The “Is it Low Tech?” Test

Low tech, at least around here, is a technology well suited to the post-fossil-fuel world. It doesn’t mean we reject everything that has come out of industrialization. This can lead to a bit of confusion, though, as to whether or not something is truly low tech.

Bicycles are a perfect example. On the one hand, they are made in an industrial fashion (welding, machining, mass manufacture, etc.) from industrial materials (steel, aluminum, rubber, etc.) and are driven on roadways built for fossil-fueled vehicles. On the other hand, they are extremely efficient at moving people and their use has a low carbon footprint (see a useful Slate article on this topic).

We can look at anything from a few angles and rate them on a spectrum, from high tech to low tech as well as unsustainable to sustainable. Ideal technologies are low tech and sustainable (by this I mean they are easy to build, maintain, and use without significant negative impacts or input).

The “Is It Low Tech?” Test

Sum the total numbers next to the appropriate answers for each tested technology.


Is the technology, in this case, bicycles, built

1. by hand without tools
2. by hand with tools (hammer, shovel, scissors, etc.)
4. by simple machine (circular saw, electric drill, etc.)
6. by complicated machine (specialty tools with a single use such as an engine hoist)

with materials that are

1. easily obtainable and renewable.
2. difficult to to obtain and renewable.
4. easily obtainable and nonrenewable.
6. difficult to to obtain and nonrenewable.


How long is the use-life of this technology?

1. Can be used in perpetuity under normal conditions.
2. Can be used for a lifetime under normal conditions.
4. Can be used for at least a decade under normal conditions.
6. Can be used a few times before being exhausted.
9. Can only be used once before being discarded.

What type of maintenance is needed to keep the technology functioning?

1. No maintenance.
2. Occasional, simple maintenance done by a nonspecialist.
4. Occasional, complex maintenance done by a specialist.
6. Frequent, simple maintenance done by a nonspecialist.
9. Frequent, complex maintenance done by a specialist.


By what factor of efficiency does this improve a function (e.g., how much faster could you bike between point A and B compared to walking? or how many times more weight can you push in a cart than carry over an equal distance?)?

1. A factor of 10 or more (a simple winnowing machine can separate out seeds more than 10 times faster than I can do by hand).
2. A factor of 5 or more (bicycling is about 5 times faster than walking and takes half the calories to cover the same distance).
4. A factor of 2 or more.
6. A factor of 1 or less (e.g., it is just as fast to do this manually).

As one of our goals is to create solutions for the post-fossil-fuel world, a big part of the score comes from whether or not the technology can be used without fossil fuel inputs.

1. No change necessary to use without fossil fuel availability.
3. Minor modifications necessary to use without fossil fuel availability.
6. Major modifications necessary to use without fossil fuel availability.
10. Practically impossible to use without fossil fuel availability.


What sort of waste does this technology generate?
1. Organic waste that easily decomposes or inert inorganic waste, like stone.
2. Waste that breaks down eventually, or not-quite-inert organic waste, like rust.
4. Waste that only breaks down with energy or chemical inputs.
6. Waste that does not break down and/or is somewhat toxic.
10. Waste that is long-lasting and/or highly toxic.


Now we can look at how low tech something is by its overall score. The lowest tech solutions will have a score close to six, while the least-desirable technology will score closer to fifty-six. Few things score a perfect seven (frankly, I can’t think of anything beyond a gourd used to carry water). Walking scores thirteen because of its poor efficiency. A bicycle scores a nineteen but a car hits thirty-one. A car isn’t higher because it has good efficiency (in these terms) and lasts for about a decade. An airplane scores forty by my count because it is less efficient and requires more frequent and complex maintenance.

This is not a perfect system, but it is something we can use as a starting point to compare the different aspects of our idea of low tech.

[Update, 26 Jan 2018: See Podcast No. 33, which goes into more detail on this topic.]


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