Until the Industrial Revolution technology functioned on a relatively small scale. There were craftsmen and blacksmiths, cobblers and butchers; and a variety of other people worked with modest tools to serve the needs of society. But in the technological world of today, such professions have been pushed to the background, if not altogether eliminated. The very term technology invokes in our minds huge industries and factory systems, shipyards and refineries. But even in the current context, one may categorize technology in terms of its magnitude. I will follow a discussion by Paul De Forest on this matter. [Appropriate Technology: a Critical Appraisal (1980)].
The points to consider in such a classification are the following: Are the various subdivisions and facets of a particular technology highly concentrated, or are they dispersed widely? In the decision making processes and the organizational setup, is there a highly centralized structure? What about the scale of operation, i.e. its sheer magnitude? Is it a simple factory in the outskirts of a small town, or is it a mammoth complex of buildings in which hundreds or even thousands of people are employed? Is it an industry whose final product consists of only a small number of component parts, or does this product include a large number of different parts, some of them having to be manufactured by other industries? What about the capital investment involved? Is it of the order of a few thousand dollars, or perhaps a few million or even billion? Does the technology utilize highly sophisticated machinery? Does it call for significant expenditures of money for research and development?
On the basis of these criteria one refers to low, intermediate, and high technologies. It is also possible to have a mixed technology in which low and high may be combined without conscious effort, or a dual technology in which such synthesis is made as a result of intention and careful planning.
Such a classification is interesting not only because it throws some light on the complex nature of technological development in today’s world, but also in the practical problem of introducing technologies in various countries which are seeking them, irrespective of whether others may think if they need them or not. Recognizing that there are intrinsic differences between different types of technology, and knowing their advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits, at the various levels, one may choose or avoid one type of technology or another, depending on the needs and resources of a country at a particular period. Aside from this relevance in the context of deciding on the appropriate technology for a given society, this classification may also teach us something about the workings and power of technology at various levels.
September 9, 2010