In the 60s there was a movement in engineering and the physical sciences towards building what the British economist E.F. Schumacher called “appropriate technology.” Appropriate technology is sort of what it sounds like: build things that are appropriate to the context in which they are meant to be deployed. If that sounds like common sense to you, then you are benefitting from a minor scientific revolution that occurred in the midst of incredible professional hubris. For quite a while (and still today, as I can personally attest to during my time at a polytechnic institute) scientists and engineers thought that what works in an American lab will work anywhere in the world. Physics is physics no matter where you are and so the underlying mechanical properties of any given technology should work wherever it is situated. Appropriate technology pushed back against that concept, encouraging practitioners to think long and hard about social, economic, political, environmental, and any other context an artifact might find itself in.

Such a broad critique is bound to distort and end up (somewhat ironically in this case) broken apart into several different flavors based on who uses that idea. In 1990, Kelvin Willoughby gave appropriate technology a book-length evaluation and critique, first noting that the fracturing of the term makes it a difficult idea to wrestle with:

The term “appropriate technology” has been taken up by a plethora of organizations, interest groups, individuals and schools of thought, and its usage has consequently been loose and confusing. It is used variously to refer to particular philosophical approaches to technology, to ideologies, to a political-economic critique, to social movements, to economic development strategies, to particular types of technical hardware, or even to anti-technology activities.

Willoughby’s working definition of appropriate technology ends up being, “technology tailored to fit the psychosocial and biophysical context prevailing in a particular location and period.” Think of water pumps built for rural farms in Zimbabwe [PDF] or insulation made out of agricultural waste. These things seek to leverage or work seamlessly within, existing resource flows or topological realities. The water pumps are simple and their parts replaceable and widely replicable specifically because it is difficult to ship and sell finely machined parts in rural Zimbabwe. The insulation uses highly fibrous materials like coconuts and cork that are found in equatorial regions that are in need of exports and well-performing insulation to keep cool. These technologies seek to “fit” the context but ultimately they mean to change it in the long run.

Fitting into a context so as to ultimately change it, is an insidious kind of appropriate. Certainly there are things that need changing and water pumps and insulation are good things, but there is a danger in focusing on the initial conditions when describing the benefits of a technology. A hundred years ago the industrializing cities of America underwent significant changes as part of the City Beautiful Movement. “City Beautiful advocates” writes Catherine Tumber in the introduction to Small, Gritty, and Green,

mainly local elites joined in voluntary municipal art and civic improvement associations that served as informal planning boards–concerned themselves with the orderly grouping and placement of public buildings, railway stations, and parks, nurturing an exemplary vision of the urban public realm. Influenced by neoclassicism and the arts-and-crafts movement ideal that “what is most adapted to its purposes is most beautiful,” they were particularly attentive to appropriate fit and scale. Some of their handiwork remains in smaller cities across the land, since the market for new downtown development, which usually results in the demolition of older buildings, did not take shape as it did in large cities over the past few decades.

This pair of interwoven movements –City Beautiful and Arts and Crafts– are not unlike trends we see today. Proponents of the City Beautiful sought to literally and directly take control over the shape and character of their cities and the Arts and Crafts movement was not unlike the maker movement of today: a response to the pre-made-ness of the world and a desire to find some semblance of control in a rapidly changing world. All of these movements are well-intended –and individuals certainly do find joy in tinkering with the things around them– but ultimately we should understand that all of this is about control. Sometimes that control is over personal possessions: being able to repair a pair of headphones instead of buying new ones. Most of the time though, having the leisure time to attend meetings and being a part of organizations is a good way for local elites to make big changes while appearing democratic. The working poor, in addition to being financially strapped, are often deprived of leisure time as well.

Moreover, the focus on artifacts –whether they are buildings or hand-made Etsy commodities– generally misses underlying social factors that contribute to communities’ problems. You won’t end poverty by putting the poor in different buildings and you won’t make a dent in alienation by focusing solely on the digital devices that embody the latest instantiation of capitalism. Wade Graham in Dream Cities is instructive here:

Ultimately, the revolutionary intent of the Arts and Crafts movement failed: handmade objects were too expensive for any but the wealthy, most of whom had gotten rich from the industrialization and standardization of production that the movement decried.

The Arts and Crafts reformers were looking at the wrong things: things. Just as [Arts and Crafts movement leader William] Morris wanted to believe in the power of better-designed and more humanely made objects to cure our social ills, … critics of the conditions of the new industrial city wanted to believe that the city itself was the culprit, not the economic conditions that drove its growth. They failed to look at themselves behind the curtain. like the Wizard of Oz, operating the machinery.

A similar, and perhaps larger, irony plays out today in Troy, New York where I live. A century ago this city was at the forefront of industrialization but it lost the game it helped make and is now resorting to the maker movement and handmade goods to rebuild what it has lost. There is a humongous makerspace downtown and all the little shops have jewelry and furniture made and recycled by local artists.

Circling back now to appropriate technology I think it is fair to ask what sort of context is Troy and what technology would be appropriate to help it thrive? Is it more industry? That is what New York’s Governor Cuomo thinks is the right answer. Is it more handicrafts? That’s what the local leaders of the Business Improvement District seem to agree on. The literature on appropriate technology might agree with both of these assessments: That the appropriate organizational technology for a place like Troy is some sort of commodified handicraft industry. Something that leverages all of the empty warehouses and latent creative talent in the region, along with its proximity to larger cities and markets. All of this sounds wrong to me because who wants to play to the context of a boom-and-bust cycle of wealth inequality? Building appropriately for such a context seems like a good way to uphold a status quo and not get at the heart of the problem. Perhaps the technology appropriate for places like Troy are ones that are not appropriate for their contexts at all. What exactly that is, will require some political imagination.

David is on twitter: @da_banks


Lede image by Brian Debus