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R. Douglas Francis, The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History.

R. Douglas Francis, The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History (Vancouver: UBC Press 2009)

THIS USEFUL if not scintillating book traces over a century of thinking about technology through the ideas of leading Anglo-Canadian intellectuals. After an overstretched first chapter, which strains to summarize the worldwide evolution of ideas about technology from Karl Marx to Norbert Wiener, the book's structure is chronological and clear. Each chapter examines one or more prominent Canadians with important thoughts about technology, from 19th-century railroad promoters like Thomas Keefer and Sandford Fleming, through the seminal communication theorists Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, to the late 20thcentury philosopher George Grant and the poet Dennis Lee. Brief biographical sketches put each individual in context. Then Francis reports his protagonists' theories on technology and generally stays out of their way.

There is a deeper thesis threaded quietly through the book. Francis names and describes a "technological imperative," a mindset or philosophy in dialogue and competition with the "moral imperative" in Canadian thought identified by Brian McKillop and others. Francis's thinkers and theorists are almost all moralists, and their views on technology flow directly from its perceived relation to morality. His 19th-century subjects embrace technology, by and large, as an engine for the advancement of Western civilization; his 20th-century subjects accuse it of corroding moral and spiritual values. Ironically, Francis argues, Canadian intellectuals helped to create the very imperative they came to fear. Over time, these thinkers inflated the meaning of the once-obscure word "technology": from a description of discrete objects (railway locomotives or telephone receivers) to a field of study (technical science and education) to an irresistible, all-pervasive force (in George Grant's words, "the metaphysics of our age"). Leo Marx calls technology" a hazardous concept." The very vagueness of the term, he says, makes it peculiarly susceptible to reification. We endow technology with unlimited powers of historical agency, embracing our seeming impotence and ignoring our own obligation to make decisions. The Technological Imperative in Canada finds many Canadians complicit in this process.

But this organizing argument is only lightly sketched and modestly advanced. It probably had to be this way, in order to accommodate the book's varied cast of characters and long chronological sweep. Had Francis insisted too strenuously on his argument, the threads connecting poet to prime minister, educator to engineer, might well have snapped.

Because the connecting threads are slender, the individual case studies of this book are often more interesting than the whole. My favourite chapters concerned the interwar period, a hinge between the uncomplicated boosterism of the Victorian era and the techno-pessimism of more recent years. Francis illuminates the impressive intellectual biography of William Lyon Mackenzie King, taught by William Ashley and ]ames Mavor in Toronto, Jane Addams and Thorstein Veblen in Chicago, and William Cunningham at Harvard. He makes a case for King's 1918 book, Industry and Humanity, as a turning point in Canada's intellectual engagement with technology. And he reintroduces readers to other interwar intellectuals--Stephen Leacock, Archibald Lampman, George Sidney Brett, and Frederick Philip Grove--who also wrestled with the technological imperative in this in-between era, when it was not at all clear whether to celebrate or lament the advances of industry and mechanization.

Is there, or has there been, a particularly Canadian way of thinking about technology? Francis does not make a strenuous case for the "Canadian-ness" of this discourse. As his chapter on King suggests, in almost every case Francis's subjects were engaged in transnational conversations with American, British, or German theorists of technology, or at least responding to international ideas. It is not clear that there is anything distinctive or essentially Canadian about the ideas collected here, other than the frequency with which ideas about technology get conscripted in the defence of national identity. One quick and dirty way of summarizing the intellectual evolution that Francis traces with such care is that Canadians saw technology as good when it came from Britain, bad when it came from the United States, and almost never saw it as coming from Canada.

One cannot read a book of this kind without second-guessing the author's decisions about whom to include. Francis's conclusion is idiosyncratic in its choices and does not seem adequate to all the material that has gone before. It reports on a small handful of contemporary academics; they seem sensible enough, but narrow in their interests and are hardly household names. In earlier chapters, Francis makes good use of poets and literary figures like Dennis Lee, Northrop Frye, and E.J. Pratt. Why not engage the ideas of modern authors like William Gibson, Douglas Coupland, or Cory Doctorow? All three, think deeply on technology and all three have reached a broad audience in Canada and beyond.

Francis admits to some more serious omissions in the opening pages of his book: all of the theorists examined in The Technological Imperative are Anglo-Canadians, and all those named in the table of contents are men (The social reformer Adelaide Hoodless appears without title billing in a chapter on technical education, and two female academics are discussed in the conclusion). One must at least credit Francis for original, and polite, explanations of these absences. It was, he says, the plethora of French-Canadian intellectuals and the richness of their perspectives on technology that convinced him not to include them in his study, lest he do an inadequate job. Likewise, the very significance of gender in shaping ideas about technology convinced him to leave this topic to others.

Second-guessing aside, The Technological Imperative in Canada draws a wider circle than any comparable work on the subject. Its focus is broader than Robert Babe's Canadian Communication Thought, and the book is more suitable for undergraduates and general readers than Arthur Kroker's Technology and the Canadian Mind. By including literary figures like Frye, politician-intellectuals like King, and poets like Pratt and Lee, along with essential intellectuals like Innis and McLuhan, Francis makes plain a pervasive Canadian engagement with technology. Given the breadth of his topic, Francis's central argument is necessarily loose-fitting, but his writing is always lucid and his analysis assured. The Technological Imperative in Canada is not flashy, but it is intelligently constructed and eminently worthwhile.


University of Western Ontario
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Author:MacDougall, Robert
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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