Fastforward And Out Of Control

by Heather Menzies
276 pages,
ISBN: 0771599102

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The Facts Of Progress
by Marni Jackson

THE AUTHOR of Women and the Chip and Computers on the Job, Heather Menzies, has now addressed the bigger issue behind those two pioneering books. She argues that as we move towards a "homogenized global technological society," the new technology is not just changing the jobs we do or tinkering with the GNP; it is affecting our ability to question these changes, or even to see them as social issues. "As people lose the habit of thinking of technology in relation to the larger orbit of social values," she writes, "those values fade from view."

It ought to be clarified at the start that Menzies is not advocating a return to village bake sales and manual typewriters. Her chapters on computer-controlled manufacturing And the new biotechnology of reproduction are sophisticated, informed, and undefensive. What she is doing is insisting on a human-centred context for these "advances." Instead of people being "adjusted into" the new global information economy - which is often thought of as just an abstract, mechanical restructuring - the new technologies should be measured by their impact on human beings, especially the workers who are being pushed to the margins of the economy. What is left is the system at the centre and the new managerial "information elite" at the top.

She uses as an example a group of telephone operators in Midland, Ontario. The new computerized telephone exchange system made their, jobs obsolete. But the operators, all women, felt that the ,efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the new system did not take into account the vital role they played as a human switchboard for the community and they protested. Eventually, the economic rhetoric of the costs-and-numbers game wore them down, and they accepted their new roles as "techno-servants," employed by a system they had no creative control over. The issue here is not simply lost jobs, but the unforeseen impact on people - a local social contract was ignored and passed over in the name of time and money. Menzies argues that our values are now threatening to become synonymous with the narrowly defined economic benefits of advanced technology - whatever saves time and money must therefore be good. We have almost lost sight of other human perspectives with regard to the nature of work, and the value of workers.

Menzies is a nationalist who sees the free-trade agreement as one more giant step towards "an international economy dominated by technology as ideology," but she does not want Canada- to turn its back on the rest of the world. Menzies believes that we can frame the future differently by. "going global in ways that are locally appropriate" and by embracing a "socially grounded concept of technology." But right now, she fears that we are living out Marshall McLuhan's prophecy that "this is the age of the enclosing of whole societies within the designed environments" of technology. We can no longer see the forest for the insta-gro, lifelike, lowcost, made-in-Thailand trees:

Everyone knows that computers are changing the nature of work, but Menzies argues that the effects are more profound and insidious than simply shuffling workers around in the economy technology has seeped into our dreams and logic and made us doubtourselves. We have internalized the computer's logic. We see "progress" as inevitable, and as inevitably more technological. The fear, Menzies writes, is not that we will be ruled by robots, but that we will come to think like them.

FastForward and Out of Control takes off where George Grant's 1965 book, Lament For a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, left off. The introduction is very exciting, with its combination of McLuhanism, feminism, and salty nationalism brought to bear on an area that desperately needs such an eclectic and critical perspective. I found myself underlining every other sentence. Oddly enough, every once in a while a Canadian comes along with a prairiesized perspective big enough to look at the changing world and make some pointed and wise observations. Menzies has the necessary breadth of vision and compassion, but unfortunately her writing suffers from the very thing she ascribes to techno-think: it is unnecessarily abstract and at times overly technical, leaning on rhetoric instead of her own persuasive voice. When she launches into her chapter on the vital area of reproductive technology, she bogs down in minutiae and technicalities. It is not an easy book to read, and her editor has let her get away with far too much repetition of phrase and incident. But she shows amazing intellectual stamina as she joins the dots between in-vitro fertilization, the new managerial "information elite," the sleepwalk towards a systemscentred internationalism, and other "facts of progress," which, she reminds us, can and ought to be scrutinized in the light of local, regional, and personal experience. One senses that she wants to capture the lay reader without losing the respect of the "specialists" in the various fields she is raiding. This might be an impossible mission. But every time her own voice surfaces in FastForward, the book fulfils its promise as a thought-provoking and indispensable document.


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