Appropriate technology

It’s the Christmas season, with shopping centers crammed with consumers, and corporations touting the latest releases just in time for the holidays: new books, new fashions, and new gadgets. While I love new gizmos and doohickeys, and I’m always happy to see what the latest technological developments can do (and to devise all sorts of diabolical new uses for things), I’m not always sure that the latest technological “wrinkles” in consumer goods are good. Sometimes designers take perfectly good solutions, and just “muck them up”. Perhaps it is time to examine our quest for the “latest thing” and really think about what makes a new technology, or technological approach, a good one.

Now, I’m a self-professed geek. I love new technology and new toys, and I can’t ever see myself becoming a Luddite or decrying technological progress. New technologies often allow us to solve problems that we could not solve before, or perform tasks that we didn’t know could be done before but that are immensely useful (the combination of the MP3 player and the podcast come to mind). I also think that existing technologies with a solidly established function can always benefit from new improvement: my computer can always process faster, and my digital camera get that much better resolution (or capture video, stamp the time and GPS coordinates on the print, etc.).

I also believe that in many cases we don’t know what possible uses and implications a new technology has until we take it out and play with it, so I believe that technological experimentation is usually a good thing: maybe someone will find a use for voice-recognition chips in socks after all. Let’s find out.

But I don’t believe anymore that technological development in all areas is always an unqualified good. Some technological experiments are a failure, and there are some technologies that are “perfectly good” as they are. Innovation and development in these areas, unless it can perform some sort of total revolution, is really just making things worse: they shift the solution from an “appropriate technology” to one that is “inappropriate”

OK, so how do we evaluate technological solutions to problems? I mean, if I’m going to make claims like, “this solution is better” and “that solution is bad”, then I’d better have some sort of criteria, right?

Well, I’m verging into the realm of personal opinion here, but I think that a technological solution should be:

  1. Effective: Does it do what it is supposed to do well?
  2. Efficient: Does it do what it supposed to quickly, with little fuss, little mess, and with minimal “side effects” and “by products”?
  3. Aesthetic if possible: Does it look nice? Does it fit in easily with other stuff? Does it fit in with (or available in) your aesthetics? (personally for me this means simple and clean minimalist lines – such as the iPod Nano – but you might want Rococo ornamentation for your “stuff”).
  4. Convenient: Is it simple to use? Does it perform its task quickly? Is the required amount of “user input” and monitoring minimalized?

Now, some solutions will admit only certain levels of each by their very nature: I can think of few ways to make a garbage scow “aesthetically pleasing”.

I also think that there has to be balance between these considerations in design. When one of these considerations overpowers the rest, the results are often disastrous, annoying, and wasteful. Want a better mousetrap? Willing to be effective at all costs, and to hell with efficient and aesthetic? Try Mouse-B-gone(tm) Tactical Nuclear Weapons!

While I don’t actually think anyone is going to offer weapons of mass destruction to enhance the convenience (?) of pest control, I think that there are still design excesses out there in the marketplace. Usually what gets exaggerated to ridiculous levels is the rule of “convenience”. Apparently consumers should not need to know anything, learn anything, or do anything other than speak their wishes. Apparently, the ultimate household appliance is a combination “matter replicator” (a fictional device that could create any material object – food, clothing, items of amusement – out of other matter, for those of you who don’t watch Star Trek), and a household robot butler. Talk about Freudian reversion to infancy!

But I’m a bit of a heretic. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with learning a simple, or even a moderately complex, skill to perform a task – there’s even a small sense of accomplishment and personal satisfaction in doing so. I don’t see why something always has to be done in a microsecond rather than three seconds. If it makes for a simpler, more effective, and more efficient solution, maybe a little convenience is worth giving up.

To illustrate, I’m going to give two examples of consumer gadgets that I think are “inappropriate” in their lauding of convenience , and end up creating “gadgets” which are needlessly complex and inefficient, and I’m willing to bet that many people have both (at least if you’re male).

If I give you $20, and sent you out to the local discount hardware store and asked, “would you please pick me up a coffee maker?”, what would you come back with? Most likely, one of these.


Yay! A gadget that takes up lots of counter/cupboard space, drips all over the counter (or causes me to spill all over the counter pouring water in the top), uses tons of replaceable filters, can be almost impossible to clean (when all its various nooks and crannies of its white surface get coffee stained), and will expire in 3-5 years so I can buy a new one! Just what I wanted! But they are convenient, right? Load, pour, wait, pour, drink (and oh yeah, clean up).

What would you say if I told you that for about the same money you could have got a coffee maker that was a) Easy to clean, b) took up very little space, c) used no disposable filters, d) could be easily placed in the sink to fill (no spilling), e) wouldn’t leak, f) was just as easy to use, g) would last 30 years, and h) could double as a tea-kettle? Would you believe me?

Try one of these.
Stainless Steel coffee percolator
Think about it. It only has 3-4 parts (depending on whether you want to count the hinged lid as a separate piece or not). It makes coffee, it is simple to operate, simple to set up, simple to clean, and virtually no-maintenance. Pull it out of the cupboard, fill the kettle with water, fill the basket with coffee grounds, assemble, place on burner, wait until coffee has been “percolating” a sufficient time, remove, extract basket and place in sink, pour coffee and enjoy. Really not all that complicated. Clean-up is mostly: rinse grounds down the sink, scrub lightly with sponge and a little soap (rinse well), dry (or place in draining rack), and put away.

Simple, time-tested, efficient, effective, and convenient. I only leave out aesthetic because stainless steel doesn’t really go well with the Royal Doulton china, but it isn’t like it would be an eyesore sitting in your kitchen.

Another “convenience” that many many men endure daily, is this.


I don’t know about you, but if I peek in my bathroom wastepaper basket there’s a pile of these (yes Mom, I realize this means I should probably empty the bathroom wastepaper basket more often). I’d love to see figures for how many tons of plastic and steel end up in landfills every year because of these. They’re cheap, cause clutter, rattle around the bathroom drawers, run out at the most inconvenient times, and clog up in the middle of a shave. But they are convenient, right?

Try one of these.

Now I know that 85% of the male readers just went, “Ack! No way! Keep a blade away from my throat, thank you!”. Wuss. So it takes a little skill and practice; there are ways to learn how to shave with a straight razor that are safe and don’t involve blood loss – just Google around for some websites on the topic, there are many. Alexander the Great shaved with one of these, and he conquered the known world (You are planning to conquer the known world, right?). It’s simple, efficient, lasts decades with proper care, doesn’t contribute piles of plastic to your local landfill, shaves better than a disposable, and – face it – it has a certain cachet or “macho factor” to casually admit that you shave with a straight razor. Yes, it does require some skill, some practice, and some “support equipment” (brush, bowl, leather strop, etc), and if you have a wife and/or teenage children having to block off a little more time in the bathroom for you to shave probably won’t go over well. But it really is a simpler, more efficient, more elegant, and better solution.

So think about it. Maybe the latest “technological conveniences” are more convenient, but does this make them better? This Christmas, while you’re picking up a Wii for your kids, and combination massage-chair-hair-dryer-tofu-fluffer for your spouse, cast an eye over the simpler, time-tested technological solutions for some of your everyday household tasks, and see if the latest gadgets are really an improvement after all.

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One Response to Appropriate technology

  1. I love the simplicity of the tea/coffee maker.

    You haven’t sold me on the straight blade though. At least replaceable heads should be an improvement (less plastic thrown away) but for some reason, these are more expensive than getting equivalent single-piece disposable razors.

    Since you’re into appropriate technology – have you seen Appropedia?

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