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Alternative Technology


Any reflection on alternative technology (AT) prompts the question, Alternative in what sense? According to one AT theorist, there are three dimensions to this question (Illich 1997). The alternatives can be technical, ethical, or political. In the first case the divide is between hard (oversized machines) and soft (smaller, local tools), in the second between heteronomy and autonomy in technology, and in the third between centralized (right) and decentralized (left) technological systems.

Technical Alternatives

In 1917 D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published On Growth and Form, a study of the relation of shape and size in living beings and artifacts. His law of similitude states that every natural and technical shape is scale-variant, that is, shape or form is strongly influenced by size. According to J. B. S. Haldane (1956), for instance, the form of all natural organisms is covariant with their scale: A cow the size of an elephant would need legs as strong as columns and could hardly support its horns. The Austrian economist Leopold Kohr (1967) applied these ideas to economics and the study of societies and is therefore the pioneer of social morphology. For Kohr, the size of a political unit entails a certain kind of polity, that is, a correspondence between the form of government and the scale to be governed. He was a major influence on, and a friend of, the German-born British economist Ernst Fritz Schumacher (1911–1977), whose phrase small is beautiful has become a world-famous lemma.

Schumacher is deservingly considered the father of the AT movement. In 1961 he took a trip to India that changed his vision. Impressed by the inherent viability of Indian agriculture, he firmly opposed replacing the traditional ox-drawn cart by tractors (Dogra 1983). Instead he imagined the carts equipped with ball bearings and rubber tires. On his return to England, he founded the journal Intermediate Technology, which would popularize the concepts of appropriate technology and later AT. Though superficially similar, the word appropriate points to something the other terms do not: the fitness of shape and size; the balance of power between autonomous action and what is done for one; and the importance of subjecting the relation between means and ends to political deliberation.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the AT movement gathered strength through numerous journals, publications, and associations. The Whole Earth Catalog in the United States and Resurgence in the United Kingdom became leading periodicals. Informative and influential books and articles appeared on alternative or appropriate technologies in general (Darrow and Pam 1976), on improvements to traditional rural practices (Devender 1978), on ecological houses (Farallones 1979), and on alternatives to energy-intensive industrial technology (Lovins 1977). As individuals and small groups of citizens retooled their homes and villages, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) began to proliferate and spread the good news that there were better means to meet ends than energy-intensive industrial technologies. Yet insofar as the AT movement restricted attention to the technical choice between hard and soft, it was often dubbed the soft technology movement—and had little more than decorative influence over the technological world.

Ethical Alternatives

In the twenty-first century distributive justice often takes the industrial system for granted and strives to allot its outputs according to some equalitarian scheme. The alternative to this justice by arithmetic is equity, sometimes inaptly called participative justice. An equitable society is founded on an architecture of civil liberties that protects everyone's freedom to act. In an equitable society, each contributes threads to the weave of the social fabric rather than passively claims outputs from society. The enhancement of productive liberties does not mean a blind refusal to all claims of consumption. Rather it implies the recognition of a hierarchy: Just as autonomy is higher than heteronomy so also civil liberties are superior to social rights.

Many activists of the AT movement have argued that this hierarchy demands some limits on tools. In contrast to the automobile, the bicycle is an example of an industrial product that fosters the autonomy of its users: It increases access without driving others off the road. Just as the automobile enchains drivers to highways, the flush toilet, once the glory of industrial hygiene, turns its users into compulsive elements of the sewer system. Clean, cheap, and often ingenious alternatives to the costly industrialization of waste removal suggest the possibility of freedom from other heteronomous systems insofar as they can be intelligently worked out. Starting with Dr. Duc Nguyen's Vietnamese latrines in the 1960s, there have been a great variety of high quality dry toilets that unplug their users from the sewage pipes, reduce the destruction of land and waters, and cut a home water bill by more than half (Nguyen 1981, Lehmann 1983, Anorve 1999).

Political Alternatives

Proponents of alternatives to the service industry have emphasized that civil liberties can only be perverted by bureaucratic and professional government for the people. For example, from 1955 on, a group of Peruvian activists, builders, and lawmakers were joined nonconformist architects and sociologists from Europe and the United States to collectively give shape and credibility to an alternative understanding of poor neighborhoods (Turner 1968). They suggested that there were two ways of looking at a neighborhood. One is to evaluate the neighborhood in terms of its material characteristics as a bundle of goods and services that satisfy people's housing needs. This will, almost inevitably, identify what people lack and petrify corrective measures into scientifically established and bureaucratically managed standards. It is associated with centralism, authoritarianism, professionally diagnosed needs, and institutional services.

But a neighborhood can also be understood as a set of productive relationships among its inhabitants. Such a commonsense view of people is sensitive to what people can do—their abilities rather than their deficits—and will generate flexible rules that protect free people acting to fulfill their self-defined ends. The British architect John Turner became the most articulate voice of housing by people (rather than for them) as the paradigmatic example of an activity that is not a need, and proved the feasibility of subordinating heteronomous tools to autonomous initiatives (Turner 1978).


AT has had technical, ethical, and political defenders. Contrary to what might be expected, ethical commitments based on faith have supported many of the more sustained AT efforts. Schumacher's essay on "Buddhist Economics" and Servants in Faith and Technology (SIFAT), a Christian evangelical NGO founded in 1979 in Tennessee, are two cases in point.

During the late 1980s, however, AT began to be envisioned as a means rather than an end—as a cheap alternative to high cost services rather than a replacement for such services. Governments started to support the NGOs that promoted AT when they presented themselves as development professionals who could diffuse AT to the third world as underdeveloped versions of high-tech educational, medical, transportation, or sanitary packages. Advocates of distributive justice fought for the right of the poor to an equal share of industrial outputs. Though it had inspired the pioneers of the AT movement, equity, conceived as the civil liberty to decide what to do and how, was progressively neglected. ATs were not only conceived as alternative ways to satisfy needs, but increasingly as first steps toward the real thing: Communal literacy was simply the first step toward schooling, barefoot doctors were unshod versions of those in white coats, bicycles were cheap imitations of cars, dry commodes were training tools for flush toilets, and muscles were painful alternatives to fuels.

In the high Middle Ages, Hugh of Saint Victor defined tools as appropriate remedies for the natural imperfections of human beings. In this sense, appropriateness, Latin convenentia, refers to the proportional relationship between the radius of action circumscribed by a person's innate powers and the power deposited in hands or under buttocks by tools. Appropriate technology is the search for the fitting and proper relationship between means and ends. Accordingly it has become more urgent to distinguish the alternative from the appropriate. Often the alternative is neither appropriate nor intermediate.


SEE ALSO Alternative Energy, Engineering Design Ethics; Engineering Ethics.


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