Monday, February 16, 2009

The appropriateness of technology

Technophiles love novelty. Mention Peak Oil and the prospect of the Fall of Industrial Civilisation to a technophile and they will laugh scornfully at your foolish tremblings, and then they will be off and running with amorphous silicon solar cells, hydrogen-powered cars, wind and wave-powered generators, nuclear fusion, microwave power generation from orbiting solar satellites and geothermal steam production.

But none of this stuff is something you can call your local fitter and turner about and get him to knock up in an afternoon. Even where the technologies mentioned above actually exist (rather than being something techno-freaks dream of feverishly in the watches of the night while we others, less intellectually favoured, dream of the more enjoyable aspects of human reproduction), they require huge capital investments, scores of technical specialists and long-term planning by industry and government.

What is all this for? Why do we need to go to ever more complex and difficult technologies, requiring an ever more disciplined, educated and narrowly specialised workforce? Is it so we can all have giant flat screen TVs at home where we can watch movies with brilliant special effects and morally cretinous and creepy sadomasochistic story lines, in order to release the tensions that come from spending the best part of our lives in the cube farm, looking at abstract concepts on smaller screens while we strive for Worlds Best Practice? Is it so we can cram ever more people onto this poor groaning Earth so they can enjoy the benefits of the technological wonderland just mentioned?

Rupert Murdoch seems to think it's all good. After all, without such a system people like him would have no chance to skim the cream off the top. Ah yes! From the beginning to the end of time: from the rich, forgiveness: from the poor, sins. And so we must grow, forever!

But here we need to mention the the Law of Diminishing Returns. There is a world of difference between the usability of the first computers, which filled large rooms but could barely run a modern digital calculator and today's marvels like the Mac laptop on which I'm typing this. But what about cars during the same period? Yes, a lot of change, but not the same orders of magnitude: cars are not thousands of times faster, cheaper and smaller. And what about hammers and nails in the last fifty years? What about doormats and dishes? Not much happening there at all. Progress seems to have stalled. And yet we could more easily do without computers than hammers or dishes. And if we examine every aspect of technology, from medicine to textiles to agricultural technology we can see the law of diminishing returns applying. In fact it's easy to argue that in some cases we're worse off with newer technology. What are the beneficial effects of modern confectionary manufacture?

You can see what I'm angling towards here. Three things really. Do we serve technology or does it serve us? Do we need more inventions and more hi-tech or is there enough usable stuff in the world to be able to pick and choose from already? And there's something to be said too for being able to nip down to your local blacksmith or potter for a hammer or a plate.

Anyway there are a number of us thinking along these lines. One is Rob Windt (of The Naked Mechanic blog and who has the Eco-Wizard ad on my blog). Rob is working on wood-gas generators which can be fitted to cars and trucks. Have a look at his December archive. And on a related internal-combustion-engine-alternatives note, I've been thinking about hot-bulb engines, or semi-diesels. You may never have heard of these as they are long out of production, but my friend Michael Snell's dad George had a Lanz Bulldog tractor powered by one and I remember staying with Michael and seeing it in operation when I was a teenager. A fascinating thing: the first step being the heating by blowtorch of the bulb on top of the cylinder head. Then the steering wheel was removed and inserted onto the crankshaft, then the motor was rocked backwards and forwards until it fired. Being two stroke, it would sometimes start and run backwards! Then you had to stop it and start again. Here's a movie showing the operation of a Lanz Bulldog...

Hot bulbs are not terribly efficient, but will run on an astonishing range of fuels. In the video you may have heard the owner mention running them during the Second World War on sour cream! George Snell ran his on used sump oil and when he was using it as a contractor, with crude oil skimmed off a dam near a natural oil seep. They could run on virtually any combustible liquid: animal fat or vegetable oil for instance. The other virtue I can see is that they are relatively simple to build and thus maintain. Because of the relatively low combustion chamber pressures and the simple fuel injection arrangement (not requiring the kind of precision of a modern diesel fuel pump) they could be built in any reasonably equipped machine shop if the castings were obtainable: the castings should be reasonably simple to make too.

Of course there is no way such engines meet current emission standards, but in a world where they could have some utility, it's unlikely that such standards would either be enforceable or even necessary.

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