WhistlePig Toys

High Tech and Low Tech

You may wonder what's interesting about a balsa wood glider in the age of autonomous drones, self-driving cars and voice-recognition electronic assistants. After all, aren't balsa wood gliders pretty Low Tech?

High tech as it is usually defined is something on the cutting edge; it is the newest and most advanced thing out there. Of course that doesn't always mean it's the best or most useful thing out there.

Another way to think about "levels" of tech is this: "high" tech builds opon an foundation of other technology. This then raises the question of what "technology" itself is. Technology is a state of knowledge about tools.
It is the body of understanding of how to do things.

The word comes from the greek "tecne": art, skill of the hand, and "logia": branch of learning.

The most basic of technologies, then, start with what can be done with the hand. The first time a rock or a stick was used as a tool was the earliest of "tech."
When a rock was used to fashion a blade from flint or obsidian, the next level of tech was born. When the first bow and arrow was made, constructed with a shaped arrowhead and wood cut with a stone axe, the next level was created and so on.

Higher levels of tech multiply the effort of the user: A sharper knife makes a cutting task easier, faster and more precise. A bow an arrow brings home food more quickly. A plow and a farm makes sustenance more stable and predictable.

Much of the world today enjoys a high standard of living due to technology.

But how much of it is "high tech?"

There's tendency to equate "high tech" with "better tech". And that's often true, but it's worthwhile to consider what "better" really is.

Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, reviewed a list of engineering achievements of the 20th century. Number 12 on that list was spaceflight. Number four was systems for bringing people clean water. 1

As mundane as it is, and as "Low tech" as it seems, clean water is surely something we'd miss more than cat videos on the internet.

And it's really a misnomer to say water purification is "low tech." A modern water treatment and distribution system is a far cry from the open ditches and polluted streets of even a few hundred years ago. Tech built on tech to produce that result. So while it may have reached point where the tech does not change as rapidly as some other kind of tech, it certainly has reached a high level.

Something else to consider is that "lower tech" is more accessible. Remember that "technology" is the skill and art of the hand - the most basic tech is accessible to anyone. It also relies mostly closely one fundamental priniciples. A rock as a hammer is Newtons three laws of motion written literally in stone.

Higher tech is built on layers of lower tech - and while the physics doesn't change it may be obscured to the end user. Cell phones use the same principles of electricity as the simplest light bulbs. (What they add to it is something truly fantastic: The principles of quantum mechanics, something we don't see in everydy life, are what makes compact electronics and computers possible.)

They also rely on principles of radio communication, signal processing and antennas that were the province of high end hobbyists of a few decades ago.

The user of a cell phone does not often stop to think about electricity or radio. This is a phenominal success in the sense that these devices are tremendous multiplier for the user: world spanning access to information, instant communications, data collection and dissemination.

On the other hand it feels a bit like standing at a great height. You can see forever, but you're not sure if you are on top of a timeless pyramid of solid stone or on a wobbly house of cards.

Is a balsa wood glider Low Tech? Certainly they can be built by hand - all that is required is some wood, a knife and some glue. Consider however the knife: a high quality steel hobby knife is a product of millenia of Knife Tech going all the way back to that obsidian blade.
A sheet of planed, dimensional balsa wood is the result of machinery and transportation tech. (Balsa may grow on trees but it only grows in equatorial regions.)

Consider also that WhistlePig gliders are designed on a computer and cut with a computer controlled laser. There's some real high tech there.

And yet a balsa wood glider is accesible. The principles of flight are the same for it as for the most sophisticated jet. Newtons laws and fluid mechanics apply to a 11.75" wingspan Mystery Looper just as they do for a 230 foot jetliner. A balsa wood glider is assembled by hand, and flown by hand. The fundamentals are front and center, simple and solid. They provide a foundation for your pyramid of knowledge as you use tech to make the world a better place.

1 Neil Armstrong, National Press Club Luncheon, "Engineering in the 20th Century". https://www.c-span.org/video/?155533-1/engineering-20th-century

The full list is: (Note that this list was compiled in 2000 - the internet was judged likely to be more impactful in the 21st century than the 20th.)

  1. Electrification
  2. The automobile
  3. The airplane
  4. Water purification and delivery
  5. Electronics
  6. Radio and television
  7. Agricultural mechanization
  8. Computers
  9. The telephone
  10. Air conditioning and refrigeration
  11. The interstate highway system
  12. Space flight
  13. The internet
  14. Imaging technologies
  15. Household appliances
  16. Health technologies
  17. Petroleum technologies
  18. Lasers and fiber optics
  19. Nuclear technologies
  20. High performance materials