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Use Theory

First published June-2010
last update 30-July-2010

The need of a theory about what is useful is brought about by the abundant energy of the fossil age, which has allowed humanity to build many fundamentally useless things and systems, such as highways.

As long as energy was essentially free, there was little hard questioning of these systems. However, in a future where energy will be abundant, thanks to the sun, but require effort and thinking to capture, there will be hard pressure to do and build useful things.

Now, to judge usefulness presupposes an ethic and a purpose, in this book the purpose is preserve life, but even before getting to the specifics of a particular purpose, certain generalities can be useful, as the modern world is so full of absurdities that often things come to pass that fulfill no coherent ethic we are able to imagine, outside the goal of wasting things as much as possible.

Technique or technology

We can begin by distinguishing between a technique and a technology.

A technique is simply a method of using a set of objects to do something. With fiber and a good technique, a good rope can be made. For instance, with rope and the right technique a good hammock can be made. Though a given technique may depend on already having materials made with other techniques, the technique itself is knowledge and skill. A technique is inseparable from the person performing it, without a person a technique cannot exist. A technique thus presupposes an understanding of the nature of the material, processes, and one’s own body and mind. Techniques thus can always be adapted to new situations and inspire new methods. A technique weighs nothing and so in general the more techniques known the better, and the more techniques a given person knows the more problems they are likely to be able to solve.

A technology on the other hand is a material system meant to accomplish some task nearly independently. Though, a technology is usually designed by one or a group of engineers and realized with many techniques and other technologies, the person interacting with the technology to perform the task may have no understanding of it’s inner workings nor how it interacts with the environment. In the vast majority of cases a technology can rarely be adapted to new situations other than what it was designed, though technologies generally can be taken apart and the pieces found marginal use (though with a comparative effectiveness far below the original technology). Though this does not make technologies intrinsically useless, it does mean that much thought should be put into deciding whether the technology in question is actually useful to build. For a technology requires material and time to build, and material and time to maintain, and so if the technology is not fundamentally useful a whole bunch of time and material are wasted.

Equally so, a theoretically useful technology given some presumably good purpose that is designed and built poorly and so cannot be maintained can easily be of negative use. Likewise, a technology, in order to function independently of human motor force, must generally consume things, such as energy, in order to function, in turn these inputs are generally provided by other technological systems; so, if a theoretically useful technology is built but depends on systems that in turn cannot be maintained, then again a negative use is encountered.

It is also easy to create technologies that are counter-productive. For instance, an energy technology that consumes more energy than it generates should garner serious skepticism. Or a medical technology that creates more diseases than it cures.

So whereas learning techniques is an activity by nature easy to defend, as the skill and knowledge will surely have some use at some time, building or acquiring a technology is much harder to defend, requiring precise knowledge of the systems involved and whether the technology will actually have more benefits than costs.

However, we should not confuse the knowledge and skill required to build a technology and the technology itself. The knowledge and skill themselves are not material and so, like techniques, have no weight and generally cost little to

Considering that much that people have in the modern world is made by someone else, one useful conditions we can place on usefulness of these objects is whether, given enough time, you would build the object in question yourself? If you could never imagine building the object for yourself, since the effort it would take would always be greater than the effort it saves, then it’s nearly certain the object is useless, if not an obstruction to actual useful things.

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

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*Chapters in grey are in progress.

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