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 Regenerativity   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.

Basically technology is about methodology – the “how to” of things. Flipping a switch to turn on a light is a technology. Even moving one foot in front of the other is a technology of walking.

We need to spread the word technology out to its fullest application. We have lately confined “technology” to electronics, computers, and communications technologies. But these are just the modern manifestations of the concept.

I’m trying with this pattern to deconstruct that. For example, there’s more and more use of the term “social technology”, which has to do with how humans interact to achieve certain things, like organizational forms for organizational development and organizational transformation. These deal with certain forms of human technology. Along those lines we find change processes like Open Space Technology and World Café being referred to as technologies.

Harrison Owen, the guy who created Open Space, was one of the first people to use the word “technology” in the name of the process they created. But it’s useful. Open Space not about computers. It’s about people doing things in openly spacious networked ways.

So one of my purposes here with this pattern is to spread understanding of the word “technology” beyond the computerized world and to look at it as “how we do things”.

The earlier form of this pattern was Appropriate Innovation. So what about the term “innovation”? Innovations are great. We can innovate and create new ways to do things. But innovation itself is not what were trying for here. We’re trying for ways to make life better for people, and to do that within the context of their social and ecological worlds and in the context of the future. So a lot of sustainable ideas and methods and tools come in here. And that includes lots of old stuff!

There’s a whole movement organizing around “re-skilling”, which is learning the old ways of doing things that were much more sustainable but just as effective as what we do now – like learning how to sew your own clothes and how to grow your own food, learning how to can stuff… These are actions that we now have mechanistic, often computerized ways of doing which are not necessarily sustainable.

We need ways of doing things that are more benign to nature, like renewable energy. You know, the flow of water has been a source of energy for ages – windmills in Holland and so on. What we call “renewable energy” has been going on forever. Solar energy in the form of heat has been used over and over again. Solar panels are just a new form of accessing that renewable energy.

Martin and I stumbled on the Hippo Rollers that are pictured here when we were looking for images to illustrate this pattern. The Hippo Rollers were made for women and children who usually have to carry water in places where there isn’t enough piping in the community to readily provide fresh water. The women and children have had to go to where there is a well. They would get water and usually had to carry it on their heads or in their arms, sometimes walking miles. So two South Africans designed these Hippo Roller things that contain 24 gallons (90 liters) of water that you can roll along the ground. The Hippo Roller has a handle and it’s just a giant water container that is designed to roll along the ground. This is technology. It has nothing to do with computers or communications. This is technology that makes life better.

Permaculture is another technology we used in the illustration. It involves an understanding of how micro-ecosystems work and how to design them in order to produce yield for people while the systems are sustaining themselves, with minimal waste and toxicity generated by it.

So those are featured in the images. But lots of other technologies work and are appropriate.

“Appropriate” in this case means “fitting” – in the sense that this is right for the purpose and it fits. One of the things I like to point out about evolution is that the term “survival of the fittest” – which comes from a competitive frame – is not actually what’s going on. What’s going on is survival of the FIT. If you fit in with your niche, you will survive.

There is a collaborative and integrated quality to the word “fit” that is not competitive. FittEST means that it’s a battle and that you’re gonna win. So it’s a different sense of evolution. Here we’re talking about “appropriate” as “it fits” – it fits in its culture, it fits in the needs of its environment over long-term, it fits the needs of the civilization or humanity over the long-term. To what extent does a technology FIT in all these different ways? That makes it “appropriate”.

And so the means of doing things and the ways those means fit in with the needs of the living entities and living systems involved, that’s what Appropriate Technology is about.

(The following is an edited transcript from the version 1.0 pattern “Appropriate Innovation”, which is associated with this pattern (and which this pattern and Prudent Progress replaced) and so is 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

The term “appropriate technology” was used extensively in the 70s and 80s and to a certain extent in the 60s. There was a dance between the terms “appropriate technology” and “alternative technology”. The Whole Earth Catalog was an example of trying to compile many different appropriate technologies that included both novel sustainable things and things that were from the old days that had fallen out of use, along with guidance about how to use them. So I offer resources that provide specific collections of appropriate technology of different kinds and some commentaries on appropriate and alternative technologies and on sustainability and regenerativity and other such qualities that are part of this. And if you follow the resources in the related patterns, you will develop an even more expanded sense of what is involved here.