Although low-tech originally meant simple and pre-industrial technology, nowadays the term is being used to describe a wide variety of practices that involve some form of technology that has a limited environmental impact. The general aims are accessibility, consideration of the environmental and social impact of a technology and a rejection of technological solutionism, planned obsolescence and consumer capitalism. For example, Phillipe Bihouix, author of L’age des low-tech, describes how France could become a low-tech country instead of a start-up country, questioning the faith in ’green tech’, which is supposed to provide a technological fix to the many environmental problems the country is facing. Instead of a return to a pre-industrial age, he proposes an exploration of possible paths towards an economic and industrial system that respects the limits of the planet 1. Another example is the Low-tech lab project, that was set up in 2015:

"At the Low-tech Lab, we use the term ‘low-tech’ to define the techniques, technologies, services and know-hows that stick to three main principles: Useful. Accessible. Sustainable". 2

Their mission is to show people how to live better with less. Another use of the term, although spelled differently is by Julia Watson, who wrote the book Lo-TEK 3, where TEK stands for Traditional Ecological Knowledge. The book explores nature-based technology, multi-generational knowledge and practices, to celebrate aboriginal innovation instead of discarding it as primitive and isolated from technology.

In relation to network technology, the term appears in the writing of Raghavan and Hasan, who describe a possible low-tech Internet based on simple radios connecting computers without Integrated Circuit boards, again to decrease networking dependencies 4. Another interesting case is Low-tech Magazine, by Kris de Decker. The online and printed magazine have been around since 2007 and since 2018 a solar powered website, designed and developed by Marie Otsuka and Roel Roscam Abbing, is also available. This solar powered site has been incredibly influential. The aesthetics as well as technical underpinnings have been copied by more and more online publishers, from individual artists to a game festival and a car manufacturer. The different ways the ideas informing the design of the solar website have been implemented by others is worth exploring. First the original idea: "to radically reduce the energy associated with accessing our content" 5. It is implemented by self-hosting a server completely powered by a solar panel. If there is not enough sunshine, the website will go offline. The creators did not want to maximize uptime, they wanted to reduce energy use. The viewer of the website sees an indicator of how much power is left in the battery powering the server. The design of the website is as simple and open as possible so that it uses as little power as possible both on the server and client side, and is accessible for older devices. To reduce the weight of each page, it is a static site using default typefaces, dithered images and has an off-line reading option.

Because the power usage determined the visual design of the website, it has a very specific aesthetic. More and more sites started copying this style, some from a similar environmental reasoning—aiming at a lightweight site—others stayed on the surface and emulated the design without applying the underlying principles. For its 2021 edition, small indie game festival Now Play This published its website using very similar visual design, using dithered images and a darker background color, but instead of the 561 kB of Low-Tech Magazine’s homepage, the festival’s website downloaded 36.88 MB mostly because of media players and JavaScript running in the background. Another example is Volkswagen Canada that uses ASCII art images and a lightweight design to sell electric cars 6. It is not so much the web design that is not in line with low-tech philosophy, it’s the selling of cars using environmental claims that is pure, yet creative, greenwashing.

A project using Low-Tech Magazine’s aesthetics that is ideologically more aligned with it, is Solar Protocol by Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson and Benedetta Piantella. It is a web platform hosted across a network of solar-powered Raspberry Pi servers set up in different locations around the world, serving content about the platform itself. When visiting the website, the request is sent to the server which is receiving sunshine at that moment. The visual design of the website also changes depending on which server responds to the request, and how much energy is available. The aim is to add more and more servers to the network, in order to avoid downtime, as the website says: "It’s always sunny somewhere!" 7. The creators call this ’energy-centred design’, which focuses on accountability, meaning that for instance computation done to generate visualisations on the site are done on the server, rather than on the client-side. That way the content is solar powered and the computational costs are not outsourced to website visitors. The biggest difference between Solar Protocol and Low-Tech Magazine is that the latter serves content about the potential of past and often forgotten knowledge and technologies that can be used to design a sustainable society, while the former only publishes about it’s own infrastructure. The second difference is that Low-Tech Magazine doesn’t chase the sun around the globe to maximize uptime, and serves a duplicate website from an old-fashioned server as a backup when the solar server is down 8. Both projects use new single-board computers, Solar Protocol needs three while Low-Tech Magazine only requires one (plus a regular server).

  1. Philippe Bihouix. 2014. L’Âge Des Low Tech: Vers Une Civilisation Techniquement Soutenable. Éditions du Seuil, Paris.
  2. Low Tech Lab. 2014. https://lowtechlab.org/en
  3. Julia Watson. 2021. Lo-Tek: Design by Radical Indigenism. Taschen, Cologne.
  4. Barath Raghavan and Shaddi Hasan. 2016. Macroscopically Sustainable Networking: On Internet Quines. In Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS ’16). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1145/2926676.2926685
  5. Kris de Decker. 2018. Low-Tech Magazine. https://solar.lowtechmagazine.com
  6. Volkswagen. 2020. Un Site Ecologique Pour Un Avenir Plus Durable. https://www.vw.ca/carbonneutralnet/fr
  7. Tega Brain, Alex Nathanson, and Benedetta Piantella. 2021. Solar Protocol. Retrieved May 21, 2021 from http://solarprotocol.net
  8. Kris de Decker. 2007. Low-Tech Magazine. https://www.lowtechmagazine.com/