Technological progress is an unpredictable thing. Technologies aren’t neutral, but come freighted with implications for society, psychology and the environment. Sometimes something can be a major step forward in one regard, but a step sideways or backwards in another.
Sometimes we can see the problem ahead of time. Other times circumstances change and things that looked like a good idea at the time turn out not to be so wise in the long run. We should be willing to look honestly at even the most common technologies and ask if they’re still fit for purpose, and whether we could do better.
Here are three of the most significant technologies that we’d do well to revisit:
Cars – The automobile offers incredible freedom, opportunities for mobility that were unimaginable to previous generations. But they’re also massively inefficient at moving large numbers of people. Since they sit four or five people but usually carry fewer than that, there is huge over-capacity on the roads. But since the vast majority of cars are private, that capacity goes to waste.
Cars require massive infrastructure both to move and to park, and are now established enough to push out other forms of transport and redraw our geography, despite the inefficiencies. If they’re petrol driven, it’s even worse, with air pollution, climate change, and oil dependency to contend with.
Reconsidering car culture now is really difficult, and inevitably political. It’s also very expensive, as many places are almost unliveable without a car. But it’s not an impossible task. Electric cars are the least we can do. More fundamental change will come through designing walkable neighbourhoods, relocalising work and services where we can, and providing attractive and affordable transit systems where we can’t.
Central heating – My generation takes it for granted now, but it must have been amazing to move into a house with central heating for the first time – a blessing that is well within living memory in Britain. Gone were the freezing cold mornings, the coal deliveries, the soot to clean up. Luxury.
I have central heating and enjoy that luxury too, but there is a fundamental problem with it: central heating heats buildings rather than people. It maintains a constant temperature in a building, regardless of how many rooms are occupied, how many people there are, or what they’re up to. What we really want is warm people, but most of the heat from central heating goes into the air, the walls, or depending on insulation, out into the atmosphere. That was fine before the reality of climate change sank in, and when North Sea gas reserves were plentiful. These days it doesn’t seem quite so smart.
Rethinking heating involves bringing the focus back onto people, and creating heating systems that are more responsive and zone specific. That can be high tech, with wired up homes, hybrid heating systems and advanced heating controls. But it can also be simpler. As Low Tech Magazine describes, there are lots of ways of creating micro-climates around ourselves – from four-poster beds or high backed chairs, to wood burning stoves that heat just the room we hang out in most. Or Google ‘kotatsu’ for Japan’s cosy-looking traditional solution.
Flushing toilets – Like the two examples above, flushing toilets were an innovation for the richest that has become happily democratized. The difference between a modern convenience and a pit latrine is the stuff civilization is made of, but if we were to plan a large scale waste solution from scratch, we wouldn’t do it like this.
There are a number of problems with flushing toilets, but the most obvious is the fact that we flush them with drinking water. We go to all the effort of purifying water, filtering it and removing pathogens, only to pollute it again and send it back for processing. This is up there with polishing the soles of your shoes for pointlessness.
Given how unappealing many of the alternatives are, it’s going to be tricky getting any traction at all on this, and places that have no shortage of fresh water don’t necessarily need to do anything about it. But for those that don’t have an abundance of water, or those who haven’t yet committed to the massive infrastructure of modern sanitation, there are some innovative new ideas out there.
One common theme across those three is that they are (or were) all aspirational goods – things that people really want and look forward to owning. They’re benchmarks for good living. That presents a challenge to anyone who, like me, argues that we should think again about them. There is the possibility of intermediate technologies where these systems aren’t yet established, but these need to be aspirational too. In places that already have these technologies in place, the alternatives need to be visibly better than the status quo if they’re going to be adopted. Nobody wants to take a step backwards for the environment – not on something as convenient and everyday as a flushing toilet.
I don’t pretend to have any great solutions, but I do find it fascinating to watch developments in these sorts of everyday technologies.