Monday, October 08, 2007

High-Tech / Low-Tech

The "High"-tech industry has always been so good at marketing. I own many Microsoft and Google and Apple and 20th Century products. More than a ton, really. But what do I use the most every day? Running water. A bicycle. A stove. Books. My shoes. These are not "High"-tech. These are old technology, "Low"-tech.

1. The Dominican Republic: A group of engineering students are in a small town wandering around when the locals start talking to them. Apparently they have a water problem. You see, they have a huge tank full of water for the town and a small tank that is supposed to drip chlorine into the water to purify it. Unfortunately it doesn't work right. Either the water is too rusty from the old pipes pumping the water to the tank or it has way too much chlorine. This is a small, isolated town with very few commercial outlets. The students cut the bottom off a new jerry can and bolt it to the inside of the water tank upside down, above the water line. They then run a line from the chlorine tank to the top of the jerry can and attach the existing drip valve to a float and a line from the spout of the jerry can. They put a valve and float from a toilet on the end of the line into the jerry can. This keeps the chlorine at a constant level and hence a constant pressure and the residents are able to fine-tune the drip valve to get their water tasting right. This is now applied in at least 50 towns in the DR.

(Article in the latest GOOD magazine)

2. Vcommunicator Mobile: At the Modern Day Marine show last week, Vcom3D showcased its one-way translator for soldiers in Iraq. It's an iPod and speaker with a custom library of Arabic & Kurdish voices and phrases as well as the Arabic, Kurdish, and Phonetic alphabet. This allows a soldier to learn exactly how to pronounce, "We need to see your papers." The soldier simply goes to a playlist like Patrol or Checkpoint and finds "We need to see your papers," hits play and the phrase will come out of the speaker for the soldier to repeat, or loud enough for the audience, and also displays on the screen in English, Kurdish, and Arabic alphabets for the deaf. "We went low-tech," explained Ernie Bright, operations manager with Vcom3D.

So what is "High" and what is "Low"? First off, I don't believe these hierarchical symbols should apply here. There is a big push for living machines in architecture right now - that is simply a series of swamps contained in large tubes that naturally purifies waste. Is this "low" or "high"? It is technology as ancient as the world, but it is only recently been understood enough to apply it inside the home to human waste. That makes it neither "high" nor "low", it simply is technology: 1. The relationship a society has with its tools, 2. The practical application of knowledge, 3. techne (craft) + logia (saying). Technology is how and with what we do things. My hammer is technology in the same way my Jeep is technology in the same way my laptop is technology in the same way a comb is technology. A comb? Everybody still uses that antiquated technology. (Well, except me but we'll not get into that now)

These students in Example 1 are educated at MIT, one of the highest formal educational institutions in the world. Yet they come up with a design using technology from a 4500 year old device to fix a very modern problem and it works perfectly and cheaply in many different towns.

Example 2 shows how creating cheap, quick, one-way translators instead of bulky, expensive two-way translators can help connect the American soldier with the Iraqi people. Also, playing on a technology most people know and/or own allows various models to be on the market at one time for soldiers with or without an iPod. But this is considered "low-tech" because we can do more. I realize that in places the political situation does not allow it, but isn't a human who knows both languages the "low"-tech option here? The term "low-tech" is certainly taking on a new meaning with ten year old technology considered "low"-tech.

Basically, I believe we have thrown away too much common sense in the last two-hundred years. Ancient Greek buildings are not beautiful just because they adhere to phi or show a standardization of form and symmetry that is breathtaking, for me it's because of their orientation to give prominence to natural elements and features in the landscape and because of the technology used to create intriguing relationships between spaces. Humanity is going back to using nature as an element in design and building. Is this push "low" or "high"? It's just a push. It's just technology. And the separation between the two technologies has helped create some of the environmental crises we have today.

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