Monday, November 06, 2006

Elegant Technology

Every now and then I get the sense that some people see me as a “doomer.” That I’m perceived as a bit of a pessimist about the future. I don’t know why. In the face of issues like peak oil, global warming, catabolic collapse, I don’t see any need for our quality of life to decrease. I do see a need for our quantity and mode of consumption to decrease—and I think some people are confusing the two. Many people are labeled “doomer” simply because they reject the general idea that technology will be able to save us from all our problems and guarantee the maintenance (even perpetual increase) of our consumer-driven society. I think that this demonstrates a failure to grasp two critical concepts—that extreme consumption does not equate to quality of life, and that technological complexification is not, in itself, of any value.

Technology is only of value to the degree that it provides for quality of life without creating negative power-relationships that outweigh that benefit. And such technology does not have to be complex or “advanced” at all. Technology is nothing more than “knowledge of technics” or knowledge of a technique—knowledge is power. A thin photovoltaic array or a genetically engineered bacterium that converts woody biomass to ethanol both represent technology. The question that we must ask is “does the quality of life provided by this technology outweigh the decrease of our quality of life from the power-relationships that we must enter in to in order to employ this technology?” As a general rule, when the answer is yes, the result is something that may be accurately described as “elegant simplicity.” When the answer is no, as I think it is with both the example of photovoltaics and biotech-ethanol, then the result is not “elegant simplicity.” In fact, because I am using “elegant” not in the vernacular, but as a term of art, the phrase “elegant simplicity” is actually redundant: “elegant” alone will suffice, because I use that term to imply a measure of simplicity—that the benefit from an “elegant” technology outweighs burden of the incurred hierarchy, when measured from the perspective of the median (not mean) individual.

Most people who categorize me as a “doomer” do so, in my opinion, because they fail to understand this concept. I think that the “solutions” presented by most people fail the criteria for elegant simplicity. These solutions—cellulosic ethanol, thin-film photovoltaics, genetically engineered pest-resistant crops, nuclear fusion—will not solve our problems because, at their core, they ARE our problems. The root problem facing human society at present is the composite of the power-relationships that we have submitted to in order to “benefit” from such “non-elegant” technology—what I have elsewhere labeled as “hierarchy.”

While the test laid out above for “elegance” is subjective, there are hallmarks of technologies that fall into the “elegant” and “non-elegant” categories. Elegant technology is probably vernacular, general, and contained. These may not be the best three characteristics to capture the entirety of “elegant,” but they are the three that I will use for now.

Vernacular, for our purposes, means used by and accessible to commoners (the “median individual” from above). It doesn’t require a specialist to understand or implement, but rather is generally accessible.

General, for our purposes, means broadly applicable. An elegant technology is one that can be applied to a broad set of circumstances, not something that is only applicable to a single and unique set of circumstances.

Contained means giving rise, on balance, to negative feedback loops. A contained technology solves one problem without creating two different and greater problems.

These three characteristics of elegant technologies—vernacular, general, and contained—are broad and subjective, but provide a framework for evaluating technologies. To put it as plainly as possible, such evaluation is critical because technologies that are elegant are part of the solution to the problems facing human society. Technologies that are not elegant are part of the problem. Let’s take a look at a specific area of technology: Solar Energy.

Non-Elegant Solar: We’ll start with a negative example—a non-elegant technology for the use of solar energy: photovoltaics. Photovoltaics are not vernacular. Do you know how to make one? Probably not, but even if you do, I’m quite sure that you don’t know how to make all of the machines and tools necessary to create photovoltaics. This is important because when a technology is outside the realm of the vernacular, use (specifically ‘reliance on’) that technology creates a dependency relationship between the user and the provider. Are photovoltaics a general technology? Probably—while they only serve to produce electricity, that is a pretty generally useful thing in our modern world. Are photovoltaics contained? No, for exactly the reasons cited above: such specialized and complex technology relies on a specialized and industrial society. Even if we deem specialization and industrialization to be positive benefits, the mere scope of these non-contained impacts makes this technology non-elegant. Ultimately, photovoltaics require a hierarchal society for implementation, and the problems incumbent in such hierarchy make the technology itself non-elegant.

Elegant Solar: So if photovoltaics are not elegant, does that make any use of solar energy non-elegant? No. Let’s take a particularly clear case. Solar orientation: the understanding that the sun transits a broadly east-west path, and that, north of the tropics, the sun shines primarily on the south side of anything. Is this even a technology? It may not fit the way we commonly think of that term, but it is clearly knowledge of a technique—that specific orientation has a specific effect in terms of solar gain. Is it vernacular? Yes, both potentially (everyone can understand it), and in reality as it is widely used in vernacular architecture. Is it general? Yes—it is quite broadly applicable in terms of architecture, agriculture, energy production, etc. Is it contained? Yes—this technology can be used without creating any outside impact. I can be as simple as planting a frost-sensitive tree on the south side of a rock wall instead of the north side, but it certainly doesn’t require specialization or industrialization. So, solar orientation is an excellent example of an elegant technology.

What is the broader relevance of this definition of “elegance”? Elegance is a solution to the problems of hierarchy. Because elegance is, by this definition, contained, it will foster localized, self-sufficient, and independent societies. Elegance is the feedstock of rhizome. And elegance is a concept that, if we set it as our goal, can steer the vast potential of human innovation to a positive, sustainable end that is compatible with human ontogeny. So I don’t think of myself as a “doomer.” I just think that dreams of a “Star Trek” future where “high” (read non-elegant) technology solves all of our problems is pure fantasy. And I don’t think that this is a bad thing.


Anonymous said...

I am sooooo with you on this one, Jeff.



Jeff Vail said...

I've been working on this concept of "elegance" lately, specifically with regards to energy, but it has always been one of the cornerstones of this blog. If you want to explore some of these earlier posts, try:

Vernacular Zen
Conspicuous Simplicity
Magazine Simplicity
The Four Virtues
Valuing Elegance
What To Do

Anonymous said...

Hey -

Thanks, Jeff, I will.

I got discouraged by your archive troules way back when -- and never came back to it. So I guess its about time ;-)


rich said...

Hi Jeff

Great thoughts, as usual.

In addition to elegant technology, elegant techniques have a place in the discussion, as well. In a world where there are lots of ways to accomplish something, the elegant solution is one to pursue when possible.

An example from the farm....I just built a cattle barn, and need to drain some of the runoff from the heavy rain away from the posts so that it doesn't soften that soil. I could get a heavy machine out there (inelegant, capital intensive), grab a shovel(elegant, time-intensive), or put a little bit of planning into my fencing. Cattle always walk fences, beating down the ground there....If I can align the fence so that the beaten down area becomes the drain I need, I hit the cheap, non-intensive, permaculturally stacked trifecta....aka, elegance :)



Theo_musher said...


What I'd like to know is if you think elegant simplicity can sustain six billion people? I agree with you about vernacular culture. I favor varnacular culture, local control of resources. I have read some books by Ivan Illich, I incorporate his ideas into my thinking.

But basically, I think the planet suffers from overgrazing. That to me precipitates a crash. Are you saying that there is the possibility of a system that could sustain our present population and more with a lighter footprint on the Earth?

Theo_musher said...

I mean, I have read what you say about human ontogeny not changing since the late pleistocene. I agree. But back then there was only a handful of people.

Xtraspatial said...

Right on Jeff! You are the most cogent and eloquent writer on the subject of power-relationships I've yet encountered. I always find your posts insightful in my work on sustainability and relocalization.

Is anyone within the hierarchy listening to you and in a position to recognize the folly of the same?

The importance of negative feedback loops is critical to maintaining a dynamic equilibrium. Daniel Quinn argues that the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago destroyed the population-food supply NFL and created a positive one in its place where food began to be kept under lock and key. I suppose that represents a fundamental break from rhizome towards hierarchy.

I think the reason most people consider you (and Peak Oilers) "doomers" is that they don't want to consider making alternate arrangements under a power-constrained future scenario. To them, the "party" is still raging and you are the host trying to clear them out so you can clean up the mess, and get the rest you need to face tomorrow's challenges.

Or perhaps they lack the creativity to look beyond past models of sustainability (eg, the Amish, Hippie Communes, Native Americans) and just see our ilk as espousing a return to the pre-industrial era circa 1850 USA. After all, the egoic mind is limited to past experience and until it is transcended by the non-egoic mind, creativity and synthesis are not possible, except, perhaps, thru serendipity.

It takes courage to "tell it like it is" when "it's" future looks untenable. That just isn't what most people want to here. The ego seeks permanence in the World of Form; it is constantly being challenged by the impermanence of all forms. Can we transcend our egos?

Jeff Vail said...

Theo: I don't know if elegant technology can support 6 billion people. I am pretty confident that it is possible to meet the needs of 6 billion people while providing a high quality of life, but the only way I can see that happening is under some overly idealistic model of human cooperation. I don't see the limiting factor as ecological, but rather as sociological. When humans interact in large numbers, at high density, hierarchies tend to emerge. And it is hierarchal economies that exceed the carrying capacity of the ecology.

So, that isn't really an answer to your question--sorry. Ultimately it is a kind of chiken-and-egg question. I think that elegant technologies have the potential to bridge the period between current population levels and a future with far less people WITHOUT the need for some massive famine, etc. I'm not sure how likely such an ideal scenario actually is, though. In the end, I think that it is unrealistic to hope for humanity to adopt an economy based on elegant technology en masse. There is just too much incentive to the contrary at the apex of the existing, hierarchal power structure. Instead, I think that our best bet is to establish regions where elegant technologies begin to dominate. Then, when these methods prove themselves and inelegant systems begin to fail, we will see a transition. How smooth that will be, I don't know. But either way, one day a human society of perhaps 1 billion people using elegant technology seems very sustainable. That isn't to say that I expect, or call for, the deaths of 5 billion people. The transition from 6 to 1 billion need not be catastrophic or painful, even over a time-span as short as 100-200 years. But for it to not be catastrophic and painful we have a great deal of work to do...

Theo_musher said...


I appreciate your points. Id say you have a very balanced take on things. I just wrote an blog entry about this discussion, you may be interested in.

prunesquallori said...

If you have the computer science background for it, check out Gregory Chaitin's formal definition of 'elegance'. An elegant program in a given language is the shortest program in that language that computes the same function.

This turns out to be a very deep concept, with wider applicability than in just computer science. For instance, this definition is consonant with the intuitive understanding of elegance in physical theories: all other things being equal, a theory which requires fewer symbols to specify is more elegant. We could, if we liked, define some formal measurement of elegance for physical theories which takes into account accuracy, precision, theory size, and the choice of formal system the theory is forumulated in.

I intuitively (perhaps not well-foundedly!) use this concept when thinking about all technologies, since information and physical energy are commensurable. Further, I really like Marcuse's definition of technology as specified procedure, so the analogy between technology and "program" really becomes clear. Solar orientation is an algorithm I use to compute sun yield wrt geographic and temporal positions.

If you buy all that, then an elegant technology requires a smaller apparatus (analogous to a smaller formal system) to specify and create an instance of it. The analogous intuitions of 'elegance' and 'procedure' agree across domains.

Jeff Vail said...

I really like that computer-science take on "elegance." I think that it is essentially analogous to my definition above, but definitely easier to apply within the sciences. Much like Lester Brown's concept of accounting for all externalities, as long as we consider the FULL scope of the support system of a given technology, then I think that these two definitions of elegance will fall right in line.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeff,
I think your concept of elegance in solutions is quite useful and certainly helpful in finding and choosing wats forward.

I also think your solar comparison however is a false one. There's not much equivalence between solar building orientation and electric generation through photovoltaics - those are solutions to two different problems. If you want to live in a comfortable home, then you may be choosing between solutions involving solar orientation and other technologies (wood stove, gas heat, etc.). If you're talking about how to power your computer so that you can write your blog post, you might be choosing among a different set of possible solutions (photovoltaics, coal power plants, a bicycle attached to a generator, etc.). If these are your choices, then you might well decide that the PVs deliver your electricity with a lot less centralization of power and hierarchical relations than your best alternatives.

If you're living in a postmodern, postindustrial society without computers and blogs, the latter decision (how do I find some electricity) might be moot. But if you're trying to make your choices in today's reality to move toward the future you desire, the elegant solutions are the ones that meet your other criteria and are contextually applicable.


Jeff Vail said...


Your point is a good one, and I don't think that there is NO place for photovoltaics. I am mainly arguing against it as a panacea that, which, via hydrogen or some other medium, is how some advocate replacing our reliance on fossil fuel. Electricity is really the sine qua non when it comes to communications, but little else. I think that it is well worth utilizing an energy loser, like PV, to power a communications infrastructure. However, we tend to use electricity for far more than that--for things where it is really not well suited. Specifically, using electricity to generate heat or cold is attrociously inefficient. Many stoves, ovens, heaters, and air conditioners operate entirely or significantly on electricity. Air conditioning, for example, can be exclusively electricity driven, but even the natural gas variants rack up a hefty electric bill. So, I'll agree that my example of solar orrientation isn't perfectly applicable, but it certainly has some applicability to typical fossil fuel uses like air conditioning. Here is a better one: the ability to use passive architectural features to effectivley heat and cool homes without the use of electricity and natural-gas driven forced air heating and air conditioning:

Syn Diesel said...

1+1 is "elegant." A warm glow isn't "elegant."

It's vulgar.

Mathematicians and physicists don't need small movements to see beauty.

More leemings for you Jeff.

Syn Diesel said...

Lion Kunzt has some ideas:

Jeff only provides Lemming Hippy stuff.

Syn Diesel said...

"Instead, I think that our best bet is to establish regions where elegant technologies begin to dominate."


I'm forwarding this article to Glenn Beck!

Jeff Vail said...

You had me going for a while there! I didn't realize that you were intentionally posting stupid comments in order to strengthen my arguments until you mentioned Glenn Beck. He makes Lou Dobbs look like a journalist!

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