An important piece lost in the translation of technology and tools over time.
The state of technology has been compounding ever since the industrial revolution. And at a pace where systems are being stacked on layers making it difficult for people to act on issues interlaced within the anatomy of technological systems and its related objects. We are constantly enticed to fall for new technology as every invention promises to deliver a utopia of frictionless certainty. We explicitly or implicitly agree to pay the long-term price for immediate improvement as we see its costs of benefits as something too dear, rather than the harm it is working on us. From consuming irreplaceable resources, local habitats, wildlife, indigenous ecosystems and dumping it’s returns on the biosphere, oceans, and streets; these environmental problems (a result of poor technical execution) are just the start of possible collapse of technological systems if extrapolated to a distant future. When viewed from the present state-of-affairs (i.e., current economic theory), technology is a political problem which requires decoupling at a large scale to revert the harmful effects it has on its local and global environment. This idea of decoupling moreover begs to redefine our current relation with technology.
Techniques over Technology
Technology in anthropology has a different meaning and built around a larger scope of techniques. While technology can be defined as the domain of human activity to transform certain elements of the natural world to act on social, technical issues, ‘techniques’ on the other hand are inherently social. They can be categorized in three levels: at the first level, raw materials, tools, gestures, and knowledge; at the second level, the processes, operating chains and associated social relations; at the third level, all the technical activities of a given social group. Originally French, it merges the social and material aspects of technology and is a term commonly used by anthropologists to understand and study social behaviors of communities. In their studies they often associate indigenous communities and their use of techniques and suggest that the meeting of an environment and the techniques of a society (technical systems) gives rise to potential technical solutions, which the society adopts or rejects according to their criteria. Julia Watson in her book Lo-TEK also describes a similar hierarchy of techniques practiced by many tribal indigenous communities around the world. For example, the Khasi people of Meghalaya have directed rubber fig trees (by guiding their infant roots in definitive pathways) to grow across rivers as a solution for navigating heavy rains and monsoons. The roots and branches grew over a series of years, and a decade after served as a natural (yet man-enforced) bridge which could withstand surging water levels and powerful storms. The reason they still stand to date is because their tribal systems embraced a coherent classification of land and forests, an independent village-durbar based governance system, unique laws of inheritance and succession, and laws of consanguinity and kinship. Many indigenous communities like the Khasi around the world have developed similar tools in conjunction with their local environment to solve problems and improve their lives. Each one of their techniques and related cultures are so unique and diverse due to the fact that their techniques have developed and evolved with their environments as a result of internalization of knowledge (tacit knowledge). Therefore, one would never find something like that the Khasi have built anywhere else around the world, and even if tried to replicate would result in a completely different solution.
In current day context, we see such solutions as unique and inspiring because majority of the other technical solutions have already been replicated in a certain way. To transfer and scale techniques to a wider audience, institutions were born to replicate and essentially automate certain aspects of techniques in a zone of closed coordination. While these are no doubt great at solving and managing some of the biggest problems, some of them come with their limitations, i.e., they become corrupt and cannot perceive or address ‘complexity’. Majority of today’ institutions focusing on the development of technological objects (which we call products) have a poor foundation aimed at solving the immediate problems of the people collaborating, rather than understanding the cause and effect of a technique applied over the extended lifespan. This results in a poor abstraction of the technique (the materials, social interactions and other dependencies associated) which is then ‘easy’ to replicate and produce on a large scale. For example, there are now a plethora of products on platforms like Taobao (in China) which cater to very niche human needs and end up in landfills without educating the buyer in the process. Rather than building tools for people to exercise and work on, many institutions are focused on the immediate pleasure of selling a technological object. Without putting any effort into optimizing the abstraction they create by debasing their techniques in the first place.
To add to this misery, another layer/tool which further abstracts large scale institutions are markets. Markets use simple signaling mechanisms to scale enormously (perhaps without limit) to unlock the vast computational capacity of whole populations. They are also equally subject to a number of known failure conditions. In the present context, markets rely on waves of technological innovations, a.k.a buzzwords (“Blockchain”, “Artificial Intelligence”, “NFT’s”, etc.) to grab attention from investors and create a false folktale of linear technological progress for new markets, a potential replacement for old-technology without assessing its social and ecological impacts. Techniques seem to hold little to no place in current economic theory which conversely values attributes like growth, profit, and innovations. These attributes further create artificial needs which are often imposed without any limitations which drain & destroy the very roots of these systems.
The void created by this is only now being communicated in the form policies, protests, and practices alike to bring a balance to ecological demand and challenge practices within macro-economic theory (capitalism). If objects and systems are to be designed then they must be as resource efficient as possible, non-polluting, durable, robust, and easily repairable or reusable, modular, easier to recycle at the end of their life. The state of current systems sees its justification for staying put by framing a future which dreams of smart cities, synthetic food, advanced renewable energies, etc. without diving into the questioning of needs, sobriety in the use of resources and sustainable design as a way of not harming human societies and ecosystems in the long term. When looking at current technological objects, we need to ask ourselves: how do we recompose our relationship to the world constrained by technology? To dissect this further:
1. How to create technical knowledge with objects readily available on a global scale?
2. How to further propagate such knowledge to minimize loss of technicality over the long-term?
Obviously, these questions are quite broad in the scope of current day techno-political crisis, but it helps pose a narrative to look at technology not as a black box, but as a way to interact, be part of and rebuild within the ever-changing social and ecological landscape. To digest this better, there are some examples, directions we can reside under to take inspiration for future courses of action.
Technological Disobedience in Cuba
Cuba was faced with the longest trade embargo (lasting more than 30 years) due to major geopolitical issues which brought in harsh economic conditions, cultural isolation, and a difficult life for many. A large part of the population was left without work therefore without industrial production. To end this crisis, the Cuban government presented a plan in three phases, from 1989 to 1994, from 1994 to 2000. Among the actions carried out by the government and the people, Ernesto Oroza (a designer/artist) documented many of these interventions in a book which offered ways to “hijack” everyday objects. For example, it included instructions on how to shut off the dryer unit on standard washing machines to recover the motor which could be then reused to make fans, shoe polishers, motor bikes, etc. This book entitled “From our own efforts” showed the technical inventiveness of Cubans during this unprecedented crisis. They disobeyed the notion to hide machinery inside objects and instead opened their machines, understood how they worked and were able to create many objects and devices that better suited their needs. For them accumulation was a lot more than hoarding objects, using them for a short time and throwing them away. Accumulation for them was collection of ideas of use, of constructive solutions, and to create a ‘material language’ of technical systems. This mixture of ingenuity and work in a constrained environment demonstrated that Cubans have had and still have a much richer technical culture than most citizens of post-industrial and globalized countries.
The Amish also present a similar case where they have developed a lot of modern tools in-house to benefit their daily lives, but also having an undeserved reputation of being luddites, meaning they are people who refuse to employ new technology (the strictest of them don’t use electricity, or automobiles, but rather farm with manual tools and ride in a horse and buggy). Yet Amish lives are anything but anti-technological as a handful of them are ingenious hackers, tinkerers, and pro-technologists. This interesting dualism exists due to the fact that Amish practices are primarily driven by religious belief; and the technological, environmental, social, and cultural consequences are secondary. This majorly reflects in their use and propagation of technical knowledge. Rather than going by the precautionary principle, which says, unless you can prove there is no harm, don’t use new technology, the Amish rely on the enthusiasm of ‘try stuff out until they prove harm’. For example, when cars first appeared, Amish noticed that drivers would leave the community to go shopping or sight-seeing in other towns, instead of shopping local and visiting friends/family or the sick on Sundays. Therefore, the ban on unbridled mobility was aimed to make it hard to travel far, and to keep energy focused in the local community. A similar motivation also kept cellphones at bay. When the Amish hackers/engineers requested their bishops to use cell phones; they were reluctant to give permission at first but suggested a compromise: i.e., to keep the cell phones in the vans of the drivers. The van would be a mobile phone shanty. The community would then keep an eye on this new piece of tech, weighing out its benefits and drawbacks over a period and would ultimately hold the power to even say no in the future if deemed unfit for the community. They were aware of the discontinuous nature of techniques and were hence also easy in relinquishing it if required.
Although these cases mentioned are quite specific to their domain and a bit extreme (like that of the Cuban embargo), they highlight a strong technical culture working with current day objects. Although the Amish relied on tools (like cars, and CNC machines) which were built elsewhere, they were focused on creating technical dependencies using such tools. Their religious, cultural background forced them to stay on their toes when accepting anything new. In a similar way the Cubans adopted a material language for their accumulated objects due to the economic situation which coerced them to work with such dependencies. All this inadvertently also brings up the weak point of creating good technical knowledge, which is the association of any/all dependencies that go by it. If we need them to thrive, then institutions creating such objects need to embrace its weak points, establish sustainable cultures around it and scale only if necessary. And the individuals comprising such an institution need to be empowered and responsible to act on local problems in small groups and communicate with larger groups when necessary. Current day objects are built on layers of technical systems with its internal dependencies completely cut off from the countries actually using it. Activities like production, repair, maintenance, etc. are relegated to specialized bodies making the other-well half of the population technically impoverished. This constant decoupling of production from use is what is driving out a successful establishment of strong technical cultures.
Another aspect which is important in the propagation of techniques is the questioning of needs. While the Cubans embraced experimenting with their accumulated objects, they were also aware of its applications and how it would help improve their lives and their community. For the Amish it was intricately tied to their social and religious activities. For majority of the people around the world, products are predominantly used for convenience and comfort. Given the scale of production of such objects, there is little to no questioning of needs but rather of economic ‘wants’ which are infinite and insatiable. Looking forward from a hierarchal Maslow approach, an interesting evaluation and analytical tool of needs has been laid out by Manfred Max-Neef. He bases essential needs like being, having, doing, and interacting with attributes like subsistence, protection, affection, etc. which better captures the full spectrum of human needs in relation to their activities and living environment. For example, the needs for building a bridge for the Khasi of Meghalaya are not just based on convenience but are also on a spiritual level; they view forests as a spiritual entity which allows them to tie their techniques to their ecological counterparts. Although this certainly isn’t a method to define needs, but rather an analytical tool, it provides a variety of descriptive attributes which when put together could help establish a foundation for better technical cultures. If we start looking at similar signals of inspiration, maybe our future institutions will be bound to cater to smaller communities, have products which are easy to repair and reuse, and imbue a sense of collectiveness for all things associated to last longer for future generations to thrive.