while others were skeptical of their co-existence and warned of the inherent peril of the technological imperative. What emerges as a central argument in the book is that Canadian Anglo thinkers were, ironically, the makers of the technological imperative exactly because of their preoccupation with understanding the nature and role of technology.

To guide his extensive analysis, Francis draws on the work of Carl Mitcham who argues that technology can be classified into “four broad categories: technology as object, technology as knowledge, technology as process, and technology as volition” (p. 4). As Francis takes us through this historical and intellectual progression, we meet a great diversity of Canadian thinkers including inventors, engineers, novelists, poets, academics, politicians and social reformers. Throughout the journey Francis brings to light the underlying interplay between the technological and moral imperatives. The book is presented in three large parts containing a total of ten chapters followed by notes, a select bibliography and an index.

In Part 1, Approaching the Imperative, Francis explores technology as object and technology as knowledge. Midto- late nineteenth century thinkers such as T. C. Keefer, T. C. Haliburton and Sandford Fleming reflected on the impact of railways in shaping values and culture. Alexander Graham Bell joined them later with his reflections on communication technology, agreeing with them that the technological imperative would support and, in fact, fulfill the moral imperative. “Keefer saw a spiritual dynamic to railways, with a miraculous power and energy that seemed unparalleled. It was the faith in railways—a new spiritual perspective of this new technology—more than money that Canadians required to ensure their success and their survival independent of the United States”(p. 39). Technological objects would lead the way into a good and better society.

The understanding of technology as knowledge emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in the pre-war era, building on the optimism of the earlier thinkers. Technical education would advance technology and instill “values of efficiency, orderliness, productivity, autonomy, industriousness, and perfectability” (p. 64). Every technical breakthrough was seen as a triumph of humanity, a step closer to achieving the moral imperative. This view was epitomized by proponents such as Nathaniel Fellows Dupuis, professor of mathematics at Queen’s College.

In Part 2, Grappling with the Imperative, Francis presents technology as process. This understanding of technology spanned the First World War and the interwar period. As Francis says of several prominent thinkers including William Lyon McKenzie King, Frederick Philip Grove and Stephen Leacock, this was the “first generation to have to come to terms with the contradictory nature of technology: its constructive but equally destructive nature” (p. 141). As advancements in technology were being used as instruments of war, the previous optimism around technology’s alignment with the moral imperative was put into question and these thinkers wondered about technology’s capacity to lead society to a more civil and civilized existence.

In Part 3, Philosophizing the Imperative, Francis explores technology as volition. Here we meet some of Canada’s most well-known thinkers and contributors to the discourse around technology, including Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye and George Grant. These thinkers, along with poets E. J. Pratt and Dennis Lee, shifted the understanding of technology as an external entity into the realm of ideas, patterns of thought and, indeed, into the self. These thinkers re-assessed modernity and the role of technology in it, making the case that technology was a psychic phenomena and as Innis put it, “Technology was not ‘out there’ but within our mind, shaping our very being” (p. 160). Francis leans on George Grant’s assertion that “technology is the metaphysics of our age” (p. 266), to describe what it means for technology to be volition. Each of these thinkers struggled with a certain sense of pessimism around the strength of the moral imperative.

In Francis’ concluding chapter he introduces a number of present day thinkers, notably several feminist scholars. As to his own personal view of the tension between the technological and moral imperative, he suggests that it is not a matter of either/or as to which will prevail, but points to the intellectual history of the discussion to demonstrate that these two imperatives will continue to exist in a healthy tension with each other for the good of society.

One particular weakness in this ambitious project is the lack of clarity in defining the “moral imperative.” The term is referenced throughout, particularly in contrast to the technological imperative, but is not given careful definition at the beginning. This creates a certain ambiguity at the outset of the argument which is only clarified as Francis uses more specific descriptive terms later in his analysis which help to amplify the meaning. Once terms such as “spiritual, values, the need for moral standards to live by and to guide society” (p. 49) are used, we gain a greater sense of what is at stake.

Several strengths are noteworthy and should carry the overall assessment of this review. Francis provides with great detail and thoroughness the intellectual development and seminal works of each thinker. Francis’ capacity to simultaneously place thinkers within a philosophical and historical framework is exceptional. These frameworks provide the opportunity for us to consider in meaningful ways the nature of technologies that have yet to enter the world stage.

The extensive use of primary sources, along with a well-developed select bibliography and thorough indexing, make this text an excellent resource for the serious student of communications and media. I believe that Francis has given us what Harold Innis hoped for during an address given to the University of Michigan on 18 April 1949, “We can do little more than urge that we must be continually alert to the implications of this bias [mechanization of knowledge] and perhaps hope that consideration of the implications of other media to various civilizations may enable us to see more clearly the bias of our own. In any case, we may become a little more humble as to the characteristics of our civilization” (p. 176-7). Francis has given us a resource to see more clearly our own technological biases and, in the process, invites us to live more humbly in the present age.

Page revised: 9 July 2016

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