What do we mean when we call something “Low Tech”?

By Ruth Miller

Forest monitors practicing with a mobile data collection app.

To a person who takes “high tech” access and tools for granted, “low tech” is a throwback. I’ve felt a similar feeling putting old furniture on the curb, and later seeing it taken it and fixed up. “Oh, that’s great that it’s still being used.”

Many organizations working in the Global South successfully collect data using text messages, missed calls, voice calls: all tools that have been widely available in the Global North for decades. To people who don’t rely on high speed internet and powerful pocket computers, these tools are just normal. They, of course, don’t primarily view themselves in contrast to the high-tech world. They just see technology filling a need.

When we, as “high tech” users, describe a set of projects as “low tech”, are we being inherently patronizing? Is there is an implicit judgement on the part of the high-tech user, that these discarded tools are no longer good enough for users like “us.” We’ve moved on, so if someone sees them as worth adopting, then those people must be backwards, or at least behind the times.

What if the determining factor in tool selection wasn’t the highest level of technology available, but the context and needs of the project itself?

A very old-fashioned planning tool.

At Digital Democracy, we focus on using what works best given the present challenges (drones that can survive getting tangled in branches are a plus). Each case blends traditionally high and low tech practices into something better: appropriate technology. It doesn’t matter what’s the latest and greatest, or the cheapest and least frilly — the most effective technology is the one that fits our partners specific experiences and needs.

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