Tech is going back to basics

Ten ways to be low-tech not lowbrow

low tech5
A CNC router cutting a stencil Jeremy Cook

Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell recently wrote a book, The Knowledge, in which he dispenses post-apocalypse survival wisdom along the lines of industrial revolution-style ad hoc tech. This makes sense, since my cosseted generation is largely disconnected from the realities of hands-on doing and fixing a guidebook is a neat solution to making sure millenials don’t wither and die. While contemporary survivalist movements often get lumped into the hyperbolic world of doomsday prepper-ism, there seems to be a subtler underlying trend in our recent relationship with technology. Dartnell is certainly on the right track in preserving the sum total of human knowledge, but it seems that with the rapid advances made in smart tech, some people naturally want to reclaim a sense of control over their lives via tried-and-tested dumb tech. Most notably, one of these concerned individuals happens to be Stephen Hawking.  

One pillar of post-apocalyptic survivability is the ability to make do with the most basic materials. The resurgence of people powering their devices with fire and kinetic energy and other lo-fi approaches signals is a backlash against the twinned problems of environmental damage and the perceived esotericism/elitism of advanced consumer technology, which, in turn, perpetuates a loose sort of socioeconomic stratification. The bottom line is: people clearly still crave a sense of simplicity, and a nostalgic affection for the personal relationships they formed with technology of their youth. While we’re not exactly following the piper’s call to prep for the end of the world, we do like to get back to the basics. Dazed takes a look at the varied ways in which low-tech culture is making a comeback.

ABANDONWARE AS THE NEW ILLEGAL TECH

One yardstick to measure how a new tech might develop is to observe how people use it for secret, illicit things – Bitcoin and the Silk Road are probably the best-known examples. However, with NSA-a-palooza and the tiny issue of mass surveillance, it’s easier to just avoid that whole mess by using shitty old electronics that nobody likes anymore. As Popular Science discovered with Mexico’s Zetas cartel, “unlike cell phones, which are expensive, traceable, and easily tapped, radio equipment is cheap, easy to set up, and more secure. Handheld walkie-talkies, antennas, and signal repeators to boost transmissions [were easily available]…a radio network could provide communications in many remote areas…and if they suspected law enforcement eavesdropping…could easily switch frequencies or use commercially available software to garble voice transmissions.”  Thus begins the new bread and butter of illegal enterprise: abandonware, or obsolete technology that the rest of the world has literally abandoned and moved on from. 

low tech1
The Mexican drug cartels' new favorite toys - radios Lucas Castro - AFP - Getty Images

RECYCLING INFRASTRUCTURE

New York is rolling out a wildly ambitious plan to blanket all five boroughs in an extensive wireless network, by way of its old pay phone network. It seems like a fairly straightforward repurposing of the old phone booths, which are mostly used as platforms for advertisements under the control of three main ad companies. Future unused networks might include radio and cell phone towers, as commercial satellites become both more plentiful and more powerful. 

low tech2
Hack the planet...with old infrastructure Hackers

HACK THE SYSTEM

An independent security penetration testing firm has identified over 50,000 devices in “New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and cities in at least seven countries around the world that can be hacked using inexpensive gear…[including] a drone flying at heights of 650 feet and radio hardware that sells for $100.” I'ts not hard to believe, considering this one individual who simply bought a cell phone jammer in an attempt to make his morning commute safer and easier. Easily available electronics can allow people to hack into traffic systems, and in even more alarming news, hospital equipment . Part of the problem with the latter involved unencrypted communication between medical devices, which could lead to misdiagnoses and other potentially fatal screw-ups. The most interesting (read: terrifying) uses of basic equipment are the most dangerous in terms of possible deaths, injuries, and other harmful fallout, but I suppose something has to fund the infosec business? As drones work their way into the public consciousness, and as their owners and deployers work tirelessly to get us to accept them into public airspace, who knows what the future could bring in terms of constant and relentless hacking?

AIRCHAT AND THE RISE OF MESHNETS 

Meshnets aren’t new, but AirChat, an open-source communications protocol that uses amateur radio bands, has the potential to revolutionize truly free communication. The project’s creators claim they were inspired by the recent political uprisings in the Middle East, which were stymied by government attempts to regulate cellphone networks and enforce censorship. The beauty of AirChat lies in how it uses basic radio infrastructure (the creators also claim to have made a working prototype with light and laser based transmissions) to offer the sort of unsurveilled communication that Los Zetas in Mexico achieved with walkie-talkies and other decidedly primitive old devices. 

low tech3
Airchat promotes itself as 'free communications for everyone' Airchat

DECONSTRUCTING GLASS 

In light of Google Glass’s reported manufacturing cost – slightly less than US $80 – lots of people are wondering, quite rightly, what the hell the $1,500 price tag is all about. Most of what they’re paying for would ostensibly be Google’s robust infrastructure and the sweet convenience of having all your stuff synced and integrated, but even then, the price discrepancy is too ridiculous to ignore. Enter Adafruit’s much-celebrated DIY Glass, powered by Raspberry Pi. Their creation would be about $100, and the 3D-printed components are freely downloadable.

CROWDSOURCED METEOROLOGY 

A Dutch scientist has created a prototype smart umbrella to gather information about rainfall. As he explained, “we have radar and satellites, but we’re not measuring rain on the ground as we used to; it’s expensive to maintain the gauges. Therefore, agencies are reducing the number, and that’s a problem for people who do operational water management or do research into hydrology because they don’t have the access to the data they used to.” Dr. Hut’s prototype uses commercially available parts attached to a Winnie the Pooh umbrella, heralding an interesting DIY take on crowdsourced weather information (see PressureNet) with a distinctly cyberpunk aesthetic. Dr. Hut has a noble vision for his creation: “We would then have hundreds of rain gauges moving along a cityscape and that could greatly improve our ability to understand urban hydrology; it would greatly improve our ability to predict urban flooding and take measures when things are going bad.” 

Low tech 4
Rolf Hut's prototype umbrella, with piezo sensor Rolf Hut

ROUTERS, THE NEW 3D PRINTERS?

PopSci’s Jeremy Cook recently offered up a sweet balm to the onslaught of 3D-printing hype: computer numerical controlled routers (henceforth referred to as CNC routers). While 3D printers operate on ‘additive’ principles – that is, piling on raw materials until it takes shape of the desired object, CNC routers work the other way around, by shaving off the unwanted material from a block of plastic or piece of wood. They are, in Cook’s words, “a giant computer-controlled Dremel tool.”  The best part is they can cost slightly less than an average consumer 3D printer, and can work with more types of materials. The downside is that due to the decremental nature of CNC routers, you’ll need to scale the size of the router depending on the size of the thing you’re working with. Cook made himself a simple stencil, but possibilities abound. 

low tech5
A CNC router cutting a stencil Jeremy Cook

URINE AS SPACECRAFT FUEL 

This seems fairly self-explanatory, and you kind of have to wonder why it wasn’t thought of before. A joint research effort between the Universiry of Puerto Rico and NASA is devoting itself to a method that could convert astronauts’ urine into either workable fuel or drinking water. Using a new Urea Bioreactor Electrochemical (UBE) system, the research team managed to remove about 80 percent of organic carbon from the human waste “and successfully converted roughly 86 percent of the urea into ammonia.” 

REINVENTING THE TAPE

Sony, in a stunningly sentimental display of tech wizardry, somehow managed to cram 185TB of crap onto a retooled magnetic tape (i.e. cassette tape) – that is, “74 times the capacity of traditional tapes and the equivalent of 3,700 Blu-Rays.” While this is certainly one of the most heartwarming strolls down memory lane that I’ve ever had in the realm of consumer technology, I’m not sure whether this sort of tech will become popular in the world of consumer electronics. Nonetheless, magnetic tape remains a popular method of data storage for archival purposes and other realms hostile to the pressures of digital change, and this is only going to help preserve those cultures.

low tech6
A diagram of Sony's new magnetic tape tech

ANALOG GAMING 

In a refreshing reversal of old obscure stuff fueling new cool stuff, the world of gaming is actually experiencing a wonderful re-renaissance of old-fashioned analog games. Yes, games that aren’t digital! Those were once a thing! Board games, largely considered by unschooled millenials as the fusty ancestors of pixellated pew-pewing, are being brought back to life, thanks to the convenience of 3D printing, wireless technology, and more streamlined distribution systems. There’s never been a finer time for independent games to thrive, and while much attention has been paid to the world of independent digital games, especially iOS apps and other mobile distractions, analog gaming is still the ideal platform to offer players a meaty narrative and emotional connection to the mechanics. Most importantly, it brings the human element back into gaming, as you’re forced to face your opponent in the flesh. What this means is a more fertile ground for AR gaming concepts like Ingress, which combine the best of both tangible and intangible worlds into possibly the most exciting incarnation of technology to come. 

low tech7
Google and Niantic Labs' Ingress combines the best of analog and digital gaming
More Arts+Culture