Tilting at windmills
by Witold Rybczynski
UK: Prism Press (paperback £3.95)
US: Doubleday (paperback $4.95)
For those of us who have worked in the appropriate technology (or AT) movement, Witold Rybczynski has written an important and very readable book which illuminates the disappointments and tensions we have all felt. He suggests that there is a serious illusion in the idea that AT is fundamentally different in kind from modern high technology, because the principles of technology and many of its products are the same everywhere and for everyone and pose the same dangers.
One answer to this is that the real opportunity for a distinctively 'appropriate' approach lies in the way technology is practised and has not much to do with the scientific principles or even the hardware used. If the AT movement has partly failed, it is through neglect of the social practice of technology - a neglect which means that windmills and biogas plants are just as likely as the products of high technology to exacerbate poverty, or simply to collapse for lack of maintenance. Some discussion of technology as practice rather than as principle would have strengthened the main argument of Rybczynski's book while helping it to avoid one or two ambiguities.
The book includes several chapters on the background of those who have advocated AT, stressing environmentalists and the youth culture in America. Many of these people are deeply hostile to modern technology and regard AT as the basis of a `non-violent', anti-modern lifestyle. Their rhetoric has led to inefficient technologies being advocated as 'appropriate', and to untested, unworkable inventions being widely publicised for ideological reasons. Their influence in the Third World has sometimes been to divert the resources of poor communities into developments that perpetuate poverty - as the Indian biogas plants and other village technology may have done.
Witold Rybczynski is one of the founders of the `Appropriate Technology Movement', Professor of Architecture at McGill University, Montreal, and Director of the Minimum Cost Housing Group. As a well-known and effective practitioner of appropriate technology for sanitation, he is well placed to make these points, and to argue that AT should be seen as a stepping stone in the process of modernization, not as an end in itself.