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: Bicycles (development, the high point and additions)

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 would make you look insane in the eyes of some people.

According to the people who want to sell you stuff, progress never stops: every day their products are better than the day before (and so you need the new version.) This might be true, but only for the development stage of a given technology - the period where that starts with its emergence and continues until it (the technology) reaches its high point i.e. the point when it becomes as good as they can be. Any “improvements” done after that high point are often unnecessary or harmful, and so the next period consists mostly of additions of new features to the design.


For bikes, this first stage, the stage of development began in the 1860s where all kinds of wacky bicycle designs were made, the most famous of which is the high-wheeler design, the so called “penny farthing” - a design which features one big front wheel to which the pedals are directly attached, and a smaller rear one for balance. Examining the bikes that are produced at that era is a good way to see how a technology is developing - designers are experimenting with different materials and with rearranging the main components of the product, trying to find the design that works best and is as simple as possible.

The high point

It is not possible to pinpoint just who designed the modern diamond-frame bicycle (originally called the “safety bike”, to highlight the fact that it was safer than the penny farthing which was its most popular predecessor) - like most good humane technologies, it is a combination of a several different good ideas, often developed by different people, that work extremely well together (as opposed to inhumane technologies, that in most cases are a combination of mediocre ideas that don’t work together very well) However, there are no disputes whatsoever as to what constitutes this design - it remains virtually unchanged from the 1880s to today.

It’s worth it to examine some bikes that are manufactured at that time and see how similar they are to today’s models, like the Van Cleve Bicycle manufactured in 1897 (by non other than the Wright brothers).

But what’s even more impressive, at least for me, is to look at production bicycles that came some time later, like the 1911 La Francaise diamant (ridden by the winner of the first Tour de France) - this bike is not merely similar to the bike I own when it comes to design. It is (with a few exceptions) the same i.e. I can swap my bike for this one with no problem.

At the heart of the modern bicycle is the so-called diamond frame that is patented in 1899 by an African-American inventor called Isaac R Johnson. It is composed of two connected triangles, forming a four-angle shape that holds the four indispensable elements of the bicycle:

  1. The bottom-left angle holds the rear wheel of the bicycle.
  2. The bottom right angle holds the pedals which are connected to the rear wheel by a chain.
  3. The top-left angle is a home to the bicycle seat.
  4. Finally the top-right angle holds the steering of the bicycle and the front wheel.

The design doesn’t seem more complex and doesn’t use more materials than the penny farthing, but is, at the same time, much stronger than the penny farthing due to the triangle-shaped tubing.

Like the penny farthing (and unlike some other designs), it use direct steering i.e. the steering wheel is connected directly to the front wheel which is much better than indirect one.

And unlike the penny farthing, it doesn’t use direct pedaling that is, the pedals are connected to the wheel via a chain. It is interesting to note that the chain is the only complication of this design when you compare the design to the penny farthing. But it’s worth it, because the chain plays not one, but two important roles:

  1. It allows for putting the rider in a much more comfortable, and aerodynamic position
  2. The wheels don’t have to be super huge in order for bigger speed to be reached, making the design smaller and safer.

And this, in brief, is the high-point of the bicycle.

Post development

In the next (more than) 100 years, bikes became very popular and many new features were added to the original design - suspension (front and rear) gears (internal and external), engines (electric and internal combustion), brakes (v-brakes, discs (mechanical and hydraulic)) and all kinds of other stuff. Anticipating what some people would say, I I am not arguing that these things are useless, bad or unneeded * - each of them has its benefits for certain types of use-cases. However, a design that is closer to the original one has one feature that they all lack - *the feature of having no useless features.

For example, (to use the McLuhan’s metaphor about technologies being extensions of our bodies) it would be cool if we, humans, had the ability to fly, breath underwater, see in the dark etc. however, unlike other animals, we never evolved to have such abilities, we even had some of them and we evolved out of them and that’s simply because they are of no advantage to us. The trait that we have are precisely those that we need to survive. And furthermore they define who we are as a species. And for this reason we have to think really long before we (by using a given technology) add some new ability to this list.

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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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