Technology With A Human Face

E. F Schumacher

[Reprinted from Small Is Beautiful, 1973]

German-born E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977) was a British economist and author. He was confined in Britain during World War II, after which he served for twenty years as economic adviser on Britain's National Coal Board and worked on theories for that country's welfare system. He contributed many articles to the London Times, London Observer, and Economist, and has lectured at Columbia University. One of his books, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, became a best-seller. In it, Schumacher encourages human fulfillment as the best economic booster and suggests means of obtaining that goal.

The modern world has been shaped by its metaphysics, which has shaped its education, which in turn has brought forth its science and technology. So, without going back to metaphysics and education, we can say that the modern world has been shaped by technology. It tumbles from crisis to crisis; on all sides there are prophecies of disaster and, indeed, visible signs of breakdown.

If that which has been shaped by technology, and continues to be so shaped, looks sick, it might be wise to have a look at technology itself. If technology is felt to be becoming more and more inhuman, we might do well to consider whether it is possible to have something better-a technology with a human face.

Strange to say, technology, although of course the product of man, tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or of living nature in general. Nature always, so to speak, knows where and when to stop. Greater even than the mystery of natural growth is the mystery of the natural cessation of growth. There is measure in all natural things -- in their size, speed, or violence. As a result, the system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology, or perhaps I should say: not so with man dominated by technology and specialisation. Technology recognises no self-limiting principle -- in terms, for instance, of size, speed, or violence. It therefore does not possess the virtues of being self-balancing, self-adjusting, and self-cleans-mg. In the subtle system of nature, technology, and in particular the super-technology of the modern world, acts like a foreign body, and there are now numerous signs of rejection.

Suddenly, if not altogether surprisingly, the modern world, shaped by modern technology, finds itself involved in three crises simultaneously. First, human nature revolts against inhuman technological, organisational, and political patterns, which it experiences as suffocating and debilitating; second, the living environment which supports human life aches and groans and gives signs of partial breakdown; and, third, it is clear to anyone fully knowledgeable in the subject matter that the inroads being made into the world's non-renewable resources, particularly those of fossil fuels, are such that serious bottlenecks and virtual exhaustion loom ahead in the quite foreseeable future.

Any one of these three crises or illnesses can turn out to be deadly. I do not know which of the three is the most likely to be the direct cause of collapse. What is quite clear is that a way of life that bases itself on materialism, i.e. on permanent, limitless expansionism in a finite environment, cannot last long, and that its life expectation is the shorter the more successfully it pursues its expansionist objectives. If we ask where the tempestuous developments of world industry during the last quarter-century have taken us, the answer is somewhat discouraging. Everywhere the problems seem to be growing faster than the solutions. This seems to apply to the rich countries just as much as to the poor. There is nothing in the experience of the last twenty-five years to suggest that modern technology, as we know it, can really help us to alleviate world poverty, not to mention the problem of unemployment, which already reaches levels like thirty per cent in many so-called developing countries, and now threatens to become endemic also in many of the rich countries. In any case, the apparent yet illusory successes of the last twenty-five years cannot be repeated: the threefold crisis of which I have spoken will see to that. So we had better face the question of technology -- what does it do and what should it do? Can we develop a technology which really helps us to solve our problems-a technology with a human face?

The primary task of technology, it would seem, is to lighten the burden of work man has to carry in order to stay alive and develop his potential. It is easy enough to see that technology fulfils this purpose when we watch any particular piece of machinery at work -- a computer, for instance, can do in seconds what it would take clerks or even mathematicians a very long time, if they can do it at all. It is more difficult to convince oneself of the truth of this simple proposition when one looks at whole societies. When I first began to travel the world, visiting rich and poor countries alike, I was tempted to formulate the first law of economics as follows:

"The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs."

It might be a good idea for the professors of economics to put this proposition into their examination papers and ask their pupils to discuss it. However that may be, the evidence is very strong indeed. If you go from easy-going England to, say, Germany or the United States, you find that people there live under much more strain than here. And if you move to a country like Burma, which is very near to the bottom of the league table of industrial progress, you find that people have an enormous amount of leisure really to enjoy themselves. Of course, as there is so much less labour-saving machinery to help them, they "accomplish" much less than we do; but that is a different point. The fact remains that the burden of living rests much more lightly on their shoulders than on ours.

The question of what technology actually does for us is therefore worthy of investigation. It obviously greatly reduces some kinds of work while it increases other kinds. The type of work which modern technology is most successful in reducing or even eliminating is skilful, productive work of human hands, in touch with real materials of one kind or another. In an advanced industrial society, such work has become exceedingly rare, and to make a decent living by doing such work has become virtually impossible. A great part of the modern neurosis may be due to this very fact; for the human being, defined by Thomas Aquinas as a being with brains and hands, enjoys nothing more than to be creatively, usefully, productively engaged with both his hands and his brains. Today, a person has to be wealthy to be able to enjoy this simple thing, this very great luxury: he has to be able to afford space and good tools; he has to be lucky enough to find a good teacher and plenty of free time to learn and practise. He really has to be rich enough not to need a job; for the number of jobs that would be satisfactory in these respects is very small indeed.

The extent to which modern technology has taken over the work of human hands may be illustrated as follows. We may ask how much of "total social time" -- that is to say, the time all of us have together, twenty-four hours a day each -- is actually engaged in real production. Rather less than one-half of the total population of this country is, as they say, gainfully occupied, and about one-third of these are actual producers in agriculture, mining, construction, and industry. I do mean actual producers, not people who tell other people what to do, or account for the past, or plan for the future, or distribute what other people have produced. In other words, rather less than one-sixth of the total population is engaged in actual production; on average, each of them supports five others beside himself; of which two are gainfully employed on things other than real production and three are not gainfully employed. Now, a fully employed person, allowing for holidays, sickness, and other absence, spends about one-fifth of his total time on his job. It follows that the proportion of total social time" spent on actual production -- in the narrow sense in which I am using the term -- is, roughly, one-fifth of one-third of one-half; i.e. 3-1/2 per cent. The other 96-1/2 per cent of "total social time" is spent in other ways, including sleeping, eating, watching television, doing jobs that are not directly productive, or just killing time more or less humanely.

Although this bit of figuring work need not be taken too literally, it quite adequately serves to show what technology has enabled us to do: namely, to reduce the amount of time actually spent on production in its most elementary sense to such a tiny percentage of total social time that it pales into insignificance, that it carries no real weight, let alone prestige. When you look at industrial society in this way, you cannot be surprised to find that prestige is carried by those who help fill the other 96-1/4 per cent of total social time, primarily the entertainers but also the executors of Parkinson's Law. In fact, one might put the following proposition to students of sociology: "The prestige carried by people in modern industrial society varies in inverse proportion to their closeness to actual production."

There is a further reason for this. The process of confining productive time to 3-1/2 per cent of total social time has had the inevitable effect of taking all normal human pleasure and satisfaction out of the time spent on this work. Virtually all real production has been turned into an inhuman chore which does not enrich a man but empties him. "From the factory," it has been said, "dead matter goes out improved, whereas men there are corrupted and degraded."

We may say, therefore, that modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all. It has multiplied the number of people who are exceedingly busy doing kinds of work which, if it is productive at all, is so only in an indirect or "roundabout" way, and much of which would not be necessary at all if technology were rather less modern. Karl Marx appears to have foreseen much of this when he wrote: "They want production to be limited to useful things, but they forget that the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people," to which we might add: particularly when the processes of production are joyless and boring. All this confirms our suspicion that modern technology, the way it has developed, is developing, and promises further to develop, is showing an increasingly inhuman face, and that we might do well to take stock and reconsider our goals.

Taking stock, we can say that we possess a vast accumulation of new knowledge, splendid scientific techniques to increase it further, and immense experience in its application. All this is truth of a kind. This truthful knowledge, as such, does not commit us to a technology of giantism, supersonic speed, violence, and the destruction of human work-enjoyment. The use we have made of our knowledge is only one of its possible uses and, as is now becoming ever more apparent, often an unwise and destructive use.

As I have shown, directly productive time in our society has already been reduced to about 3¼ per cent of total social time, and the whole drift of modern technological development is to reduce it further, asymptotically to zero. Imagine we set ourselves a goal in the opposite direction -- to increase it sixfold, to about twenty per cent, so that twenty per cent of total social time would be used for actually producing things, employing hands and brains and, naturally, excellent tools. An incredible thought! Even children would be allowed to make themselves useful, even old people. At one-sixth of present-day productivity, we should be producing as much as at present. There would be six times as much time for any piece of work we chose to undertake -- enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real quality, even to make things beautiful. Think of the therapeutic value of real work; think of its educational value. No one would then want to raise the school-leaving age or to lower the retirement age, so as to keep people off the labour market. Everybody would be welcome to lend a hand. Everybody would be admitted to what is now the rarest privilege, the opportunity of working usefully, creatively, with his own hands and brains, in his own time, at his own pace -- and with excellent tools. Would this mean an enormous extension of working hours? No, people who work in this way do not know the difference between work and leisure. Unless they sleep or eat or occasionally choose to do nothing at all, they are always agreeably, productively engaged. Many of the "on-cost jobs" would simply disappear; I leave it to the reader's imagination to identify them. There would be little need for mindless entertainment or other drugs, and unquestionably much less illness.

Now, it might be said that this is a romantic, a utopian, vision. True enough. What we have today, in modern industrial society, is not romantic and certainly not utopian, as we have it right here. But it is in very deep trouble and holds no promise of survival. We jolly well have to have the courage to dream if we want to survive and give our children a chance of survival. The threefold crisis of which I have spoken will not go away if we simply carry on as before. It will become worse and end in disaster, until or unless we develop a new life-style which is compatible with the real needs of human nature, with the health of living nature around us, and with the resource endowment of the world.

Now, this is indeed a tall order, not because a new life-style to meet 16 these critical requirements and facts is impossible to conceive, but because the present consumer society is like a drug addict who, no matter how miserable he may feel, finds it extremely difficult to get off the hook. The problem children of the world-from this point of view and in spite of many other considerations that could be adduced -- are the rich societies and not the poor.

It is almost like providential blessing that we, the rich countries, have found it in our heart at least to consider the Third World and to try to mitigate its poverty. In spite of the mixture of motives and the persistence of exploitative practices, I think that this fairly recent development in the outlook of the rich is an honourable one. And it could save us; for the poverty of the poor makes it in any case impossible for them successfully to adopt our technology. Of course, they often try to do so, and then have to bear the most dire consequences in terms of mass unemployment, mass migration into cities, rural decay, and intolerable social tensions. They need, in fact, the very thing I am talking about, which we also need: a different kind of technology, a technology with a human face, which, instead of making human hands and brains redundant, helps them to become far more productive than they have ever been before.

As Gandhi said, the poor of the world cannot be helped by mass production, only by production by the masses. The system of mass production, based on sophisticated, highly capital-intensive, high energy-input dependent, and human labour-saving technology, presupposes that you are already rich, for a great deal of capital investment is needed to establish one single workplace. The system of production by the masses mobilises the priceless resources which are possessed by all human beings, their clever brains and skilful hands, and supports them with first-class tools. The technology of mass production is inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and stultifying for the human person. The technology of production by the masses, making use of the best of modern knowledge and experience, is conducive to decentralisation, compatible with the laws of ecology, gentle in its use of scarce resources, and designed to serve the human person instead of making him the servant of machines. I have named it intermediate technology to signify that it is vastly superior to the primitive technology of bygone ages but at the same time much simpler, cheaper, and freer than the supertechnology of the rich. One can also call it self-help technology, or democratic or people's technology -- a technology to which everybody can gain admittance and which is not reserved to those already rich and power. …

Although we are in possession of all requisite knowledge, it still requires a systematic, creative effort to bring this technology into active existence and make it generally visible and available. It is my experience that it is rather more difficult to recapture directness and simplicity than to advance in the direction of ever more sophistication and complexity. Any third-rate engineer or researcher can increase complexity; but it takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again. And this insight does not come easily to people who have allowed themselves to become alienated from real, productive work and from the self-balancing system of nature, which never fails to recognise measure and limitation. Any activity which fails to recognise a self-limiting principle is of the devil. In our work with the developing countries we are at least forced to recognise the limitations of poverty, and this work can therefore be a wholesome school for all of us in which, while genuinely trying to help others, we may also gain knowledge and experience of how to help ourselves.

I think we can already see the conflict of attitudes which will decide our future. On the one side, I see the people who think they can cope with our threefold crisis by the methods current, only more so; I call them the people of the forward stampede. On the other side, there are people in search of a new life-style, who seek to return to certain basic truths about man and his world; I call them home-comers. Let us admit that the people of the forward stampede, like the devil, have all the best tunes or at least the most popular and familiar tunes. You cannot stand still, they say; standing still means going down; you must go forward; there is nothing wrong with modern technology except that it is as yet incomplete; let us complete it. Dr. Sicco Mansholt, one of the most prominent chiefs of the European Economic Community, may be quoted as a typical representative of this group. "More, further, quicker, richer," he says, "are the watchwords of present-day society." And he thinks we must help people to adapt, "for there is no alternative." This is the authentic voice of the forward stampede, which talks in much the same tone as Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor: "Why have you come to hinder us?" They point to the population explosion and to the possibilities of world hunger. Surely, we must take our flight forward and not be fainthearted. If people start protesting and revolting, we shall have to have more police and have them better equipped. If there is trouble with the environment, we shall need more stringent laws against pollution, and faster economic growth to pay for antipollution measures. If there are problems about natural resources, we shall turn to synthetics; if there are problems about fossil fuels, we shall move from slow reactors to fast breeders and from fission to fusion. There are no insoluble problems. The slogans of the people of the forward stampede burst into the newspaper headlines every day with the message, "a breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay."

And what about the other side? This is made up of people who are deeply convinced that technological development has taken a wrong turn and needs to be redirected. The term "home-comer" has, of course, a religious connotation. For it takes a good deal of courage to say "no" to the fashions and fascinations of the age and to question the presuppositions of a civilisation which appears destined to conquer the whole world; the requisite strength can be derived only from deep convictions. If it were derived from nothing more than fear of the future, it would be likely to disappear at the decisive moment. The genuine "home-comer" does not have the best tunes, but he has the most exalted text, nothing less than the Gospels. For him, there could not be a more concise statement of his situation, of our situation, than the parable of the prodigal son. Strange to say, the Sermon on the Mount gives pretty precise instructions on how to construct an outlook that could lead to an Economics of Survival.

How blessed are those who know that they are poor:
the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. How blessed are the sorrowful;
they shall find consolation.
How blessed are those of a gentle spirit;
they shall have the earth for their possession.
How blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail;
they shall be satisfied;
How blessed are the peacemakers; God shall call them his sons.

It may seem daring to connect these beatitudes with matters of technology and economics. But may it not be that we are in trouble precisely because we have failed for so long to make this connection? It is not difficult to discern what these beatitudes may mean for us today:

We are poor, not demigods.
We have plenty to be sorrowful about, and are not emerging into a golden age.
We need a gentle approach, a non-violent spirit, and small is beautiful.
We must concern ourselves with justice and see right prevail.
And all this, only this, can enable us to become peacemakers.

The home-comers base themselves upon a different picture of man 24 from that which motivates the people of the forward stampede. It would be very superficial to say that the latter believe in "growth" while the former do not. In a sense, everybody believes in growth, and rightly so, because growth is an essential feature of life. The whole point, however, is to give to the idea of growth a qualitative determination; for there are always many things that ought to be growing and many things that ought to be diminishing.

Equally, it would be very superficial to say that the home-comers do not believe in progress, which also can be said to be an essential feature of all life. The whole point is to determine what constitutes progress. And the home-comers believe that the direction which modern technology has taken and is continuing to pursue --towards ever-greater size, ever-higher speeds, and ever-increased violence, in defiance of all laws of natural harmony -- is the opposite of progress. Hence the call for taking stock and finding a new orientation. The stocktaking indicates that we are destroying our very basis of existence, and the reorientation is based on remembering what human life is really about.

In one way or another everybody will have to take sides in this great conflict. To "leave it to the experts" means to side with the people of the forward stampede. It is widely accepted that politics is too important a matter to be left to experts. Today, the main content of politics is economics, and the main content of economics is technology. If politics cannot be left to the experts, neither can economics and technology.

The case for hope rests on the fact that ordinary people are often able to take a wider view, and a more "humanistic" view, than is normally being taken by experts. The power of ordinary people, who today tend to feel utterly powerless, does not lie in starting new lines of action, but in placing their sympathy and support with minority groups which have already started. I shall give two examples relevant to the subject here under discussion. One relates to agriculture, still the greatest single activity of man on earth, and the other relates to industrial technology.

Modern agriculture relies on applying to soil, plants, and animals 28 ever-Increasing quantities of chemical products, the long-term effect of which on soil fertility and health is subject to very grave doubts. People who raise such doubts are generally confronted with the assertion that the choice lies between "poison or hunger." There are highly successful farmers in many countries who obtain excellent yields without resort to such chemicals and without raising any doubts about long-term soil fertility and health. For the last twenty-five years, a private, voluntary organisation, the Soil Association, has been engaged in exploring the vital relationships between soil, plant, animal, and man; has undertaken and assisted relevant research; and has attempted to keep the public informed about developments in these fields. Neither the successful farmers nor the Soil Association have been able to attract official support or recognition. They have generally been dismissed as "the muck and mystery people," because they are obviously outside the mainstream of modern technological progress. Their methods bear the mark of non-violence and humility towards the infinitely subtle system of natural harmony, and this stands in opposition to the life-style of the modern world. But if we now realise that the modern life-style is putting us into mortal danger, we may find it in our hearts to support and even join these pioneers rather than to ignore or ridicule them.

On the industrial side, there is the Intermediate Technology Development Group. It is engaged in the systematic study on how to help people to help themselves. While its work is primarily concerned with giving technical assistance to the Third World, the results of its research are attracting increasing attention also from those who are concerned about the future of the rich societies. For they show that an intermediate technology, a technology with a human face, is in fact possible; that it is viable; and that it reintegrates the human being, with his skilful hands and creative brain, into the productive process. It serves production by the masses instead of mass production. Like the Soil Association, it is a private, voluntary organisation depending on public support.

I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful. To go for giantism is to go for self-destruction. And what is the cost of a reorientation? We might remind ourselves that to calculate the cost of survival is perverse. No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worth while: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear.