Simple sustainable technologies focused on humans

Humane technology

It is a well-known engineering principle, that you should always use the weakest technology capable of solving your problem - the weakest technology is likely the cheapest, easiest to maintain, extend or replace and there are no sane arguments for using anything else.

We can argue that this is the principle behind the evolutionary process that designed us human beings - evolution always starts from rudimentary and the weak and then, only if needed, it proceeds towards greater strength and complexity.

Technologies (as Marshal McLuhan theorized) can be perceived as extensions of our bodies and minds. Like, a pair of binoculars can be thought as an organ that extends our vision with additional lenses. And the written word is nothing more than an extension of our ability to talk and memorize. Technologies that embrace this view with all it’s implications are what I call humane technologies and they are the subject of this book. My main thesis is that they have many advantages over technologies that focus too much on superficial criteria and ignore these principles (AKA non-humane technologies.)

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Technology and capitalism

This is an attempt to trace the emergence of non-humane technologies in the context of capitalism. When I talk about capitalism, I won’t be talking just about the political system and its characteristics such as the practice of free trade, the idea that the market regulates itself etc. Rather, I will talk about the social structure which enables this system to exist (talking about just the political system in isolation would be incomplete and, in most cases, decebtful.)

What does that have to do with technology? We will see later (much later, you’ll have to read the whole chapter.) But also note that social structures are also technologies, and very important ones at that.

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Technological escapism

We are going to kick off this chapter with a comparison between cars and bicycles. Until about 40 years ago, cars were considered the symbol of progress and of the direction where technology is heading, and to some extend they still are, however people are becoming increasingly aware that “there is something rotten” with cars. The topic is also related to capitalism - cars wouldn’t exist without capitalism (and you might say that capitalism as we know it also depends in many ways on cars). Cars are, of course, a non-humane technology.

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Green technology

Most of us agree that climate change is real. There are still many unanswered questions related to it, (as “How dangerous would it be?”, “To what extend it is caused by us?” etc.), but while all these would be good to know, we have more urgent things to do - if I tell you that there is a stone that is about to fall on your head that weights between 1 and 100 kilograms, your reaction wouldn’t be to try to spend time determining the exact size of the stone, neither would you ask who’s fault it is that it is there.

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Case study: Text files

Article reposted from the Abuse of Notation blog.

It is a well-known engineering principle, that you should always use the weakest technology capable of solving your problem - the weakest technology is likely the cheapest, easiest to maintain, extend or replace and there are no sane arguments for using anything else.

The main problem with this principle is marketing - few people would sell you a 10$ product that can solve your problem for ever, when they can sell you a 1000$ product, with 10$ per month maintenance cost, that will become obsolete after 10 years. If you listen to the “experts” you would likely end up not with the simplest, but with the most advanced technology.

And with software the situation is particularly bad, because the simplest technologies often cost zero, and so they have zero marketing budget. And since nobody would be benefiting from convincing you to use something that does not cost anything, nobody is actively selling those. In this post, I will try to fill that gap by reviewing some technologies for web publishing that are based on plain text and putting forward their benefits. Read on to understand why and how you should write everything you write in plain text files and self-publish them on your own website.

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Case study: Fixed-gear bicycles

The process which gradually turns humane technologies to inhumane ones is the process of adding more and more features, and in general adding more and more technologies to a given process which can often be carried out just as efficiently without them. Marketing and advertising industries do a good job of convincing people that they need those technologies and feature, often up to the point when the mere act of not using them can get people to call you names.

A good example of a human technology are bicycles. The diamond-frame bicycle design that we use today is due to the 1880s. Then it was known as “safety bike”, due to the fact that it was safer than the older bike designs (like the one with the huge front-wheel.) Today, such bike would be categorized as a fixed-gear bicycle, due to the fact that it lacks a freewheel mechanism i.e. if the wheels are spinning, the pedals are spinning too.


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Technology and art

We all like draw as children, but when we reach a certain age, we understand that our creative undergoings are not really valid, that being creative above a certain age is just a waste of our time, according to the adults. Some would outright tell us to stop doing it, others would take a more nuanced view and say that it’s all good if we continue, but only from time to time and only if we constantly remind ourselves that what we create is not real art. Real art, you see, is done with special type of paints, and by a special type of people - artists. Artists are very imaginative very smart and funny and most of them are very beautiful. They all have grown up under a very specific set of circumstances, studied in very special schools, had very special friends. In short, they are nothing like us.

Largely the same view is held for technology - we know it is created by an esteemed group of people, called engineers. They all studied years and years before they even started working. They all are smarter than us. They are professional. It is stupid, foolish, it’s even illegal to think you can do the work of an engineer yourself, so it’s better to refrain from doing it, even if it’s just for your personal usage.

And the interjection of those two small groups of people is an even smaller group that consists of the people who are both artists and engineers - that group and that group alone has the power to create technology that is both well-functioning and beautiful. We aren’t sure that this group even exists, because, after all, artists are very different from engineers (you know, the two activities actually use different halves of the brain). But even if people who are both artist an engineers really exist, one thing is for sure - they are certainly not like you. In fact they are so different from you, so better than you, that it is very hard for them to create art and technology that suit your needs. But you have to understand, in fact all of “ordinary” people have to understand that those who produce art and technologies are simply not able to fall at our level, so the only thing for us to do is to do our best to adjust and work with what we have.

Unless, all that I wrote up to this point is bullshit.

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