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A Philosophy of Technology


E. F. Schumacher coined the felicitous expression “appropriate technology” in Small is Beautiful in 1973; and what is appropriate, I would say, is whatever helps to improve the lives and long-term prospects of all humanity and of the natural world. As always, though, what we really need (and what most people would surely prefer?) and what we get are two very different things. 

Sometimes the most appropriate technologies may be “low-tech”, or “artisanal” – the kind that requires no formal science at all. But sometimes only the highest of “high-tech” will do – the kind that is rooted in bona fide science, and is inconceivable without. In practice we all make use of both. So it is that a traditional farmer in what Gandhi was happy to call “the Third World” might benefit enormously from an ox-cart – very definitely “low-tech”; but benefit more if it had pneumatic tyres – borderline high-tech; and even more if the farmer and his or her oxen were vaccinated against the many possible murrains, and had mobile phones so they could stay in touch with other farmers and with the world at large. And modern vaccines and of course mobile phones are very high tech indeed. The task for humanity, I suggest, is to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has access to the kind of technology that is best suited to their needs. 

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