Electric Eel

Low-tech Magazine and a better internet for the Anthropocene

Issue 021
April 09, 2019


One of the many problems of reporting on climate change is the tendency to predict its consequences at mythic scale. The suggestion that the global climate crisis will unfold as a singular catastrophe that wipes out you, me, and everything we care about, plus Florida, is not only incorrect, it also leaves little incentive to deal with the crises already unfolding everywhere, all the goddamn time.

What we’ve come to think of as the apocalypse is already happening. That you read things on your phone means you already know this. With the acceptance of this truth lies a responsibility, albeit a harrowing one: to examine the conditions of daily life within crisis and attempt to improve it, or at least find a way to make it sustainable.

Low-tech Magazine was founded in 2007. It “questions the blind belief in technological progress, and talks about the potential of past and often forgotten knowledge and technologies when it comes to designing a sustainable society.” It’s run by Kris De Decker, a researcher, educator, and author of several books, and features writing on technology and sustainable energy use. Most online technology magazines embrace new and more tech with optimism and enthusiasm, and devote a considerable amount of their reporting to the acquisition of more gadgets and apps and stuff. In contrast, LTM is stoic, serious, and definitely not not pessimistic about our future with technology. The Obsolete Technology section considers the possibilities for old stuff — wood-burning engines, fruit walls, travel by horseback — to regain contemporary relevance. The Low-tech Solutions section suggests applying outdated logic to current issues, like reducing the use of air conditioning with circulating fans, or relying on hand-powered tools to perform simple repairs. The site also seems to bear its original 2007 design; reading it took me back to the Internet of my teenage years (my heart forever belongs to the right-side blogroll).

Last fall, LTM launched a new website that is solar-powered, self-hosted, with its own battery power storage, because “we like to practice what we preach.” The web server is located in De Decker’s home in Barcelona; the solar panel that powers it is perched on his balcony. The server uses 1 to 2.5 watts per visitor, or between 24 Wh and 60 Wh daily. For comparison, the average American household uses 10,399 WH daily. On a day without much sun, the website might go down — but you can monitor the battery power level, and the weather in Barcelona, as you read. It’s hovering between five and seven percent as I write this. It’s cloudy in Barcelona today.

The idea for a solar-powered Low-tech Magazine website was conceived in response to our gloabal over-reliance on a bloated Internet that is only growing. The size of the average webpage is over 1.7 MB (up from .45 MB in 2010, attributable to our growing preference for video); a page on the solar-powered LTM is .77 MB. The solar-powered website is also a static site, meaning it is generated once, and its information is stored on a user’s local hard disk. Most websites are dynamic, meaning they are generated anew, over and over and over again, each time a user visits. Instead of full-color, high-resolution illustrations and photography, all of the images at the solar-powered LTM are “dithered,” or compressed to grayscale. (The writing, though, is illuminating! Check out “Why the Office Needs a Typewriter Revolution,” “The 4G Internet That’s Already There,” and “Electric Velomobiles.”) Like all websites, it’s designed with the future in mind — but a future that prioritizes energy conservation over usage.

Because the solar-powered LTM is an ongoing project, the original site is still active, and De Decker does not know how long the solar-powered LTM will last. The website’s About page reads “What happens later is not yet clear” — a nod to more than the website’s expected lifespan, to the persisting crisis that inspired the project in the first place. Visit it now, while it — and we — are still here. —Naomi Huffman, Digital Director, MCD×FSG