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Testing technology: what will work for you

Summary: Even technology that seems like it should work may harbor hidden problems. Here's how to find them before you get bitten.

The U.S. bragged of the fastest transportation system the world had ever known. But in 1974 Ivan Illich took another look. He divided the number of miles driven by the total time people spent on their automobiles—driving, doing maintenance, working to pay for it all. It turned out the average U.S. car traveled less than five miles an hour—about the same as walking, and less than half the speed of a bicycle.

From auto speed to ozone holes, technology is full of surprises. Even technology that "does its job" can lower quality of life and take you further from your goal. Edward Tenner calls these "revenge effects." In Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, he details problems ranging from safety gear that increases injuries, to global warming. Even technology that passes Holistic Management's thorough testing guidelines may harbor hidden problems.

Is there a way to keep from getting bitten? Maybe not. But several tests allow us a better chance to spot problems before they bite. Here I'll cover three that focus on whether the technology you're considering is actually aimed at your goal, how well it suits the job, and whether it has inherent effects likely to cause long-term problems.

What problem are you solving?

Are you pursuing a goal (what you want to do) or a non-goal (how you want to get it done)? Non-goals such as office automation and killing weeds divert resources from real goals like efficient bookkeeping and productive pastures.

Does your tool suit the job?

Will your chosen tool solve problems or create them? Good technology meets these criteria, developed by engineer Thomas Blinks:

  1. People do what people are good at, such as observation and planning.
  2. Technology does what technology is good at, such as repetition and routine.
  3. Neither people nor technology are forced to do what the other does better.
  4. The technology doesn't divert people's attention away from important tasks such as monitoring and decision-making.

A mechanical turner for composting stock bedding requires you to spend your time driving a noisy, expensive piece of equipment while looking at and smelling manure. Contrast Joel Salatin's pigerator system, described in his book Salad Bar Beef. Grain added to cattle bedding as it is laid down provides food and incentive for pigs, who turn the packed bedding after the cows go to pasture in the spring. Humans do the planning and setup, but the pigs do the work. After the bedding is composted, you eat your equipment.

Sometimes you are better off doing tasks manually. For mowing steep, brushy hillsides, Wendell Berry discovered that a European hand scythe was safer and faster than a weed eater, and allowed him to enjoy the scenery and wildlife while he worked. Minimizing the possibility of errors and eliminating unnecessary effort makes Robert Fleury's No-Entry Accounting faster and more accurate without a computer.

"Better" tools can slow your work if you spend your time trying to remember how to use their fancy features. Does the new tool make your commonest tasks easy, or add unnecessary complexity? Does it fix bottlenecks? Create new ones? Is your attention on the tool or the work?

Will your tool keep working?

Wes Jackson, one of the world's leading sustainable agriculture researchers, thinks that problems such as ozone depletion are inevitable as long as we continue to operate from a world view that assumes we have, or will soon have, the knowledge we need to act wisely. In fact, we are billions of times more ignorant than we are knowledgeable. Our entire knowledge base comes from short-term observation of a few aspects of one planet. Given that, doesn't a world view based on uncertainty make more sense?

This outlook assumes we can't know all the consequences of our actions in a complex world. It asks us to make changes slowly, observe the results over long periods, and make sure we can back out of any problems we create. Monitoring and course correction become the norm.

A world view based on uncertainty leads to questions such as:

  • Does this technology emulate nature? Those that don't seem more prone to unintended consequences. Nature's solutions are self-regulating and have been tested over varied conditions and long time spans.
  • What biases are inherent in the technology? Technologies centralized by high capital cost or technical necessity (television, aerospace) lend themselves to centralized control.
  • Can people using and affected by the technology make informed decisions about its use? Perhaps it is too complex (biotechnology), or the true costs are hidden or overlooked (automobiles).
  • Who or what is affected by problems? What incentives do users have to correct problems that affect someone else?
  • Does the technology create the need for more technology? Chemical fertilizers destroy soil structure and microorganisms, thus requiring more fertilizer.
  • Can the technology work in the long run? Fossil resources run out. Monocultures, large confinement livestock operations, and large hospitals create new niches for the one-in-a-million pest that can overcome our countermeasures.
  • What size problem could the technology create if it goes wrong? How will we detect it? Ozone depletion was discovered by accident. "How long until biotechnologists create an ozone-hole equivalent?" Wes asks.
  • Having used this technology, can we then choose not to use it? Or is it irrevocable, either socially (television), economically, or biologically (nuclear power)?

Biotechnology is already encountering problems in all these areas. Cost and complexity dictate its development by governments and corporations, not farmers. Products such as herbicide-resistant crops and rBST get pushed despite high costs. Many consequences cannot be predicted in advance, for instance Bt toxin buildup in soils where Bt corn was grown. Bioengineered crop genes have already escaped into wild plants. Pests are quickly evolving resistance. Unfortunately the economics of biotechnology continue to reward simple, short-lived "solutions."

By contrast, ecological approaches that emulate nature (permaculture, John Todd's living machines, Holistic Management), while not without problems, have proved surprisingly robust and often produce beneficial surprises.

Even the best tests don't let us see the future. Once we've committed to a technology, our surest defenses against unintended consequences are monitoring and course correction coupled with awareness of our goal. Are we still getting the effect we want? Do we still want the same result?

Preventing problems beats fixing them. While neighboring growers medicated their flocks, thus creating antibiotic-resistant microbes in birds with weak immune systems, meat-pigeon producer Bob Clark culled birds that got sick or produced more than one clutch of sick babies. When Newcastle disease swept through California's Livermore valley in the late 1970s, Bob lost dozens of birds while his neighbors lost thousands.

Testing technology before and as you use it can save time, money, and effort. Good test criteria can help you design just the tool you need. And the best tools are full of unexpected benefits—what Tenner ironically calls "reverse revenge effects."

From Holistic Management In Practice, 1999, revised March 2004. Copyright © 2004 by Joy Livingwell, some rights reserved.

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Updated 15 March 2004