Technology: a reply to David Holmgren

David Holmgren, co-inventor of the permaculture design system.

IN JUNE 2018, the co-inventor of the permaculture design system, David Holmgren, issued a statement about why he does not use Facebook. It appeared on the Retrosuburbia facebook set up as a discussion space around his latest book of the same name. David is not a facebook user so the statement was posted by his administrative assistant at Melliodora, his homestead in central Victoria.

David’s statement about his attitude to modern technology, online systems and social media was the opportunity to think about my own and to reflect on what David wrote. I knew David’s was a skeptical attitude to modern technology. With my also-skeptical but more open attitude I wondered where we would concur and deviate. That is the motivation for this article.

The hand-axe, made of sandstone, quartz, or lava as well as of flint, served mankind for at least a thousand centuries and spread over nearly one-fifth of the land-surface of the globe. …With the development of the spear-thrower and the bow, man the technologist began to win his long struggle for human supremecy by matching skill against animal strength. …the unevenness of technical development runs right through human development…
T. K. Derry, Trevor I. Williams, A Short History of Technology (1960) Ch. 1 General Historical Survey, Man Before Civilization.

Products of our pasts

David and I came out of a period in contemporary history when the scientific discoveries of the 1960s and the following decade created a sense of techno-optimism. Developments in computing, life sciences, astronomy, medicine, ecology, electronics and more pointed to a technologically-enabled future that would be better than the past.

Then came warnings of ecological damage in books like Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring, then came the 1973 oil crisis and then came permaculture and its cargo of ideas that started us rethinking the direction of society.

Here it is that I think our paths diverged. While David was developing his ideas on landuse design I enrolled in a course in programming in BASIC and in a data processing course at TAFE. Those were the times when the Western world was computerising its economies. I applied for a job as a computer operator.

So it is that when it comes to modern technology David and I come from different starting points. Also influencing my attitude to technology is an interest in anthropology, especially how people develop and use tools and technology and how technology influences societies.

In my response that follows I quote most of David’s statement about Facebook and technology. It appears in segments followed by my comments.

David’s statement

Is David Holmgren on Facebook?
By David Holmgren on June 21, 2018 in Ideas, Writings

That’s the heading introducing David’s statement, which goes on:

The simple answer to this question is no. The reasons are complex and relate to his ambiguous relationship to new technologies through the decades.

David then takes up the story:

Since my teenage years I have been skeptical of the faith that new technologies are always an improvement on the past.

Further, my view of the future suggests that recently evolved technologies may be the first to fail as society is impacted by multiple crises from climate change and resource depletion to financial and geo-political instability.

I spent my youth in that techno-optimistic era in which technological development was assumed to improve life. From there I developed a critique of technology which recognised it holds potential for both good and evil and that the human factor combined with the trends in societies and the prevailing political economy of societies tilted it towards one or the other or, sometimes, both.

Comment

At events, I have heard David ridicule some of the speculations about technologies that came out of the 1960s. Where are our flying cars, he has asked (they now exist in prototype form). Ideas like that were speculation and while I understand that David uses them to emphasise his skepticism towards modern technology, it would have been good to hear him credit technological development in medicine, communications, astronomy, ecology and many other fields for their contribution to better public health and to our understanding our environment and their other benefits.

I go along with David in pointing out the vulnerability of modern technologies and how they could stop working in some kind of environmental, social, economic or geopolitical crisis. Yet, on reading this it occurred to me that many older technologies are also likely to fail in such a collapse scenario. Like modern tech, they too have long supply chains required for their production and maintenance. Simpler tech, like unpowered hand tools, may be locally maintainable.

Other than technologies we commonly use, if we include systems like supply chains for food, then the crises David mentions would impact rural towns too, because rural people eat much the same food that is obtained from the same supermarket corporations as do city people. There would be potential for rural towns to meet local food demand, however that would be influenced by:

  • the location of the town and the viability of farming there — what can be grown in the climate? can foods for a complete, nutritionally balanced diet be locally produced?; that is linked to climate and soils and the reliable availability of irrigation water year-round; if food production cannot adequately feed people year-round, we have a food security crisis and what some lesser-developed country populations relying on traditional farming and foods experience as ‘hungry periods’ between harvests
  • whether local farmers would find it more financially lucrative to send their produce to the cities, where the demand would be substantial, rather than meet local demand
  • whether, in a severe crisis, government would stipulate how food was distributed and where; we have already seen during the 2007 global food crisis how some governments stopped the export of grains to bolster their own food supplies; it may be erroneous to imagine that government would not intervene in food production and distribution in a severe crisis and act to prevent black markets in food supplying local demand.

My argument is that in a severe crash, living in a rural area and local food production are not necessarily guarantees for coping. Rural life would be severely impacted too. The possible loss of urban markets for food is just one potential impact that could lead to farm foreclosure, as happened to housing in the US during the 2007–08 financial crash.

Technology’s long tail preserves know-how
Thinking more of the impacts of a severe economic, social or geopolitical crisis and crash I would expect those hobbyists occupying technology’s long tail to find their skills in demand.

The long tail includes technologies and processes no longer in common use and that are now practiced mainly by hobbyists although, like blacksmithing, they still persist in common use in small numbers. Tinkerers and hobbyists are the holders of old technologies and knowledge.

The relevance of political economy
I like David’s linking how technologies are used to a society’s political economy. There has long been a conversation around technological determinism, about whether it is technologies that shape societies. Including political economy in the conversation broadens it by treating it as the complex question that it is.

While I agree that modern technologies and online communications systems are vulnerable, my attitude is that we make use of them for the advantages they offer. Were there to be some kind of severe crash, those of us born before the internet know what to do — we do what we did then, using paper and pen, typewriter and print publication. Assuming, that is, that those things are available after a severe crash.

Use modern tech for its significant advantages
While I agree that modern technologies and online communications systems are vulnerable, my attitude is that we make use of them for the advantages they offer.

Were there to be some kind of severe crash, those of us born before the internet know what to do — we do what we did then, using paper and pen, typewriter and print publication. Assuming, that is, that those things are available after a severe crash.

David

But I have also long recognised that the spread of permaculture has been global and networked, rather than local and parochial, and that information technologies have greatly assisted in that process.

Comment

David hints at the irony of permaculture being at the same time a critic of globalisation and dependent on it for its spread. Permaculture might not favour economic globalisation but it relies on globalised communications, especially those of the digital kind.

Whether the appearance of Permaculture magazine in 1978, ABC radio that alerted permaculture pioneer, Terry White, to the existence of the design system at that time, Permaculture International Journal until the year 2000, the coming of the internet with its websites, the appearance of the Permaculture Oceania email distribution list in the late 1990s, Permaculture Activist magazine in the US, social media around ten years into the new century and the accessibility of computers and mobile communications devices, David is right in linking the spread of permaculture to information tech, especially digital communications technology.

It is electronic communications technology that accelerated the spread of permaculture in the current century. It is social media where the current conversations around permaculture take place. That gave rise to the numerous permaculture groups and pages that fracture the permaculture conversation locally, nationally and globally.

Globally? Maybe more in the liberal democracies. With social media the location of the global permaculture conversation, countries like China, Iran, North Korea and Russia that block or limit access to social media are not participants in this global conversation and so largely miss it. This is how geopolitics limits the spread of permaculture.

Once, the network was centred on Permaculture International Journal in Australia and Permaculture Activist in the US. The Journal has gone, the Activist has morphed into Permaculture Design Magazine and permaculture is left with a babble of multiple voices, many concentrating on only a single application of permaculture rather than on permaculture as an integrated system of design.

Because permaculture is a distributed network, communications is a basic component of the design system. Along its digital pathways pass news and information, education and opportunity. Without its online presence permaculture would revert to that parochial existence David mentions. There would be many regional ‘pocket permacultures’ scattered here and there but little by way of a larger community of practice or social movement.

I think it good that David recognises the importance of communication in permaculture and that communication has made it possible for permaculture to become an international phenomenon.

David

I have thus woven a path between skeptical disconnection from information technology and early adoption for strategic use in spreading permaculture thinking and solutions.

I grew up without television and my partner Su Dennett and I have maintained a television free household ever since. On the other hand, I adopted my father’s habitual listening to Radio National to stay connected to world news.

Comment

Reflecting on my own experience, here I find difference and coincidence with David.

Unlike David, I am not an early adopter of technology. I wait until I have a use for it. Thus it was that my partner, Fiona, and I only acquired mobile phones to maintain contact while looking after aged parents. So it was that Fiona’s acquiring a desktop computer (the only type available then) was necessitated not by the existence of the machines or by her being a geek, but by her needing it for her tertiary mathematics course. Her use of it for desktop publishing, graphic design and for website design and related work came later. Likewise, Facebook. I only opened an account when my adult children said it was the best was to stay in contact. Fiona still does not have an account.

As for television, we, too, do not have a machine. In case there is something recommended we can tune in via a laptop computer. Long way from big screen TV, I know, but it is adequate.

It is with radio that I differ with David. I no longer listen to it (strange, I know, for someone who used to work in radio current affairs) and have substituted it with listen-on-demand podcasts. That way I get what I am interested in rather than what the program produced wants me to listen to.

Why I source information from selected, multiple online voices is because radio and newspapers, and I include ABC radio, offer only a single editorial voice, what the media organisation’s editors think you should read produced according to the organisation’s editorial policy.

Diversity is a principle of permaculture design and I think that applies to the media we consume as well. Interesting that ABC Radio National might be, it is still a single voice. Only online media can provide the diversity of voices that comply with permaculture’s principle.

David

I was an early adopter of email for business communications and created the first Holmgren Design website in 2000. With the publication of my Permaculture: principles and pathways beyond sustainability in 2002, our book launch tour of the east coast of Australia saw Su (temporarily) adopt a mobile phone even though she had always maintained a much stronger scepticism of technology than I. Around the same time, after more than a decade of innovative use of information technology on a shoestring budget, I handed the reins of IT admin to our self-taught teenage son Oliver.

Over those years we very deliberately minimised Oliver’s childhood exposure to computers, which may have accelerated his adolescent interest and expertise but led to self-regulation. In RetroSuburbia, I give the following strategic response sequence for dealing with children and adolescent exposure to media technologies and social media: ‘Prohibit’; ‘Limit’; ‘Negotiate’ and ‘Accept, but provide no support’. In Oliver’s case, this sequence was followed by a ‘Reward and collaborate’ stage, illustrating the oscillation between selective disconnection and wholehearted adoption that has characterised my relationship to information technology.

Comment

I see current criticism of computers, mobile phones and social media as the latest in a lineage of similar social panics around technologies that for the most part turned out to be false alarms. These include rockn’roll music on the radio in the fifties, the popularity of nightly television viewing in the sixties and seventies, the social panic over video games, the popularity of iPods and similar personal audio players, the arrival of digital ebooks and more.

Comments are made of passengers on trains and buses with their earbuds plugged in, intent only on their small screens. Missing from the criticisms are what they are doing, such as whether they are reading digital books, socialising on social media, reading their email, studying or catching up on the news. That is, the criticisms lack context. Some may be isolated in their little media bubble, however others might be socially engaged in communicating with friends or colleagues. The criticism was put into content for me when someone published a photo from the 1960s, taken in a train carriage. There, row after row, were all these commuters with their eyes glued to their media devices, row after row plugged into the socially-isolating pages of broadsheet newspapers. Making assumptions about what people do on their digital devices can lead to error.

The assumption is that, devoid of their digital devices, people would socialise, converse. That is wrong. On public transport I see people without digital devices sitting next to one another in isolated silence. That might appear antisocial. It is not. It is a behaviour that has evolved in crowded cities to allow us to closely co-mingle with strangers. It is adaptive urban behaviour.

Teach children tech is a tool
I am unsure about David’s recommendations about children and their use of communications tech and social media. I suspect it might have to do with our different environments and the outlooks growing from them, with David living on a homestead in a small rural town and my living in the country’s biggest city. David lives in a quasi-natural environment, a cultivated ecology. I live in a technological, emgineered environment where I regularly interact with hi-tech.

I doubt prohibiting children using computers and digital devices would work. So much of our interactions in society is via screen devices. Prohibiting could disadvantage a child and, anyway, children will use computers at school.

It is a bit like the difference between the Precautionary Principle and the Proactivity Principle. The Precautionary Principle imposes limits because something might go wrong. The Proactivity Principle tries something while accepting something might go wrong and, of it does, it adapts or drops it.

More sensible is David’s ‘negotiate’ idea. I think it is better to teach children that computers, social media and tech are tools, and teach them to use them well.

David

These days Su uses her mobile phone to stay in contact with far-flung family, organise her food share, and take card transactions at RetroSuburbia book events, while I remain phone-phobic but am reluctantly considering the possibility of getting one rather than depending on Su.

Comment

I think this reticence around mobile devices misses the advantages of walking around with a tiny, high powered computer in your pocket that is capable of so much more than making voice calls. There is a popular comparison about the growing capacity of mobile devices that says that the phone in your pocket has more computing power than the Apollo spacecraft that took astronauts to the moon. I think that says a lot about the technology’s potential, including its use in permaculture design such as site management and communications.

Think of how these devices take photos and video, use pattern recognition to identify plants, provide position fixing and navigation, measure sound levels, enable communication in multiple ways, monitor environmental data, summon emergency assistance, catalog, allow you to carry a reference library around with you and enable you to outsource your memory — facts and ideas too numerous to remember — to their digital innards.

I use an iPhone for these things, however my greatest use of a mobile phone is as a stills and video camera. That’s to do with doing journalism so, like other tech and like for other users, a mobile phone for me is a tool, not a plaything.

People overreact to new tech and project their fears onto it to create social panics and turn devices into folk demons. Better, I think, to take advantage of their many potentials.

Maybe that’s easy to say for someone who spent a large portion of his life without a mobile phone because they had yet to be invented, however I and others from that time know we can live without the devices were some catastrophe to render them useless. That is why we appreciate them as true multiple-use devices (isn’t multiple-use a permaculture principle?) of great utility in the pursuit of permaculture and in life in general.

David

Meanwhile my internet presence has grown and is now supported by colleagues with a far greater depth of experience. The complexity of the web design, maintenance and security for the book publishing and distribution systems is well beyond my comprehension and management.

Comment

Outsourcing online work to those with the skills to do it well is a wise move. You do not have to try to do everything. David himself once recommended we become ‘jacks of all trades and masters of one’. That is mastery in online systems and communications for some. For others it might be growing fruit trees or teaching permaculture. Let those who do it well get on with it. As Yvon Chouinard, who started the Patagonia adventure equipment and clothing company said about hiring people, hire the best and let then get on with the job.

This is my partners and my experience in doing online systems support with civil society organisations. People have different expertise and it is best to let them lead with it. In their 2018 Sydney workshop, the crew from EnSpiral Co-op in Aotearoa-New Zealand said that in democratic, participatory-leadership organisations those with the technical knowledge need to be afforded greater credibility than those without or with only limited knowledge, and this needs to be integrated into participatory management.

David

As always, I have watched the rise of social media from my skeptical permaculture perspective.

Balancing time at the desk with time in the garden, farm, workshop and forest is always important to me. There are limits to how much time I’m prepared to be mediated through technology.

Comment

David is talking about digital tech. Still, in the garden David’s ideas are mediated through hand or power technologies.

What I see here is a dichotomy. To me, it comes across as an artificial division of technologies between hand and perhaps powered, and electronic and digital. I find this is an attitude in permaculture and elsewhere and I believe it polarises the way we regard technology. Humanity and technology have co-evolved over the millenia, from tools of wood and stone to tools of electrons and digital bits. Hand tools are as much a technology as are computers.

David

That’s the world we are heading into — networks of interest groups that function like parochial residents of isolated mountain villages responding to each other’s social signals but ignorant of the rest of the world.

I feel this was prescient of first social media, and now, the breakdown of mainstream media into giant echo-chambers repeating competing and antagonistic views of reality.

Comment

David’s comment about “interest groups that function like parochial residents of isolated mountain villages” disconnected from the rest of the world is not my experience. When I look at networks I participate in I see an openness to ideas from outside rather than a closure.

Still, David has a point about the fractionalising of online media and , sometimes , its devolution into closed echo chambers where the same messages are bounced back and forth until they become assumptions or beliefs. Yet, this is little different to what we have always had. In the pre-internet days the readership of the Telegraph was different to that of the Sydney Morning Herald. That is because there were social class divisions at work that formed, in effect, those echo chambers fed by different media sources.

David’s mention of “networks of interest groups” closely fits permaculture’s online and physical world structure. Retrosuburbia, the book, is aimed at such a fractionalised subculture, at such an interest group. David admits it is for a small downshifting “elite” that is “comfortable” and “middle class”. There is nothing wrong with this and, where such a group is geographically clustered around towns such as Nimbin, Maleny and the Castlemaine-Hepburn and self-defines around sustainability or some other concept it forms an enclave that bounces those self-defining, echo chamber notions back and forth to reinforce a particular worldview as well as create opportunity to create alternative economies and structures.

David

Just as RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future is written for an Australian, even local, audience, I am always trying to use the power of global networks to stimulate their relocalisation in real geographic neighbourhood communities. Such neighbourhoods are essential if humanity is to have a chance of ameliorating climate change impacts, let alone adapt to an energy descent future where local will again be the norm rather than the exception.

Comment

Stimulating relocalisation is a good idea. It is also hard to achieve in societies where people have careers and move around to follow them and where families live in distant cities. Populations, especially those made up of renters, are mobile both within cities and between cities and this, too, works against localisation.

Localisation is also contingent on economic factors like the affordability of land and home and the availability of local livelihoods. Were a deep crisis of the type David mentions to happen, there would be significant economic barriers to relocalisation. Without incomes, people would not be able to purchase land let alone develop it. In a severe economic crisis or breakdown they would not be able to repay their mortgages and would be foreclosed, forced off their homesteads and properties.

That is not fanciful thinking. It happened during the global economic crisis in 2007–08. We see today how many working people in the US (and in Australia to a limited extent), with their limited incomes sapped by high utility costs and unable to afford city rents head not towards localism as a solution but towards mobility by living out of their vehicles. Some have taken up what has become known as ‘vanlife’ as an affordable solution.

Severe crises and collapse is not necessarily a friend to localisation.

David

After a lifetime of applying DIY to everything in life and business, I’m learning that I don’t have to do everything and in any case, like the fax machine, if I hold out for long enough Facebook could be in the rear view mirror of history.

Comment

Facebook could well have that fate. I would suggest it will because tech evolves in a manner akin to a living organism. Look at IBM, once a manufacturer of computers, it evolved into a software and services business. Look at the decline of My Space.

The question is what will replace Facebook. It is the home of the permaculture conversation both globally and locally and so, at the present time, remains important to connecting permaculture practitioners and for passing along news and know-how.

Is it that social media is a good idea but Facebook a poor implementation of it?

Technology and David

It is good to see David talk about his attitude to technology. There is too little discussion of topics like this in permaculture. Online conversations are the best way to engage in them, however Facebook is a poor space for conversation and we lack an online venue where we can have in-depth conversations over a longer period of time. Far North Queensland permaculture pioneer, Bruce Zell, has raised the need for such a space but there is little apparent interest among permaculture practitioners.

This may be due to a proclivity towards physical activity among permaculture people and their downgrading of intellectual work such as is done at keyboards in front of screens. Some would say they don’t participate in discussions because they are ‘actually out there doing something’ or ‘doing practical stuff’.

Unfortunately, this attitude has prevailed in permaculture and done little more than create an artificial polarisation separating physical and intellectual work. It misses the reality that, in permaculture principle parlance, discussing things produces a yield. An intellectual yield is just as valid as a physical yield, sometimes more so. The attitude devalues the intellectual by denigrating it as not being ‘practical’. In some instances it comes across as a sense of moral superiority among some who champion physical work above intellectual.

Societies worldwide face significant challenges. We have the option of retreating into our homesteads and enclaves as a way to cope or we can work in our societies to create change. If we chose the former, then we can get by with hand tools and simple tech. If we choose the latter, then we work with the tools current in those societies. That necessarily means onine systems and modern tech.

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