Pattern #3


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Appropriate Technology

Beyond computerized systems, technology is applied knowledge and any associated physical equipment. Appropriate technology, then, is any practical knowledge that serves fundamental needs while fitting within the broader flourishing of life. So encourage both the innovation and reclamation of technologies that serve the deeper, broader wholeness of life without leading us into blindly profitable collective folly.

Some related patterns:   32 Fair Sharing of Costs and Benefits
42 Grounding in Fundamental Needs   50 Life-Enhancing Enoughness
57 Nature First   67 Prudent Progress   72 Regeneratively   92 Whole
System in the Conversation

  • What technologies do we know of that aren’t machines or computer-based? What bigger meanings could the word “technology” have, that it would behoove us to understand and think with?
  • What standards should we use to decide if a technology is appropriate or not?
  • What kinds of technology are most needed in the world right now?
  • Why? What would be needed to make them a reality?
  • What kinds of appropriate technology do we already know about? What can we learn by reflecting on them? Are there interesting variations we can imagine?

Going deeper …

This is an edited version of the video on this page.

The edited transcript of this pattern video will be posted shortly.  The transcript below is from the version 1.0 pattern “Appropriate Innovation”, which is associated with this pattern and so worth including here.

This pattern comes out of an awareness of the trade-offs associated with the technological breakthroughs that we’ve been making for the last 50-100 years – a development that’s accelerating.

Innovation is currently held up as an unqualified good. But when you look at some of these innovations – particularly when they’re being hyped and few people are seriously considering their potential downsides – it becomes obvious that we are creating an increasing capacity to generate collective disaster.

Bill Joy – who is one of the creators of Java and one of the gurus of the Internet – wrote an article for Wired magazine in 2000 entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us”. In it he describes how advances in biotech, nanotech, computing power and robotics will generate the capacity for individuals or small groups to create self-replicating entities that can consume or destroy us or the environments we depend upon. And when (not if) we reach that point, it’s really hard to imagine how human extinction will not happen, whether on purpose or by accident.

There are a number of people who would love to remove humanity, since they think of us (with some justification) as a cancer on the earth. Imagine giving them the power Bill Joy was referring to. Or just think about people who are futzing in their garages with the power to genetically engineer viruses…

We have extended our power way beyond our normally evolved cognitive systems and ways of responding to the world around us. We now operate at microscopic, planetary and atomic levels. We are fiddling around there and empowering ourselves to do that more simply, more efficiently, more cheaply, and with fewer people.

So now our creativity – our capacity for innovation – is itself an issue in our collective survival. In one of the other patterns – Nature First – a key question is, “What is nature telling us?” We think we’re independent from nature but we’re not, and we need to take account the potential downsides of this unbelievable power we’re accumulating as a collective civilization.

Now, appropriate means “it fits”. Nature is about fit. Evolution is about fit. Ecology is about how things fit together into coherent wholes. Natural selection is about removing things that don’t fit. To be more of a blessing than a curse, our creativity needs to fit within natural constraints. Nature tells us where we shouldn’t go. We need to really measure our creativity in the light of that and constrain our urge to learn and do simply for the sake of learning and doing – or worse, for the sake of profit, power, or comfort and convenience.

Also we need to constrain our creative power within the wisdom embodied in and promoted by these patterns. These patterns are trying to offer guidelines for creating systems that could – among many other things – monitor our innovative impulses. If we don’t create ways to wisely monitor our collective creativity and our collective power, we will almost certainly destroy ourselves. It is literally almost inevitable, despite the fact that it is hard to see. We will become more and more and more powerful – and so will our creations (like artificially intelligent robots). From The Sorcerer’s Apprentice to Frankenstein and countless science fiction tales, there are many archetypal cautionary stories that warn us about our technological and creative capacities. These stories are facets of our collective intelligence and wisdom, our collective effort to come to terms with our role in the world.

We need to think twice – together and effectively – about the immense trade-offs that we face by freely exercising our collective brilliance and power.  It may not be easy to handle.  But clearly it is part of taking into account what needs to be taken into account for long-term broad benefit.

Video Introduction (9 min)

After reading the 50-word pattern heart Tom Atlee elaborates on the pattern.

Examples and Resources