Small Is Beautiful

I have tempted fate long enough as a would-be blogger, I must post the obligatory cat photo in order to stave off destruction at the hands The Powers That Be. Fortunately, our daily kitteh comes at an appropriate and relevant time.

Once upon a time when I was an impressionable youth, I poured over many and various books that pertained to the social good. I was fascinated by the back to the land movement, and dreamed of running a small farm. These writings helped cement my view of society, and where I felt we belonged in it.

I also discovered some odd facts. Here’s one for the TAG crowd; did you know that a Utopian community was founded in the mid 1800’s in our little section of West Dallas, almost exactly where the old building (SE wing of Pinkston HS) was located? I bet you didn’t.

One of the greatest works I ever read was a rather petite volume by the name Small is Beautiful, by economist E. F. Schumacher. It focuses on our need to see things at the human level, and challenges the idea that bigger is always better. I’m quite glad I stumbled upon it, it really helped define what I believe today.

Fortunately for us, the late Mr. Schumacher’s legacy lives on in the form of the UK non-profit Practical Action. One of their chief objectives is helping implement technology justice.

Courtesy of Practical Action
Courtesy of Practical Action

Let’s start by defining technology justice as the opposite of technology injustice. Technology injustice is the 1 billion people who lack access to electricity because governments and international financiers focus their development on grid technology, which leaves the rural population literally in the dark. Technology injustice is the slum dwellers of Dhaka, Bangladesh who pay 10 times more for clean water than non-slum dwellers even though the water system runs right under their homes, unavailable to their access.

But there is a broader picture here. Technology is not evil in itself, we develop technology to advance the human cause. After World War II, the development of technology increased by leaps and bounds, and promised to make our lives easier and better.

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The development of technology has grown exponentially, and it sometimes seems (to me, anyway) that we have arrived at a tail-wagging-the-dog moment. The pursuit of new technology seems to be the goal itself, rather than a means to an end.

I won’t wander into the debate about global outsourcing of jobs and the effect this has on both our economy and those of the countries where the jobs end up, for I am certainly not qualified to address the finer points. There is, however, an interesting point to be made when a comparison is drawn between what promise technology held, what global outsourcing has done to various economies, and who will be left holding the bag when technology’s promise finally arrives.

Too many robots, too few taps: Time to rethink our management of technology? – The Economist

Meanwhile, the competitive labour-cost advantage developing countries have offered could also disappear, with the trend to offshore production being reversed as costs of automated production in the US and Europe start to out-compete labour costs in the Global South. – The Economist

Our Cook becomes collateral damage in the march of technology when robots in the US finally start making our sneakers and growing our bananas.

We at Pasqual are focused on technology justice, just like our friends at Practical Action. Clean cooktoves, solar ovens, and heat retention cookers are all examples of appropriate technology, as detailed in Small is Beautiful. 

So, what’s the long and short of it? We need to step back and look at things though the Schumacher lens, and remember that technology is there to serve all mankind, and that technology is actually a means to an end. We need to make sure that our Cook is not left out in the dark, and doesn’t remain an afterthought in the global economic debate.

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