Low-tech at the University


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Popularized by Philippe Bihouix in his best-seller L’âge des low-techThe idea progresses, losing in the process its political dimension and its subversive content. From now on, it is the academics and engineers who are taking over, and we will see that this is not good news! 

So I was able to attend, from my kitchen, the webinar on low-tech organized by the University of Grenoble. Researchers, employees of the low-tech lab and engineering students spoke for two hours. It becomes clear that this movement, like the Free Software movement(1), falls into the same trap of solutionism, in the confusion between ends and means, and seems hypnotized by its own reflection. 

On the side of academics and teachers in engineering schools, the tone is immediately set by the repeated use of the barbarism « consum’acteurs ». We are quickly reassured, low-tech is not opposed to the industrial model, it is complementary. A sort of upmarket, « fair trade technology » label, in short. We also learn that the opposition is not between artisanal and industrial production, but is based on « values ». These will never be defined… 

The oxymorons rain down, low-tech must simultaneously be  » adapted and massified « . Contradictory? This describes the project of their promoters, to bring a solution to every problem in life. In the catalog of the low-tech lab, very few creations concern professional uses, the overwhelming majority of them responding to domestic needs, heating, cooking, lighting… In the manner of « colibrism », this amounts to making individuals responsible for transforming the world through a « colibrism ». ecology of small gestures « , evacuating all considerations of system. However, without being accompanied by a political discourse and the construction of a balance of power, the multiplication of small alternatives can only lead to the marginalization of their promoters. Of course, the retreat into the margins is tempting, so negligible does our capacity to influence the choices of society seem, but it will not shake the industrial system, perfectly able to tolerate the existence of a few yurts heated with dragon stoves. 

Another worrying drift is the classification of 3D printed plastic resin productions as low-tech , as well as the immoderate use of Arduino electronics(2), which is neither low-tech, nor even free. Sometimes amusement gives way to consternation, as for example with self-built hydroponics. Vegetables growing out of the ground, in a computer-controlled nutrient bath. An indispensable alternative, as it is true that humanity has never known how to cultivate the earth without the help of computers. Thank you to the low-tech lab for taking us away from our hunter-gatherer condition! 

We are also exposed two low-tech projects realized by students in engineering school, the bio-digester and the Norwegian kettle. The emphasis is on the pedagogical virtues for the study of hard sciences. Using electronic sensors, sophisticated calculations and weeks of prototyping, a wooden box insulated with polystyrene will have been designed and tested. We will learn on this occasion that saving electricity for cooking is not necessary in France where it is mainly of nuclear origin, but would be very suitable for Poland where it is produced with coal(3). We will also learn that it is necessary to be an engineer to be able to  » develop and document  » low-tech.

We will also have a presentation of the Nomade des mers project(4), a sailing boat going around the world ? No, a « low-techexperimentation platform , promotion support and dissemination vector, the Nomade des Mers has the vocation to become an exemplary autonomous ecosystem, standard-bearer of sustainable and united innovation « . On board, the food is produced in hydroponics and it is a question of collecting low-tech all over the world to then redistribute them. When asked about the risk of falling into solutionism, its promoter Guénolé Conrad explained that the technical anthropology approach and the fact that it is  » field actors  » (themselves engineers) who are responsible for bringing needs to the attention of researchers, helps to avoid this. A terribly vertical approach, by experts posing as obligatory intermediaries, what else but the pure definition of solutionism? 

Amongst the participants, two groups will be quite vocal in the comments. The librists demand that Linux, the PC operating system, be classified as low-tech and the representatives of the humanities and social sciences ask to be integrated into the university research project. Curiously, the most sensible words were spoken by the representative of the FabLab of the University of Grenoble-Alpes, perfectly aware (and almost resigned) of the volume of waste produced by 3D printing. He will also expose the regulatory and safety difficulties related to the mutualization of woodworking machines, which are dangerous for anyone who is not familiar with them. 

The challenge of low-tech is not to juxtapose harmless « soft » alternatives to industrial technologies, as this would only create a new niche market for « responsible consumers ». It is a question of replacing, as much as possible, the industrial productions by artisanal productions, adapted to the direct environment of their user, selected, understandable, repairable, adaptable and durable. However, if low-tech is a necessary condition for the marginalization of industrial production, it is certainly not sufficient. They are a means to an end, but in no case should they be considered an end. Other conditions are essential, including the one that was never mentioned during this webinar, which consists in questioning the position of the engineer, who more often than not embodies the problem than the solution. Like any expert, he should only intervene in support of the design, democratically decided by and for the users on the basis of their needs. Otherwise, this depoliticized drift will continue, consisting in piling up nice alternatives in the form of a catalog of the Lépine low-techcontest(5), and it will be up to the « consumers » to make their market. Today I grind my coffee while pedaling, tomorrow I will cook my vegetables in the sun, and the industry will sleep easy. 

Nicolas Alep

Notes et références
  1. Lire ma position à ce sujet dans Contre l’Alternumérisme de Julia Laïnae et Nicolas Alep, La Lenteur, 2020. 
  2. NDLR : Arduino est la marque d’une plateforme de prototypage open-source qui permet aux utilisateurs de créer des objets électroniques interactifs. 
  3. Lire à ce sujet Le Bluff du Nucléaire, le prétexte du climat de Jean-Luc Pasquinet, Libre et Solidaire, 2019. 
  4. http://goldofbengal.com/expedition/nomade-des-mers/.
  5. Comme avec le Wiki du low-tech lab : https://wiki.lowtechlab.org/wiki/Accueil.
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