Björn Rust (he/him) is a post-industrial designer cum researcher, innovator and educator, developing context-sensitive innovation practices for people, planet and beyond.

Recent writings

  1. Opportunity hoarding
  2. Doing away with bullshit
  3. The course of my life, so far

Low-tech, high technique & culture

A version of the following essay was published in 'Uniper x Monocle—Energy in Evolution'.

Low-tech, high technique & culture — As demand for high technologies drives greater energy consumption, can a return to simple things improve our quality of life?

For most of human history—until as recently as the twentieth century—burning biomass was our only reliable source of energy. The fire was a universal household technology around which we orientated our lives and built our civilisations. That is until we discovered petroleum—a naturally occurring liquid that stores solar energy captured by plants during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. This prehistoric battery transformed our energy systems in an instant, unleashing previously unimaginable potential through the industrialisation of energy production. As our fires burned out of sight in distant power plants, we accepted that which had once occupied open hearths at the centre of our homes had been substituted with a more advanced alternative.

With this abundance of energy, we began crafting our modern utopia built on increasingly advanced technologies. As we transitioned away from fire and active participation in energy production, we replaced technique with technology. We traded comprehension for convenience as we embraced an increasing number of black-box technologies that shielded us from their ever-increasing complexity.

By 1958 "... not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me", claimed the pencil at the centre of Leonard E. Read's essay demonstrating that our progress throughout history—but especially in the twentieth century—was built on immense technological capital. The pencil reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

In March 1989—while working as a software engineer at CERN, the European physics laboratory in the Swiss Alps—the English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal for an information management system to address his frustration with the inefficiency of finding information distributed among different computers. This "vague, but exciting" idea—as described by his then-boss Mike Sendall—would earn Berners-Lee a knighthood and the coveted Turing Award. At this time, millions of computers were already being connected by the rapidly developing internet, but Berners-Lee realised that by using the emerging technology 'hypertext' they could more easily share information between researchers on his 'World Wide Web'.

Theses technologies are among our most significant achievements—they are the culmination of faith in progress through new technologies that have been driving development since the industrial revolution. Without these high-tech solutions, we would not have the universal information space of the Web, electronic mail, telephony, or file sharing. Nor would we have virtual power plants as in 'Basalt Vista' where solar energy harvested from rooftops is distributed across a self-optimising micro-grid composed of electric vehicles and batteries, while also controlling flow to and from Colorado's regional grid. We would not have the distributed ledgers technologies that Australia's 'Power Ledger' uses to trade renewable energy and environmental commodities, and without industrialised energy, the conditions for the Information Age and these high-tech solutions may never have surfaced.

However, just as we no longer see the flicker of those fires that underpin our human ecosystems, the negative environmental impact of high technologies like the internet and the World Wide Web are almost invisible to its users. As a proportion of global electricity consumption, information, and communications technologies account for roughly seven percent—a number that is expected to grow as more people log on for the first time, and the need for ever more data transmitted at ever-higher speeds places increasing pressure on existing infrastructure.

Albert Einstein suggested "we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them". Whether or not he was right, our current thinking has contributed to a 30-trillion tonne 'technosphere' and a complex network of black-box technologies beyond the comprehension of most non-specialists. Our current thinking assumes that high-tech improves on low-tech without evaluating the trade-off, because we are rarely faced with the alternative.

In 2019, Dale Hardiman and Tom Skeehan as 'Friends & Associates' presented 'Welcome to Wasteland', an exhibition inviting designers to consider their relationship to waste. "The controversy of exporting Australian waste for recycling in China unfolded in February one year prior, so we had an incentive to present an exhibition in support of the national conversation about recycling... it was not just with a sense of obligation but as an opportunity of crisis," Hardiman explains.

The collaborators agreed the show itself should not contribute to the problem, seizing every opportunity to reduce its impact, which extended to its digital presences. The Welcome to Wasteland website—designed by More Studio—was hosted on a server packaged in a reclaimed Henry vacuum cleaner connected to a photovoltaic system. When visiting the site users were presented with an indication of the remaining energy stored in Henry's battery and a weather prediction so they could plan for their next visit.

When asked about the site, Hardiman explains "... we worked on that solar-powered website to be obvious and direct about something we don't think about, which is data storage. [However] the thing that actually made it work was that it was out the front of the exhibition every day... being able to physically see something and understand it triggered this much broader conversation that I didn't expect about this kind of energy consumption. I guess the thing that we learned most about it was just how much energy we do use."

A few months before Henry, the creators of 'Low-tech Magazine', Kris De Decker and his collaborators had arrived at a similar solution as they were evaluating the energy use and carbon emissions associated with accessing their content.

These low-tech websites demand higher engagement and maintenance than their counterparts, which serves to lift the shroud surrounding these otherwise high-tech information and energy systems. In doing so, their creators reclaimed agency through technological knowledge while also redefining technical progress. Neither will replace the vast data centres that underpin the present-day internet, but they may help us become more accountable participants in the system.

While some might long for the fires that sustained our species for generations, low-tech solutions should not be understood as a nostalgic or sentimental return to old ways. They should be understood as a return to a technical culture, in which we make context-sensitive choices between technology and technique.

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