I recently reviewed Philippe Bihouix’s book The Age of Low Tech, which makes the case for reducing our dependence on technological solutions to climate change. Instead, he argues that we should prioritise low tech solutions. A chapter of the book outlines the kind of thing he means, describing ‘the principles of simple technologies’.
This reminded me of E F Schumacher’s work on ‘appropriate technology’, which focuses on ‘intermediate’ level machines – a step up from manual labour, but still simple enough to be made from local parts and for people to maintain them themselves.
The bicycle is the ultimate example. It’s better than walking, but far cheaper and more efficient than mechanised transport. Most of us can learn to maintain and do basic repairs on our own bikes, so they’re a technology that empowers. Users remain in control of them, and know that the tech serves them rather than the other way round.
Bihouix offers a number of principles, and then summarises them in ‘the seven commandments of low tech’. I won’t list all of them, but it’s a useful summary and it includes the following:
- First of all, question the need. “There is no product or service more ecologically sound, resource efficient or recyclable than the one we do not use.” This is an unasked question in consumer capitalism, which is more about creating wants rather than addressing needs.
- Design for durability. Unlike phones that are made to be replaced every 18 months, simple technologies should be built to last and easy to repair.
- “Re-localise without losing the good effects of scale”. There’s some nuance here. Local production is good for some things, but not for everything.
- De-automation – “thou shalt replace people by machines with caution”. Automation that spares someone from dirty, boring or dangerous work is fine, but it also drives unemployment and reduces community. Sometimes the only beneficiary is a big corporation that is saving on its wage bill.
It’s worth reflecting on simple technologies from time to time, because they get less attention than they deserve. High tech things are more exciting. Advanced technologies naturally get the headlines because they’re new, and as the name suggests, the news needs novelty. That inevitably creates a bias towards shiny innovation over sturdy and reliable existing technologies.
New technologies are exciting and I enjoy reading about innovations too, like the Solar Foods I wrote about yesterday. But from a global perspective, it’s still the simple technologies that are often making the biggest difference. Things like wheelbarrows, cookstoves, basic indoor plumbing.
If you live on $5 a day, electric or self-driving cars are a long way away – but a bike would be transformative. And – quick reminder – half the world lives on less than $5 a day.