Schumacher's Philosophy for Appropriate Technology

By T. S. Ananthu*

The term ‘Appropriate technology’ is now becoming popular, and its usage is becoming popular, and its usage is becoming widespread. This is good in a way, but also bad in a way. It is good because more and more people are waking up to the fact that bigger and more expensive industries are not always the ideal that ‘sophisticated’ technology is not always to be hankered after, that ‘economics of scale’ can be extremely deceptive. It is bad because as the usage of the term becomes more widespread, its original and correct meaning tends to get corrupted, until finally it may be altogether lost.

How come even magnificent concepts like ‘satyagraha’ lose their real meaning and significance gradually, and how can we prevent ‘appropriate technology’ from meeting a similar fate? To understand the answer to this question, we have to realize that every new idea that has caught on-even if it has significantly changed the destiny of mankind has, nevertheless, gone through four phases: (1) lack of interest (2) resistance (3) acceptance and (4) universalisation.

When E.F.Schumacher first suggested this concept in the early 1960s, he was pooh-poohed: that was phase I. When his book Small Is Beautiful became a bestseller, his ideas could no longer be ignored by established economists and scientists, so much among them took up cudgels against him in the early 1970s: that was phase II. But phase III can be sustained only if there are new idea makers who can make original contributions to give the idea more strength and wider base: as Lenin and Mao did to Marxism. Un-fortunately, the kind of courage and vision that mark such men (or women) does not seem to be evident among present adherents of appropriate technology. Perhaps this is attributable to the comparative ease with which phases I and II were accomplished.

“Small is Beautiful”

Anyhow, whatever be the reason, there certainly seems to be a lack appropriate technology movement today (I am speaking here with particular reference to the Indian context). Unless this situation rectified soon, phase IV will set in prematurely, and appropriate technology’ will very soon become just like ‘Satyagraha’: a new word for the same old way of functioning. Already, I can see signs of this happening. For example, the Statesman dated November 1, 1979, carried a feature article under the bold headlines ‘SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL’. Upon reading the article, one realizes it is meant to sing praises of the lottery system promoted by the Post Office Savings Bank! Similarly, the cover story carried by the June 30,1980, issue of Newsweek is all about the revolution in computers and integrated circuits brought about by the tiny silicon chips. This revolution, says Newsweek will soon result in “gee whiz such as an oven that “knows the menu” every night or a kitchen robot that can automatically mix a “mean Martini”. And what are that words with which Newsweek heralds the grand revolution being brought about by “tiny silicon chips half the size of a finger-nail”? “Small is Beautiful’, of course! Similarly, play on the word ‘appropriate is also being widely used to justify technologies that would have horrified Schumacher.

All this goes to show that the idea is different from the words that convey the idea. Neither the words ‘Small is Beautiful’ nor the words ‘appropriate technology’ constitute a safe criterion for judging whether a technology is appropriate or not. Then how do we judgement? For that, we will have to go the root, the essence, of the concept. It is indeed a great pity that many of those who are involved in appropriate technology today have not grasped the essence of Schumacher’s ideas Schumacher did not create this concept in isolation. It was part of his overall approach to life, and approach is contained in his book ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’. It is tragic that most people, even those who have read ‘Small Is Beautiful’ thoroughly and enjoyed it, are not even aware of the existence of ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’.

‘A Guide for the Perplexed’

If we read ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ and digest it, we will realize that the concept of intermediate or appropriate technology was a derivation from an overall view of life and its purpose. Hence, appropriate technology has no meaning unless viewed in the context of this purpose. This overall view of life and the way the appropriate technology concept was derived from this view may be summarized as follow:

1. A soul is given a human birth in order to give it an opportunity to develop its ‘higher’ potentials. By higher potentials are meant those qualities that make us more human: love, compassion, selflessness, sympathy, etc.

2. Our current education processes teach us everything except how to become more human. Our schools and colleges impart knowledge regarding how to become a better engineer economist, a better statistician or a better historian, but not a better human being. Schumacher had learnt, acquainting himself with Buddhist Vipassana schools of meditation that educational processes by which we can become better human beings do exist. He had also learnt that the teachings of the Buddhist Vipassana schools, as well as similar schools in the Indians, Chinese, Sufi and Christian traditions, imparted knowledge that was consistent with the highest and noblest aims of science. As he explained it, “Applied science in the sense understood in yoga means for study not in the appearances of other beings, but in the inner world of the scientist himself”. It is the study of this science that has been neglected in modern education. Schumacher wanted to see our education processes and our life-styles modified so as to allow for the inclusion of this science, which would lead to a grand revolution in the very nature of man.

3. But including this extremely useful science in our education process and our life-style is not possible as long as we hanker after ‘modern technology’. This is because modern technology, the way it has developed, demands that we give exclusive attention to increasing our ‘standard of living’- to becoming, as Descartes put it , ‘master and possessors of nature’-with no time at all for becoming better human beings. Any society which opts for the ‘latest’ in technology cannot afford to allow its people to improve their human qualities, for then it will have to fall back in the rat race which modern technology demands. Hence we witness the strange phenomenon that those societies which modern technology demands. Hence we witness the strange phenomenon that those societies which have invested the maximum in labour saving devices have the least leisure! What is the way out of this? Schumacher suggest that the only way out of this is for us to voluntarily drop out of the rat race, and it is in this context that he comes up with the idea of appropriate technology is that technology Thus, appropriate technology is that technology which will provide opportunity, culture and environment conducive to the task of becoming better human beings, rather than to just surviving or increasing our comforts.

Appropriate: What and When?

So now, we have a definition by which we can judge whether or not a technology is appropriate. Let us apply this definition to, say, the ‘silicon chip revolution’ that Newsweek had talked about. To have a pre-programmed over or a kitchen robot does not merely by virtue of being complex and sophisticated technology, contravene the requirements of appropriate technology. What does, however go contrary to these requirement is the effect that these gadgets would have on society. As Newsweek itself points out, these gadgets would result not in increased leisure but in a new $500 billion-a-year rat race in which giant companies would attempts to gobble up all the silicon chips as fast as they are produced, with those falling behind in this race becoming the newest victims of the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle. All involved in the race will employ of the basest of techniques to keep alive, and so both victors and losers will end up becoming worse human beings. Even those who do manage to obtain any leisure in such a society will use it not for improving their human qualities but for taking to narcotics, drugs and assorted stimulants: as another report in the same issue of Newsweek demonstrates. It is for these reasons, rather than because computers robots will lessen manual work, that silicon chips must be classified, as of now, as in appropriate technology. This also demonstrates that no technology is appropriate or inappropriate per se: it depends upon the context. What is important is to constantly bear in mind keeping in view the true aim of appropriate technology: to produce better(i.e., more loving, more compassionate, more human) beings. The crucial consideration in determining the appropriateness of a technology is not economic benefits but the effects it has on the quality of life, as human beings, of those engaged that protagonists of appropriate technology must demonstrate this quality of life in their daily lives. For achieving this, the education processes that Schumacher recommended are a very valuable tool.

*T. S. Ananthu is a research fellow, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi