Technology in a Post-Growth World: Lessons from the 1970s AT Movement

Hello again! This post about lessons we could learn from the 1970s Appropriate/Alternative Technology movement is derived from a presentation I gave at Helsinki Sustainability Science Days 2019, 9.5.2019. The entire presentation can be found here.

The above presentation and this essay are an outgrowth of my innocent plan to just write up some short notes about technology for would-be authors who are interested in developing an internally consistent, believable and positive vision of a future sustainable society. We need such positive visions more than ever: I for one am 100% convinced that the vast majority of humans, those in the rich countries included, could have a far more meaningful and happy lives in a society that scales down and earnestly starts its way towards sustainability. However, big changes are always scary, and I do not blame anyone for being afraid: the coming change may be the biggest one since the Industrial Revolution, and it may unfold quickly in some places. To keep our wits with us, we need positive visions – and if they are grounded in the latest research and decades of experience, they tend to be more convincing.

(As a context, note that this was presented at “Degrowth and Postgrowth” track, so I won’t be spending time on defending degrowth as such.)

We humans are a technological species that lives in an increasingly technological society. No matter which kind of a future we have, if we have a future, then it’s safe to say it’s going to be technological at least to some extent. We cannot even survive without technology, let alone thrive.

However, the “shape” of that technology remains an open question. Is our future going to be a high-technology one, or an Arcadian agricultural vision? Lately, there has been increased academic interest in the role of technology in the transition towards post-growth, sustainable society, as is evidenced by e.g. a 2018 special issue on degrowth and technology in the Journal of Cleaner Production. In brief, the basic question remains the same as it has been in critical technology studies for decades: is technology a friend or a foe, and what kinds of technologies might be “compatible” with the ideals of degrowth?

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This question matters, because, as noted above, we humans are a technological species. Scholars of technology generally agree that it is hard, if not pointless, to separate technology and human society: our technologies are shaped by our society, and our societies are shaped by our technologies. What these technologies then are, and what values they promote or inhibit, is therefore an important question. If not for anything else, discussing what kinds of technology a future sustainable society might use would help that most valued profession, authors, to come up with more internally realistic, positive visions of the future. (See Doctorow, 2017 for one great example.)

Despite the question’s importance, the discussion related to “degrowth technologies” has been largely theoretical in nature. This is somewhat odd, because there exists a well developed body of research and experience from an earlier attempt to develop a technological choice to the current, destructive growth machine. This alternative movement had many names, such as “radical”, “intermediate”, “soft”, or “low impact” technology, but perhaps the best known names were the Alternative or Appropriate Technology movement.

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While the movement is mainly remembered today from its inordinate fondness towards small scale biogas production and its endless designs for “self sufficient” living, what has been almost forgotten is that for more than a decade, this movement produced an alternative, compelling and very successful narrative for the use of technology. Instead of gigantic technological infrastructures that today remain largely hidden from the view and the thoughts of an individual consumer (and “consumer” tells you what is the position of an individual in this scheme), the AT movement advocated for human-scale, understandable technologies that ordinary humans could at least begin to control. What’s more, the movement was extraordinarily successful when compared to most counterculture movements today: at its heyday, its leading figures were invited to meet presidents and royalty, and its ideas were discussed seriously in bodies like the United Nations and the OECD.

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What this movement sought was to change the technology-practice of our societies so that research and development would be aimed towards human-scale technology, that is, ensuring that technology is compatible with its psychosocial and biophysical context. In other words, the movement sought appropriate technologies and, even more fundamentally, the option of technological choice that went beyond which of the ready-made, prepackaged technological ensembles one would purchase. In brief, the movement sought to democratize technology, while at the same time working towards reducing the human footprint to nature to sustainable levels.

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While the roots of this movement can be traced to the 1800s and even beyond, the critique towards “technological society” inherent in the movement began on its earnest in the 1930s. I would argue that the 1950s DIY movement was in its way a precursor as well: taking control of technology in an increasingly technological age was and remains a subtly subversive act. More generally, the AT movement drew its inspiration from spreading disaffection with modernity and was influenced by e.g. Gandhian philosophy of voluntary simplicity; experience in Asia and Buddhist philosophy were fundamental to the intellectual development of the one person who might be called the father of the AT movement, British-German economist E.F. (“Fritz”) Schumacher.

Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful (1973) jump-started a movement that had been bubbling under in the countercultural settings of the 1960s. By arguing that we humans could and should choose technologies and even entire technological systems (ensembles) to suit our needs, instead of taking as granted the technological ensemble offered by the corporate-capitalist world, Schumacher perhaps inadvertently tapped into a vast reservoir of resentment towards modernity. Much as it is today, this resentment had built upon radical changes in the people’s lives, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of faceless systems and corporations, and a rising awareness that the system was not and perhaps could not be sustainable.

 

However, by the late 1980s, the AT movement had largely disappeared from the view. Critics such as Rybczynski (1980) and Willoughby (1990, 2005) note that the movement was to an extent a fad that had never really defined what “appropriate” technology is; others (e.g. Harper & Boyle 1977) lamented the movement’s focus on technological gadgets rather than political and societal action. It should be noted that while the movement produced all sorts of fanciful schemes for “appropriate” living, it also produced major successes: the entire practice of eco-design largely stems from the ideas first tested in the AT movement, and AT schemes such as utilization of passive solar heat are increasingly standard practice in the construction business. The vision of a sustainable yet comfortable future the AT movement espoused was technically viable and surprisingly popular: what really killed the vision was the rise of radical, anti-environmentalist, pro-business right-wing politics in both the United States and in Europe. Combined with decrease in the price of oil and coal, the alternatives to alternative technology became simply too cheap and convenient, as long as one didn’t have to look under the hood to see the damages this path was causing.

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While the grand vision died, the AT movement, however, survived, if in a modified form. Various authors have noted that without the AT movement and its questioning of technological choice, and its attempts to bring technological choice to the people instead of having experts to decide, we would not have the current science and technology studies (STS) practice. Quite possibly, we wouldn’t have the hacker culture nor personal computers: the entire hacker culture was to a very large extent motivated by the desire to democratize technology, and was deeply connected to the broader AT movement as well (Markoff, 2005; Turner, 2006). The AT movement was also the testing ground not only for energy and building technologies that are now becoming standard, but also what has become the entire eco-design field, as well as prefiguring recently rehashed ideas such as “bottom of the pyramid” or “frugal” innovation by decades. A movement of such importance should not be forgotten as easily as we have done so. Perhaps, as Greer (2013) suggests, we do not want to look at the future we once had but squandered.

Yet look again we must. We are now again coming face to face with issues we brushed under the carpet in the 1980s. The AT movement was mostly correct in its prognosis of the humanity’s predicament, but an unhappy coincidence of political and geological factors permitted us to remain blind to its observations for more than three decades. I believe it is high time to bring the idea of technological choice back to the table, and start having a serious, adult discussion about what our technological society is really for. Are we building a society whose purpose is to let a few super-billionaires play rocket jockeys – or should we focus our creative energies towards bettering the lives of ordinary people, with technologies they can use as tools and not as components in a vast technological machine?

If we want the latter, and I believe it would be the right thing to do, then some lessons from the 1970s are worth remembering. First, social change does not happen via technological change. A major blind spot for many – though by no means all practicioners of AT was the focus on technological gadgetry as the solution. This tendency has not disappeared: as e.g. Morozov (2013) argues, if possible we suffer even more from “solutionism”, or the faith of there being an app for that. Whenever a technocrat sees a problem, he (and it’s almost always he) also sees that there could be a technical solution. Unfortunately, this approach has never really worked, and it’s unlikely it ever will.

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Instead, technology should be seen as an amplifier of pre-existing tendencies (see e.g. Toyama, 2015). If the underlying societal structure tends to concentrate wealth, then new technologies tend to make wealth concentration more severe; if the society promotes well-being of its members, then new technologies tend to increase well-being.

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We could and should’ve learned that lesson back in the 1970s, but we chose not to. Probably a major reason for that is because technical fix to essentially social problems (like, say, poverty) is like the Dark Side of the Force: it’s the seductive path that brings fast results, but as with the Dark Side, these results tend to be illusory. As Morozov (2013) and Toyama (2015), among others, have documented, the Dark Side is nevertheless the default setting for most technologists and societal decision-makers. Again, the fear and revulsion of having to engage in politics is probably a major driver that leads people towards solutionism. However, if one wants to change the world, one should focus a lot more on the messy job of politics and civic engagement – and far less on technological gadgetry.

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Second lesson we should learn from the 1970s is that creating alternatives in the sphere of consumption is relatively easy, but creating alternatives in the sphere of production is far more difficult (Rybczynski, 1980). That is, we can relatively easily choose what and how we consume, e.g. whether we buy everything from a store or make do with second hand and whatever we can do ourselves. In the picture, I’ve tried to represent the “seamless web” of technology’s infrastructure by the pyramidical network: our individual consumption choices, even Appropriate Technology ones, tend to focus on individual products on top of the pyramid, not in how the the products are produced (the rest of the web).

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In the absence of political action, these limited actions are unlikely to influence the means of production: we may choose to buy less, but the infrastructure that is geared towards producing more remains. As long as individual choices do not result to significant changes in the sphere of production, any changes are not sustainable and will tend to rebound over time. The web will find new uses for its resources; this is, after all, what producers in a capitalist economy have to do to survive.

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Third, we really ought to know by now that we cannot forecast the unanticipated side effects of technology. Good ideas can have bad effects, and sometimes bad ideas can have good effects. Much of the Appropriate Technology literature stressed the need to better anticipate what impacts a given technology (or technological ensemble) would have on the people who have to adopt it. This is a worthwhile pursuit – as our tools become more and more powerful, we really ought to think much more carefully about the consequences of our actions – but we ought to abandon the idea that we could precisely engineer a technosocial system that would deliver the societal results we want like clockwork. Societies and technologies are simply too complex for that.

Instead, what we need is an acknowledgement that we have to be able to make constant adjustments based on feedback from the system. Our current means of regulating technologies date from the 1700s, and they are woefully slow-acting compared to the power and speed of our modern tools. There is a real and constantly increasing risk that we inadvertently use a tool that bites too powerfully before we even realize what is happening or can turn the tool off. This could perhaps be something from biotechnology, for instance, although plain old chemistry has already managed to spring us some very nasty surprises, and arguably social media is another out of control tool.

We also would benefit from favoring technologies that do not foreclose the future options. Megascale technologies tend to do just that: monocultures drive local seed varieties and related knowledge extinct, and massive construction projects create assets that must be run to their expected economical lifetime. However, since we cannot foresee technology’s full impacts, by the definition of violence offered by Hannah Arendt in her famous essay On Violence (1972), all technologies are “violent”. For Arendt, violence is the antithesis of real power, which is based on negotiating and persuading people to act together towards a common goal. Violence prevents such persuasion and replaces it with a necessity; thus, if a technology forecloses an otherwise possible course of action from future humans, it is “violent.” (Of course, there are degrees of violence and culpability.)

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Besides less violent and easier to control technologies, there might be another valuable distinction that could sometimes help us make better technological decisions. That is the distinction between a machine and a tool. For this essay, a machine could be defined as any tool that includes automation: a machine is thus a tool that limits its user to certain predetermined actions. A tool, in contrast, is more an extension and amplifier of its user’s capabilities and powers. While strict separation between machines and tools is impossible, especially today, one could nevertheless recognize that some technologies tend to make people into components of a vast machine, while others tend to be more empowering (cf. Coomaraswamy, 1946). We humans are famously unsuited for a life as a part of a machine, and at least some of the present alienation and disaffection in society must certainly stem from the fact that our technological machinery often treats people as components – sometimes low-cost, easily replaceable ones. Sweatshop workers who sew our clothes because training a robot to handle the variety would be more expensive are perhaps the perfect example, but machines control our lives (sometimes surreptiously) even in the wealthiest households. Choosing between a tool and a machine may not be always possible and is likely never easy, but when it is possible, we probably ought to favor tools over machines.

I originally started this paper with an intention to provide some ideas from the history and study of technology for authors who might be interested in developing much-needed positive visions of the future. The above sections may not have answered that question very well, and for that I apologize: however, forecasting is hard, forecasting the future is harder, and forecasting future technology is the hardest. I cannot really say how the technologies in a sustainable, post-growth world would look like. However, I have some guesses: the technologies are unlikely to be thoroughly simple. There are many very advanced technologies that provide genuine value relatively democratically, and these are likely to continue to be developed in most conceivable future scenarios (I leave out the total collapse one, because planning for that is largely useless anyway). However, unless someone pulls an energy rabbit out of the hat and develops an energy system that can truly replace cheap fossil fuels, it seems likely that the world economy will become at least slightly more local. What this probably means is an increase in the competitiveness of technologies that do not rely on global supply chains of raw material, semi-finished products, components, and skills. There is likely to be more regional variation, and if we can get on with really good ideas like Universal Basic Income, most probably a burst of creativity as local tinkerers and would-be inventors become more competitive against mass-market goods from China’s workshops.

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No matter what happens, though, we need to be able to implement social limitations to technology. Our tools are already too powerful for them to be governed the way we governed an axe and a hand-saw, and for the foreseeable future, it seems that our tools are becoming even more powerful. Tools themselves cannot say when they are misused, and it is up to us humans to say “enough!” when those overenthusiastic about novelty want to introduce yet another technology whose consequences are understood poorly, if at all. Technological innovation does not have to and will not cease: but directing it towards more humane ends and perhaps slowing the pace of change somewhat would very probably be a good idea.

All this is not because technology is inherently bad. As famous historian of technology noted a long time ago, technologies are neither good or bad (Kranzberg, 1986). Technology is the ensemble of tools and machines we use to pursue our ends, and we can choose the ends. Technological determinism is thus flawed: it is just as silly to claim that technology is inherently bad as to believe that technological progress is inherently good. To a very large extent, technologies are what we make them to be. However, technologies are also not neutral, and some technologies are probably easier to shape into “technologies with a human face” the 1970s pioneers wanted to gift to us, their children. It is now our task to pick up from where they left, and make a better future – a human-sized future – a reality.

REFERENCES

Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1946). Art and Swadeshi. Madras: Ganesh & Co.

Doctorow, C. (2017). Walkaway. New York: Tor Books.

Greer, J. M. (2013). Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills from Appropriate Tech Toolkit. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

Harper, P., & Boyle, G. (Eds.). (1977). Radical Technology. London: Wildwood House.

Kranzberg, M. (1986). Technology and History: “Kranzberg’s Laws.” Technology and Culture, 27(3), 544.

Markoff, J. (2005). What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. New York: Penguin.

Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: the Folly of Technological Solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs.

Rybczynski, W. (1980). Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology. Garden City: Anchor Books.

Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. London: Blond and Briggs.

Toyama, K. (2015). Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (Kindle ed.). Philadelphia: Perseus Books.

Turner, F. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth network, and the rise of digital utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (1972). On Violence. In Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Willoughby, K. W. (1990). Technology Choice: A Critique of the Appropriate Technology Movement. Boulder and London: Westview Press.

Willoughby, K. W. (2005). Technological semantics and technological practice: Lessons from an enigmatic episode in twentieth-century technology studies. Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 17(3-4), 11-43.

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About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
This entry was posted in Economy and the Environment, History of technology, My publications, Notes in process, Politics, post-scarcity and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Technology in a Post-Growth World: Lessons from the 1970s AT Movement

  1. This reminds me somewhat of an approach the Ahmish take, they are not opposed to technology per se (as they do use a form of power tools, have a community phone, etc), but they wait and see the effects of it on the larger society then decide as a community what they want and do not want to incorporate into their lives.

    This was a good read thank you, I’ll have to spend months picking through the sources later.

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