Monday, July 7, 2014

The age of diminishing technological returns: a review of "The Age of Low Technologies" by Philippe Bihouix

Atomic cars are a good example of too much technology (image from "secondchancegarage"). The concept of diminishing technological returns of is the subject of the recent book Philippe Bihouix, "The Age of Low Technologies" (In French, "L'Age des Low Tech")

Recently, a friend of mine showed me an app for his new smartphone. It is called "catspeak" (or something like that) and allows you to choose a message to send to your cat which, then, the phone will translate and vocalize in cat language. Unbelievably, it works! At least, my cats seemed to be very impressed by being addressed by the phone with the meowing meaning "go away" or "I'm angry at you."

This idea of speaking to your cat using a smartphone app seems to be the most egregious example I can find of the concept of "too much technology". Think of  the cost of modern smartphones in terms of precious and non renewable resources. Then, you can't avoid to wonder how is it possible that they are used for such silly purposes.

The concept of "too much technology" is the subject of the recent book by Philippe Bihouix (one of the co-authors of "Extracted") titled "The Age of Low Technologies" (In French, "L'Age des Low Tech"). Bihouix is a first class technologist, at ease in several different fields from electronics to biotechnologies. And his criticism of the naive enthusiasm of the public for the new gizmos presented in the media is simply devastating. He takes no prisoners in his demolition of some of the pet ideas of some fashionable technological gurus. Just read the section on nanotechnologies and, well, you'll see what I mean. The nanotechnologist has no clothes, really.

A consequence of diminishing returns is the phenomenon we call "peaking" as the result of overshoot when people misjudge the long term returns of their activities. It occurs with oil extraction and it also occurs with new technologies: they tend to "peak." They reach extreme performance and then slow down, adapting to a compromise between performance and cost. 

The best example of this phenomenon is, I think, with today's planes. They have noticeably slowed down from the time of the supersonic Concorde, to emphasize efficiency and comfort. The Concorde was simply too expensive to be a practical technology: it was a plane in overshoot. It is likely that something like that will happen to today's smartphones - right now, they are wonderful devices, but they are in a condition of  resource overshoot. In the future, we will not be able to maintain their extreme performance facing the increasing costs of rare mineral resources. That doesn't mean that smartphones will disappear (although that's not impossible) but it means that some kind of compromise between performance and cost will have to be reached. 

Bihouix's book is very much based on this concept: that is how it will be possible to balance performance and cost after "peak technology". It is a fascinating description of a world which moves a little slower than ours and which, of course, can't pretend to keep growing forever. But it is also a world rich of possibilities; not less interesting than ours and also better under many respects. 

A truly remarkable book - by all means recommended! There is only this small problem with the language, but, come on, don't you eat sometimes a baguette and drink cafĂ© au lait? Then, "L'age des low tech" is worth of a little effort of deciphering! 



  1. You and Philippe Bihouix are probably regular readers of Kris de Decker's LOW-TECH MAGAZINE, which is available in Dutch, English & Spanish for the French-challenged among us.

    Long ago I observed that technology develops rapidly when materials, costs, markets and/or fashions change. Witness hand calculators and blue jeans as examples. The jeans you find in the stores today are basically indistinguishable from those my Mom bought for me back in the 1940's. The innovations in jeans these days are even less significant that a catspeak app for a smartphone.

  2. Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington unwittingly ensured that the Raj would be a British Raj, and not a French Raj. While I have no affinity or loyalty to them, their exploits also promoted their language, and hence I speak English, not French. The issue was decided before my time and without my input.

    1. To speak English does not compel to ignore what exists in other languages and other cultures. Translation will come.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)