Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Heterotechnology: Alternative Methods and Means

Heterotechnology is a term referring to the use of alternative technologies to reach the same end point. It is a view of technology different other than a utopian vision of progress or wish-fulfillment of a (Kurzweil styled) Singularity. Heterotechnology would be viewing each device or machine from the point of view of a systems engineer, and imagining each step as a "module" that could be replaced or substituted with something else.

Now, certain forms of technologies became popular or widespread due to economic, safety, and social reasons. For example, steam powered automobiles existed since the 1780s, but it was not until the assembly line and widespread use of cheap petroleum that gasoline-fueled cars became popular around the world. However, if there is a dearth of petroleum and other natural resources, the economy may shift towards other forms of transportation (perhaps including chemical battery powered electric cars popular in the early 1900s).

A mainstream subculture reveling in the idea of heterotechnology is steampunk, the application of Victorian (or pseudo-Victorian) machinery and aesthetics to modern technology. A "steampunk" internet, for instance, might be Babbage's engines connected by telegraph line. Since then, related subcultures have spun off (such as dieselpunk and clockpunk, focusing on 1920s/30s and Renaissance/early modern aesthetics, respectively).

A recent literary term, salvagepunk, is very much relevant to heterotechnology. Salvagepunk consists of using trash and wreckage and adapting it for one's own use. Interestingly, "salvagepunk" already resembles conditions of life in several developing countries, with the refuse of the First World recycled and adapted to local conditions.

Heterotechnology has economic and cultural implications as well as purely technological ones. As a dominant type of technology becomes prohibitively expensive, substitution with less practical ones (to an extent) could occur. For example, car culture can decline as fuel prices continue to climb, as well as the suburban commuter lifestyle.

Likewise, the rise of 3D printing, automated milling machines, and other types of "desktop manufacture" mean that the globalized economic system faces competition of a different sort. A makerspace does not have the capacity to churn out comparable amounts of product, but it does have the capacity to produce much of what it needs rapidly at a fraction of the energy and resource cost. It is an economy of scale, the globalized one, against an economy of scope, the relocalized one. The two systems still depend upon each other, as the worldwide economy is much larger than selling luxury goods and real estate to developed worlders.

Heterotechnology may be less practical in terms of money compared to our current consumer economy, but it can be an asset to a community. Imagine a small community-supported business specializing in a particular niche product (as a good portion of the German economy is). It is also interesting culturally, because it favors those who try something different out of curiosity and whim rather than pure profit motive (although that can well be a part of it).

If the slogan of the 20th century was "lowest cost and highest efficiency," the slogan of heterotechnology is "multiple ways to do the same thing." It is not merely turning simple gadgets into Goldberg style machines (although that can a form of it), but developing alternative ways to live and work, fusing the new and old. After all, obscure technologies can be revived as new developments take place. Venice already had a form of assembly line to produce ships in the Arsenal, yet it did catch on for a few centuries. Heterotech diversifies a technology's implementation, from computers to firearms. It is the confluence of the artist and the engineer, and a welcome one. 

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