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No Tech Reader #29

Wed, 08/11/2021 - 12:31

Mob morality and the unvaxxed.
The fear operating in the ostracism of the unvaxxed is mostly not fear of disease, though disease may be its proxy. The main fear, old as humanity, is of a social contagion. It is fear of association with the outcasts, coded as moral indignation.

I’m a Luddite. You should be one too.
I’m also a social scientist who studies how new technologies affect politics, economics and society. For me, Luddism is not a naive feeling, but a considered position.

I have one of the most advanced prosthetic arms in the world — and I hate it.
When my new, 21st-century arm arrived, I hosted an “arm party,” an absurdist celebration of the new device as well as a farewell for a pile of old, passive arms with broken silicone fingers held on with Band-Aids.

Misinformation Control

Fri, 08/06/2021 - 12:03

Even if you feel that the COVID crisis is reason enough to endorse government involvement in social media content takedowns, please consider for a moment the next steps. Today we’re talking about COVID misinformation. What sort of misinformation — there’s a lot out there! — will we be talking about tomorrow? Do we want the government urging content removal about various other kinds of misinformation? How do we even define misinformation in widely different subject areas?

And even if you agree with the current administration’s views on misinformation, how do you know that you will agree with the next administration’s views on these topics? If you want the current administration to have these powers, will you be agreeable to potentially a very different kind of administration having such powers in the future? The previous administration and the current one have vastly diverging views on a multitude of issues. We have every reason to expect at least some future administrations to follow this pattern.

Quoted from: Keep Governments Away from Social Media “Misinformation Control”, Lauren Weinstein, July 2021. Thanks to m.

No Tech Reader #28

Mon, 08/02/2021 - 03:03

How Google quietly funds Europe’s leading tech policy institutes. [New Statesman] “A recent scientific paper proposed that, like Big Tobacco in the Seventies, Big Tech thrives on creating uncertainty around the impacts of its products and business model. One of the ways it does this is by cultivating pockets of friendly academics who can be relied on to echo Big Tech talking points, giving them added gravitas in the eyes of lawmakers.”

Long term infrastructure. [Wrath of Gnon] “Like the stone lined canals in Kyoto, the terraced rice fields of Java allowing for millennia of continuous rice growing, the sandstone aqueducts of Italy still able to transport water after two millennia, the ancient Greek amphitheater still in use for plays and concerts, the cobblestone streets of Copenhagen that haven’t been resurfaced in five hundred years, we need to go back to thinking about our infrastructure not in terms of five year plans and technical efficiency, but in long term sustainability. If a bridge cannot be built that will last a thousand years, why build it? Why not build one that will last, even if it will be a less efficient or more expensive in the short run?”

COVID-19: false dichotomies. [BMC Infectious Diseases] “The COVID-19 pandemic has been riddled with false dichotomies, which have been used to shut down or polarize debates while oversimplifying complex issues and obfuscating the accompanying nuances. In this review, we aimed to deconstruct six common COVID-19-related false dichotomies by reviewing the evidence thoughtfully and thoroughly: 1) Health and lives vs. economy and livelihoods, 2) Indefinite lockdown vs. unlimited reopening, 3) Symptomatic vs. asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection, 4) Droplet vs. aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2, 5) Masks for all vs. no masking, and 6) SARS-CoV-2 reinfection vs. no reinfection.”

This clothesline goes around the corner

Mon, 07/26/2021 - 13:12

Low-tech Magazine featured Jonas Görgen’s mist shower in an earlier article. He did a second graduation project at the Design Academy Eindhoven that is worth mentioning: the clothesline that goes around the corner:

Revive the ol’ clothesline! This pulley system can move objects around the corner of a building. Following (or avoiding) the sun can help with making the most of the momentary weather conditions.

Modern buildings often trap the inhabitants into unsustainable practices such as using a tumble dryer or a large refrigerator. Making practical use of outside spaces of buildings is commonplace around the globe, from clotheslines spanning across streets in Italy to roofs crowded with jugs full of fermenting Kimchi in Korea.

It is not merely about resourcefulness, as these practices become part of the identity of a place.

In a reaction, he writes that “I wanted to think of a possibility to break out of the lifestyle that is dictated by the building in which you live”.

Source: Jonas Görgen.

Technologically utopian solutions rest on narrowly defined system boundaries

Mon, 07/26/2021 - 12:44

Quoted from: Cederlof, Gustav, and Alf Hornborg. “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact.” Journal of Political Ecology 28.1 (2021): 111-123.

What are the social and environmental impacts of carbon and low-carbon energy technologies in different places and at different times? To answer this question, we are faced with an epistemological dilemma. Before measurement takes place, we need to define where and when the phenomenon we are measuring begins and ends—to define its “system boundaries.” For instance, one liter of semi-skimmed milk, bought in a British supermarket, has an energy content of 380 kcal. However, to think of the milk in terms of energy also evokes the far-reaching social and environmental contexts that bring milk to the market.

Beyond the energy content declared on the milk carton, we can undertake a life cycle assessment (LCA)—expanding the system boundaries—to account for the energy (or the carbon, water, labor, or land) “embodied” in the milk via its production and distribution. We might include the energy content of processed cattle feed, electricity used to run milking machines, cooling tanks, water boilers, and lighting, energy inputs in alkaline and acid detergents, diesel for tractors, and a wide range of other energy technologies used in production.

We might expand the system boundaries further to account for the fuels needed to generate the electricity, run the chemical plant, fuel the milk tanker, power the dairy plant, and so on. Arguably, we should also account for the energy expended in the production of the electricity generator, the milking machine, the milk tanker and the tractor, fencing and the batteries storing energy to electrify it. But if an electricity generator and a battery are somehow embodied in a liter of milk, we have culturally come far away from what we normally understand milk to be. Where, then, should we draw the system boundaries around an object in order to gauge its social and environmental impact?

Image credit (CC). 

More than just posing epistemological problems, however, we argue that system boundaries present an ethnographic problem and that they should be exposed to cultural as well as political analysis. As cultural artefacts, system boundaries sustain different power-serving worldviews, and the way system boundaries are drawn in discussions on energy transitions calls into question how the existence of energy technologies relies on a geographical displacement of environmental load, including flows of resources, land, and emissions.

In discussions on green development and strategies for a low-carbon energy transition, there is a strong case made for technologically utopian solutions in which novel, more efficient technologies will enable a decoupling of environmental impact from economic growth. These solutions range from a complete electrification of transport to the mainstreaming of “cultured” meats, milk, and eggs to a wholesale transition to a solar economy. Depending on the exponent’s political allegiance, they often resonate with teleological imaginaries of technological progress inspired by the American “technological sublime” or the Marxist “development of the productive forces”. However, the socioenvironmental impact of green technology is contingent on the definition of system boundaries. A technologically utopian solution rests on narrowly defined system boundaries.

Read more: Cederlof, Gustav, and Alf Hornborg. “System boundaries as epistemological and ethnographic problems: Assessing energy technology and socio-environmental impact.” Journal of Political Ecology 28.1 (2021): 111-123.

More papers by Alf Hornborg.

Does covid cause brain damage?

Mon, 07/26/2021 - 10:41

“The latest in the long succession of attempts at maximizing people’s fear of covid is the claim that it causes brain damage. And not just in those who have spent time in the ICU, in everyone, even if all they had was a mild cold. The claim is currently doing the rounds on social media (apparently alarmist propaganda only counts as misinformation if it’s going against the dominant narrative). The assertion comes from a paper that’s recently been published in EClinicalMedicine (a daughter journal of The Lancet). The paper is actually quite illuminating about the current state of medical research, so I thought it would be interesting to go through it in some detail…”

“To me, the main lesson here is that we currently live in a world where junk science goes unquestioned and gets published in peer-reviewed journals as long as it feeds in to the dominant narrative. If this study had been claiming, say, that face masks didn’t work, then it would remain stuck at the pre-print stage forever, or, if it ever did get published, it would immediately have been retracted. It has become blatantly obvious over the past year and a half that it is not primarily the quality of studies that determines where and whether they get published, but rather their acceptability to the powers that be.”

Read more: Does covid cause brain damage?, Sebastian Rushworth, July 26, 2021.

Flying Only with the Heat of the Sun

Sat, 07/24/2021 - 06:50

If you picture a flying machine, you probably imagine a craft which is heavier than air, somehow kept aloft with wings or propellers. Heavier-than-air flight dominates discourses about aviation. “Sustainable” crafts are designed to be as light as possible (whilst remaining heavier than air), so that they require less energy from whatever renewable source they use for lift. These machines include human-powered planes such as those using pedals to rotate a propeller. Lighter still are kites and gliders, which remain heavier than air, but rely on air resistance and lighter air around them to fly.

Less discussed are flying machines which are lighter than the air they fly through because the weight of their materials and passengers is counterbalanced by the hot air or light gases they contain. [1] Perhaps this is because most of us experience flight in passenger airliners, not Zeppelins. In theory, making lighter-than-air flight sustainable is simple: heat a container full of air with sunlight so that it rises. In January 2020, Leticia Noemi Marqués flew freely in the Aerocene Pacha solar balloon, the first Fédération Aéronautique Internationale certified fully-solar, untethered, manned flight. Previous flights of this kind went uncertified or relied on propane burners or inflation generators [2]. Aerocene Pacha flies on solar energy not from solar panels or batteries but absorbed directly in the envelope (the fabric of the balloon).

Solar balloons are a subcategory of hot air balloons, which rise because the hot air inside is less dense than the external air. Hot air and helium balloons were developed in 18th century French experiments. In quick succession in 1783, aeronauts achieved a series of firsts for ballooning. In November, the Montgolfier brothers launched the first animal-carrying hot air balloon (containing a duck, rooster and sheep). In September Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis D’Arlandes were the first people to fly untethered in a hot air balloon. This last balloon flew with the risk that the envelope would ignite from the embers which were used to heat the hot air. [1]

The solar balloon invented itself

The solar balloon awaited, latent, within this history. It could be said that the solar balloon invented itself in an accident in 1794, when a hot air balloon in France freed itself from its tethers and rose into the air purely from the heat of the sun. [2] The potential of this phenomena went unnoticed as balloon inventors moved on to design airships powered by the internal combustion engine, like Zeppelins. In the 1960s, Ed Yost refined the hot air balloon with the addition of a propane burner, which the fuel source used most commonly today. The risk of fire continues to haunt recent hot air balloons, prompting alternative designs which do not involve combustion. In the 1990s, Alejandro Uribe adapted the unmanned paper balloons Brazilian communities build for festivals to be fully solar to eliminate the danger of balloon-lit forest fires.

Solar balloons rely on the same principle as combustion hot air balloons, but with sunlight absorbed by the envelope to replace the burner. From 1972, Dominic Michaelis designed and tested a series of manned solar balloons with transparent polyester envelopes and black fabric inside to absorb heat. [2] Julian Nott used one of these to successfully fly across the English Channel in 1981. These flights were assisted by propane burners. Tracy Barnes performed the first fully solar balloon flight in 1973, using a tetrahedral-shaped single skin envelope. [3] It is unclear how the balloon was inflated. Aerocene Pacha is the most recent solar balloon flight to be manned, untethered and, ostensibly, entirely independent from fossil fuels. The team inflated the envelope with fans run on pedal power.

Manned solar balloons

Manned solar balloons combine the technologies of burner-heated balloons and unmanned solar balloons used in scientific research. An example of the latter was the 1977 Montgolfière Infrarouge (MIR), which circulated in the lower stratosphere, flying on sunlight in the day and infrared at night. [2] Infrared is sufficient to maintain altitudes of around 20 kilometres because the air is so thin. [4] Recent examples use simpler technology – the Heliotrope Solar Hot-Air Balloon costs around 30 dollars to make and can be “ram inflated” by holding the bottom open and walking it to and fro until it fills with air.

Researchers have also explored the potential of using tethered solar balloons to generate electricity. One wind-solar system, designed by Robert Grena, is aided by a small pocket of hydrogen and pre-heated by “charging” for a period of time in the sun. [5] When it is released, the balloon unwinds its rope from its windlass, which powers a generator. Wind-power contributes by pulling the balloon, and so the rope, horizontally. Grena proposes systems for deflating the balloon at its peak altitude, so energy is not lost from air or wind resistance as it falls. The simplest of these contraptions consists of rods fixed to the envelope which are held bent by taunt strings for the ascent and straighten when the tension is released for the fall, pulling the envelope shut.

Altitude and Distance

Do Aerocene flights and their ilk herald an age in which we are more likely to fly by solar balloon than passenger plane? Julian Nott proved that international travel via (primarily) solar-powered balloon is possible forty years ago, when he crossed the English Channel. Nott flew from a point northwest of Dover to Tournehem sur la Hem near Calais, making the flight distance over 60km. Aerocene’s official world record for solar-balloon flight distance at 2.55km (measured as the crow flies between lift-off and landing points) is less encouraging. Most solar balloon attempts, especially for scientific purposes, have focused on altitude rather than distance, so there is as yet unexplored potential.

If solar technology could be made as reliable as propane burners, they could carry passengers across the Pacific, which is the hot air balloon distance record of 7671km, set by Per Lindstrand and Richard Branson in 46 hours and 15 minutes in 1991 (far longer flights have combined hot air with other gas technology). [6] This would rival the human powered flight Guinness World Record of 115 km, set by Kanellos Kanellopoulos in 1988. [7] The problem remains that fully solar balloons need sunlight, and it is rare for the sky to remain unclouded for long journeys. Any transport system based on solar balloons would have to be opportunistic, where pilots wait for safe conditions and perhaps break journeys into short stages.


[1] Folkes, J. (2008). Balloons, airships and kites – lighter than air: Past, present and future. The Aeronautical Journal (1968), 112(1133), 421-429. doi:10.1017/S0001924000002384

[2] Aerocene Community, 2021. A brief history of Solar Ballooning and Aerocene. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 11 July 2021].

[3] Brown, D., (1974). Sunstat: A Balloon that Rides on Sunbeams. Ballooning, XI(2), pp.5-9. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 July 2021].

[4] Bowman, D., Norman, P., Pauken, M., Albert, S., Dexheimer, D., Yang, X., Krishnamoorthy, S., Komjathy, A. and Cutts, J., (2020). Multihour Stratospheric Flights with the Heliotrope Solar Hot-Air Balloon. Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 37(6), pp.1051-1066.

[5] Grena, R., (2013). Solar balloons as mixed solar–wind power systems. Solar Energy, 88, pp.215-226.

[6] Åkerstedt, H., n.d. CIA Notable flights and performances: Part 10, 1991-1995. [online] Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Available at: <> [Accessed 11 July 2021].
[7] Guinness World Records., (n.d.). Longest human powered flight (distance). Available at: <> [Accessed 11 July 2021].

[8] Reay, D., (1977). “Man-Powered Rotocraft and the Persistence of the ‘Bird-Men’” In: The History of Man-Powered Flight, pp.249-262.

Rebuilding Suburbia

Tue, 07/20/2021 - 18:56

Quoted from: Trainer, Ted. “Remaking settlements for sustainability: the Simpler Way.” Journal of Political Ecology 26.1 (2019): 202-223.

In view of the global resource and ecological situation, per-capita resource consumption rates in the rich world probably need to be reduced by 90%. This can only be done if there is a “de-growth” transition to some kind of Simpler Way centered on mostly small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities in control of local economies within a culture that is not focused on material wealth.

It is not surprising that the viability of such a vision is typically regarded as implausible. The aim of this study is to show that normal outer city suburbs could be restructured along the lines required to cut global impacts by the necessary amount, while improving the quality of life. Data on typical Australian consumption rates, food production yields, suburban geographies, etc. is used to estimate the achievable reductions.

The theoretical conclusion that such reductions could be made aligns with a study of the Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in northeast Missouri. Heavy cuts in resource consumption cannot be made without extreme change in economic, political, settlement and cultural systems.

The Chukudu is a cargo scooter built entirely from wood

Sun, 07/18/2021 - 17:57

Image: Lahminewski Lab, CC BY-SA 4.0.

From the Wikipedia page, which summarizes and links to all sources that are available online:

The chukudu is a two-wheeled handmade vehicle used in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is made of wood, and is used for transporting cargo. The chukudu generally has an angular frame, two small wheels (often of wood, sometimes wrapped with rubber), handlebars, and a pad for the operator to place their knee on while propelling the vehicle with their leg. On a descent, the rider stands on the deck like a kick scooter. On flat ground, the rider can put one knee on the deck and push the ground by the other foot like a knee scooter. Rubber mud flaps and shock absorber springs may be added.

In Goma, where chukudus form the “backbone of the local transportation system”, chukudus are made of hard mumba wood and eucalyptus wood, with scrap tires for wheel treads. These chukudus take one to three days to build, and last two to three years. The most commonly used size is about six and one half feet long, and carries a load of 1000 lbs. However, the largest chukudus can carry up to 800 kilograms of weight.

A small chukudu can be built in about three hours, using dimensional lumber and materials available in a hardware store. The chukudu is customizable to carry different types of cargo. To haul firewood some chukudus have a hole drilled in the middle of the sitting deck, and the operator can insert a stick to hold firewood in place. Others have a large basket to carry various loads.

Chukudus image colection.


Thanks to Spencer Cappallo.

The Sailboat as a Research Lab for Resilience and Self-Reliance

Tue, 07/13/2021 - 13:34

The hundred rabbits research lab does experiments on resilience and self-reliance through low-tech solutions. The two-headed team practice what they preach: the lab is located on a small sailboat that has been traveling across the oceans since 2016. Among other things, their website contains a lot of practical information for those who want to go off-the-grid, whether it is on land or on water. Because they run a design studio and create free and open source software, there’s also sound advice on how to work off-the-grid efficiently.

Inventor harvests methane gas from ditches and ponds to power his moped

Mon, 07/12/2021 - 05:59

Shallow ponds and ditches are producers of greenhouse gases, especially methane, which is released by the breakdown or decay of organic material. Gijs Schalkx harvests this methane from ponds — by hand — and uses it to power his moped. Eight hours of hoeing in a ditch supplies him with enough fuel to ride his vehicle for 20 km. He calls it “a quest on keeping the combustion engine alive in a fossil free future”.

* * *

Gijs Schalkx graduated with the project from the ArtEZ University of the Arts in Arnhem, the Netherlands. In an interview with Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, Schalkx explains that he likes to work on old motorcycles but “hates oil companies like Shell who promise all kinds of things about a better world, but don’t deliver”.

In a book, he came across a story of a fisherman who hung a special tank behind his boat to harvest methane from the water. When the fisherman got home, he was able to fry the fish he caught on the methane gas that he also caught himself. “I found that totally awesome and I set out to develop that idea. Why depend on big corporations and their promises to save the world when you can do it yourself?”.

He calls his contraption the “slootmotor”, which translates into “Ditch motorcycle”.

Refueling from the ditch

Harvesting methane from ditches and ponds is hard work, explains Schalkx: “Methane can rise to the surface spontaneously, but it works better to give it a hand by agitating the bottom of the pond. With an upturned, floating mortar tub, I catch the gas by hoeing underneath. The gas is then led through a hose into the reservoir of the engine, on the back of the motorcycle. I then pressurize the methane with an inverted bicycle pump. A special small petrol tank for the engine is still needed to start the engine.”

It takes the young Dutchman roughly eight hours to collect enough fuel to fill the tank and ride his moped for about 20 km. This is not comparable to the convenience of filling up a gasoline tank or charging an electric battery, but that is exactly the point. “Eight hours of hoeing for a twenty kilometer drive will ensure that it will be the best twenty kilometers of your life.”

The moped achieves a top speed of 43 km/h. According to Schalkx, riding his vehicle also helps the environment. “Capturing methane and using it emits CO2, but that is less bad for the environment than when that methane gas bubbles up and ends up in the environment anyway.”

More images, data and a video (which shows the whole process) can be found at his website. All images courtesy of Gijs Schalkx.

Thanks to Tim Joye.

Low Tech Webring Directory

Sun, 07/11/2021 - 06:46

The Low Tech Webring Directory is for homepages of people who are interested in low tech, small game tools, and other forms of Web 1.0 inspired creativity.

We believe in Science

Fri, 07/09/2021 - 16:38

Theoretically, science is the contrary of religion because, while the latter is dogmatic, science should be anti-dogmatic, based on rationality and on an objective and empirical methodology. However,… science contributes to create the cultural system whereby we live and that gives meaning to our reality, which is based on some basic assumptions/beliefs: our “faith”.

The core of science has embodied the heritage of Christianity and Hebraism and, in a different way, could be practiced as a religion from many people. For western religions, the past was evil, the present redemption and future heaven. For science the past is ignorance/superstition, the present consists of progress using the tools of science, and the future consists in the positivistic promise of a sort of heaven in the real world.

Quoted from: Aillon, J. L., and M. Cardito. “Health and Degrowth in times of Pandemic.” Visions for Sustainability 14 (2020): 3-23.

Full issue of the magazine (Health and Degrowth Special).

Image by Kārlis Dambrāns – Mobile World Congress 2018, CC BY 2.0.

Drying clothes near the ceiling

Fri, 07/09/2021 - 05:11

“It’s winter in northern Europe, and there’s no electricity. How can you dry your laundry? One of the best places of all is a laundry room in the servants’ quarters of a mansion house. A generous ceiling height means you can have frames for wet clothes and household linen in the warmest, dryest part of the room. The estate handyman would make them, and by the later 19th century he would probably add ropes and a pulley to raise and lower the rack. No need to climb on a chair to hang laundry.”

Read more: Drying clothes near the ceiling, HomeThingsPast.

How to Build a Small Town in Texas

Wed, 07/07/2021 - 11:00

“Of all the questions I get on Twitter the most common is this: ‘How do you build a town?’ We know well how it used to be done, but these last one or two centuries we have forgotten how to do it (with only a handful of notable exceptions during the last century).

The other day I was asked again, but this time with a set of premises that made the question a little easier to approach. I have anonymized all the details but the general idea remains: four guys (friends) with money have bought a suitably large piece of land in Texas and now want to create a car-free human-scaled town of the kind that I am always writing about.

In this text I intend to set out the most bare-bone basic premises for how to start a good town, what is needed to build something anti-fragile and sustainable under the above mentioned scenario.”

Read more: How to Build a Small Town in Texas, Wrath of Gnon, July 2021.

To create a human scaled town we first establish what is a good size, and this is simply one third of a square kilometer, or 82 acres, or 0.13 square miles. 80 acres was the upper limit for a good family farm in medieval England, and it is still the size at which the most flexible and efficient farms run, both modern and more old fashioned Amish family farms. It allows a town where no point can’t be reached on foot in 15 minutes, and it allows comfortable living for a population of 3000, which was considered the ideal size in medieval Europe: the upper limit of efficiency and comfort, productivity and harmony: more and you get crowded, less and you risk being without some important trades and activities. Even though the premise talks about a town of 600, we plan three centuries ahead for a maximum population of ca. 3000.

A good town (the urban) is clearly defined and set apart from the countryside (the rural). The suburban has no place here. Hence the town needs to be as clearly marked out and defined as the individual family lots will be: to here, but no further. For this purpose we will mark out land to be used as a wall, raised embankment, hedge, fence, moat, canal, etc. Some sort of edge which is not routinely nor distractedly crossed.

As for shape, I recommend a somewhat irregularly oval shape, near round in one extreme, or rice grain shaped in the other extreme, for the simple reason that the best towns and cities seems to be oval to some degree. As far as possible the existing topography should be kept or even enhanced. Perfectly flat land is only popular with boring developers. So: no bulldozing allowed. Existing trees should be left and existing paths should be left in place (even when slightly inconvenient). New paths and streets should follow the contours of the land. Anything historic (an old campsite, an ancient grave or remains of an old farmstead) should be kept and protected and venerated. History is in short supply in new developments, and interesting stories can be woven around something as mundane as an abandoned old cart or well.

Read the whole article: How to Build a Small Town in Texas, Wrath of Gnon, July 2021.

The bicycle friendliness of European railway operators

Wed, 07/07/2021 - 07:51

The European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) has released a new report, “Cyclists love trains: An analysis of the bicycle friendliness of European railway operators,” which aims to guide industry and policymakers in identifying ways to improve the combination of two of the most sustainable modes of transport: bikes and trains.

This timely new report analyses and ranks 69 European train companies and services according to six key indicators for combined bike-and-train travel, such as bicycle spaces in trains and the quality of bike ticket or reservation channels. The report’s rankings show that there is much room for improvement in Europe.

Only one train service, NS-DB (Intercity Berlin), which runs between Amsterdam and Berlin, scored in the “excellent” category. Operators that scored in the “good” category in facilitating bike-and-train travel include SNCB/NMBS, SBB, Deutsche Bahn and MÁV-START.

One fourth of the 69 operators and services scored in the “moderate” category, including České dráhy, SNCF and Trenitalia, while the rest perform either “poorly” or “very poorly” on most indicators, including Flixtrain, Greater Anglia, Renfe and Eurostar.

How Sustainable is the Smart Farm?

Tue, 07/06/2021 - 08:21

“Computer-controlled hydroponics, vertical farms, and IoT-based precision agriculture are claimed to be sustainable, healthful, and humane methods of producing food. These so-called “smart” farming methods have arisen over the past decade and have received little scrutiny from a sustainability perspective. Meanwhile, they are attracting vast sums of both research and investment funding.”

“We ask a simple question: how sustainable is the “smart farm”? We take a technical, ecological, and social view of the systems that comprise a smart farm. Our aim is to tease apart which, if any, of the practices are actually beneficial, and which are simply a substitution of resources or a mere shifting of (human and/or ecological) externalities in time or space.

To evaluate the smart farm concept, we focus on two scenarios: indoor smart farms (controlledenvironment agriculture such as vertical farms), and outdoor smart farms (in which the environment is less controlled, but managed via precision agriculture). We also provide examples of the values that smart farms embody, who stands to gain from their operation, and what better alternatives might exist.

Read more: Streed, Adam, et al. “How Sustainable is the Smart Farm?” LIMITS 2021, (2021).

Previously: Vertical farming does not save space.

A Design Inquiry into Degrowth and ICT

Mon, 07/05/2021 - 16:16

Roel Roscam Abbing wrote a conference paper about Low-tech Magazine’s solar powered website: ‘This is a solar-powered website, which means it sometimes goes offline’: a design inquiry into degrowth and ICT.” Workshop on Computing within Limits. 2021.

Abstract: “This paper describes how principles derived from degrowth can be a useful heuristic for designing an ICT system within energy limits. It does so by discussing the design choices behind, an ongoing design research project that set out to build a ’low-tech website’. This research resulted in a design which is lightweight, tailored towards older and lower-powered devices, is powered by off-grid solar energy and thus designed with energy scarcity in mind. The project shows that values and frameworks theorized within the Computing within Limits community are technically applicable to practices of web development but also identifies hurdles to their more widespread applicability.”

What to limit, and how and why

Mon, 07/05/2021 - 15:45

A common argument made by proponents of degrowth, supported by historical evidence, is that economic growth is ecologically unsustainable and entails an increasing inequitable distribution of resources. In Tools for degrowth? Ivan Illich’s critique of technology revisited, Silja Samerski discusses Ivan Illich’s (1926-2002) argument that limits to growth are needed not only for ecological or distributive justice, but for social freedom. Any limits must be politically decided, and applied not primarily to the economy, but to technology.

While growth is generally understood as an economic ideology to be addressed by restructuring the economy, Illich saw growth as technological. Beyond a certain tipping point, technology transcends from a tool humans use to satisfy their needs, to end in itself. This “end” is fulfilled by making humans “means” – shaping them to fit the technology. This perspective shapes Illich’s criticism of computing technologies, which contrasts those of many proponents of degrowth who consider open-source and open-access to be potential new commons.

Although there is a tendency for degrowth proponents to ignore or accept immaterial technologies (like schooling or healthcare systems) as necessary or benign, Illich centred these technologies in his critique of growth. He argued that there are technologies that are inherently destructive, regardless of who uses them and how. These “manipulating tools” replace people’s “native capacities”- to travel on foot, to learn, to care for one another, to communicate and to know. The car restructures the city in its image, restricting the (formerly free) movement of pedestrians. The school shapes students to reproduce the system as it is, and prevents students from shaping the school to meet their need to learn. Each human capacity is removed from the autonomy of the individual, professionalised and standardised.

Further, people are “disembodied” as they are integrated into systems, their self-perceptions and subjectivities manipulated to fit. The hospital defines health and disciplines bodies accordingly, and people relinquish their capacity to feel their own health within their bodies and decide what it means to be “healthy”. Cybernetics replace the diversity of face-to-face interaction with abstracted communication, with people as data within a pre-defined digital system. People outsource knowledge to computer systems, and so no longer know themselves and their surroundings directly from their senses. Computing technology does not represent the revival of the commons, but further encroachment on users’ freedom.

Limits to technological growth, then, are needed in defence of “the vernacular” – people’s existing capacity to meet their own needs. These capacities can be enhanced with tools, provided they deemed appropriate upon critical reflection, and are decided upon autonomously from the mind-altering technologies which shape people in their own image.

Read more (paywall/institutional access): Tools for degrowth? Ivan Illich’s critique of technology revisited, Silja Samerski, 2018

Abstract: “Based on the works of Ivan Illich, this article reformulates growth not as the result of a certain economic imperative or ideology, but as a question of technology – namely as a historically unique relation of humans to their instruments. This sheds new light on a key question of degrowth, namely what to limit, and how and why. First, it emphasizes not the ecological, but the social harms of growth, namely the paralyzing and disembodying effects of modern technologies, be they high speed trains, smartphones or health care services… Second, it argues that degrowth, if it does not want to degenerate into an alternative strategy with which to manage scarce resources, has to seek limits to all manipulative tools, be they digital technologies or social technologies. These limits, if they are to be meaningful, cannot be defined by experts or determined by ecological indices, but have to be rooted in the common will to defend a vernacular and convivial sphere against industrial and technological encroachment. Thirdly, based on Ivan Illich’s later work on the way contemporary technologies shape bodily experience, it calls for the cultivation of a technological ascesis, that is a critical distancing from the symbolic effects of mind-boggling tools such as the computer that increasingly shape self-perception and subjectivity…”

No Tech Reader #27

Tue, 06/29/2021 - 04:32