24 February 2007

Old technology can be as good as new

By Rupert Read

Isn't technology wonderful? There's this amazing vehicle they're selling: it produces zero carbon emissions; it is much easier to park, because it is much smaller than a conventional car; it can zip through slow-moving congested urban traffic; it even keeps you fit. And it costs a fraction of the price of the average car. It's… a bicycle.

Isn't new technology wonderful?

Well, not always. Sometimes it makes things worse. And often it's just unnecessary - because often what we need in order to solve our problems is just to use tried and tested old technology better, and more. (Park that car in a garage, and dig out the bike…)

Take a remarkable true story from the annals of space travel.

US astronauts found that conventional ballpoint pens didn't work in zero-gravity because the ink wouldn't descend to the nib. So Nasa scientists set to work, creating - at huge public expense - a revolutionary new kind of pen, with a powered-ink system that pushed the ink down to the nib, even in zero-gravity. This was triumphantly unveiled on the next Apollo mission.

Meanwhile, the Russian cosmonauts had already reached a rather cheaper low-tech solution to the problem: they had stopped taking pens into space; they used pencils instead.

A recent survey of British university staff, to find out which innovations had aided them most in their work, found that virtually all the things that were making a positive difference to their working lives were not recent inventions at all, but had been around for decades, or even centuries.

In terms of people-friendly green initiatives, for instance, of far more significance than the recent technological fix of paper-recycling was the humble reusable envelope - an envelope designed to be used numerous times. Or, an even more basic solution - simply reusing ordinary envelopes for internal correspondence, by scrubbing out one's own name and replacing it with the name of the new addressee until there is no longer any room left on the envelope. One can reuse ordinary envelopes 10 or 20 times in this way, thus potentially cutting by 95pc the number of envelopes one needs. (Yes, as so often, 'going green' - or simply thinking smart - makes business sense, too).

Many of our problems simply don't require any technological developments at all in order to be solved. Often, it is social inventions rather than technological ones that are needed, to help humanity solve its real problems, and progress in a true way beyond the normal, crudely economic and technical version of 'progress' that we are accustomed to talking about.

Too often, decision-makers want to put their money into 'scientific' developments and 'space-age' solutions - when what is needed is improved social organisation, people's action and activism, and nothing more.

The Institute for Social Inventions is an inspiring example of what can be done by people - mostly thousands of perfectly ordinary people simply writing in with bright ideas, and often putting them into practice - trying to do just this: to make our world a better place, one simple social step at a time.

Among the many success-stories that are products of the institute are: the Natural Death Centre (green funerals, etc.), The Poetry Challenge (an innovative way of getting young people - and all of us - interested in poetry, through memorizing and reciting it), and the Global Ideas Bank itself (where social inventions can be instantly accessed and shared).

There are, of course, social invention success stories very close to home, too. For instance, Norwich has seen a fascinating social experiment in which unemployed people were bought allotments, to provide them with valuable 'work', valuable food, and a connection to the land, rather than wasting their time and talent in soul-destroying idleness.

Technology can easily seem something remote, and accessible only to people with big bucks. Social inventions, by contrast, are innately democratic, open to all to think up - and to try.

And, of course, sometimes the most important new thing of all to try is simply: to resist the siren call of fashion, to resist the pull of using more and more new technology; and to reinvent or recover the virtues of older ways.

There's this amazing communication technology: it goes instantly to the recipient; it allows the recipient the possibility of an instant response; it takes far less time to compose one's message; it allows the recipient to hear one's voice speaking the message, and vice versa.

It's… the telephone.