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Elegant Technology

Every now and then I get the sense that some people see me as a “doomer.” That I’m perceived as a bit of a pessimist about the future. I don’t know why. In the face of issues like peak oil, global warming, catabolic collapse, I don’t see any need for our quality of life to decrease. I do see a need for our quantity and mode of consumption to decrease—and I think some people are confusing the two. Many people are labeled “doomer” simply because they reject the general idea that technology will be able to save us from all our problems and guarantee the maintenance (even perpetual increase) of our consumer-driven society. I think that this demonstrates a failure to grasp two critical concepts—that extreme consumption does not equate to quality of life, and that technological complexification is not, in itself, of any value.

Technology is only of value to the degree that it provides for quality of life without creating negative power-relationships that outweigh that benefit. And such technology does not have to be complex or “advanced” at all. Technology is nothing more than “knowledge of technics” or knowledge of a technique—knowledge is power. A thin photovoltaic array or a genetically engineered bacterium that converts woody biomass to ethanol both represent technology. The question that we must ask is “does the quality of life provided by this technology outweigh the decrease of our quality of life from the power-relationships that we must enter in to in order to employ this technology?” As a general rule, when the answer is yes, the result is something that may be accurately described as “elegant simplicity.” When the answer is no, as I think it is with both the example of photovoltaics and biotech-ethanol, then the result is not “elegant simplicity.” In fact, because I am using “elegant” not in the vernacular, but as a term of art, the phrase “elegant simplicity” is actually redundant: “elegant” alone will suffice, because I use that term to imply a measure of simplicity—that the benefit from an “elegant” technology outweighs burden of the incurred hierarchy, when measured from the perspective of the median (not mean) individual.

Most people who categorize me as a “doomer” do so, in my opinion, because they fail to understand this concept. I think that the “solutions” presented by most people fail the criteria for elegant simplicity. These solutions—cellulosic ethanol, thin-film photovoltaics, genetically engineered pest-resistant crops, nuclear fusion—will not solve our problems because, at their core, they ARE our problems. The root problem facing human society at present is the composite of the power-relationships that we have submitted to in order to “benefit” from such “non-elegant” technology—what I have elsewhere labeled as “hierarchy.”

While the test laid out above for “elegance” is subjective, there are hallmarks of technologies that fall into the “elegant” and “non-elegant” categories. Elegant technology is probably vernacular, general, and contained. These may not be the best three characteristics to capture the entirety of “elegant,” but they are the three that I will use for now.

Vernacular, for our purposes, means used by and accessible to commoners (the “median individual” from above). It doesn’t require a specialist to understand or implement, but rather is generally accessible.

General, for our purposes, means broadly applicable. An elegant technology is one that can be applied to a broad set of circumstances, not something that is only applicable to a single and unique set of circumstances.

Contained means giving rise, on balance, to negative feedback loops. A contained technology solves one problem without creating two different and greater problems.

These three characteristics of elegant technologies—vernacular, general, and contained—are broad and subjective, but provide a framework for evaluating technologies. To put it as plainly as possible, such evaluation is critical because technologies that are elegant are part of the solution to the problems facing human society. Technologies that are not elegant are part of the problem. Let’s take a look at a specific area of technology: Solar Energy.

Non-Elegant Solar: We’ll start with a negative example—a non-elegant technology for the use of solar energy: photovoltaics. Photovoltaics are not vernacular. Do you know how to make one? Probably not, but even if you do, I’m quite sure that you don’t know how to make all of the machines and tools necessary to create photovoltaics. This is important because when a technology is outside the realm of the vernacular, use (specifically ‘reliance on’) that technology creates a dependency relationship between the user and the provider. Are photovoltaics a general technology? Probably—while they only serve to produce electricity, that is a pretty generally useful thing in our modern world. Are photovoltaics contained? No, for exactly the reasons cited above: such specialized and complex technology relies on a specialized and industrial society. Even if we deem specialization and industrialization to be positive benefits, the mere scope of these non-contained impacts makes this technology non-elegant. Ultimately, photovoltaics require a hierarchal society for implementation, and the problems incumbent in such hierarchy make the technology itself non-elegant.

Elegant Solar: So if photovoltaics are not elegant, does that make any use of solar energy non-elegant? No. Let’s take a particularly clear case. Solar orientation: the understanding that the sun transits a broadly east-west path, and that, north of the tropics, the sun shines primarily on the south side of anything. Is this even a technology? It may not fit the way we commonly think of that term, but it is clearly knowledge of a technique—that specific orientation has a specific effect in terms of solar gain. Is it vernacular? Yes, both potentially (everyone can understand it), and in reality as it is widely used in vernacular architecture. Is it general? Yes—it is quite broadly applicable in terms of architecture, agriculture, energy production, etc. Is it contained? Yes—this technology can be used without creating any outside impact. I can be as simple as planting a frost-sensitive tree on the south side of a rock wall instead of the north side, but it certainly doesn’t require specialization or industrialization. So, solar orientation is an excellent example of an elegant technology.

What is the broader relevance of this definition of “elegance”? Elegance is a solution to the problems of hierarchy. Because elegance is, by this definition, contained, it will foster localized, self-sufficient, and independent societies. Elegance is the feedstock of rhizome. And elegance is a concept that, if we set it as our goal, can steer the vast potential of human innovation to a positive, sustainable end that is compatible with human ontogeny. So I don’t think of myself as a “doomer.” I just think that dreams of a “Star Trek” future where “high” (read non-elegant) technology solves all of our problems is pure fantasy. And I don’t think that this is a bad thing.

Editorial Notes: A very thought provoking article. Jeff writes:
I've been working on this concept of "elegance" lately, specifically with regards to energy, but it has always been one of the cornerstones of this blog. If you want to explore some of these earlier posts, try:

Vernacular Zen
Conspicuous Simplicity
Magazine Simplicity
The Four Virtues
Valuing Elegance
Reflections
What To Do
-AF

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