Are low-techs “soluble” in capitalism?

This text is a translation from French of this one, and is aimed to be enriched progressively.

Defining capitalism

Capitalism, via its most recent development — neoliberalism — aims at putting a price on every single things or concept. Its most complete extension would be to extend to everything in the natural world. Because that’s the last hope of being able to protect the environment, of course (or not?). It thus implies that capital could accumulate endlessly, and that the world could roughly be summed up as a body of rational, “mutually indifferent” homo oeconomicus [8].

Capitalism will repurchase everything.

It is reasonable to think that the more the environmental catastrophe will intensify, the more capitalism will unbridle itself, always pushing beyond its limits. This is already true with some vestiges of the natural world: in a jumble, we now merchandise the clean air of the Canadian rockies to the Chinese suffocating under the “airpocalpyse” [4], tourism on certain glaciers is sold at high prices before they disappear forever, drifting ice are harvested to sell clear water at the other end of the world … You knew “whale watching”? You can now go and track the melting icebergs, or have the luxury of killing one of the last African elephants (see image below)!

And what about the new “zero-waste” movement? The market, all too keen to be able to exploit a new marketing opportunity, has easily adapted to this new movement since it allows from now on to sell products that were almost free until then (packaging, etc.) [3]. Thus, opportunists of all kind have developed the most odious offers, the most extreme solicitation.

(Left) Cartoon on the drifts of zero waste (© bloutouf, translated from French). (Right) Creation of zero-waste needs by capitalism, among potentially useful initiatives.

Fortunately, this does not concern the whole zero-waste movement. Principles of re-use and repair are still applied and promoted by the movement, but the “design” tendency of some products still gives some cold sweats.

Even “collapsology” has recently undergone a hostile takeover, a sign of the “start-up nation” that is still finding its way [9], probably. Finally, the entire “sustainable development” principle was in fact hijacked by the Market [20] (probably because it did not call into question the system that is at the basis of its ambitions), despite their strong conceptual oppositions noted in the 2000s [19].
To go further, we can even extend this effect to all the famous “eco-gestures”: if they have been that much investigated and suggested as a solution, it’s precisely because they constituted an efficient collective alternative! But only at the price of really go into it, though: the table below summarizes at what price these initiatives could work (in theory), and the disparity compared to the real strategies applied.

table comparing eco-gestures in thepry (collective), and in practical capitalism (on individuals)
table comparing eco-gestures in thepry (collective), and in practical capitalism (on individuals)

This discrepancy is explained by the fact that the collective aspect of these actions has been reduced to some individual initiatives. Despite the few incentives they receive, people are thus expected to take charge of their own lives, and act: a classic of the neoliberal theory!

It should be noted that we are not trying to present the concept of capitalism as responsible for all the problems we describe: we rather see it as a “tool”. The problem is probably deeper than this concept alone, which could be considered as the best practical way to exercise our grip on the world. Rather than just trying to put an end to capitalism, we must therefore also think about changing the incentives that we constantly impose on our society. For this, some people have proposed to slow down, to take a step aside through, among others, “low technologies” (low-tech).

The low-techs, a deadly blow to market logic, productivism, extractivism and to growth-enthusiasts?

A low-tech [1, 12] must be simple, repairable and ecological. Targeting rather essential basic needs (drinking, eating, shelter, heating …), it also has a low cost and must be accessible to every people (French example). A low-tech therefore naturally opposes to high-techs, even if it does not have an absolute definition, but is always relative for any given technology (ex: the fairphone is high-tech by its miniaturization, but more low-tech than other smartphones ). A lower-tech, in short.

It is rather trivial to remember that capitalism is — on the contrary — more towards high-techs [7], because of its need of short-term profits and obsolescence. We can see it in the stores, and by the stranglehold of the 5 GAFAM web giants.

Some even perceive low-techs as the opposite of capitalism [2]. It is true that in principle, they seem to be opposite on every criteria (see table below).

Even high-tech gurus are very well aware of the potential of deception and harmfulness of their products [14], and may secretly wish for the emergence of low-techs. However, it would be only for them, and as long as they sell their products to the consumer masses! We should not forget that many people are already thinking about saving capitalism no matter what [11].

Lowtechs: a back-up for a declining capitalism…?

Thus, one must be careful. Indeed, “most suitable/fair price” can quickly become “cheapest price”, and then catch up with a capitalism flaw. Similar attacks on specific points of the low-techs, which could distort its objectives, are listed in the figure below.

Weak points (red) from the low-tech definition, and some resistance points (green). © Montreal Lowtech Lab.

Capitalism was born in a low-tech world (at least much more than today), and continues to flourish even now in “low-tech industries” [6]. Thus, even by restricting the definition of low-techs to basic needs, to limit its re-appropriation by capitalism, these “low-impact” innovations could still be done while serving the latter. Even Chinese capitalism could for example become high-tech, or low-tech, or with both coexisting [5]: it wouldn’t really challenge the system anyway…

Here we come to another deeper criticism, stating that low-tech and high-tech are only two sides of the same coin: one could very well imagine the two developing in parallel, in a world that would perpetuate its growth, which is a problem from a physical point of view [10]. Ironically enough, the low-techs could even allow capitalism to continue even more in a situation of scarcity (less materials and energy required).

… or a way to maintain a destructive ideology with increasingly limited means?

The question is thus: will low-tech innovations make it possible to exploit the very last resources? Or will they perpetuate even more the domination of the 1% (humans at $ 500 + / day) over the others (humans at $ 1 / day) [13]? Because extractivism, by definition linked to capitalism, requires an underpaid and docile workforce to be profitable.

Here, we must mention Hume’s law (is-ought problem) [15], according to which one cannot deduce a moral principle directly from facts without sweeping under the carpet one or several other moral injunctions (these injunctions should therefore be expressly included). Technologies seem to be on the side of the facts (and be neutral), but they have been developed and modified on the basis of moral injunctions (“we must improve human comfort”, “we must make prices as low as possible”, “ everyone must be able to freely communicate”, etc.). They therefore carry with them their negative externalities on the environment, if not their self-replication [16]. Fortunately, lowtechs can protect themselves relatively well by staying in the bounds of their basic principles (see diagram above). But if principles such as “we must continue to extract resources in the most profitable way possible” or its variant “the greatest number must have access to the comfort of a westerner” continue to prevail, the low-techs will effectively allow to continue to destroy the environment (but in an optimizedly limited way, of course!).

[this article could have ended there, hoping not to mess up low-tech too much. But this was before discovering the new faces of capitalism and its enthusiasts …]

Jugaad / frugal innovation: the low-techs phagocytized by the market system

Actually, the answer to the title of this text has already been found: yes … Yes since the capitalist system has established itself as the only possible route for the countries of the South, which no longer hesitate to use the very vocabulary of their dominant. More catholic than the Pope, this is how the Indian Navi Radjou encourage the readers of his manifesto “Jugaad Innovation” to follow the path of no more than 3M, Apple, Best Buy, Facebook, General Electric, Google, IBM , PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Renault-Nissan, and WalMart (!), i.e. a fair part of the V.I.P. that are at the forefront of the current disaster …

It seems therefore urgent to apply the 1st principle of Jugaad — the philosophy defended by the author, close to “frugal innovation” (his 2nd book) — without parsimony: “seek opportunity in adversity”, think “outside the box” or even build new “boxes” outright, follow the “rapidly evolving” world economy, develop “resilient” strategies (buzzword of the current times), and so on. Because it is clear that by noticing the depletion of resources and it arrival in the West, capitalism is reinventing itself on new bases, by putting on market more and more things, and penetrating into uncharted territories: even the “hacking”, local know-how and common sense practices can therefore become “the revolutionary products of tomorrow”, which must therefore be capitalized on immediately.

Yet the principle seemed full of great promises: being “frugal, flexible, inclusive” reminds us the definition of low-tech “sustainable, useful, accessible” (see image below). The jugaad intends to fight against elitist and complicated technologies often developed in the West, with principles such as “keep it simple”, “think and act flexibly”, etc. He even gives interesting examples like the Miticool, a more efficient bike on bumpy roads, a washing machine without detergent [21] …

But by reading through this book, it is difficult to refrain from vomiting: “Jugaad, a revolutionary growth strategy” (sic), enough to conquer new markets, exploit niches, “innovate faster, better and cheaper”… The central principle of “doing more with less” is reminiscent of the worst neoliberal utopias, such as getting rid of the human burdens linked to work, optimizing processes as much as possible in order to maximum profits, rationalize everything, etc. It’s frankly hard to see how this jugaad differs from a silly hard discount, where all costs are kept to a minimum and the human factor optional.

Likewise, the Accra electronic waste dump in Ghana is probably the most polluted place on Earth, where young adults and children treat devices (WEEE) with their bare hands to extract some precious metals: gold, copper, etc. , a model that allows them to earn enough to survive in this hell. This kind of landfill is what makes ICT recycling a little less expensive (these populations are not paid for their hard work, they just earn money in exchange for the recovered metal) *. Recently TED talks dared to reinforce the techno-enthusiasts of Silicon Valley in their consumption model of ever more electronics by inviting one of the workers from this Ghanaian digital scrapyard. Probably in exchange of an opportunity to show the ingenuity that mechanically develops in such a precarious place to the whole world, the presentation suggests that we should continue to produce and throw away as much WEEE or more, so that his own people can thrive in this waste economy: bless the circular economy and cellphones replaced every year!

These examples produce many accessible technologies. The usefulness is debatable as the jugaad strives to sell products rather than questioning needs. Finally, we cannot say that the imperative of sustainability is necessarily present: even if the “frugal” property is more towards saving resources, the environmental issue is clearly not the main goal in this definition. These two examples show above all that technical considerations are not enough: capitalism will integrate new constraints, just as it has integrated all the others. It is therefore imperative to define which political system we couple with the lowtechs.

Conclusion

Just like the zero-waste initiative, low-tech thinking and lifestyle is not a priori immune to an appropriation by capitalism: zero-waste also initially implied a model not so compatible with capitalism (less production in total), but nothing beats a capitalist system fed by the suitable incentives. The emergence of terms such as jugaad or frugal innovation is no good news: the amalgamation of low-tech with low-cost is easy (and low-tech is not necessarily opposed to complexity!). We must therefore remain alert, and not hesitate to denounce any abusive use of the low-tech concept, especially commercial. Because, by being improvable, the definition of low-tech is also less demarcated and therefore more likely to fall in a slow denaturing process. However, this problem is greatly limited by taking into account their original purpose: to take care of basic needs.

Thus, the “real” low-techs could quite oppose capitalism and provide interesting weapons of emancipation and resilience. However, a great deal of work will be needed to determine what is causing this capitalism, so as not to struggle in vain, and as Bossuet reminds us, to no longer “deplore the effects of causes we cherish” [17].

Max Pnsrd,
Montreal Lowtech Lab (QC).

References:

[1] https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/low-tech-solutions.html

[2] Nathan Jurgenson, “The Implicit Critique of Technology in the Occupy Protests“ (2011), https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/11/the-implicit-critique-of-technology-in-the-occupy-protests/248835/

[3] Vox, “Metal straws, mason jars, bamboo forks: do you have to buy more stuff to go zero waste?” (2019), https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/5/14/18563375/zero-waste-products-straws-jars-tote-bags

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/08/beijing-smog-city-shuts-down-amid-red-alert

[5] T. Hout & P. Ghemawat, “China vs the World: Whose Technology Is It?” (2010) https://hbr.org/2010/12/china-vs-the-world-whose-technology-is-it

[6] Hartmut Hirsch-Kreinsen, “’Low-technology’: a forgotten sector in innovation policy” (2008), Journal of Technology Management & Innovation, https://scielo.conicyt.cl/pdf/jotmi/v3n3/art02.pdf

[7] WallStreetJournal, “Venture Capitalists Chase Next Tech Wave After Smartphones” (2016), https://www.wsj.com/articles/venture-capitalists-hunt-for-the-next-big-thing-1477278001

[8] Adam Smith, An inquiry into the nature and causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

[9] (FR) Arthur de Grave. “Start-up Nation, Overdose Bullshit” (2019), Rue de l’échiquier, https://www.ruedelechiquier.net/essais/239-start-up-nation-overdose-bullshit.html

[10] Meadows, D., Randers, J. and Meadows, D., Limits to growth: The 30-year update (2004) Chelsea Green Publishing, https://tinyurl.com/tdgkes6

[11] Bloomberg Opinion, “To Save Capitalism, Save Communities” (2019), https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-26/to-save-capitalism-west-needs-to-revive-communities

[12] https://lowtechlab.org/en

[13] (FR) J. Blamont, « Introduction au siècle des menaces », Odile Jacob (2004)

[14] New-York Times, “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent” (2014), https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/fashion/steve-jobs-apple-was-a-low-tech-parent.html

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem

[16] James Bridle, New dark age: Technology and the end of the future. Verso Books (2018), https://tinyurl.com/r5gz59e

[17] (FR) https://www.france-histoire-esperance.com/dieu-se-rit-hommes-deplorent-effets-dont-cherissent-causes-jacques-benigne-bossuet/

[18] (FR) Montreal Lowtech Lab manifesto, https://framateam.org/files/jmzz4qecribkbxgncjny5h9pyh/public?h=Ch2nmOJIek23bBgC1o0DYjb1-R2WOhlknK2izOAlHxE

[19] Redclift, Michael. Sustainable development: Exploring the contradictions. Routledge (2002), https://tinyurl.com/sgpaud4

[20] Early & Murray, “SDG12: Can sustainable consumption save capitalism from itself?” (2019), https://www.businessgreen.com/feature/3083549/sdg12-can-sustainable-consumption-save-capitalism-from-itself

[21] Radjou et al., “Jugaad Innovation: Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth” (2012)

Low-techs, solutions basées sur les écosystèmes, biologie évolutionniste, énergie/climat…