Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Technology Versus Technologies

If you have a plot of land and need an inexpensive shelter in a hurry, a stone castle probably isn't the technology you're looking for.  Neither is a modern high-tech PV-solar powered stick frame.  No, in this case a tent of some sort most likely fits the technological level best suited to your current needs.  It's crude, but with the introduction of a few other technologies - things like a wood stove, a comfy bed, a water tank, and a gas lamp by which to read your permaculture books - a tent is definitely a technology worth exploring.  Once the need for temporary and inexpensive shelter has been met, you're living on your land mortgage-free, with a fair amount of time - before the canvas on your tent decays into strands of mildew - in front of you for building something sturdier, like a modern high-tech PV-solar powered stick frame, or that stone castle you've been dreaming about since you were five.  Or, in our case, a lovely little passive solar cob cottage.

Modern industrial humans have this bad habit of thinking of "technology" as a living, breathing, self-perpetuating demi-god-like entity, hell-bent on ever-increasing complexity and snazziness.  Even worse, they tend to think of "sustainability" as something that requires MORE complex gizmos and gadgets than the usual approach.  You can't be a real greenie without solar panels, a Prius, and cloth shopping bags, now can you? 

Sure you can.  In fact, solar panels and Priuses are exactly the sorts of technologies that fit well within our idea of the demi-god "technology," but don't end up being terribly enduring technologies in an age of energy descent.  Not long term anyway.  Both operate on the assumption that fantastically complex and expensive manufacturing and support structures will remain viable into the foreseeable future - a future that is already riddled with decisions to make about which programs to cut and which to keep.  If you have a hundred dollar budget spoken for, those patterns of spending long since established, and suddenly your budget is cut to 80 dollars, somebody has to go home unhappy at the end of the day.  If this sort of budget decline continues, the chopping block just gets bigger and the results bloodier.  That's where we're headed with our energy budget, and no amount of money printing is going to change the situation.  Printing more money just makes the money worth less, a phenomenon we are all seeing at the pump, the grocery store, the hardware store, and everywhere else in the real world not bedazzled by federal reserve voodoo.  Beyond about five year old thinking, eighty pennies just aren't worth more than four quarters.

Yet five year old thinking seems to prevail in our culture today.  We continue to pay homage to our god technology despite its increasingly inappropriate trajectory, outfitting industry after industry with more automation and fewer jobs for humans.  Our lord technology has become a monster, devouring itself by the tail, just like the printing presses devour the value of the money they create.  Instead of employing humans in the fields we fuel up giant tractors; instead of employing humans at the docks, one man guides a giant crane; and instead of entertaining each other with guitars and microphones we make offerings of federal largesse to satiate the giants Hollywood and NASCAR.  How soon will they be grinding our very bones to make their bread?

The smokescreen of more "technology" as the answer seems easy enough to see through to me.  What it appears we need instead is more technologies.  We need to remember that grub hoes and rakes and organic gardening are useful technologies, that dollies and wagons are useful technologies, that guitars and stage productions are useful technologies, and that all of these technologies employ more humans, speak more clearly to the human soul, than their automated counterparts.  Watching nature programs on television is not the same thing as living a life immersed in Nature's wonder.

We've become a prosthetic culture, interacting with the world through prosthetic limbs.  And our own senses have been numbed and replaced by hive-mind consensus.  When our descendents look back on this strange period of history what will our enduring technological contributions to them turn out to be?  When all the vast oceans of digital data become inaccessible and the space station just a thing of legend, when global supply chains seem more like magic than reality, what will we have offered to the great drama of human history? 

I truly hope it's something more than a warped sense of technology-as-master-uber-alles...


  1. Sounds like someone is channeling E.F.Schumacher after just finishing reading E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops". Yes, I agree that the definition of high technology has been subverted. A deep understanding of the physical world, and how the system in question interacts, might well lead to a solution that is elegant, but not requiring complex human artifacts. And as you point out, it will pretty much HAVE to the way things are heading.

  2. Been meaning to comment for a while. It sounds like you (and commenter Steve) are pushing for "appropriate technology" here - i.e. picking and choosing from among available technologies to get a job done, while either enhancing your life or environment or doing the least harm.

    This gives me a chance to recommend three books that would probably fit in your world view very well:

    Leopold Kohr, "The Breakdown of Nations" - You list Schumacher's "Small is Beautiful" as essential reading. Schumacher cited Kohr as one of his greatest influences. If energy descent leads to increasing local and regional social organization (as opposed to megastates and internationalism), Kohr basically says "Look at the bright side..." and lists umpteen historical examples of why small really is beautiful.

    Noel Perrin, "Giving Up the Gun: Japan's reversion to the sword" - In the late 1500s Japan had the largest firearms industry in the world, but then collectively decided to give it up. The book was originally written during the Cold War in part to demonstrate that nuclear disarmament really could work by documenting an historical case of an advanced weapons system being "dis-invented". Nowadays the Japanese example could be used as an analogy of voluntarily giving up *any* advanced technology.

    Austin Tappan Wright, "Islandia" - A classic utopian novel of a society that keeps itself largely isolated from modern civilisation, while picking and choosing certain modern technologies that it finds useful without damaging its basic rural nature and steady-state economic model.