Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Technology and Design

How much and what sort of technology do you need?

And what should we do with it?

Part 1 

So - What is 'Technology'?

The meaning of ‘technology’ according to the Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary[1] is: ‘the practice, description, and terminology of any or all of the applied sciences of commercial value’. ‘Technical’, on the other hand, is defined as: ‘pertaining to art, esp. a useful art or applied science’. The Compact Oxford Dictionary, Thesaurus and Wordpower Guide, [2] defines ‘technology’ a little differently: ‘the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes’; ‘the branch of knowledge concerned with applied sciences’. The Dictionary notes that the word itself originates from the Greek tekhnologia ‘systematic treatment’. Further, ‘Technical’ here is defined as ‘having to do with the practical skills of a particular subject, art or craft’, and ‘having to do with the practical use of machinery and methods in science and industry’.

Thus, the Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary seems to stress the ‘commercial value’ of the applied sciences, while the meaning of technology in the Oxford Dictionary lays stress on its ‘scientific nature’ and ‘practical uses’. ‘Technical’ seems to have a more broad-ranging meaning in both dictionaries, encompassing art as well as science and their practical uses. Wikipedia clarifies the origin of the word further and extends its definition thus: ‘Technology is the usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization. The word technology comes from the Greek technología (τεχνολογία) — téchnē (τέχνη), an 'art', 'skill' or 'craft' and -logía (-λογία), the study of something, or the branch of knowledge of a discipline.[3]

Based on this information, how would you club the above two images? Would they qualify as ‘technology’? If we look at the dictionary meanings, it seems that they do fulfill the criteria of ‘technology’? They illustrate scientific principles both in their construction and their use. Thus, the sil-batta or Grinder is an application of the principle of friction and the application of force to break down larger particles into finer ones; its construction and design heightens the effect of friction by deliberately ‘pitting’ the surface of the sil to increase friction. In the case of the lamp, it applies principles of metallurgy in its construction, and knowledge of convection and other forms of heating in its design and use. In both cases, the knowledge of scientific principles is used for commercial purposes, in the sense that both the sil batta and the lamp were obviously made and sold by specialized craftspeople/ technologists. They also exemplify ‘the usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization’.

However, despite the fact both these objects fulfill all the conventional definitions of ‘technology’ and ‘technical’, they are not conventionally or generally regarded as examples of technology. Instead we would think of the electric grinder or the fluorescent tubelight as examples of technology. 

Getting Behind The Way We Think

Now, that’s very intriguing. They fulfill comparable functions, so why is it that we do not regard the sil batta and the oil lamp as examples of technology, while we do regard the electric grinder and the CFL as examples of technology?

If we look at the differences between these two sorts of technologies, some interesting facts emerge. The first is, the sort of technology that the sil-batta and the oil lamp embody, require greater exertion of human effort (manual grinding in the sil batta) or greater involvement of human senses (preparing a cotton oil wick, rolling and forming it, filling the lamp with oil, lighting it and using it carefully to prevent spills and burns). In the grinder and CFL, however the human involvement is essentially limited to switching the devices on and off. They represent the ‘fill it, shut it, forget it’ sort of philosophy.

The second difference is in the volume – the amount of mixture that can be ground at a time in the mixer is much greater than that in the sil batta; similarly the amount of light that is emitted from a FL or CFL is much greater than that from an oil lamp.

Thirdly, the amount of energy utilized in both constructing and using the ‘modern forms of technology’ embodied in the CFL and the mixer, is far greater than that used in constructing and using the sil batta and the oil lamp – it is as if the saving of individual human effort while using these modern devices is compensated by a far greater energy invested in their construction and greater energy consumed in their use. In fact, such devices only work at the scale of large volumes. To make an electric grinder-mixer, highly mechanized systems have to be used - for which large factories or manufacturing-plants are required; such manufacturing plants can only be profitable if they make and sell large numbers of electric grinders-mixers; and the blades of the electric-grinder only work if large quantities of food are to be ground.

Deciding What 'Technology' to Use - and When and How.
Where large volumes of food are required to be processed in this manner on a regular basis or large volumes of artificial light are required, such high-energy intensive and labour-saving forms of technology are both useful and appropriate. Where, however, they are not, such forms of technology have only a limited use which needs to be judicious, and not as a matter of course. This would be applicable for instance, in situations where the way of life or the design of the habitat ensures that most activities are done during daylight. Or in cases where the size of the family is small or there is manual help in the form of willing and able family members or staff. Here, the volumes of food required to make an electric grinder work are superfluous and the energy consumed in each use is wasteful and simply not justified. In fact, because the blades of an electric grinder will not work unless there is a certain minimum quantity, many families end up grinding in quantities larger than they need and then are forced to store these in the refrigerator – another high-energy product. Thus, in a restaurant perhaps or with limited domestic help, an electric grinder-mixer has a definite use and in a hospital, you evidently cannot have oil lamps lying around.

However, the other aspect of modern forms of technology is that since they depend on large and continuous volume of production and sale to make their manufacture profitable, they require large-scale use by all manners of consumers (not just those that actually require to use them), and they thrive on an economy of continual buying rather than one of reuse or repair. This is another essential difference between earlier forms of technology - now seen as backward, traditional or archaic – and modern forms of technology; that the earlier technologies were more sustainable and consumed fewer resources.

In fact, the reminiscences of an architect friend about the making and maintenance of the sil batta, make for very interesting reading and show how traditionally, the ‘life’ of objects was extended through appropriate ‘technology’ and social practices.

'I fondly remember the "sil-batta banwaa lo..!" call of the crafts-man who used to visit our street/muhalla once every month looking for work. He used to carry a number of sils in his bag, different sizes but, still to be worked upon. He used to also 'repair' old sil-battas whose 'pocks & dots' had begun to disappear due to prolonged use.

A new sil bargain would discuss size of the stone, its thickness, colour of the stone etc. and…finally the chiselling..! Something I loved watching! The 'pattern' of chiselling the surface of the sil is an art in itself. The stone slab (shaped like a 'boat-in-plan') was divided into 2 distinct zones. Borders were chiselled in to frame the zones and the chiselling patterns decided. Spiral, concentric, herring-bone, arrow-like or simply parallel straight-lines…

The angle of the punch differed in different parts of the stone surface as also the size & depth of the punched dents. Density of the dents were different in the two zones and the rows of the dents were staggered for better grinding. Some craftsmen would also use floral patterns on the top end of the sil.' [4]

Of course, we haven’t even spoken about the quality of the end-product generated. An oft used term to market modern technology is the ‘quality’ of the product. However, it is a fact that the quality of the mixture achieved – the taste, texture and nutritional value – through hand-grinding is far better than that obtained through an electric mixer. Similarly, the soft, calming quality of light achieved through an oil lamp is incomparable, which is why it is still used for special occasions, especially sacred or ritual occasions such as pujas or religious functions.

Today, the meaning of technology as ‘the practice of applied sciences for commercial value’ has overridden all its other meanings, so much so that technology is often used for purposes and at a scale that is wholly unnecessary or downright harmful either to the consumer or to the environment. This explains the practice of rubbing petrochemical based wax on fruits to make them shiny and more attractive so as to increase their commercial sale, or that of wrapping naturally clean and ‘pre-packaged’ food such as bananas in plastics. The only purpose of such absurd practices is to make them appear more ‘presentable’ in order to increase their perceived value - and therefore their sale. The fact that such use of technology often reverses the very benefits that the activity is supposed to yield – in the case of coated apples or vegetables, their food-value which is the original reason for consuming them, actually reduces by ‘such application of science’ - is either disregarded or ignored by both the seller and the consumer, who blindly admire this as an instance of progress. In contrast, in many cases, the traditional technologies that such practices have replaced are actually better, more aesthetic and more beneficial.

Compare the familiar sight of 'bhuttas' - corn - wrapped and tied in their own outer leaves by local road-side bhutta-wallas (who may not be educated and do not talk about eco-friendly packaging, yet use a progressive, sustainable and pleasing way of selling their wares) with the manner in which bananas, a fruit that nature has ‘pre-packaged’ for us, are wrapped in plastic and sold by Mother Dairy (a government institution that promotes itself as an organization that sells non-chemically ripened, ‘natural’ fruits)! This completely needless use of technology is especially strange, when the government itself has issued strictures regarding the perils of plastic, and actually banned the sale of goods in plastic polybags!

How much and what sort of technology do you need?

And what should we do with it?
Part 2

So, Who is Responsible?

The biggest culprits in this unethical and useless promotion of technology are the seller and the maker (whether private companies or government institutions), since for them the only criteria is that the product should sell. In extreme cases such as in the cosmetic industry, the fact that there are lethal doses and cocktails of chemicals in most personal-care products, is never revealed to the customer.[5]

Hence it is up to the consumer to be more vigilant and to make more intelligent choices. But very often, the choices are limited to variations of the current technology being promoted in the name of progress. This is where designers can step in to use their creative skills to promote appropriate green technology – which may already have been in use for many centuries. In some cases, these may need to be revived and extended, as in the effortless and beautiful packaging of mogra flowers - again by a roadside seller. 

In other cases, they may need to be reinterpreted or re-styled to make them more acceptable today, such as this hand-made soap, now exported from India, which is made from, and packaged, in completely natural materials.

Finding Appropriate Technology

If we apply such a philosophy of reviving or popularising appropriate technology to the example of the sil batta, we may find that we need to make some minor changes, keeping in mind the size and occupation of most families today. Since there are an increasing number of nuclear single-child families with mothers working away from the house, the size of the sil may be made smaller so as to be more easily usable. The use of the floral and decorative patterns in the sil, could be reintroduced with advantage for an ‘image makeover’, so that it is no longer seen as a symbol of an archaic old technology, but is viewed as something that is not only useful but is also worth displaying and flaunting even in so called ‘modern’ kitchens. This may help to increase both its usability and its popularity, in a similar manner to what FabIndia has achieved, for ceramic and wooden vessels and jars.

It is also not as if all technology is bad. For instance, something like Wikileaks, the whistleblower website, could not have been possible without the freedom, connectivity and access that current technology gives. Julian Paul Assange, the internet activist who founded Wikileaks, claims it has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined. Assange was the winner of the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award (New Media), awarded for exposing extrajudicial assassinations in Kenya with the investigation The Cry of Blood – Extra Judicial Killings and Disappearances. Similarly, organizations such as Greenpeace and Avaaz who have raised awareness and garnered public support against powerful individuals or governments perpetrating wrong actions – on issues as varied as the barbarous stoning of Sakineh in Iran, or the introduction of Genetically Modified food in India, or the sale of community land to multi-national firms – could not have managed to reach out to so many people without computer and internet technology. 

Even this essay was composed and written on a high-end technology product. Finally, like anything else, technology is only as bad or good as the uses it is put to, and the individuals or individual who uses it.

But it is nevertheless true, that the production and use of modern technology in many cases, is harmful both to people and to the environment. It is also a fact that the conventional production, promotion and use of technology increasingly removes the power of decisions from the hands of individuals and centralizes authority. After all, the very same tools of technology used by Wikileaks, are with other media organizations too. Which is why Assange has publicly clarified about his statement that Wikileaks has released more classified documents than the rest of the world press combined: ‘That's not something I say as a way of saying how successful we are – rather, that shows you the parlous state of the rest of the media. How is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It's disgraceful.’[6]

Perhaps all of us like the famous actor and director Charles Chaplin, whose own films reflected his concern for the dehumanizing effects of the excessive use of machinery, are ‘somewhat confused’ about how to use technology. In a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi, he questioned the Mahatma’s ‘abhorrence of machinery’, saying that ‘After all, if machinery is used in the altruistic sense, it should help to release man from the bondage of slavery, and give him shorter hours of labor and time to improve his mind and enjoy life’. We need to be as clear as the Mahatma who replied: ‘India has a different climate from England; and her habits and wants are different. In England the cold weather necessitates arduous industry and an involved economy. You need the industry of eating utensils; we use our fingers. And so it translates into manifold differences.’[7]

And What should we do?
Thus, I would imagine that in the climate, culture, society and economy such as ours, the way forward, is to: firstly, have a decentralized use of technology, where decisions about which technology to use and to use it, rest with the individual or the community rather than a centralized system where large scale private or public corporations decide which technology to promote. Secondly, to promote a situation where there is opportunity and encouragement for people to question and discuss what form of technology is the most appropriate for their needs. We must use technology that is appropriate – whether it is old, new or cutting edge is immaterial. It should first and foremost be appropriate for the purpose. Thirdly, we must discourage excessive dependence on complicated technology, and promote a controlled use of new technology – not to replace each and every human activity, but only where it is necessary. The obsession with newness or novelty factor needs to be questioned, since if we give so much value to ‘novelty’, redundancy will automatically set in and we will have a culture of ‘use and throw’ which is suicidal for the human race. To bring about such a change in the mindset of people, we will have to use skills of both design and marketing, in both function and image of the product and the activity - as explained in the example of the sil batta.

The levels that our current obsession with ‘novelty’ can take us to, may perhaps be best explained by the object below, which is promoted as ‘the most famous example of a lemon squeezer today’ and is lauded as an icon of industrial design and studied in design schools all over the world. Designed in 1990 by Philippe Patrick Starck, whom Wikipedia describes as ‘probably the best known designer in the New Design style’, this object termed the Juicy Salif, is a lemon squeezer, and has been displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Ironically Starck’s ‘iconic’ juicer that has had record sales and is now a collectors’ item, seems to garner more points for the way it looks than for its efficiency in squeezing juice! Though some users claim that it both looks and works well, even the more starry-eyed, write that it ‘doesn't stop pips going into the cup; that ‘in terms of functionality, it works reasonably well but is difficult to keep balanced when pushing down on it’; that ‘the style of this one outweighs any ease of use issues,’ that ‘it can be messy and needs to be cleaned right away as it marks really quickly.’[8] The conventional logic that the squeezer itself must be so designed as to resist the manual pressure to extract the juice - and so soft, easily deformable, non acid-resistant materials should not be used - seem to have been abandoned for the sake of novelty. So while Starck’s original version is made from cast and polished aluminium manufactured by the famous Italian kitchenware company Alessithe 10,000 squeezers manufactured to mark the tenth anniversary of its launch, were individually numbered and gold plated. The gold plated version was described as an ornament because the citric acid in a lemon discolors and erodes the gold plating. Starck is even rumored to have said, "My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons; it is meant to start conversations".[9]

A case of making a virtue out of a vice? Whether or not, this much we can certainly deduce: with appropriate promotion even an object which does not necessarily fulfill the function that it is touted to perform, can be successfully sold. Surely then, we can think of ways in which we can also successfully market our home-grown skilful, useful, and sustainable examples of traditional technology?

Image Credits:Oil lamp from Sankho Choudhuri’s Private Collection, Courtesy: Ira Chaudhuri
Juicy Salif: Source: http://flickr.com/photos/43671130115@N01/137575863 licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemon_squeezer; accessed 13 July 2011.All other images © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji; Text © Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

[1] (Edited by William Geddie, first published 1901, revised 1952, this edition 1959, W. & R. Chambers, Ltd., Edinburgh and London) i[2] Oxford University Press 2001,[3] Accessed on 28 August 2010[4] Comment by Tapan K Chakravarty on June 27, 2010 11:27 PM to ‘Who Designed the Sil Batta - and why should we care?’ by Anisha Shekhar Mukherji [5] Annie Leonard, storyofcosmetics.org,[6] http://en.wikipedia.org.wiki/Julian_Assange#cite_note-smh2-15, Accessed on 29 August 2010[7] My Autobiography, Charles Chaplin, pp. 371-4[8] http://www.designaddict.com/design_addict/forums/index.cfm/fuseaction/thread_show_one/thread_id/529/
The article also states that the oldest known lemon squeezers are found in Turkey, and are individually made ceramic presses in the traditional style of Turkish pottery of the 18th century.

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