Rethink, Retool, Reboot: Technology Justice

rethink retool rebootPractical Action, the international NGO that uses technology to challenge poverty in “developing” countries, has published a new book that is freely accessible online. Rethink, Retool, Reboot: Technology as if People and Planet Mattered is written by Simon Trace.

A fifth of the world’s population lacks access to technologies fundamental to a basic standard of living, while unfettered use of technology by those who have it brings its own problems. Inspired by EF Schumacher’s 1973 book Small is Beautiful, Trace argues that ending poverty and achieving environmental sustainability cannot be realized without radical changes to the way technology is developed, accessed, and used:

“Humanity has lost control of technology, or rather relinquished it to the vagaries of the market, assuming its ‘invisible hand’ will ensure the most efficient development and dissemination of technology that best meets people’s needs – an assumption that is wrong.”

The book is divided into three sections. Part 1 starts by looking at notions of technological progress and the relationship between technology and human development, demonstrating the need to ‘rethink’ how we use and provide access to technology. Part 2 goes on to explore the idea that we need to ‘retool’ — to re-examine our innovation processes — in order to focus on driving technology development towards, rather than away from, the twin problems of poverty and environmental sustainability. The book closes with a third section that sets out a series of radical changes required to ‘reboot’ our relationship with technology.

Smart Technology is a Solution Looking for a Problem

iabR Hans tak

Picture by Hans Tak, International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2016

Technologies like driverless cars and smart heating systems could end up making cities dysfunctional according to Maarten Hajer, chief curator of the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam 2016. Speaking at an opening event for the biennale, Hajer called for architects and designers to stop treating the advent of smart technologies as inevitable, and to question whether they will solve any problems at all.

“People with lots of media force pretend to know exactly what the future will look like, as if there is no choice,” he said. “I’m of course thinking about self-driving vehicles inevitably coming our way.” Discussions about the future of cities are at risk of being “mesmerised” by technology, he added. “We think about big data coming towards us, 3D printing demoting us, or the implication of robots in the sphere of health, as if they are inevitabilities. My call is for us to think about what we want from those technological advances.”

“I have nothing against good technology, it’s wonderful, but you always want social problems to be the priority. If it doesn’t help us get CO2 down, if it doesn’t help us make cities more socially inclusive, if it doesn’t help us make meaningful work, I’m not interested in smart technology. Sometimes I think: “if smart technology is the solution, then what was the problem again?”

Read the full interview at Dezeen. Thanks to Anne-Marie Pronk.

Technology Ages in Reverse


A complex biochar-making toilet. “It will never be deployed anywhere”.

Our society is pathologically enthralled with the new. As scientists and engineers in global development, we’re inculcated starting from very early in our training to seek “the cutting edge” of technological innovation. But if we want the best chance of making a positive difference on the future, that’s the opposite of what we should do.

The reason is that technology ages in reverse. Or put another way, the longer a given technology has been around, the more likely it is to persist into the future. So, if you want your efforts in science to matter in the future, you’d better look to the past to define relevant research questions.

According to philosopher and risk analyst Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, while perishable items (such as humans, cats and tomatoes) experience a decline in life expectancy with each passing day, nonperishable things (such as art, literature, ideas and technologies) can experience increased life expectancy the longer they are in circulation. This is known as the Lindy Effect… Taleb asserts that our modern culture trains us to think that the new is always about to overcome the old. But this is just an optical illusion because the failure rate of the new is so much higher than that of the old.

Quoted from: Forget the cutting edge embrace the old tech future, Engineering4Change.

Cargo Cults

supercargo headphones“The John Frum movement on the Oceanic island nation Vanuatu is a classic example of what anthropologists have called a “cargo cult”— many of which sprang up in villages in the South Pacific during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands from the skies and seas.

Cargo cults appear when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes. The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world.

To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region started building giant airplanes from wood, carving headphones and radios from bamboo and awaited the messianic serviceman John Frum. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere, bearing all kinds of treasures: jeeps and washing machines, radios and motorcycles, canned meat and candy. Their rituals included the non militant army TAU (Tanna Army USA), marching with wooden rifles.

supercargo 2The more naive will laugh about these imitations. But did the US soldiers truly understand their technology, their big agenda? The cult of the cargo is our world exactly: We perform meaningless routines we call work, in hope for future cargo. With a technology that could navigate us to the moon, we write LMAO. The western world itself is a giant cult of imitating things that somehow work: dressing in suits, using buzzword-vocabulary, mimicing old forms of art. The longing for godlike goodies on the horizon, the usage of things we don´t understand: it’s a big parable of desire.

Surprisingly the local performers of the Cargo Cults succeeded: By remaking western technology with bamboo, by re-enacting western rituals they attracted actual planes full of tourists and anthropologists.”

Quoted from “In John they trust” (Smithsonian Magazine) and “The supercargo manifesto” (Supercargo Tumblr). Pictures: Supercargo Tumblr. Thanks to Edwin Gardner.

Automated Ethics & Driverless Cars

ethical driverless cars“Modern motor vehicles are safer and more reliable than they have ever been – yet more than 1 million people are killed in car accidents around the world each year, and more than 50 million are injured. Why? Largely because one perilous element in the mechanics of driving remains unperfected by progress: the human being.”

“Enter the cutting edge of machine mitigation. Back in August 2012, Google announced that it had achieved 300,000 accident-free miles testing its self-driving cars. The technology remains some distance from the marketplace, but the statistical case for automated vehicles is compelling. Even when they’re not causing injury, human-controlled cars are often driven inefficiently, ineptly, antisocially, or in other ways additive to the sum of human misery.”

“What, though, about more local contexts? If your vehicle encounters a busload of schoolchildren skidding across the road, do you want to live in a world where it automatically swerves, at a speed you could never have managed, saving them but putting your life at risk? Or would you prefer to live in a world where it doesn’t swerve but keeps you safe?”

Quoted from: Automated Ethics, Tom Chatfield, Aeon Magazine. The image is from Ethical Autonomous Vehicles, a research project and video by Matthieu Cherubini. Three distinct algorithms have been created – each adhering to a specific ethical principle/behaviour set-up – and embedded into driverless virtual cars that are operating in a simulated environment, where they will be confronted with ethical dilemmas. Via InternetActu.

Discussing the Politics of Technology

breaking the frameBreaking the Frame is a low-tech event held in the UK next weekend.

“Technology dominates our world, but many people think ‘its just a neutral tool’ or that technology = progress. Although it does bring some benefits, most technology is designed and controlled by corporate, military and technocratic elites to serve their interests and exert their power. We think it’s time for a much more systematic and joined-up approach to technology that overcomes the democratic deficit in this area. We need to develop a new approach, based on bringing together the insights of different campaigns and movements, sharing skills, and learning from each other.”

[Read more…]

The Religion of Complexity

“The reaction of most people when I tell them I’m a scythe teacher is the same: incredulity or amusement, or polite interest, usually overlaid onto a sense that this is something quaint and rather silly that doesn’t have much place in the modern world. After all, we have weed whackers and lawnmowers now, and they are noisier than scythes and have buttons and use electricity or petrol and therefore they must perform better, right? Now, I would say this of course, but no, it is not right. Certainly if you have a five-acre meadow and you want to cut the grass for hay or silage, you are going to get it done a lot quicker (though not necessarily more efficiently) with a tractor and cutter bar than you would with a scythe team, which is the way it was done before the 1950s. Down at the human scale, though, the scythe still reigns supreme.”

Scythe“A growing number of people I teach, for example, are looking for an alternative to a brushcutter. A brushcutter is essentially a mechanical scythe. It is a great heavy piece of machinery that needs to be operated with both hands and requires its user to dress up like Darth Vader in order to swing it through the grass. It roars like a motorbike, belches out fumes, and requires a regular diet of fossil fuels. It hacks through the grass instead of slicing it cleanly like a scythe blade. It is more cumbersome, more dangerous, no faster, and far less pleasant to use than the tool it replaced. And yet you see it used everywhere: on motorway verges, in parks, even, for heaven’s sake, in nature reserves. It’s a horrible, clumsy, ugly, noisy, inefficient thing. So why do people use it, and why do they still laugh at the scythe?”

“To ask that question in those terms is to misunderstand what is going on. Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.”

Read more: “Dark Ecology, searching for truth in a post-green world“, Paul Kingsnorth, Orion Magazine. Image source. Related: The motorized “solution” to harvesting wheat in Nepal.

Celebrating the Luddite Uprisings

celebrating the luddite uprisings

“November 2011 – January 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings, in which artisan cloth workers smashed machines which were destroying their trades, undercutting wages and forcing them into unemployment and destitution. Today, the industrial system that the Luddites were rebelling against has led to climate change and huge losses of biodiversity, and its new technologies, such as information technology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology raise equally profound issues. Yet anyone who raises concern about the price and side-effects of new technologies is harshly condemned as a ‘luddite’, someone supposedly irrationally opposed to technology and progress.”

“In fact, the Luddites were not ‘luddites’ in that sense: the idea that they were opposed to all technology is a history written by the victors. In fact the Luddites opposed only technology ‘hurtful to Commonality’, ie. to the common good, rather than the narrow interests of the few. They destroyed some machines whilst leaving alone others in the same workshop. So being a luddite today means being a sceptic about the dogma of technology as progress, not about denying the real benefits of some technologies. It means insisting that the crucial decisions about which technologies are developed are made democratically, not just imposed by corporations and technocratic elites. And it means standing up for our own ideas of what progress really is.”

Help celebrate 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprising: Luddites at 200 website. See also: “Lessons of the Luddites“.

What Technology Wants

Björk post All the modern things
like cars and such
have always existed

they’ve just been waiting in a mountain
for the right moment

listening to the irritating noises
of dinosaurs and people
dabbling outside

all the modern things
have always existed
they’ve just been waiting

to come out
and multiply
and take over

it’s their turn now…

“The modern things”, Björk – from the album “Post” (1995). Kevin Kelly’s book “What technology wants” in a nutshell.

Judging Technology

Ran Prieur started an interesting initiative: TechJudge, in which a rating system is applied to different technologies.

“In this age, ‘judging technology’ means one of two things: reviewing a particular tool for how well it satisfies the consumer, or doing deep thinking about Technology as a whole. I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘technology’. Every tool, every system of tools, every use of every system of tools, is a different animal. And instead of judging a clothes dryer for how well it dries your clothes compared to another clothes dryer, we should also judge it for how it affects the meaningfulness of your life, the society it is part of, and the rest of life on this planet. The goal of this page is to inspire deep thinking about particular technologies.”

For now, only the transportation section has been (partly) filled in. The “passenger dragon” (which scores the maximum of 100 points) left me a bit confused, but here are the preliminary results for the more common transport means:

  • sailboat 85 – 74,
  • horse 79 – 70
  • bicycle 77 – 63
  • private jet 58
  • airliner 45
  • passenger train 44 – 30
  • automobile 25

Note that energy use and ecological damage are not the only criteria.