Paper Heroes

Cover of Paper Heroes

Witold Rybczynski’s 1980 book fills in some gaps in understanding the rhetoric of utopian technological movements of the 60s and 70s. The second edition, from 1991, includes and epilogue which attempts to connect that rhetoric to the latest flavor of its time, sustainable development. It’s a cynical book, perhaps, but it is the kindest of critiques– I suspect that he, and every technological nerd of these times truly wants there to be a solution to useful deployments of technology for a common good.

The problem is that most of this literature is long on promises, and short on well thought out and executed examples. In  short, it’s a game primarily played by upper class white people to assuage their guilt over rampant overconsumption. I’m looking at you, professors at Cornell with six figure salaries tooling around in expensive SUVs with “Save the Whales” stickers.

AT (either unpacked as “alternative technology” or “appropriate technology”) is a cluster of ideas/technologies that are long on slogans and boosters but short on rational discussion– such as wind power, solar energy, etc. The roots trace to E.F. Shumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, and proceed through ideas like Green Revolution. Rybczynski rightfully points out the cult-like “true believer” culture that emerged from these napkin sketch level ideas. Ideas deserve more rigorous consideration. Little has changed. The world is full of paper heroes whose contributions are slogans and empty persuasion; it’s interesting to me to follow younger people in the newer craft moments discovering these books, thinking that the concepts and slogans can be simply transported to the present to some effect. Fact is, they were pretty ineffectual then and would be now if adopted wholesale. It has to be noted that critiquing those ideas is even less popular, and probably the reason Rybczynski’s book is sadly out of print.

He thought then, and I must agree, that there is much to be learned from these old utopian technology movements– largely to avoid the same sort of mistakes of sloganeering and assumptions of white, frequently male, privilege. I’m impressed that Rybczynski spotted it in 1980:

Perhaps the most important role that the AT movement has played in international development has not been as the inventor of a new approach, but rather as a reminder to the international development establishment that a large number of people have been left out of the development process and that technological options do exist which could begin to rectify the situation. However, as an attempt to demodernize technology and take an alternative path, Appropriate Technology is doomed to failure. It is a pretentious, romantic, even poignant attempt to stop the ocean with a child’s beach shovel and play bucket. (166)

As a woodworker, I have really enjoyed dealing with technology at a very up close and personal level. There was a trend, when I was growing up (as exemplified by Norm Abram, and shows like Home Improvement) to look to new small scale power tool technologies as a solution to building things. In the last decade or so, human powered tools are making a comeback with an equal amount of sloganeering. On either side, there haven’t been a shortage of “guru” type figures like Roy Underhill. It isn’t that the technologies being evangelized are inherently superior or inferior, but rather that the majority of people who lack the means, training, or space are left out.

The message shouldn’t be taken to be that “woodworking is a bourgeois activity” but rather that there is a problem with the cultish, elitist pronouncements that the problem is “solved” by these approaches. The problem is rather that effort must be made to bring education and technology to everyone in a more equitable fashion, rather than concentrating on those who have the means/dollars to deploy them.

For me, Saint Roy’s most powerful message is that historical technologies (wedge & edge) are not quaint ways of doing things but meaningful tools for the future. Technology does offer the means to solving our problems. But we’ve got to look for the complications posed by accessibility. Not everyone can build a geothermal or solar powered home, or even a log cabin– but these technologies must stay in our field for vision as potential solutions.