Background Reading

The language used in this book is often rather difficult, while the subject matter is theoretical and philosophical. Illich makes an interesting contribution to a philosophy of appropriate technology that would be applicable to both rich and poor countries. The book is a critique of the system of industrialization which destroys people’s capacity to do things for themselves. Illich sees “conviviality” as one of the primary treasures still remaining in small communities of developing countries that has already been tragically lost in the industrialized countries.

Illich comments on the housing industry in Latin America: “Components for new houses and utilities could be made very cheaply and designed for self-assembly.

People could build more durable, more comfortable, and more sanitary dwellings as well as learn about new materials and systems. But instead of supporting the ability of people to shape their own environment, the government deposits in these shanty-towns public utilities designed for people who live in standard modern houses. The presence of a new school, a paved road, and a glass and steel police station defines the professionally built house as the functional unit, and stamps the self-built home a shanty.”

The Politics of Alternative Technology, book, 204 pages, by David Dickson, 1974.

Dickson examines the “modern” technology of the industrialized countries and concludes that “technology, originally developed as a means of raising man above a life of poverty, drudgery and ill health, now shows its other face as a major threat to sanity and survival.”

The book includes a summary of the basic principles of “alternative” or “utopian” technology (involving community production and social organization), the characteristics that distinguish it from the dominant technology, and its relationships to the individual, the community, and the environment. Throughout the book, the author argues that the development of modern industrialized technology has been a reflection of and a reinforcement of existing dominant political interests.

There is a chapter on intermediate technology and the South, providing a critique of the view that intermediate technology has no political component. “Political changes will neither flow automatically from, nor be determined by, the technology. They must be introduced separately as part of the general political struggle for emancipation. Truly appropriate technology can only come from the demands of the people by whom and for whom it is to be used, once they have successfully realized their own political and economic strength.”

The Uncertain Promise: Value Conflicts in Technology Transfer, Available in the AT Library. INDEX CODE MF 01-19, book, 324 pages, by Denis Goulet, 1977.

“This study of value conflicts in technology transfer has attempted to peel away the mystifications which veil the true impact of technology on societies nurturing diverse images of development. Technology is revealed herein as a two-edged sword, simultaneously bearer and destroyer of values. Yet technology is not static: it is a dynamic and expansionist social force which provides a ‘competitive’ edge enabling its possessors to conquer economic, political, and cultural power.

Consequently, Third World efforts to harness technology to broader developmental goals are paradigmatic of a still greater task: to create a new world order founded not on elitism, privilege, or force but on effective solidarity in the face of human needs. The gestation of a new world order poses two troubling questions for all societies: Can technology be controlled, and will culture survive?”

“Technology is indispensable in struggles against the miseries of underdevelopment and against the peculiar ills of over development. Technology can serve these noble purposes, however, only in those societies in which ideology, values, and decisional structures repudiate the tendency of technology to impose its own logic in striving after goals.”

“At least three values must now be internalized in any efficiency calculus: the abolition of mass misery, survival of the ecosystem, and defense of the entire human race against technological determinism…. It is no longer correct to label some procedure efficient if it exacts intolerable social costs, proves grossly wasteful of resources or imposes its mechanistic rhythms on its operator…. Firm managers and designers of technology will need to explore ways of becoming integrally efficient—that is, of producing efficiently while optimizing social and human values.”

This book offers an insightful examination of the values implicit in technological society; international mechanisms, and high financial and social costs of transnational transfer of industrial technology; and basic strategies and policies in the Third World to channel technology to serve development goals. For those who can make their way through the difficult (even for native English speakers) language used, this will make excellent background reading for the discussion of appropriate technology policies.

Sharing Smaller Pies, Available in the AT Library. INDEX CODE MF 01-16, leaflet, 38 pages, by Tom Bender, 1975, out of print in 1985. This is the American response to Small is Beautiful.

“There is no longer any doubt that our age of affluence based upon depletion of our planet’s non-renewable energy and material resources is at an end and that major changes must be made in every aspect of our lives.”

“Medicine, architecture, law, education, transportation, social work, and civil engineering have all followed the path of increasingly professionalized, more restricted, and less beneficial application of their skills.”

“We need skill-developing rather than labor-saving technologies.”

This leaflet includes an excellent 6-page discussion of the meaning of appropriate technology for industrialized nations. A thoughtful look at what has gone wrong in America’s high-technology society, and explanations of a new set of values which might help us move toward a society characterized by “stewardship not progress” and “enoughness not moreness.”

Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology, Available in the AT Library. INDEX CODE MF 01-11, paperback book, 181 pages, by Witold Rybczynski, 1980, 1991 edition.

Paper Heroes is an attack on both romantic myths and basic assumptions of the “appropriate technology movement.” The author has himself done some very important work on low-cost technologies, co-authoring, for example, the instant classic Low Cost Technology Options for Sanitation in Developing Countries (see review inWATER SUPPLY AND SANITATION chapter). Amid a small but growing literature of backlash against appropriate technology values and assumptions, this represents the first lengthy critique of A.T. by an “insider.”

Rybczynski begins by attacking Schumacher. Small is Beautiful … did not attempt a reasoned argument but appealed directly to the emotions…. (It) was first and foremost a diatribe against modernization.” He deplores a “California youth culture” concept of technology that he attributes to spinoffs from the Whole Earth Catalog, in a lengthy digression from his main theme. He claims that Illich, Ellul, and others who have significantly influenced A.T. thinking are “modern Luddites,” dismissing the original Luddites of early 19th century England as “a kind of anti-technological Ku Klux Klan.” Rybczynski was probably correct at the time when he claimed that “A.T. could be described as an inverted pyramid—a great deal of verbiage and speculation resting on few accomplishments.”

The situation has changed since 1980, however, as witnessed by many of the books reviewed here. Having laid waste to what he considers “the excessive claims and unsubstantiated promises of paper heroes,’ the author switches to a more positive tone, favorably describing several specific technologies that might be called A.T. Readers are warned about the problems of appropriate technology strategies that attempt to use conventional aid mechanisms

and institutions as the vehicles for reaching the poor. The author suggests alternatives to aid, with technology choice left to the people in the Third World. “A more successful approach, which is particularly evident in soft tech, is the provision of information on intermediate technologies directly to the individual…. It permits the individual to decide what is appropriate, it supports decentralization, and, almost by definition, it ensures that the individual establishes a healthier control of his technology…. It could also be argued that the successful A.T. antecedents such as rural medicine in China, the Vietnamese sanitation program, or Gandhi’s hand-spinning campaign, have all been primarily information strategies. The decentralization of technique has been the result of the much more important strategy of the decentralization of knowledge.”

An excellent chapter on China takes a hard look at imaginary and real lessons to be learned from that nation’s experience.

Rybczynski also reminds us of a distinction between “social change” and “social reform,” arguing that technological change always brings some social changes, but no technology, in and of itself, brings social reform. “Better technology (of any kind) can certainly not be a substitute for social reform. Landlordism, powerful rural elites, conservative banks, and rapacious money lenders all conspire to maintain the poverty of the landless peasants.”

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