networking appropriate tech (part 1)

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?

An excellent place to start is with Appropriate Technology.  The idea has its origin in the work of E. F. Schumacher, who identified three key pitfalls of any possible technology:

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.

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Responses to “networking appropriate tech (part 1)”

  1. Good to see you both talking about the Internet. In a comment to Barath’s post “What are the Internet’s dependencies?”, I mused about the possibility of a graceful descent path for it, leading to a less performant, but more sustainable communications network.

    I’d agree that for now, the beast is an execellent “midwife” (love the term). The question I’d ask is, can all or most of “the internet’s special strengths” be retained in a more appopriate successor?

  2. Thanks, Don. I’m currently working on an answer to half your question, namely: what exactly *are* the internet’s special strengths? Because at first glance, it seems to me, there’s no one thing the internet does that some other technology doesn’t also do. So the answer I’m converging on is that the internet is distinctive in its particular combination of technologies.

    As for ‘midwife’, I wish I could take credit, but I’m cribbing directly from Socrates/Plato. (Another datum for the quip that all of philosophy is footnotes to Plato, I guess!)

  3. You ask “what exactly *are* the internet’s special strengths?”

    I’d approach this from a particular point of view: what can the internet contribute to enabling/improving our responses to the coming energy descent and adaptation to climate change? Turning it around, what will we suffer due to the lack of a global communications network, accessible to most people, transmitting information in near-real-time?

    Here’s some candidates for “special strengths”:
    - A vastly increased global awareness of the multiplicity of cultures, races, religions, etc.
    - An instrument of change in the way people around the world perceive and interact with each other, individually, and as groups of various kinds and sizes.
    - An instrument to spread adaptive responses much faster than could have been done without it. (Example: the spread of Tranistion Initiatives around the world, starting from a few Transition Towns in the UK. There are many other groups and concepts that have spread through the net, but for some reason(s), Transition resonates with many more people in a variety of environments.) I should also admit that maladaptive, but seductive, responses have also spread more quickly.
    - A mechanism to store evolving knowledge and make it available to people that can use it, and also to people who can contribute to it. (Examples: the Wikipedia and a multiplying host of Wiki sites on various topics.)
    - Online “communities”: lacking essential characteristics of communities based on geographical proximity, but held together by one or more common interests or concerns. Some members of these communities might never have had the chance to meet, much less interact with “soul mates”.

    I’m probably missing some important ones, but this should give the idea.