In a culture where high-tech is synonymous with high-class, simple technology can seem irrelevant and outdated. After all, the low-tech lifestyle of horse-drawn carriages, weaving looms, and windmills hearkens back to an era predating our grandparents. Who wants to carry the stigma of appearing old-fashioned? Yet that desire to be modern — through new cars, computers, and televisions — has led to many social ills such as climate change, e-waste, and the obesity epidemic. Perhaps it’s high time to rethink high-tech.
The trouble with high-tech is that it prefers complicated solutions to simple ones. Take the problem of navigation, for example. Where a simple map and compass would do, high-tech prefers a GPS device instead. With the low-tech solution, all that’s needed is a piece of paper and a magnetized piece of iron. The high-tech device, however, requires batteries for power, integrated circuits for the computer, light-emitting diodes for the display, and hundreds of geosynchronous satellites for geolocation signals. Such sophistication, indeed, might come in handy for a truck driver or a mail carrier. But for the average commuter, the selling point of a GPS device is usually some minor convenience like voice navigation. How trivial, given high-tech’s record of wanton environmental destruction.
That pattern of environmental destruction is no accident. With high-tech products, wastefulness is built into the very design of its life-cycle. When a device requires electronics to manufacture, it is nearly impossible for an ordinary person to build it using scrap material. Any boy scout can print out a map using scratch paper and magnetize a compass made of scrap iron. Assembling your own TomTom — using only repurposed electronics, no less — is a superhuman feat (1).
So high-tech devices must always come from stores, which have little incentive to recycle. Repairs, when offered at all, are rare and expensive. That does not trouble shoppers as much as it should, since they have grown accustomed to devices that are not built to last. But will they ever grow accustomed to e-waste and landfills?
A pitiful trend emerges. Rather than empowering a person to solve his own problem, high-tech makes him dependent on outside infrastructure. A traveler must now rely on semiconductor factories, satellite networks, and coal power plants to figure out where he is. This forms the beginning of a vicious cycle: the more he uses his GPS, the quicker he forgets traditional navigation skills. Map illiteracy rates will rise, making GPS devices appear all the more essential. It is a likely situation, considering that only two centuries ago, our ancestors could navigate using stars alone.
Depending on a Rube-Goldberg machine is not cheap. Embedded in the price tag of every GPS device is the price of its specialized components: the processor, the LED display, the memory chips, the lithium-ion battery, the antenna, and the plastic surrounding the electronics. But the heaviest costs aren’t reflected in the price at all: they are passed on to future generations. Recycling e-waste is expensive, and no one wants to pay for the cleanup of space debris left by decomissioned satellites (2).
Alas, money can’t buy everything, especially not the infrastructure that high-tech demands. This is especially true in the backcountry, but even in the city, infrastructure can fail during an emergency. Satellite signals can grow weak, batteries can die, electronics can short-circuit, data can be erased, and GPS stores can close. When the infrastructure that sustains high-tech shuts down, so do the inventions. Modern technologies are not as robust as their primitive counterparts, so they simply stop working — often when needed the most.
It makes sense, then, to search for better technology — technology that is not highly complicated but rather highly appropriate. The ideal technology will be small in scale, easy to build, simple to fix, straightforward to recycle, low in cost, and highly reliable. This quest for appropriate technology, it turns out, often leads us back to the technology of our ancestors.
Besides, there’s no shame in being old fashioned. Horse-drawn buggies might draw unwanted attention, but other simple inventions, such as bicycles, vegetable gardens, and solar cookers, can even be stylish. You just need the will to get started — and maybe a little courage to deal with those curious neighbors and their impolite stares.
- Gpskit.nl teaches you how to build your own GPS using common hardware. The problem is that it’s difficult to recycle electronics.
- All those satellites produce a lot of space debris. Who will clean up all that floating garbage?
- Low-Tech Magazine has some great articles on low-tech inventions.
- Photo credit: Calsidyrose, CC BY.