What matters […] is the direction of research, that the direction should be […] towards the noiseless, low-energy, elegant and economical solutions […] rather than the noisy, high-energy, brutal, wasteful and clumsy [ones].— E. F. Schumacher, Small is beautiful (1973)
Close your eyes and imagine living in the Western developed countries during the early days of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. The world was indeed very different from now: no employment issues, no Internet, no daily climate change news… A world often structured around airtight binary ideological oppositions, which historically Western culture has always been very good at producing, ignoring more or less as a result the complexity of reality. These were the conditions under which the historical high-tech vs. low-tech debate was born.
Nowadays, the online version of the Cambridge Dictionary defines these two words in the minimalistic literary style of many dictionaries:
- High-tech: Using the most advanced and developed machines and methods.
- Low-tech: Not using the most recent equipment or methods.
Since then, this dry binary alternative has permeated most of the « green » political parties’ discourse, and even recently made the headlines when French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned the « Amish model » when referring to opponents to the fifth-generation mobile network technology…
Could this important sustainability debate deserve better?
With all due respect to a famous dictionary, I am afraid the above mentioned definitions are of limited use. In fact, let us get back to basic logic: if we follow these definitions carefully, a technology of today is considered « high-tech » with respect to a technology of yesterday, but will be considered « low-tech » with respect to a technology of tomorrow… Let us wait, then? We might also need to build our sustainability strategies on firmer ground.
Therefore, I suggest to reframe these definitions on the technological innovation content, and not the relative age of the technologies themselves:
- High-tech: Using a high proportion of technological innovation and a low proportion of other forms of innovation (social, institutional, economic, etc.)
- Low-tech: Using a low proportion of technological innovation and a high proportion of other forms of innovation (social, institutional, economic, etc.)
Furthermore, I would like to emphasize two key aspects of these new definitions:
- Technological evolution rarely fits in preconceived categories. Indeed, there is both a need for regulation (closing) and hybridization (opening) of technologies. Hybrid usages have given birth to many forms of innovation. In that respect, the « open tech » concept is very promising.
- Beautifully simple technologies are still ahead of us. Many of the 21st century innovations will come from a new understanding of age-old principles. They will be both low-tech and based on novel technologies specifically invented for reaching these deeply transformative objectives.
High-tech vs. low-tech is an important debate of our time, because it is a debate about the relative importance of the machine in our culture. But it should not rely upon a deprecated definition of these concepts… We must do better: the whole human experience, gathered from the past 10,000 years and beyond, will not be very relevant when confronting our totally unprecedented situation in the decades to come. In fact, we are (un)knowingly creating the biogeochemical conditions for the end of the most stable climate that humanity ever experienced on planet Earth. As Carlos Nobre and coauthors suggested a few years ago: we now need « a novel sustainable development paradigm ». Close your eyes again and let these words sink into your ears.