TERMS of Appropriate Technology

Appropriate (intermediate) technology calls for increasingly “people-centered, small-scale, decentralized, labor-intensive, energy-efficient, environmentally sound and locally controlled”1 technologies in response to the increasing development, prevalence and dependency upon increasingly complex, opaque, ineffective, unreliable, irreparable technologies of modern, globalized industrial economies. It is a response to technology for technology’s sake.  Many believe EF Schumacher to be the visionary behind the appropriate technology movement with his seminal and very readable book, Small is Beautiful.

Similar to permaculture ethics and principles, I write below about five principles and one ethic to our design and use of technology as guidelines to help us ensure that whatever we do with technology is ultimately in our best interests. I package them in an easy-to-remember acronym (TERMS), to facilitate further discussion on this topic.

Five principles (TERMS)

TERMS:  Transparent, Effective (ethical), Reliable (reusable / recyclable), Maintainable (modular), Simple

Transparent:  the technology should let us know what’s going on when we use it, so there are minimal surprises during normal use or when things go wrong.  it should be easy to understand where it comes from, how and why it was created (see story of stuff), and what happens to it at the end of its lifecycle.

Effective:  does it do the job its supposed to do, and do it well?  does it make the job easier or more difficult?  or does it trade one difficulty for another?  On a related note, is it ethical?  Does it provide both short-term and long-term benefit to the entire community (land and people)?  Does it internalize the cost of use?  To what extent is it safe or dangerous for anyone in the community?

A friend recently divided technology into two forms: that which helps us interact with and understand the existing world in new ways, and that which makes us stupid. Using the analogy of storytelling (which is itself an important technology), we can give some examples for comparison:

  • Some technologies help us tell new stories and understand the subtleties and depths of older, more familiar stories (such as through microscopes and telescopes).
  • In contrast, some technologies cause us to outsource the storytelling and become a bored, disengaged, alienated and passive listener or audience member (such as relying on Google Maps and GPS for directions).

Reliable:  technology should do what it’s supposed to do over and over again without needing any special care — durable and reusable.  it should withstand a little bit of abuse or even misuse (what some people might call “use for alternative purpose”). In relation to reusability, does the technology recycle well at the ends of its usable life, allowing us to reclaim its constituent parts and materials to (re)build other equipment? Otherwise, the technology and its constituent parts must readily biodegrade, which is the way the earth recycles materials for reuse.

Maintainable:  it should be easy to do preventative maintenance.  When technology breaks down, it should be easy to repair or replace parts with generic options.   To do this, we need to support and advocate for open standards, maintain standards compliance and design for modularity.  These are not quick and easy solutions, but the long-term benefits are worth it.

Simple:  if a technology is too complicated for the end user to understand all the way through, it’s probably too complicated to be transparent.  Also, the more complex something is, the less reliable it becomes.

These TERMS are relative to the technology, the user, and our performance expectations.  They give us a framework to think about and discuss whether and how technology is appropriate.  Let’s use a bicycle as an example:  It might have some inherent properties that make it more reliable, maintainable and simple than a motor vehicle.  But is it more effective?  It depends:  Motor vehicles can transport many heavy things long distances very quickly.  But bicycles give us exercise while we use them.  When we combine them with racks and saddle bags or trailers, they are often more than effective enough for most of our everyday urban transportation needs.

Ethic:  Balance technomass with biomass

We also need to balance technomass (the physical presence of technology) and biomass (the physical presence of living organisms) in our built environment.  Cities and other high density human settlements can be very heavy on technomass and very light on or even openly hostile to biomass, resulting in an imbalance.  An imbalance between technomass and biomass can cause all sorts of energetic, economic, social, physiological and psychological problems in humans and our habitat (think of the pollutions:  noise, light, chemical, water, air, even highly-processed pseudo-foods).   If cities are going to be viable at all in the future past peak oil, they probably need to achieve a much greater ratio of (non-human) biomass to technomass per land area.  Some people call biomass “green infrastructure” as opposed to technological infrastructure (technomass).  Whatever we call it, biomass helps

  • regulate temperature and rainfall (think: cool in the summer, warm in the winter);
  • clean our air and purify our water; build our soil fertility;
  • prevent and protect us from floods and droughts;
  • provide nutritious food, energy and raw materials;
  • keep us healthy (ref. to the myriad positive effects of forest bathing).

These are all things we want more of, right?  One way we can do this in temperate climates is to increase the surface area for biomass to grow on.  Since we have a finite amount of land in our built environments, our primary strategy for increasing surface area is to use a “lumpy texture” pattern — that is, minimize flat spaces and maximize spaces with vertical diversity.  Think:  goodbye lawns and hello roots, groundcovers, flowers, herbs, shrubs, trees and vines!  In addition to maximizing productivity, there are several other benefits to vertical diversity in our biomass or green infrastructure:

scientific research indicates that structural diversity in forest vegetation, what we call “lumpy texture,” appears to increase bird and insect population diversity and to balance insect pest populations—independent of plant species diversity

(from https://sites.google.com/site/permaship1/permaculture-practice/gardening-and-food/food-forest-concept)

So what is a good balance between technomass and biomass?   1:1?  1:2?   I propose at least 1:10 — that is, 10 times more biomass than technomass.  Here’s why:

  • Technomass depends upon biomass.  Without biomass, technomass would not exist.
  • Technomass, like all things, is subject to the laws of thermodynamics.
  • Based on this premise, we can view technomass like a predator in a food chain organized into trophic levels:  only ~10% of the energy from the things it “feeds” on are available for it to use.
  • Technomass and biomass compete for space and energy.

Within the biomass population, net primary producers (photosynthesizers, namely, plants!) should probably make up approximately 90% of all biomass for the same reason as above.  So our final ratio should be something like 1:10:100 (technomass:consumers:producers), or in percentages as 1%:9%:90%  You can apply these ratios as mass calculations or as land area used for each.

These ratios are difficult to measure empirically.  However they provide an at-a-glance starting point for assessing the sustainability of a human settlement.  If you compare these ratios to most every current-day city, you can see that they are opposite:  technomass is probably closer to 90% of the makeup of city infrastructure.  Bringing cities in-line with these “ratios of sustainability” will probably require both a reduction in technomass and population density in addition to an increase in biomass. I also suggest we add another component to the ratio: wildmass. Based on permaculture concepts, wildmass consists of biomass existing outside of direct, everyday contact with a given human settlement. Again, basic thermodynamic principles might suggest the wildmass necessary to sustain the biomass that in turn sustains a human population and its technologies at 1000:100:10:1.


We have control over how, when and how much technomass is a factor in our lives and landscapes.  We should take every opportunity we can to minimize its presence while we maximize its positive impact.  TERMS and Balance are a framework that can help us move in that direction.  Maybe this is a framework that the appropriate technology gurus at MIT’s D-Lab can run with…

Final note on the definition of technology. From Wikipedia:

Technology (from Greek τέχνηtechne, “art, skill, cunning of hand”; and -λογία-logia[1]) is the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of toolsmachines, techniques, craftssystems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function.

We must overcome our current narrow conception of technology. To illustrate this point, let’s consider a culture’s stories and mythologies: they are, in context of the above definition, are no less a part of a society’s functional technology than a knife or a shelter structure. The narratives they comprise might store and transmit localized, place-based knowledge through the generations. For example, the narrative, although fictional and fantastic, may teach of important plants and animals: who and what they are, where they are located, what they do for humans, and how to best make use of and respect them.

In the above example example, a narrative technology conveys important information about plant- and animal-based technologies. However, those who use such technologies may never describe them as such – the plants and animals are active agents and participants in their communities, rather than mere “things” to be exploited. To reduce them into the fictional framework of objectified passivity is be to deny them their agency and complexity, like reducing forests to “a bunch of trees” to “a bunch of board-feet.” So while our definition of technology must expand, our use of that expanded definition of technology as a “map of the territory” must contract into specific, momentary situational contexts that require an entity to give up its agency in service of the larger community. To put it another way: When you’re in the territory, put the map away and interact with the territory on its own terms, not the terms dictated by the map, because the map is not the territory, and if you know the territory, you don’t need the map. On the other hand, if you always use the map, you will not only fail to learn the territory – you will end up destroying the territory through actions shaped by your dependency on the map.


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