RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: We need less of ‘cool’ and more of ‘can do’

I’ve been accused of being both technology-besotted and technology-averse. I’m neither one. I’m just interested in using technology in appropriate ways. I’m fond of reminding people that a pair of scissors is perfect for a job that a pair of scissors can do. Scissors don’t need Tim Allen-style enhancements.

An example popped up from reading “The Soul of a Chef,” by Michael Ruhlman, where I ran across the statement by a young chef that a computer system made the difference in the profitability of his restaurant. I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that “The Soul of a Chef” is now 7 years old. I am way behind on my reading list.

The chef that Ruhlman wrote about was Michael Symon, who was at the time running the restaurant Lola in Cleveland. Symon had installed a computer system that tracked all the orders running through his restaurant, as they came in. Each order was paired with the ingredients it would need, their costs and the profit on each one. This has traditionally been one of a restaurant’s worst sinkholes, because many chefs are lousy bookkeepers.

Symon has solved both his procurement and bookkeeping problems. His kitchen runs like a modern manufacturing facility, at least in ordering and tracking. The intrusion of modern technology stops when the order ticket is printed out and hung up in the kitchen. The kitchen itself is still run the old-fashioned way, with knives, open flames on the stoves and battered pans. The newfangled improvements have their place, and Symon keeps them there. I think it’s a great example of appropriate technology. I wish the purveyors of cell phones were as wise.

I’m similarly fascinated with how people have adopted or modified things to suit their own environments. People who have to struggle for a living are rarely seduced by flashy colors or curiosities. For example, the Web site Street Use ( has descriptions and photographs of simple modifications from around the world. Here you can find a “water bucket” made from half of an inner tube (Russia), a blackboard that substitutes for CNN when headlines and stories are chalked on it (Liberia), and bead strings for doorways made out of discarded flip-flops (Kenya).

Much of it involves reusing items that have been discarded. Boats that still use sails, with the sails being sewn-together rice sacks (Niger River). In Ethiopia, a machinist turns spent mortar shells left over from that country’s war with Eritrea into espresso machines. Street vendors in Uganda overcome the spottiness of electrical power for cell-phone users by recharging batteries or whole phones at their street stalls. Yankee ingenuity even provides some examples from the United States. Rather than buy an expensive airconditioner, one inventor placed copper coils on either side of a standard room fan, then pumped ice water through the coils.

Vehicles come in for especially bold treatments. Gypsies in Belgrade strip old Citroen Dyana cars of everything but the seats, motor, steering gear and frame, then turn them into small trucks. People in Asia often go one better, turning ordinary motorbikes into beasts of burden, hauling livestock and other merchandise in impossible amounts.

An old Volkswagen van in Thailand becomes a street bar. A retired school bus is buried in the back yard and used as a root cellar. Pickup trucks are armored to become gun platforms for desert fighting, which make the vehicles look like something left over from shooting one of the Mad Max movies.

Of course, most of these examples are do-it-yourself tinkering, but engineers are starting to focus on appropriate technology, too, providing solutions for areas that can’t support the expensive mechanisms we take for granted. The site Engineering for Developing Communities ( says that appropriate technology is “… usually characterized as being small-scale, energy-efficient, environmentally sound, labor-intensive and controlled by the local community. It must

be simple enough to be maintained by the

people using it. Furthermore, it must match the user and the need in complexity and scale and must be designed to foster self-reliance, cooperation and responsibility.”

Appropedia ( lists many such projects. Solar power and methods of purifying water have assumed top priority. Solar power is used for heating, cooking, cleaning and even mowing lawns. In Indonesia, catfish apparently clean up septic tanks, and even the humble septic tank itself is being redesigned by several researchers.

To me, one of the drawbacks of living in a staggeringly wealthy country like ours is that we have unnecessary and inappropriate technology inflicted on us. My cell phone does a dozen things, when I need but one or two. An entertainment center must deal with media from at least five sources: DVD, CD, audiotape, videotape and cable TV, complete with numerous remotes ( Maybe we could learn something from the Third World, and boot Tim Allen out of our purchasing and engineering departments.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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