Sunday, April 1, 2012

AT@40: what was said

AT @40 Conference in London in March marked 40 years since the first big ‘Alternative Technology’ (AT) conference at UCL in 1972. That had led to a complaint by one participant that “I came here to talk about windmills not politics.” The AT@40 gathering at the AA was also mostly about politics, but with older and maybe wiser participants.

The oldies certainly laid out the stall again well, with Peter Harper (who invented the term ‘AT’) taking us through the way the idea had emerged in an amazing conceptual tour, effectively a prequel, and Godfrey Boyle (who did much to promote AT over the years) looking at how it then developed and where it was going: it was getting bigger but we ought to stick with the subsiduarity principle. I also got my oar in, but then readers will be familiar with my views! Perhaps more refreshing was the paper by (relative newbie!) Stephen Peake, putting it all in a macro context. Was AT all about hard core decentralism? Is that where we are really headed? If not, is it where we can and should go?

There were some interesting papers circulated at the meeting and talk of producing a book based on it. But as a taster, the paper from Catherine Forrester noted that when the AT idea was looked at by the Lucas Aerospace workers, who were developing a plan for alternative socially useful work, they were unwilling to think about producing what one described as ‘gimmicks for individual architect built houses’ or ‘playthings for the middle class’. And she also notes that were unimpressed by the rhetoric of parts of the AT movement: ‘They just repeat the clich├ęs of condemnation of an advanced technological society. In effect, they give us the choice of going off to the mountains [or] onto the dole queue’.

Maybe a bit aggressive- the AT movement did try to develop community-scaled projects. And as Forrester concludes, ‘both projects were expressions of the same phenomenon of groups presenting a radical socio-technical critique and attempting to create prefigurative spaces in which alternative social forms could exist through an alternative technology. They exhibited a deeply political understanding of current and potential technology, in marked contrast to the purely technical nature of the ‘alternative technology’ we recognize today. The term has shifted from describing a technology that will enable an alternative society, to a technology which provides an alternative means to enable current social structures to be maintained.’

Fast forwarding back to AT@40, David Dickson gave an interesting account of how he came to write the seminal book ‘Alternative Technology’ all those years ago. Its original title was ‘the Politics of technical change’, but ‘AT’ had become a buzz word so the publisher wanted it to be to main title! He had been, and still was, a bit ambivalent about the term ‘AT’. His analysis reflected the then current view on the left that the nature of existing science and technology was shaped by existing and historical power relations, and needed to be challenged. Faith in science had certainly been dented- it seemed to offer increasing threats- but there were still promises. The emerging ‘social constructionist’ view implicitly implied that there could and should be alternative scientific and technological practices, leading to new outcomes. But was AT an (or the) example? It was still too early to say, he thought- that would be up to historians to decide!

AT@40 wasn’t all about (old) ideas, or just an autopsy of AT. It still lives! It was good to have practical engineering inputs from Derek Taylor on how wind energy had emerged and was still was developing, and from Peter Fraenkel who reported on the various AT projects he had pioneered from the 1970s onwards, leading up (in scale) to the hyper successful 1.2MW SeaGen marine current turbine. While oldies like this were still clearly at it, Trystan Lea provided a good input on some new ICT directions now emerging that should ensure that ideas can spread and be used effectively- Open Source Sustainable Technology. See http://openenergymonitor.org

There were many other fascinating inputs and some interesting discussions amongst the 50 or so people attending. How did we deal with the current success of alternative energy ('going straight’ Peter Raine ex-CAT); what was the role of local initiatives and community groups (Adrian Smith, by video, and John LeCorney, www.syec.co.uk) and local councils (Martin Fodor from Bristol); ending up where we started by asking, does it all add up to a challenge to how technology is developed (Matt Paskins from Imperial College - relaying ideas from Catherine Forrester, who sadly couldn’t be there). Micheal Sealey gave an interesting historical account of the multi-faceted activities of one 70's pioneer, Kit Pedler, sadly no longer with us.

However, the survivors and the new adherents to the cause, still look like they have more to offer, so AT@40 definately wasn’t a wake. Even for Renew the AT journal I edit! Although as Tam Dougan, its co-ordinator, noted, it was ending pdf distribution, in its soon to be revamped web guise, it will still try to relay what happens next!

The above is from Renew 197, forthcoming: www.natta-renew.org.
There will be a fuller review in Renew 198