The popularisation of "low-tech" in recent years is a promising sign but should also remind us to be vigilant. Low-tech has been irrevocably transformed by its media treatment, whether conscientious or not, and its meaning is evolving as it is appropriated by a wider audience. We must be careful because, from the outset, this concept was fragile for several reasons that we will discuss below. Nevertheless, should this inherent fragility prompt us to get rid of it or, on the contrary, to take care of it? Behind the concept of "low-tech" there are human communities, knowledge, travels, passions and commitments, so this concept does not only belong to the world of ideas, it materializes in pedagogical documents, concrete places, objects and devices created by women and men in the four corners of the world. It is therefore as a process of care but also as a tribute to the communities and devices created that I wish to engage in a vigilant analysis of the concept. It is not a question of making it less fragile or of "saving" it from misinterpretation; rather, it is a question of this fragility guiding us to mark the ground with care and gentleness for those who are already taking part in the adventure or who will take part in it.

Table of Contents

  1. Misleading terms
  2. Techniques and technologies
    a. In philosophy
    b. In anthropology
    c. In history
    d. In economics
    e. Synthesizing "tech"
  3. "High/Low-tech", reorganizing concepts
  4. Technical cultures
    a. Cuba
    b. Japon
    c. Ghana
  5. Opening up technical worlds
  6. Reading list

Misleading terms

Low-tech" is a shortcut for "low technology", as opposed to "high-tech" or "high technology". The fields generally associated with high-tech are aerospace, biotechnology, information technology, nanotechnology and robotics. Most of these sectors have two characteristics in common: they developed from the 1950s onwards and are linked to the emergence of information technology. Indeed, they require a certain amount of computing power, provided by human operators until computers take over for the most part. If we stick to the dualism between high and low, all that is "high-tech" corresponds to technologies developed from the 1950s onwards, particularly in the United States, Russia, Western Europe and East Asia in industrial and post-industrial societies. All other technical practices, modelled at all times and in all other typologies of human societies, would therefore by definition be low. This discrimination is irrelevant and is more a matter of ethnocentric and colonialist logic which does not reflect the richness and diversity of technical practices in different geographies and temporalities. Faced with this situation, it must be understood that adding levels, through a "middle-tech" for example, would not change the situation. It would not challenge the position of the high and the low. Therefore, it would not change the logic of classifying all of humanity's technical knowledge in relation to the technologies that have emerged over the last seventy years in certain human societies.

The low-high dualism and all its intermediaries is therefore not the most relevant for classifying techniques and technologies developed by human communities. But do we really need to classify them? The very idea of defining a scale of intensity (low<high) to technical knowledge is problematic for two reasons. First, this ranking is unique, whereas there are thousands of ways to "rank" technical knowledge around the world. Which would be the most legitimate? Secondly, the very idea of classification stems from a methodological logic defined by the Western world, even though all human societies have always produced technical knowledge. Why would modern Western logic be more legitimate than others? Although this logic has its advantages, it also consists in doing violence to reality, by classifying devices and systems in silos, diminishing or suppressing all the continuities and discontinuities that bind them. Criticizing the logic of classification does not mean disqualifying the whole of scientific methodology, but we must handle it and use it sparingly.

So you'd think the poor choice of words would be high and low. Yet it seems to me that to focus criticism on these words is to miss the most important and problematic term: tech. Special attention has been given to the use of the words "technique" and "technology" since the beginning of this text for this reason. In the French language we commonly use the anglicism tech to refer to a sector ("tech"), organizations ("French tech") or initiatives ("Tech for Good"). We certainly have a problem of dualism, but what do we mean with the word "tech" that we like to use, without ever defining it?

Techniques and technologies

To disqualify the importance of the definition of "tech" would be to deny more than two centuries of research in philosophy, anthropology and the history of technology. Yet if this research has been passed on to us and intensified, it is precisely to meet this definition. Discussing "tech-nique" or "tech-nology" is not the same thing, and each of these words has a variety of definitions depending on the discipline that uses them. So I would like to give an overview of these definitions in order to understand the conceptual and practical issues behind "tech".

In philosophy

In the philosophy of technology, the word "technique" is generally associated with the set of objects/tools and common practices that emerge from human communities. In this scheme "technology" is a subgroup of technique and refers to objects/tools and practices based on "modern science" 1. This very broad acceptance of "technique" and "technology" in philosophy of technology does not pay tribute to all the theses formulated in the field, but it does allow us to present a first differentiation between the two terms.

Technique and technology in philosophy of technology

I will discuss only two approaches that I believe are significant in the context of this explanation. The first is the disjunction that can be made between human culture and technology. It is common to take a shortcut to say that more "technique" or "technology" means less "human". But this ignores the fact that the creation of technical tools and practices is shared by all human communities, to varying degrees, over tens of thousands of years. "Technique" is part of "humanity", even of other animal species. Gilbert Simondon has dealt extensively with the subject, trying to reconcile "culture" and "technique" by explaining that it is not the "technique" itself that "dehumanizes"2, but the way in which technical objects and devices are created3. For example, the alienation of workers from machines is not related to the machine itself, but to the fact that one conceals its mode of operation from the worker. This concealment is part of a process of capital accumulation by economic actors and of a deliberate separation between the worker and the technical knowledge of the machine he operates. In continuity with this idea, Albert Borgmann proposes the device paradigm4 to distinguish between objects and usual practices on the one hand and "technological devices" on the other. He takes the example of heat as a commodity to explain his model. On the one hand, the "fireplace" device requires a great deal of commitment from its operator to produce heat; wood has to be fetched, dried, cut and stored. On the other hand, it is also necessary to know where and when to cut wood, and a knowledge of the environment is essential for the use of the device. Moreover, social practices emerge around this device (songs, dances, stories, ...) and are associated with convenience (heat production). On the other hand, the technological device "thermostat" does not require any commitment from the operator, except for its punctual adjustment. The thermostat works uniformly regardless of the context, and its machinery is invisible and inaccessible to the operator. Pipes run through walls or hatches, the thermostat and its machinery (boiler) can only be repaired by a plumber or a licensed professional. The operator will develop little or no technical knowledge about the appliance that was designed to produce the commodity. Finally, the device paradigm may be associated to some extent with Simondon's argument regarding the mode of operation of technical objects.

Example of the Borgmann Device Paradigm

From Borgmann's point of view, it is easy to understand that one does not produce the same type of objects and practices if one positions oneself from a technical or technological point of view. Where the tool is highly dependent on the context and the commitment of the operator, technological devices conceal their operation in order to dissociate the operator (the worker or the user) from technical knowledge. Where the maintenance of a fireplace in a chimney is associated with rich social and cultural practices, the thermostat creates a distance with daily practices. We rarely see people talking around a thermostat, a boiler or a radiator.

The purpose of this part was not to make an exhaustive list of the philosophical concepts of the "technique," a true plurality of researches exist and it depends on the curiosity of each one to go further on the question. Some authors are interesting to approach: Martin Heidegger, Gilbert Simondon, Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg and Yuk Hui, to name a few.

In anthropology

In the anthropology of techniques, the term "technology" will designate the study of techniques, just as biology indicates the study of living things. More precisely, technology is "the study of the activities undertaken by man by acquiring and transforming organic and inorganic elements of the natural world" 5. This definition includes knowledge and know-how as well as gestures and tools related to technical and social issues. Three levels can be distinguished in technical activities: at the first level, the raw materials, tools, gestures, knowledge and know-how; at the second level, the processes, operating chains and associated social relationships; at the third level, the "technical system", i.e. all the technical activities of a given social group 6. 6 Some anthropologists also suggest calling this field of study "cultural technology" to avoid confusion with the "technology" understood by engineers.

Three levels in technical activities

The techniques seen as "technical system" are "socialized actions on matter" and in this scheme "every technique is a social production". Our most "natural" technical behaviours vary from one culture to another. We encounter different walking techniques, different carrying techniques or even different birth techniques depending on social groups and cultures. Pierre Lemonnier, in the Dictionary of Ethnology and Anthropology, reminds us that a technique involves four elements: "a material (on which the technique acts), objects (tools, means of work, artifacts), gestures or sources of energy (running water, wind, animal strength, etc.), and particular representations underlying the technical gestures" 7. In this acceptance, Lemonnier suggests that the meeting of an environment (milieu) and the technical system of a society brings out potential technical solutions, which the social group should adopt or reject. This theory refers in part to the work of André Leroi-Gourhan, anthropologist of techniques, who proposed a system for classifying and observing the continuities and discontinuities of technical systems. André Leroi-Gourhan points out for example that when one "knows how to conduct compressed air, one can have the blowgun, the piston lighter, the piston bellows and the syringe", and a technical continuity appears 8. However, the very appearance/acceptance of the blowgun depends on friction with the "milieu": the blowgun is very well adapted to hunting in forests, especially in South-East Asia, Malaysia and tropical America. It is a precise weapon at short range, without noise, without appendages, which clings to the branches, but the dart, generally 25 centimetres long, is likely to deviate at the slightest wind 9. The blowgun was therefore much more likely to be adopted by forest peoples than by peoples from the windswept great plains. Leroi-Gourhan thus recalls that "the blowgun is an object of easy invention but which requires environmental conditions such that its realisation is limited, at least in its use as a hunting weapon" 10.

André Leroi-Gourhan's Man and Matter Table of Contents
Drawings by Leroi-Gourhan

André Leroi-Gourhan was part of a current of anthropology called "concrete" or "action" anthropology, along with several other anthropologists, including André-Georges Haudricourt. Carole Ferret sums up the anthropology of action as "an anthropology rooted in the concrete, which seeks to know how people act. Not what they are or what they believe, but how they proceed" 11. In a logic of study of human activities and their relation to the environment, Haudricourt will formulate the hypothesis of the "predominance, within each society, of a certain type of actions"12 that construct and explain both the relation to nature and the relation to others. He will construct a typology of actions in four terms: direct/indirect, positive/negative. This typology, in line with Leroi-Gourhan's remarks, links practices and technical knowledge, sociability (relation to the other and to the non-human), and relation to the environment. Carole Ferret explains that direct action consists in close contact with the "domesticated object", whereas indirect action is defined by an absence of contact with the object. Positive action is distinguished by a path imposed on the "domesticated object", while negative action simply blocks certain paths. To defend his hypothesis, Haudricourt compared sheep farming in the Mediterranean to yam farming in New Caledonia, and the effect of these two types of action on the treatment of others. Carole Ferret's summary table reproduced below helps to explain this typology. The initial intuition of André-Georges Haudricourt has of course many limits, but it allows to think in a general scheme the relation between technique, culture, and nature, recalling that these concepts are not isolated but are part of the same continuum 13.

Table of direct/indirect, positive/negative actions by Carole Ferret

The "mileu", understood both as the "natural" and material world, has a preponderant place in the anthropology of techniques. In this framework, the global environmental crisis can be seen as a fundamental evolution of the "milieu". One can therefore legitimately ask how this crisis modifies the production of technical systems and even the anthropological method. The unprecedented level of transformation of natural environments and the environmental damage allowed by the technical systems of modern industrial societies (technosphere) are profoundly changing the way we perceive technical systems, breaking down the conceptual barriers between technology, nature and culture. Matthieu Duperrex, during a study of a fish pass on the Garonne River, reveals the entanglements between technical interventions on the river (dredging, bed management, reservoirs, hydroelectric production) and ecological restoration actions to bring back Atlantic salmon and the activities specific to the species (survival, habitat, dynamics, behaviour). The researcher proposes to view the fish pass as an interface and technical "milieu" where "humans are concerned again about what a river is for fish" 14. Duperrex reminds us that both the technosphere and the biosphere are so complex that we cannot hope for a homogeneous concept to understand and integrate them. On the contrary, the current situation invites us to "deal with a plurality of precarious existence and a plurality of incomplete worlds"15. This last point seems essential to open the question of technique to our contemporary issues.

What is important to remember about the anthropological approach is: 1) "technology" is always social; 2) it is part of a primordial encounter between a "milieu" and a social group with technical knowledge (matter, objects, gestures/energy, representation); 3) the study of technology recomposes the links between technology, nature and culture; 4) in the context of the environmental crisis, the technosphere is intrinsically linked to the biosphere and forces us to change the way we observe and conceive of technical systems; 5) technical systems are part of technological continuities and discontinuities. More than ever, an anthropology of action seems necessary and, as Haudricourt rightly reminds us: "Man's relationship with nature is infinitely more important than the shape of his skull or the colour of his skin in explaining his behaviour and the social history it reflects" 16.

In History

As anthropology brings to light continuities and discontinuities in the invention of techniques, a certain vigilance should be born towards discourses formulating the idea of an "individual, pure, ideal invention, [...] supposing "a convenient abstraction where progress appears to us as a road marked out with inventions". 17 Yet post-industrial Western societies have a certain penchant for stories of solitary inventors and for a history of linear progress. Works such as those by Yuval Harari tend to build logical sequences where a sedentarization of hunter-gatherers would necessarily lead to agrarian and agricultural development, then to the erection of cities, etc. 17. This is fictional, as demonstrated by the archaeology, history and anthropology of techniques. The anthropologist David Graeber and the archaeologist David Wengrow offer a consistent critique of the books of Harari 18. James C. Scott proposes in Homo Domesticus a deeper reading of the early states, going against the fictional narrative of Harari. The history of technology, and more recently the history of progress, is generally used to convey a certain vision of human societies that coincides with the discourses of the "dominant". It is therefore necessary to take a closer look at this history.

The work of the historian David Edgerton is emblematic of a history of technology that is told through the uses of technology rather than its invention. A certain history of invention leads us to believe that once a technical object or system is "invented", it presents itself uniformly to all people, everywhere on Earth. In this logic, we imagine that if we "invent" electricity, it would become available to all humanity and would join a "bank" of knowledge that will never disappear. However, the history of technology, focusing on uses, shows much more complex dynamics than this. Techniques are born and die in human communities, according to their needs and their "milieu". These same techniques can reappear in another form, within another community, somewhere else on Earth.

Invention vs Usage according to David Edgerton

The Chinese wheelbarrow, for example, underwent a singular evolution during the first millennium, with the addition of a mast and a sail in several regions of China. This system has been documented and spread in Europe by Jesuit missionaries ("Historia", "Itinerary of the New World" by Mendoza, and "Itinerario" by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten). It inspired the Dutch engineer Simon Stevin to build sailing wagons, which were successfully tested on the beaches of the north of the Netherlands around 1600. A technical system from ancient China, still active today, was perpetuated in a new form, adapted to Dutch conditions thousands of kilometres away, a few hundred years later. These sailing carts were "the first to demonstrate that it was possible to travel over land at speeds as yet unknown" 19.

Example of transmission of techniques in time by Jacques Gernet

To continue on a similar theme, David Edgerton uses the electric vehicle to tell the story of a technical system through use, not invention. Various environmental issues have recently favoured the development of the electric vehicle, presented as an example of ultra-modern and progressive innovation. However, the historian recalls that the first prototypes of battery-powered vehicles appeared in 1830. The first successful electric vehicle emerged in 1890. It is a 6-seater vehicle that runs at 30 km/h. At the beginning of the 20th century, New York's taxi fleet was almost entirely made up of electric cars. A 1907 New York State decree allowed owners of these vehicles to install charging bases in front of their homes, and garages began to open at night to offer charging services. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 1,000 car manufacturers in the United States and almost as many models divided between internal combustion engine and electric. The internal combustion model built its success on the hollow of the electric model, in particular thanks to its greater range capacity and the optimisation of production methods, notably by Ford. A quote from the latter is generally cited to support the myth of progress and the genius inventor: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". This sentence suggests that there was nothing between the animal-drawn vehicle and the combustion engine. On the contrary, many different technical systems were tested in the United States at that time. Ford was able to observe the characteristics of the electric and internal combustion vehicle in the American environment before proposing its own technical system which went far beyond the "simple" combustion engine.

Fritchle developed an electric vehicle that covers 150 km on a single charge.

Electric traction also experienced a certain boom with the development of electric trams that coexisted with horse-drawn carriages. However, after a few decades of "splendid" development, electric trams will experience a decline. The end of electric tramway systems in the United States is not only due to the possible superiority of the internal combustion engine over the electric one. Electric streetcar companies were generally owned by electric power companies. These provided a cheap and clean transport service, sometimes at a loss, but which suffered in particular from the various crises that plagued American life in the first half of the 20th century (the 1929 crisis, etc.). This decline was accelerated, among other things, by two factors: 1) a 1935 Senate law forbidding electricity producers to own electric transport services; 2) an aggressive operation by oil producers and manufacturers of thermal vehicles who bought shares in most tramway systems and replaced them with bus systems. These actions confirmed the hegemony of the thermal vehicle in the American technical imagination and placed the tramway as an element of folklore rather than an efficient technical system. It should be remembered from this story that it is not the intrinsic characteristics of a technical system that guarantee its acceptance and use by a social group but the intertwining of its political, legal and financial systems. This does not constitute a "denaturing" of the technique but rather recalls its primary condition: all technology is a social production. Denying the social dimension of the technique does not make it disappear, but it does make the technique less adapted to the particularities of the "milieu" and the social group.

The historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz admirably shows the political, social, ecological, legal, scientific and economic controversies that animated the emergence of technical systems in the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular, he takes the example of the development of caustic soda workshops in Normandy to demonstrate the power of "modern" scientific knowledge to impose a technical system. At the beginning of the 19th century, caustic soda was obtained by the oxidation of kelp which was found in particular on the Normandy beaches. Norman fishermen used to harvest the kelp at a precise rhythm and seasonality in order to allow the regeneration of the environment and to favour the reproduction of certain species of fish. This knowledge was "internalized" by the local communities, so it was not based on a scientific method of producing evidence but rather on knowledge of the "milieu" developed over several centuries. When the first caustic soda workshops were set up, their workers began to grub up kelp without regard for the practices of the fishermen and this local scandal led the local officials to prohibit the grubbing up of kelp. However, the affair went back to the State level because some French industrialists and politicians had interests in this enterprise, notably the father of the French chemical industry and senator: Jean-Antoine Chaptal. Two scientists were then sent to study the reproduction of the kelp and determine the effect of regular grubbing up on it. Through an experimental protocol that only studied the biology of the kelp and totally ignored its role in the local ecosystem (the famous silo of knowledge), the scientists sent by the State concluded that uprooting did not harm the reproduction of the species, despite an impact on its cycle 20. The modern scientific authority thus constituted itself as a tool to diminish, or even eradicate, certain technical knowledge and cultures. This mechanism had already been widely tested by colonial empires, a fundamental aspect that was notably explained by the recent book by Samir Boumediene: "The colonization of knowledge: a history of medicinal plants in the "New World" (1492-1750)" 21. The colonial powers had already more or less understood that the destruction of technical knowledge also made it possible to eradicate certain social, religious and cultural practices that were considered "heretical".

Firstly, the history of techniques allows us to reorganize and challenge the myths of technical progress and technology that are inundating today's globalized societies. Secondly, this new reading of the history of techniques and technology, off-centre of modernity and the Western world, shows us how rich and complex it is. The important points to remember are the following: 1) the myth of linear technical progress (the famous arrow of progress) is fundamentally false in the light of the evidence and historical facts produced over the last hundred years; 2) the history of technology is profoundly social and environmental, in the sense that the interaction of social groups with their "milieu" is fundamental to the emergence of technical cultures and knowledge; 3) Acceptance of a technical system is not necessarily linked to greater "technical efficiency", which would justify its use, but to the friction between political, spiritual, legal, environmental and economic debates within the social group; 4) the production of "modern" technical knowledge serves as much to nourish technical cultures as it does to destroy them.

In economics

Economic theories only belatedly addresse the meaning of "technology" in economic value creation. Initially, economic theory incorporated the term "technological progress" into its vocabulary to explain productivity gains made at the margin. For a long time, what economic theory calls "technological progress" will remain an external factor in the economic process. Finally, during the 20th century, economists will use this factor to explain significant productivity gains that can only be explained half by the factors of capital and human labour 22. The "institutionalist" current of economic thought led, among others, by Thorstein Veblen, will start to define innovation as "the use of newly acquired technological knowledge". He will also regret that this "innovation" is greatly hampered by "institutional requirements that are imposed by impulses other than workmanship" 23. This idea created a synthesis between, on the one hand, the neoclassical idea that less state was necessary to have more efficient markets and, on the other hand, that increasing "technological" knowledge was a factor of growth. The result of this synthesis is the idea that innovation should not be regulated by the state as this would diminish its impact in the creation of economic value. This idea runs counter to the field observations and knowledge produced today by anthropologists and historians, which expose the deep link between technical knowledge and social groups (which can take the form of a state). Veblen's theory will, however, be taken up by another institutionalist economist named Clarence Ayres, who will oppose what he calls the ceremonial, produced by institutions, and the technological or "instrumental", produced by industry.

A second wave of economic thinking called "New Growth Theory" will focus its work on the effects of "technology". Joseph Schumpeter will formulate as early as the 1930s that economic growth is the result of competition between companies and technological development 24. Following on from this concept, he formulated the hypothesis of "creative destruction", believing that "technological revolutions would sweep away old industries and replace them with new ones in a process of creative destruction"25. The destructive aspect of technical knowledge observed by historians is taken up here in a completely different context and for a completely different purpose. The idea of the creative destruction permitted by technological development will have such power over economic thought that this hypothesis still directs part of political and economic decision-making today. This destruction is considered acceptable because it would allow future economic growth but, above all, it disinhibits the production of "technological" knowledge, which would no longer have to worry about social damage as long as growth can be achieved. The idea will be pushed even further by Paul Romer, who sees "technological knowledge" 26 as a factor of production in the same way as capital and human labour. He sees "technology" as the combination of "information/experience", "knowledge" and "ideas". One of his contemporaries, Nathan Rosenberg, proposes to see technical progress as "a type of knowledge that allows: 1) a greater volume of production, or 2) a qualitatively superior production from a given quantity of resources" 27. In a grandiloquence peculiar to economists, Rosenberg suggests that "technology" is a "form of knowledge that has generated a certain rate of economic growth for thousands of years. If the human race had been confined to technologies that were understood only in a scientific sense, it would have long since left the scene"28.It must still be assumed that all human societies, of all times, have been motivated by the economic growth imagined by 19th century economists.

This reductionist acceptance of technology and technological progress will be structured in a linear model called SLIM (Simplest Linear Model) which will impose itself in the discipline despite the obvious criticisms of its simplicity. In mainstream economic theory, therefore, there is not much difference between "technique" and "technology", the whole discipline focuses on the latter term. From economic theory, we can retain that: 1) technology is seen as a factor of optimization (thus reducing production costs), and/or as a factor in the creation of new markets and uses; 2) technology is an economic factor as important as capital and human labour; 3) technological progress is seen as a linear and cumulative system allowing economic growth; 4) a principle of destruction renewing the industrial system.

Synthesizing "tech"

What does this superficial review of the terms "technique" and "technology" tell us? Firstly, the terms mean different things depending on the discipline. "Technology" does not mean the same thing to an anthropologist as it does to an economist. It now seems that the common meaning of "technology" corresponds to the economic definition. Indeed, the wave of "technological innovations" promised for the years to come (autonomous cars, 5Gs, etc.) are mainly based on the idea of creating new markets and uses, and on the myth of linear technological progress. It is almost cruel to observe the narrowing of "technique" and "technology" in the economic prism when it is eminently simplistic and far removed from the facts observed in the field and over time. Finally, one could hypothesize that "low-tech" is a questioning born of the hole left by the economic incursion into the history, philosophy and anthropology of techniques.

"High/Low-tech", reorganizing concepts

The emergence of the concept of "low-tech" can possibly be explained in part by the economic use of the concept of "technology" which reduced its meaning. However, the global environmental crisis provides a particularly powerful context for rethinking the concepts of "technique" and "technology". The French and German political ecology of the 1970s fundamentally integrated these two terms into their thinking. Ivan Illich denounced the industrial relation to techniques, producing tools that dominate men. He called for the emergence of a "society where modern tools are at the service of the individual integrated into the community, and not at the service of a body of specialists. Convivial is the society where man controls the tool" 29. Low-tech" is placed in the contemporary context of the IPCC reports, the Paris agreements, economic and industrial disasters, and the crossing of planetary limits. In this sense, "low-tech" tries to give its place to technical knowledge, modern or not, in a limited world but also to reveal, once again, the material conditions of production of the systems that surround us.

Low-tech" housing designed by the Low-tech Lab

In France, "low-tech" owes its success to the work of the Low-tech Lab and Philippe Bihouix. The first aims to travel the planet in order to document technical knowledge specific to geographical areas but also to issues of ecological limits and subsistence. Through its action, the Low-tech Lab tries to get out of the western focus of techniques and technology. In particular, the Lab disseminates technical knowledge that is economically viable to meet universally shared needs (habitat, food, etc.) while integrating an ecological dimension. For its part, Bihouix articulates "low-tech" around "principles aimed at effectively reducing our resource extraction" 30. For him, "low-tech" questions needs and challenges the macro-economic theory that organizes supply and demand. Bihouix advocates an "ecology of demand" in order to limit the creation of artificial needs, to borrow the expression from Razmig Keucheyan 31. The corollary of this approach is to ask whether we can maintain a certain level of comfort with a lower consumption of resources (products and services). If objects and systems are to be designed then they must be "as resource efficient as possible, non-polluting, durable, robust, and easily repairable or reusable, modular, easier to recycle at the end of their life" 32. This reorganization of production also calls for challenging industrial globalization and reintegrating more local production to facilitate the maintenance and repair of objects. Finally, the principles proposed by Bihouix are globally part of a precautionary ethic : primum non nocere (first of all to do no harm). This ethic inscribes the questioning of needs, sobriety in the use of resources and sustainable design as a way of not harming human societies and ecosystems in the long term.

The environmental crisis is also a fulcrum for "high-tech", which sees it as a justification for its technological advances. An exit from the top would then be possible through the development of smart cities, cutting-edge renewable energies, biotechnology, etc. These imaginations are rooted in a resolute belief in the myth of technological progress, solving the problems it has itself created. Jeremy Rifkin, among others, proposes industrial and digital imaginaries that would allow such an optimization of the use of resources that humanity could reduce its footprint on Earth and thus avoid the worst of the planetary changes underway. Criticism is of course easy because most of these imaginaries are not based on the material and ecological limits of our planet. A large number of consulting firms and companies have in fact made these future above-ground "technologies" their specialty, as you can see below.

Recycling machine, “high-tech” prospective by AKQA
Surgical robot driven via 5G, prospective by “high-tech” by AKQA

It should not be thought that these imaginations would be weaker because they have no plausibility with current environmental conditions, on the contrary it is their strength. It is easier to deploy imaginations that are not rooted in material constraints. The "low-tech" deploys imaginaries that presuppose a knowledge of these constraints and therefore the description of the capacities of a given "milieu". It is much more difficult for "low-tech" to promote its imaginations because few people or institutions have done the work of description to know what they depend on. This is the point made by Bruno Latour. It is impossible, for him, to make good political decisions if we do not know what we depend on 33. However, when the Low-tech Lab proposes a tutorial to make dry toilets, the usefulness of the activity is certainly to produce a technical device but above all, it is about understanding the technical dependencies of "modern" toilets (connection to sewers, use of drinking water, non valorization of excreta, maintenance, water treatment). "Low-tech" is as much an activity of description of the dependencies as it is a technical activity. However, to understand the imaginary of low-tech, it is necessary to begin this process of description. This is indeed one of the weaknesses of low-tech and what reduces its diffusion.

Another hump occurs in the binarity between "high" and "low". Since "high-tech" has been linked to technical progress, it is assumed that any other technical culture would consist of going backwards. This is the famous return to the candle of "low-tech". First of all, it should be remembered that "lack of invention is much more frequent than invention itself" 34 and "technical inertia is not a social disease" 35. This may seem strange to hear, so much so that we have been collectively immersed in the myth of progress. It is however good to observe that the pickaxe persisted in the tools of the most developed societies for a few millennia, without any improvement in form. Pneumatic ripping machines have only proposed a different form very recently. Secondly, it is important to point out that the citizens of the most "advanced" countries are becoming technically poorer and poorer as technical objects and devices become more and more closed to them. We do not create technical knowledge (production, repair, maintenance, etc.) on the objects of our everyday life as most of them were created to deliver a convenience and not to reveal their functioning, like the thermostat. Of course these same countries "produce" engineers and scientists with fantastic technical knowledge but these are less and less distributed. It is therefore indeed a paradox that societies producing advanced technologies are also those whose populations are technically impoverished, i.e. they are no longer integrated into the technical culture and knowledge 36. Activities that are part of everyday technical knowledge, such as repair or maintenance, are relegated to specialized bodies or to less well-off segments of the population, such as smartphone repairers, for example.

Example of the network of actors involved in the manufacture of a smartphone screen by Gauthier Roussilhe

If we take into account all the arguments put forward previously, then we can reasonably consider that the "high-tech" and "low-tech" designations have always been insufficient. If we wish to play the game of a binary regime we could say that "high-tech" would mean "high-technology & low-technics" and "low-tech" would mean "low-technology & high-technics". High-technology & low-technics" would refer to a social and technical set where objects and devices 37 are massively deployed that do not show their functioning but produce phenomenal operations of transformation of the environment (the "high-technology"). The counterpart of this ensemble is the accumulation of technical knowledge to a very small number of individuals and the technical impoverishment of a large part of the population which no longer develops a culture of repair, do-it-yourself, maintenance (the "low-technics"). Conversely, "low-technology & high-technics" is a social and technical grouping where state-of-the-art objects and devices are used sparingly and where technological production is part of a logic of environmental sustainability (low-technology). On the other hand, the objects and devices designed in this way promote the development of a strong technical culture shared within the social group (the "high-technics").

One last weak point of "low-tech" remains to be addressed. The latter aims to meet human needs. But what are they? What prioritizes one need over another? In what "milieu" and in what culture? A theory of human needs such as Maslow's pyramid is extremely reductive and should not be used if we wish to respect the plurality of ways of living on Earth. Maslow proposes a hierarchy of needs but it is a conceptual dead end: the base of the pyramid is the need for survival, yet the need to belong (at the top of the pyramid) may take precedence over survival as in the case of a suicide bomber. A more subtle and efficient approach is to be found on the side of Manfred Max-Neef 38. He produced a matrix of basic needs much richer and more complex than Maslow's. He did not venture into a hierarchical classification and assumed that there were many ways to meet a need, through social, cultural, technical, spiritual, etc. life. The "low-tech" movement could use this matrix to think about "needs" and thus avoid Maslow's conceptual impasse.

The Matrix of Fundamental Needs by Max-Neef

If we have to keep the term "low-tech" to capitalise on its recent popularity, then I would like to take part in the somewhat pointless exercise of defining it. In the context of the environmental crisis, I would define "low-tech" as: a political approach that allows us to use "technique" to reconstruct our relationship with a constrained world. The formula is admittedly cumbersome, but it seems to me that it accurately describes all the phenomena at work in "low-tech".

Technical cultures

So far we have been talking about imaginary, assuming that new ways of life had to be invented. However, it doesn't seem to me that it takes so much imagination to know what the daily practices of "low-tech" 39 look like. Most of the time it is enough to get out of the ethnocentrism of modern technological progress. To take refuge immediately in the exercise of imagination would lead to a strong ethnocentric bias: since our post-industrial societies are supposed to be the most "advanced", if they have not been able to produce satisfactory responses to the current context then no one else has been able to do so, and there would therefore be no existing to observe. However, other societies have already advanced in different technological paths, whether this was desired or not. So, instead of proposing to imagine anything, we should already learn to observe and describe how different societies live and produce technical cultures. We did not have to wait for Westerners to "invent" "low-tech" before questions of technical knowledge in constrained "milieu" arose in the 20th and 21st centuries. There is, however, an interesting phenomenon that is more or less shared by all human communities today: how do we create technical knowledge with globalized objects? That is to say, closed objects that are part of globalized chains of extraction, transformation, manufacturing, consumption and disposal. The cases observed and described below will open the debate on this point.

Cuba

The Cuban regime has been under embargo since 1962 and it is the longest trade embargo of the 20th century. This unprecedented situation underwent several changes, but the fall of the Soviet ally from 1989, with whom Cuba conducted almost 80% of its foreign trade, brought Cuba into a difficult period called the "Special Period in Peacetime". At that time, Cuba absorbed a 35% drop in its GDP, a large part of the population was left without work and therefore without industrial production. The Cuban government's crisis exit plan was presented in three phases, from 1989 to 1994, from 1994 to 2000 and from 2001 to today 40. Among the actions carried out by the government, we can observe the publication of a book called "El libro de la familia" (The family book). This book proposed many ways to "divert" everyday objects, in particular it explained how to cut off the dryer block of standard washing machines in order to recover the motor. The motor was then reused to make fans, waxing machines, motor bikes, etc. A few years later, the Cuban government published the results of its experiments in a second book entitled "Con nuestros propios esfuerzos" (By our own efforts), showing the technical inventiveness of Cubans during this unprecedented crisis. Artist and designer Ernesto Oroza documented the emergence and development of this technical culture, which he called "technological disobedience" 41. The use of this term demonstrates a keen understanding of technological devices designed to hide their machinery. Cubans disobeyed this design and opened up the machines, understood how they worked and were able to create many objects and devices that were better suited to their needs. This mixture of ingenuity and working on uses in a constrained environment demonstrates what perhaps a "material language" can be. However, this should not make us forget the seriousness of the political, economic and social crisis that hit Cubans and the complex relationship with the revolutionary government 42.

The Cuban example shows what a "low-tech" society could be, but we should not delude ourselves and imagine this situation as enviable. The emergence of this technical culture was linked to major geopolitical stakes (U.S.A. vs U.S.S.R.), particularly harsh economic embargoes, cultural isolation, an authoritarian regime and a precarious daily life.However, the interaction between Cuban political power and the constraints imposed on the island has led to the revival of technical knowledge based on industrial objects. As such, Cubans have had and still have a much richer technical culture than most citizens of post-industrial and globalized countries.

Covers of books published by the Cuban government
Example of instructions given in "El libro de la familia"

Japan

Japan is one of the human societies known for its technological infatuation and advanced industries. Robotics, research on artificial intelligence and many other technologies are fields of predilection for researchers and industrialists. Contemporary Japanese culture has also produced many high-tech imaginaries that have taken the form of cartoons, manga, films and books. These productions also lulled a certain part of the European youth of the 80s and 90s, particularly in France and Italy. But Japan is also an island managed by a conservative regime that has to "organize" a dense and ageing population in a limited space, channel its flows of energy, materials and waste, and recover from the various industrial disasters that have struck it (Fukushima, etc.). In this particular context, the work of the Japanese artists and musicians of "Electronicos Fantasticos" is particularly striking. This group, centred around Ei Wada, transforms broken-down electronic devices into musical instruments. Their first concert, made possible by the work of engineers and musicians, was given in 2015 with household appliances that were "out of order". "Electronicos Fantasticos" redirected and developed technical knowledge that allowed them to transform old CRT screens into percussion instruments, fans into a kind of bass thanks to a light sensor, air conditioning units into harps, and many other devices. A particularly well-known piece is the hijacking of a cashier's barcode reader into an electronic musical instrument.

This type of technical knowledge shows a very strong hybridization between technical knowledge and cutting-edge technological knowledge. Indeed, most musical instruments require both a good knowledge of the internal workings of the machines, enabling them to be dismantled, repaired and reconditioned, but also a certain number of electronic sensors, and knowledge of electronics and programming. The group's project can be quite close to what Ernesto Oroza calls technological disobedience, except that it does not set aside advanced technologies but integrates and develops them in another technical culture. The Japanese example reminds us of a fundamental point which is also a weak point of low-tech: a technical culture does not only serve to meet basic needs, it must necessarily be integrated into social and cultural life in its most festive aspects. It is in the diversion of everyday technological objects for artistic purposes that, in my opinion, the most powerful low-tech imaginations are created.

Ghana

The Agbogbloshie district on the outskirts of Accra in Ghana is often referred to as the "dustbin of the West" because some of the Western waste electrical and electronic equipment is illegally sent to "dump" there. Equipment dumped in the open will sometimes damage or oxidize and create particularly toxic or unstable environments. In addition, their overcrowding increases environmental pollution and exposes all workers to enormous health risks. DK Osseo-Asare and Yasmine Abbas explain that this place and these working conditions are not enviable and should not exist, yet they are there and human communities are organizing around this situation. The first observation to be made is that the term "waste" is not at all appropriate for the facilities found in this suburb. There is 10 times more gold, silver, platinum and palladium in a ton of equipment in Agbogbloshie than in a ton of ore extracted from a mine. For local workers this place is not a waste dump but an urban mine (with the risks that a mine entails). The second finding is that some of the equipment is still functional but needs repairs, which the workers at Agbogbloshie are capable of. The objects are therefore dismantled, reassembled, hijacked by local craftsmen who have acquired a technical knowledge of this equipment. For example, the aluminium of fridge radiators is remelted to make pots sold at the market. Local manufacture has even been made possible by the accumulated technical knowledge, and "standardised" welding stations are designed from the scrap parts common in the urban mine.

DK Osseo-Asare and Yasmine Abbas created a mobile makerspace to meet the needs of local workers and also to reduce the risks associated with their practice. Among other things, there is a copper cable stripping machine to prevent the melting of copper and plastic from producing dangerous fumes, but also to increase the purity of the molten copper. The Ghanaian case shows us that the technical impoverishment of Western societies is leading to a much broader definition of the term "waste", which no longer refers to what is unusable, but to what is irreparable, irretrievable and non-divertible in relation to the technical knowledge of a given society. The economic and health precariousness of Agbogbloshie's workers reflects in a certain way the technical poverty of the countries that send them their equipment. Moreover, the appearance of new lines of standardized objects made from the usual materials of the urban mine (welding sets, barbecues, etc.) once again testifies to a technical culture that integrates globalized technological objects.

Makerspace au Ghana par DK Osseo-Asare et Yasmine Abbas

Opening up technical worlds

It seems reasonable to say that the binarity of high and low is unproductive. Yet "low-tech" aggregates relevant technical practices and knowledge to describe a world undergoing profound change. So what should we do with this term? It seems necessary to use it for what it is: a gateway. A "low-tech" approach or philosophy is not an end in itself and must be transformed by practice and by the integration of other types of knowledge. Low-tech can be a means of understanding what technical cultures are and how they are constructed between a constrained environment and the activities of a social group. This articulation can probably lead to three reflections: 1) understanding that post-industrial societies have a predominantly poor technical culture; 2) that technological objects are designed to hide their functioning and their "milieu" of emergence, amplifying technical impoverishment; 3) the global environmental crisis is an injunction to design objects and devices thought out within the constraints of their environment, and thus to produce new technical cultures; 4) technical knowledge can create as much as it can destroy other knowledge. Finally, "technology", as seen by economists, and globalization have accustomed us to objects whose "personality" is delivered to the "consumer". We have forgotten that technical objects have "personalities" that are linked to their "milieu" and are therefore much more diverse than we imagine. This implies redefining what "produce" means because we have established production systems that correspond to the technological ideal. What does it mean to "produce" knowledge and technical objects for human and non-human communities (such as the fish ladder)? We believed that we lived in off-ground societies, without material constraints, and we wanted to produce objects without a "milieu". As we describe again our material constraints, we must re-emerge a plurality of knowledge and technical objects specific to their "milieux."

Poster produced by the Cuban Ministry of Industry

Reading list

Philosophy
Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life
Andrew Feenberg, Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited
Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology
Yuk Hui, On Cosmotechnics: For a Renewed Relation between Technology and Nature in the Anthropocene
Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine
Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

Sociology
Madeleine Akrich, Comment décrire les objets techniques ? (FR)

History of technology
Samir Boumediene, La colonisation du savoir: une histoire des plantes médicinales du "Nouveau Monde" (1492-1750) (FR)
David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900
Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Apocalypse joyeuse : une histoire du risque technologique (FR)
James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
Alexis Vignon et François Jarrige, Face à la puissance: Une histoire des énergies alternatives à l'âge industriel (FR)

Anthropologie des techniques
Matthieu Duperrex, Voyages En sol incertain : Enquête dans les deltas du Rhône et du Mississippi (FR)
André Leroi-Gourhan, L’Homme et la matière (FR); Gesture and Speech
Emmanuel Grimaud, Yann Philippe Tastevin et Denis Vidal (dir.), Low Tech ? Wild Tech !
André-Georges Haudricourt, Domestication des animaux, culture des plantes et traitement d’autrui
Tim Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture
Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

Economie
Manfred Max-Neef, Human Needs and Human-scale Development
Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation
Nathan Rosenberg, Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy


  1. That is to say, the scientific method proposed at the end of the 18th century aimed at producing scientific knowledge based on experimental protocols and the reproducibility of results. 

  2. A common criticism of Marxism and socialism.  

  3. Gilbert Simondon, “Du mode d’existence des objets techniques”, Aubier, 1989. 

  4. Albert Borgmann, "Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry", 1984 

  5. Robert Cresswell, “Dictionnaire de l'ethnologie et de l'anthropologie”, Pierre Bonte et Michel Izard (ed.), PUF, 2016, p.698. 

  6. Ibid., p.699. 

  7. Pierre Lemonnier, “Dictionnaire de l'ethnologie et de l'anthropologie”, Pierre Bonte et Michel Izard (ed.), PUF, 2016, p.697. 

  8. André Leroi-Gourhan, “L’homme et la matière”, Albin Michel, 2017, p.40. 

  9. André Leroi-Gourhan, “L’homme et la matière”, Albin Michel, 2017, p.86. 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Carole Ferret, “Vers une anthropologie de l’action : André-Georges Haudricourt et l’efficacité technique”, L’Homme, no. 202, 2012, mis en ligne le 29 mai 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2020. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. See Yuk Hui, “On Cosmotechnics: For a Renewed Relation between Technology and Nature in the Anthropocene”, Techné, no. 21, 2017. 

  14. Matthieu Duperrex, “D’une passe à poissons. Milieux et technique en Anthropocène”, Techniques & Culture, Varia, mis en ligne le 1er juillet 2019, consulté le 27 mars 2020. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. André-Georges Haudricourt, “Domestication des animaux, culture des plantes et traitement d’autrui”, L’Homme, no. 1, 1962, p.50. 

  17. André Leroi-Gourhan, “L’homme et la matière”, Albin Michel, 2017, p.104. 

  18. David Graeber et David Wengrow, “How to change the course of human history”, Eurozine, 2 mars 2018, consulté le 27 mars 2020. 

  19. Jacques Gernet, “Le Monde chinois. l’Époque moderne”, Agora, 2005, p.209. 

  20. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, “L’Apocalypse joyeuse. Une histoire du risque technologique”, Seuil, 2012. 

  21. Samir Boumediene, “La colonisation du savoir: une histoire des plantes médicinales du "Nouveau Monde" (1492-1750)”, Éditions des Mondes à Faire, 2016. 

  22. Technological progress was seen as something that simply rained down from heaven, Studies show that, in most economies, higher inputs of labour and capital account for barely half the total growth in output this century. The huge unexplained residual was labelled ‘technological change’, but in truth, it was a measure of economists’ ignorance”. “Making waves’, The Economist 340, no. 7985, 28 September 1996, p.57. 

  23. Thorstein Veblen, “The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts”, Transaction Publishers, 1990, p.38. 

  24. Joseph Schumpeter, “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”, Harper, 1942, p.83. 

  25. Ibid,. 

  26. “knowledge” 

  27. Nathan Rosenberg, “Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics”, Cambridge University Press, 1982, p.3. 

  28. Ibid., p.143. 

  29. Ivan Illich, “La convivialité”, Seuil 1973, p.13. 

  30. Philippe Bihouix, “L’âge des low-tech. Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable”, Seuil, 2014, p.113. 

  31. Razmig Keucheyan, “Les besoins artificiels : comment sortir du consumérisme”, Éditions Zones, 2019. 

  32. Philippe Bihouix, “L’âge des low-tech. Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable”, Seuil, 2014, p.126. 

  33. Bruno Latour, “Où atterrir. Comment s’orienter en politique”, La Découverte, 2017, p.121. 

  34. André Leroi-Gourhan, “L’homme et la matière”, Albin Michel, 2017, p.196. 

  35. Ibid. 

  36. ...déstructuration sociale, appauvrissement technique…”. Robert Cresswell, “Dictionnaire de l'ethnologie et de l'anthropologie”, Pierre Bonte et Michel Izard (ed.), PUF, 2016, p.700. 

  37. Technological objects and devices, based on modern science and massively deployed. 

  38. Manfred Max-Neef, “Human Needs and Human-scale Development”, Apex Press, 1991. 

  39. However, post-industrial societies need to imagine other, less predatory and less exclusionary ways of living. 

  40. José Bell Lara et Richard A. Dello Bueno, “Cuba in the 21st Century: Realities and Perspectives”, Editorial José Marti, 2005, p.68. 

  41. Pénélope de Bozzi et Ernesto Oroza, “Objets réinventés : La Création populaire à Cuba”, Alternatives, 2002. 

  42. Janice Argaillot, “La Période spéciale en temps de paix”, Diacronie, no. 13, 2013, 1er avril 2014, consulté le 29 mars 2020.