An Interview Series —
The Low-Tech Web with Kris De Decker
Text by Jess Henderson
Photos by Kris de Decker
Text by Jess Henderson
Photos by Kris de Decker
Offline Matters: An Interview Series is co-presented with No Fun Mag, a membership newsletter by Jess Henderson, author of the book Offline Matters: The Less-Digital Guide to Creative Work.
In our second interview of this series, Jess speaks with Kris De Decker. He is the creator and author of ‘Low-Tech Magazine’, a magazine and blog that is published in English, Dutch and Spanish. Since 2007, Low-Tech Magazine refuses to assume that every problem has a high-tech solution.
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As the founder of Low-Tech magazine, I’d first like to ask you about the definition of ‘low tech’. Since 2007, ‘Low-Tech Magazine refuses to assume that every problem has a high-tech solution.’ How does low tech differ to high tech? Is it a form of technology and its running/build/functionality, or is it something like a mindset/ideology/subculture?
Low-tech is not a noun or a concept, it is an adjective. It can only be defined in relation to something else. For example, a mobile phone without internet connection is now considered low-tech, because it is compared to a smartphone. However, twenty years ago, when the smartphone did not exist, a mobile phone without internet connection was high-tech. People often believe the latest technology is also the best one, but often that is not really true. You win some, you lose some, but we never talk about the losses.
When it comes to internet usage and ‘being online’, so much of the conversation is dominated by discussions on platform capitalism, social networks and their effects, screen time issues, health impacts, surveillance and security, etc. We hear very little about the ecological consequences of using the internet.
What’s to be said about time spent online and the digital industry’s impact on ecosystems? Rather than ‘offline romanticism’ for personal wellbeing, how about going offline for the sake of the environment?
For years we have been told that the internet is a sustainable alternative to physical products or activities. So it’s not a surprise that people don’t realise that the internet uses resources too. But there’s nothing virtual about the internet. It is an infrastructure like any other, based on abundant energy and material resources. The network, the data centres, the end use devices, the factories that make all these appliances: they are all very real.
— Gerry McGovern, on the specifics of energy and web tech.
Besides the rising amount of time spent online, heavy webpages are another big cause of how the internet is increasing energy usage. Do you have some tips for web developers, coders and designers on thinking lightweight and creative alternatives?
The average website is a disaster. Just like the internet users, those who build websites have never thought about energy use. There is a lot of progress to be made here. It would be great if people were more careful with images and – especially – videos. Upload images with low resolution, don’t make video’s start automatically, learn about techniques such as dithering, and so on.
Many websites also don’t change that often, so they might as well be static websites, which are more resource efficient than dynamic websites. Advertisements also raise energy use. It would help if popular programs like WordPress would make sustainability part of their design. For example, that they would automatically convert images into lower resolutions.
In the Xenofeminist Manifesto (2018) there is a simple piercing statement: “Technology is not inherently progressive.” We tend to think of this in terms of social effects or controversies like data collection, however your work reminds us that many technological things that quickly become obsolete or broken today did not become unusable so rapidly in the past.
Household appliances are an easy one, though our smartphones are also designed in ways conducive to needing replacement. For one, their production is energy intensive (their production is more of a problem when it comes to energy use than the every day charging of devices), but they are also not modular so cannot be repaired by the consumer in parts. This relates to the dismissal of the mechanical or analog as progressive. However, anyone with a creative bent can relate to the sensation of analog practices, such as playing an instrument, drawing by hand, or typing on a typewriter, as being noticeably different to their digital counterparts.
Is there a relation to be noted here on how we progress technology— that we could have a new assessment on what’s truly progress and what’s not facilitating us? Have you been imagining any new forms of technology that could be a progress on what we have today?
I think that technological progress is mainly steered by market mechanisms. Meaning that new technology is first of all meant to make money and keep the economy growing. Without marketing, nobody would buy all these things. As for digital and analog: yes, the focus on digitalisation is problematic. I am not against digital technology, but it has clear drawbacks compared to analog alternatives. And people know that. For example, they did not stop buying paper books because of e-books.
But here we have a choice. If paper money is replaced by digital money, we may not have the choice to stick to the analog alternative. Concerning the last question: I think any new technology that could be defined as progress will resemble some old technology. But one could also innovate without raising material and energy use.
So often when we talk about ‘going offline’ it is associated with disconnection. In your work with low tech, you report that you in fact spend more time with people and don’t have heavy ties to technology. How we’re using tech today appears more conducive to increased individualism than it does community or collectivity. Sure, there are digital communities, but people feel lonely too and the pandemic has only increased that despair. I like your words that ‘We need more social innovation, not technological innovation.’ Can you paint a picture of innovation in our social realms that low tech can have a role in?
Loneliness is a big problem in industrialised societies. I read recently that 42% of people in the Netherlands feel lonely. These were problems that did not exist in pre-industrial societies, because people were part of a community. Today, the economic system encourages individualism because it is more profitable. Everyone needs their own kitchen, bathroom, etcetera. In the past, many of those household talks were organised communally. People washed their clothes together, for example. We need more shared services and products, but please there’s no need to use apps and digital technology for that. Communal services are local by definition, so just talk to your neighbours!
Loneliness is a big problem in industrialised societies. I read recently that 42% of people in the Netherlands feel lonely. These were problems that did not exist in pre-industrial societies, because people were part of a community. Today, the economic system encourages individualism because it is more profitable.
Your website is run on a solar-powered server at your home in Barcelona and when there is no sun it is offline. This is a radical idea in the world of tech (always on, 24/7). The site gives a weather report, to tell visitors when to anticipate bad weather (site potentially off), and visualises a battery level to see how much solar charge is available right now.
Considering this more seasonal approach to our technologies could be so profound. Imagine if there were ‘working hours’ for websites. This could hugely impact overwork culture and the expectations employers put on their employees – as just one positive scenario. What has been the response to the solar site, and have you seen anybody inspired to de-fossil fuel theirs too?
Yes, there’s about a dozen websites made that were inspired by the solar powered website, and some of these are really good. The response was great, we seem to have created a milestone in web design, almost accidentally. We need limits, but these can take many forms. These could be opening hours indeed, especially for local websites. It doesn’t work for internationally read websites – like Low-tech Magazine – because of the different time zones.
You’ve had people reach out to you who have limited internet access due to weak connections that report having difficulties reaching many websites. I like the anecdote you gave about receiving a mail from somebody who lives in a remote jungle saying, ‘finally a website I can visit!’ about the solar site. It makes me see how exclusive the internet is to so many people when all these heavy pages are only accessible to those with strong, fast internet connection. It privileges those living in cities or those who can afford a good connection and leaves out a whole lot of access to those who don’t. Have you thought about how more low tech approaches to online technology could make the internet at large more open, accessible, and ‘democratic’?
Indeed the worldwide web is not worldwide at all. There’s a lot that needs to be done to repair the internet. It has been ruined by advertising and corporate interests. Almost all newspapers have a paywall. I’d love to see a movement rise in reaction to this!