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Heating People, Not Spaces — Low-Tech Magazine

Low Tech Magazine describes itself as "an online platform refusing to assume that every problem has a high-tech solution [...] underscor[ing] the potential of past and often forgotten technologies and how they can inform sustainable energy practices." The magazine challenges the notion that technology develops in a progressive manner, or that new technology is necessarily better. Rather, it argues, the forces that shape technological adoption often have less to do with improving something or solving a problem, but rather, meeting the needs of companies to sell new, bigger, and more complex products. These companies must follow the unceasing demands of capital to expand, develop new markets, and increase consumption. Their technologies, while new, have little to do with meeting human needs, and more to do with creating desires and cultural norms for an expensive product, regardless of the damage that it does to its users or to the world.

These structural forces leave abandoned a large area of unexplored technology: technologies that may have been useful but did not survive as market commodities, and were replaced and outmoded, despite having perhaps surprisingly positive traits. While praising mechanical windmills or typewriters may seem somewhat goofy, the magazine encourages the reader to see how our objection to "low" technology is often based not on reason, but on cultural norms and an ideological attachment to an abstract notion of "technological progress," defined as greater complexity and higher levels of production and consumption.

Heating People, Not Spaces is one of several vanity-published book-length collections of articles from Low Tech Magazine's solar-powered website. It discusses indoor temperature regulation and argues, broadly, that our standard approach of temperature regulation via thermostats and central heating is backwards and enormously wasteful. Rather, we should look to alternative technologies that focus on heating people, not spaces, including tile stoves, thermal clothing, and, their favorite "low" technology: the hot water bottle. This is an archetypical "Low Tech Magazine" technology: simple, obvious, extremely effective, overlooked, and a bit eccentric. Hot water bottles are a low-tech solution to keeping the body warm: just get a couple water bottles, fill them with hot water, and keep them close to your body.

The energy one saves from using hot water bottles rather than warming an entire room (or warming a room far less) is so staggering that the strangeness of this idea is turned on its head — isn't it actually far more bizarre that we insist on a large amount of wasteful and complex infrastructure to heat an entire room, rather than just our bodies? And the advantages are more than just saving energy: when focusing on heating people over spaces, each individual can choose their own ideal temperature. The only barrier is the abnormalcy of the practice.

The reasons that "low" technologies are abandoned or overlooked often has little to do with a better technology coming along, but rather with social forces such as marketing or changing norms. The magazine discusses the concept of "comfort standards," an apparently regulated and standardized set of guidelines that inform building codes, and which are apparently heavily influenced by ASHRAE, a business organization representing the American heating and cooling industry. Our desires and expectations around indoor heating and cooling thus can be thought of less as a matter of personal taste or consumer choice, and more one of generated demand created by an industry's lobbying.

Low Tech Magazine's vision is not about austerity or Luddism. Rather, while we may associate large rooms with efficient central heating with wealth and luxury, whereas keeping a hot water bottle on your person seems goofy and ascetic, careful consideration reveals that this is merely a cultural association (created by an industry with economic interests) that often has nothing to do with the objective characteristics of the technology itself.

For a highlight from this book, check out The Revenge of the Hot Water Bottle.