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Finding Our Reflection

From Harold Innis and George Grant to Ursula Franklin, Canadian thinkers have pondered the technologies that help hold the country together

Michael Valpy

The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History

R. Douglas Francis

University of British Columbia Press

340 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9780774816519

For those who have inscribed in their hearts Gad Horowitz’s cry to the Lord that Canada should continue to exist “to preserve the possibility of building, in this country, a society which is better than the Great Society [to the south],” University of Calgary historian R. Douglas Francis has arrived as Gabriel with The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History. This is the sort of scholarly book that anglophone Canadian nationalists—they still exist—ardently ask for in their prayers: a substantive academic identification and declaration of philosophical thought and insight that is truly and, if they cross their fingers and wish very hard, uniquely Canadian, shaped by the geography, history and culture of the top half of the North American continent.

Francis, never a historian of housemaid’s knee in Belleville, looks for the rhythms, cadences and voice of the whole country. He has written an acclaimed biography of University of Toronto historian Frank Underhill, who drafted the CCF’s Regina Manifesto and was first president of the League for Social Reconstruction, the group of intellectuals who conceived Canada’s post-war collective welfare state. He has co-authored (with colleagues Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith) a popular two-volume pan-Canadian history now in its sixth printing (Origins: Canadian History to Confederation and Destinies: Canadian History since Confederation). He has long been one of the great social historians of the West. Now, in The Technological Imperative in Canada, Francis deftly links more than a century and a half of English-Canadian public servants, engineers, scientists, inventors, economists, cultural critics, philosophers and poets who have inquired into technology as the metaphysics of the vast, rich land they inhabit and sought to understand it against a backdrop of morality (the French Canadians will need a book of their own, he says).

It is the search for the balance between the technological imperative and the moral imperative—with roots in ancient Greek and early Christian thought, Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and Saint Augustine’s The City of God—that forms the spine of Francis’s book and the Canadianness of his thesis: in the beginning, the moral imperative of technology is to connect, sustain, and materially and spiritually enrich the isolated inhabitants of Canada huddled on the immense breast of the North, then arc to the immoral application of the technological imperative—the Fall from Eden—to conquer and humiliate Nature, loot the land, seduce Canadians into being colonized in exchange for materialism’s low-hanging fruits (“Bite the apple!”) and mess up our relationship with the Eternal. It is powerful stuff, and through Francis’s pages parade a formidable group of thinkers who have applied their minds to the subject at various points of their country’s journey: Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Sandford Fleming, Alexander Graham Bell, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Stephen Leacock, Archibald Lampman, Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Northrop Frye, E.J. Pratt, George Grant, Dennis Lee, Ursula Franklin (who alone among the marchers is neither Anglo-Celt nor male and who, if I may make one criticism of the book, deserves more space than she gets) and others.

Why are these people Canadian? Why are they not something else? Why is the technological imperative a powerful Canadian beam of thought and what might that mean to the world beyond our borders? Incidentally, a Google search for “the world needs more Canada” produces—this will amaze you—151,000 hits.

Since the Canadian Tourism Commission came up with that sentence in 1995 as the slogan for a multimedia advertising campaign in the United States promoting Canada as a spiritual refuge, it has been adopted by the country’s largest bookseller, filched by the organizers of several Canadian-based international conferences, become the title of an annual lecture at McGill University, found its way three times into The New York Times and once into Parliament’s Speech from the Throne, and been used by U2’s Bono, a raft of academics and every major political columnist in the country, obsessively so by The Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson as a gibe at matters he deems illustrative of the country’s mediocrity and pretentiousness. In sum, it is a slogan we like.

However, beyond the flapping of counterfeit nationalism and journalistic rhetoric, little effort has been made to define what the declaration means. This being Canada, though, it immediately ignited conflict between the Quebec and federal governments when Quebec refused to use it in its advertisements in the U.S., contrary to what the tourism commission claimed Quebec had agreed to in return for a $2.3 million grant. constitution law scholar Sujit Choudhry has come closest of anyone to giving the words substance by using them as the title of an article he wrote on the Canadian model of constitutional politics and political theory. Choudhry’s point was that Canadians possess a special expertise in the constitutional accommodation of minority nationalities, which may not be the sort of talent we stencil on the t-shirts we sell to tourists visiting Niagara Falls—but neither is our talent to think about the moral implications of the technological imperative. Forever we hide our lights beneath a bushel.

A number of years ago, I was reading Richard Gwyn’s Nationalism Without Walls: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian and came across this sentence: “It’s no coincidence that McLuhan was Canadian.” That was it. Full stop. No further explanation. So I emailed Gwyn and asked him how he arrived at his identification of McLuhan, and he replied, “McLuhan is ‘not coincidentally’ a Canadian because thinking about communications comes naturally to Canadians, as a way of overcoming our obstacles of geography and climate, and of all our cultures.”

That is part of it, to be sure. Geography, climate, multiculturalism—and being forever the voice at the margin of an empire. But Francis takes the issue into a deeper and much more complicated realm (as, of course, would the astute Richard Gwyn if his objective were the same). The thinkers in Francis’s book are Canadian, their thoughts forming an intellectual history that envelopes the country like Teilhard de Chardin’s nous, because Canadians—as a factor of where they live, and on what they live, and of the past they have lived and beside whom they live—feel deeply the tension between the moral and technological imperatives like a constant itch at the base of their tailbones. Francis says his thinkers all came to see technology as the most pervasive and dominant force in the modern world, what Grant wrote of as “the metaphysics of our age; it is the way being appears to us.” But, adds Francis,

having so closely read the ideas of Canadian thinkers on technology over a long period of time, I realized that they were moralists who were attempting to retain or salvage a moral order—a moral imperative—that they believed the technological imperative either enhanced or else threatened. Their solution was to attempt to reconcile the two imperatives or at least to make Canadians aware of the benefits or dangers that the technological imperative posed to the moral imperative.

Thus there is technology as the extension of the human in the form of 19th-century railways and the means to unlock the mysteries of the natural world, the mind and even the mind of God (Haliburton): good. “Only with the advent of railways,” writes Francis, “did Canadian thinkers begin to think systematically and deeply about the nature, meaning, and significance of technology as opposed to just using it.” But there also is technology as the 20th- and 21st-century replacement of the human, as the most basic and pervasive fact of human existence, and technology not as the extension of the human but the human—think virtual human—as the extension of technology (Derrick de Kerckhove): not so good.

Technology as telephone, telegraph, radio and television to lift Canadians out of their provincialism and connect them to each other and to the great strands of western civilization, thus making them world citizens (Bell, Fleming, McLuhan): good. Technology as morally rudderless, as undermining the moral imperative by loosening the glue of community and spiritual values that are important for the well-being of society and for the psychological and moral health derived from social cohesion (Leacock, King, Frye): bad.

Technology as power for humans in their relentless struggle to survive in a world marked by indifference and against the cruel vagaries of Nature (Pratt, not surprisingly a Newfoundlander): good. Technology as industrialism that leads to a better world (Grant): good. Technology as industrialism that does nothing to improve the world socially but produces only more material goods and, for a comparative few, greater personal wealth (also Grant): bad. Technology as the primary instrument of liberal individualism and thus of the United States, pulling into its maw a Canada surrendering its grip on its Red Tory values of an organic, collective society attentive to the well-being of all (Grant again, Lament for a Nation): arguably bad. “Our hope lay in the belief,” Grant wrote, “that on the northern half of this continent we could build a community which had a stronger sense of the common good and of public order than was possible under the individualism of the American capitalist dream.” Underhill explained why the hope died: “We could not convert enough of our fellow English Canadians to this vision.” Technology as the amoral conqueror of Nature and despoiler of Creation, as the essence of “a society which holds that the control of nature by technology is the chief purpose of human existence and so from that belief a community is built where all else is subordinated to that purpose … the religion of the manipulation of nature for short-term economic gains” (Grant one last time): bad. Spiritual values, Grant declared, are the only escape hatch from “demon technology,” from the “technological hell.”

And there is technology as morality: Ursula Franklin, physicist, metallurgist and Quaker, who did much to persuade the U.S. government to end atmospheric nuclear tests by establishing that radioactive fallout—Strontium-90—was accumulating in Canadian and American children’s teeth; who throughout her career refused to do classified research, suspecting it might be used for weapons; and who in the 1980s concluded that even her training of students could be of great use to the military and therefore switched fields entirely and became a pioneer in archeometry, applying modern techniques of materials analysis to artifacts found by archeologists. Franklin almost certainly is Canada’s greatest technology activist.

Douglas Francis borrows from the thinking of U.S. philosopher Carl Mitcham to offer four definitions of what technology means:

• Technology as object: machines, tools, electronic devices, consumer products and so on.

• Technology as knowledge concerned with laws and how they relate to human nature, transforming technology from an extension of the human into an inherent constituent of human nature.

• Technology as process, which focuses on the process of “making and using” rather than on how things are made and used. The former—making—is within the domain of the engineer; the latter—using—is the concern of the social scientist. It is within this classification, for example, that Franklin works. “Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset,” she writes. “Technology has built the house in which we all live … Today there is hardly any human activity that does not occur within this house.” Franklin sees her studies of technology as an attempt to understand how technological practices affect the advancement of justice and peace.

• Technology as volition, concerned with the “aims, intentions, desires and choices of those using technology.” Increasingly, as Francis notes, the debate focuses on whether the aims, intentions, desires and choices are human ones or whether technology has acquired a will of its own that dictates the choices humans make.

Francis adds a fifth definition, which he considers primary to his Canadian analysts of technology: the notion of technology as imperative. “Canadian thinkers may have differed as to whether they identified technology as object, knowledge, process or volition, but they were united in their belief that technology was an imperative”—an essential, urgent ism of life, or, as George Grant put it, “of the way being appears to us.”

Which requires clarification. Francis acknowledges the origins and profound explorations of technology as imperative—and its tension with morality—in the ideas of Marx, Heidegger, the French theorist Jacques Ellul, the U.S. social critic Lewis Mumford and others. But the point of his book is that technology as imperative has drenched Canadian thought to what may be an unparalleled degree in engineering, literature, poetry, philosophy, communications theory, economics, science and on and on. Hence it produces joy in Canadian nationalists and a fervent wish that more scholars would do this kind of work.

It is interesting how, prior to the Second World War, the relationship between the moral imperative and the technological imperative in the minds of Canada’s thinkers was cemented in the secure belief that technology was something external to the human psyche to which humans reacted and could control once aware of technology’s power.

As Francis writes:

These pre-Second World War theorists believed that humans were free to accept or reject the lure of technology. However, the discussion changed in the post–Second World War period. Canadian theorists of technology came to realize that technologist was not something to resist from the outside; it was something to recognize as being within our psyche—indeed, as the essence of our being.

And, in recognizing technology as a state of mind that was itself technologically induced, says Francis, Canadian theorists fed the technological imperative by warning of its unbound dominance and pervasiveness.

Technology as volition took on a whole new meaning when one realized that the very values by which to judge technology as baneful or beneficial were themselves technologically driven. The ability to be free in a world in which technology was omnipresent became questionable; the need to be free of technology’s powerful grip became all the more imperative. Each theorist searched for an avenue of escape from the technological leviathan.

George Grant advocated faith in God. Harold Innis, whose theories—derived from studying the canoe routes of the fur trade—became the foundations of university schools of communication around the world, urged a return to the moral values found in societies on the margins of great centres whose independent perspectives he believed were key to the continued vitality of western civilization. Marshall McLuhan relied on the “resiliency and adaptability” of humans to use technology, especially electronic technology, to build a more interactive and ethically enriched world. Northrop Frye saw the power of the indomitable human imagination to visualize an ideal world and employ the power of myths to bring it about.

One puts down Francis’s book and muses on literature scholar Germaine Warkentin’s depressing observation that to be Canadian means to look in a mirror and see no reflection. Francis has given us—and the world—a reflection of our country.

Michael Valpy is a journalist and author. Through a long career at The Globe and Mail, he served as foreign correspondent, national political columnist, member of the editorial board and deputy managing editor before leaving to teach in 2010. He is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto.