So suppose that, for a variety of reasons laid out here and elsewhere, we’re looking at a low-energy future. And suppose that we want to avoid the fallacy that Sharon Astyk calls the Klingon/Cylon dilemma, or what John Michael Greer calls the narrative of apocalypse. What do we do? That is, what’s a productive way to start thinking about the problems we’re facing?
First, human nature revolts against inhuman technological, organisational, and political patterns, which it experiences as suffocating and debilitating; second, the living environment which supports human life aches and groans and gives signs of partial breakdown; and, third, it is clear to anyone fully knowledgeable in the subject matter that the inroads being made into the world’s non-renewable resources, particularly those of fossil fuels, are such that serious bottlenecks and virtual exhaustion loom ahead in the quite foreseeable future. (p. 156)
We can invert these pitfalls to think of them as desiderata for technology: we want technology to be humane, to operate without breaking environmental systems, and to use energy sources that aren’t transitory. Technology that meets these constraints is thus “appropriate.”
But of course appropriate technology understood in this way is a generic idea, the genus being technology that is appropriate relative to a choice of constraints, and Schumacher’s constraints aren’t the only possible constraints. And people have explored other possibilities—Wikipedia lists a number of other constraints we could demand of appropriate technology, including consonance with cultural norms and reliance on labor (as opposed to energy from fuels).
There’s a philosophical project here, on the question of just which constraints we ought to adopt—the question of what’s appropriate appropriate technology. But that’s a project for another time.
For now, I want to just stick with one particular conception of appropriate technology—one particular set of constraints—and then run with a suggestion of Barath’s, namely that the internet can be a crucial adjunct to appropriate technology. So let’s take Schumacher’s three criteria and add some specificity. Appropriate technology is:
Humane. Appropriate technology doesn’t engender social conditions that defy broad human needs. The obvious conditions to worry about are jobs, particularly things like the production line which require repetitive movement and little thinking (or none). But technology can be inhumane in many ways; for example, anonymous internet chat and (I’d argue, curmudgeonly) television engender norms of communication which alienate people.
Light on the environment. No human activity can avoid affecting the nonhuman environment, but appropriate technology is operable without seriously damaging that environment. This is a vague criterion, but has some clear implications (e.g. that appropriate technology doesn’t reduce a species’ population to the point of irreversible decline).
Energy wise. Technology requires energy, but appropriate technology embodies wise energy use. In the limit case, this means technology that can get up and stay up on easily-renewable energy, such as a windbreak. But we can also use nonrenewable energy to create goods which have long-term use, or which yield a net energy savings relative to other available technology, such as insulation for the body.
The interaction of these three constraints yields more specific recommendations. For example, a technology is generally more appropriate to the extent that it’s locally designed and sourced, because—generally speaking—design is a humane job, local designers have contact with local users, and local materials incur lower transportation costs in both energy and environmental stress. Similar considerations might push for human-operated technology over automated, hand tools over power tools, and so on, other things being equal.
In this context, the internet seems an ill fit. Its physical substrate requires fuel inputs, automation, and uncommon materials for manufacturing, transport, and operation; its global reach requires some global standardization of infrastructure and protocols; its complete lack of cultural regulation has propagated trolling, bullying, and an enormous cache of distractions, diversions, and shortcuts to pleasure. In short, the internet doesn’t look all that Appropriate.
But of course the internet is incredibly useful, and anyone with the desire can get a serious education through it, and its instantaneous global reach and lack of cultural regulation have advantages, too. Even if the internet itself isn’t an especially appropriate technology, it might be useful as a kind of midwife. Articulating that role is going to be the topic of part 2 of this post, but the general idea is that the internet’s special strengths can be used to make the dissemination and design of appropriate technology both easier and more effective.