EF Schumacher on the “Rarest Privilege”
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(Second in a series of articles highlighting the ongoing relevance of EF Schumacher’s vision.)
The Rarest Privilege
“(In a well-organized society, everybody) would be admitted to what is now the rarest privilege, the opportunity of working usefully, creatively, with his own hands and brains, in his own time, at his own pace – with excellent tools.”
“Work” often has a negative connotation.1 Yet Schumacher engaged in the following thought experiment: What if we were to put aside our typical associations with “work” and spend 20 percent more of our time using our minds and hands to engage in productive activity? What would that experience be like?
“Even the children would be allowed to make themselves useful, even old people…we should be producing as much as at present. There would be six times as much time for any piece of work we chose to undertake-enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real quality, even to make things beautiful. Think of the therapeutic value of real work: think of its educational value. No one would then want to (leave) the labor market. Everybody would be welcome to lend a hand. Everybody would be admitted to what is now the rarest privilege, the opportunity of working usefully, creatively, with his own hands and brains, in his own time, at his own pace – with excellent tools. Would this mean an enormous extension of working hours? No, people who work in this way do not know the difference between work and leisure.”
Schumacher called his vision “romantic” and “utopian” but noted that we needed to cultivate “the courage to dream if we want to survive and give our children a chance of survival.”
Schumacher was cautious in his assertions, insofar as many aspects of the vision he described are not, in fact, hopelessly utopian: American history is replete with examples of projects that developed the skills and capacities of workers. Those fortunate enough to be involved in such
projects often loved their work, made “a really good job of it”, produced “real quality”, and were even inspired to “make things beautiful”.2
Creative Work Warrants a Different Kind of Technology
“Our crisis will become worse and end in disaster until or unless we develop a way of working which is compatible with the real needs of human nature, with the health of living nature around us, and with the resource endowment of the world.”
“To redirect technology so that it serves humanity instead of destroying it requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear.”
While digital technology and automation have developed in a way that is largely antithetical
to the advancement of human creativity and skillfulness3, Schumacher reminded us that the “use we have made of our knowledge is only one of its possible uses”. Our unwise and destructive path is neither necessary nor inevitable. He called for the development of a kind of technology that did not render human minds and bodies redundant but enabled us to become more skillful and more productive.
Schumacher was principally concerned with poverty, unemployment, and destruction of the biosphere. He felt these problems could best be addressed by technology that:
• Entailed active engagement of the worker.
• Provided useful work for large numbers of people.
• Conserved finite resources.
• Preserved the biosphere upon which our species depends.
Schumacher’s thinking was enormously influential and spearheaded the appropriate technology
(or intermediate technology) movement of the late twentieth century. Principles first articulated by Schumacher influenced leaders in fields as diverse as:
• Building and Construction
• Water and Sanitation
• Energy Generation
• Health Care
• Food Preparation and Storage
• Information and Communication 4
Evolution of the Appropriate Technology Movement
“The most effective mental health program in a poor country is the initiation of successful economic development programs…Economic development to me implies much more of a process in which technology and dollars are changed around so that they fit into the cultural realities of the country in which the economic development takes place. I regard this type of economic development, which concerns itself with improving the supplies of food, housing, self-esteem and income of poor people and poor countries, as a basic science for the practice of psychiatry”.Paul Polak5
Although Psychiatrist and Social Entrepreneur Paul Polak was among those deeply influenced by Schumacher’s ideas, in 2010 Polak pronounced the appropriate technology movement “dead”. He asked:
“What happened? How could such an inspiring movement with deep spiritual meaning have produced so little in the way of practical impact?” 6
Leaders of the appropriate technology movement lacked the business acumen necessary to
design technology that poor people found desirable or affordable:
“…the appropriate technology movement died because it was led by well-intentioned Tinkerers instead of hard-nosed entrepreneurs designing for the market.” 7
The movement that evolved from appropriate technology focused on “creating tools and strategies that release market forces to achieve impact and scale in initiatives to end poverty”. The new movement evolved such that it now uses “market driven methods” in its “ruthless pursuit of affordability”. 8
Decisions About Technology are Driven by Values
“What if the cost of machines that think is people who don’t?”George Dyson9
Research pursued in the 21st century reinforces the salience of Schumacher’s observations regarding the impact of pursuing technological “advancement” that is uninformed by an awareness of impacts on human development. In the interim we have learned that the effects of automation on humans are frequently irreversible. This “no turning back” quality that inheres to decisions to automate occurs because the human capacities required to perform functions that have been automated will be lost. Future cognitive functions upon which human skillfulness depends must then also be automated as the human capacity to perform such functions will no longer exist. 10
Schumacher recognized the link between destruction of the biosphere and the loss of human skillfulness. Since Schumacher first described this link in the mid twentieth century, changes to our minds induced by technology and automation – diminished communication skills, reduced interpersonal empathy, externally constructed personal identities designed with the approval of an audience as priority, shorter attention spans, agile mental processing at the expense of deep knowledge and understanding – have amounted “to a phenomenon whose enormous size and impact make it comparable to climate change.” 11
A culture uninformed by the considerations articulated by Schumacher has been described as a “Technopoly”.12 In such a society, technological capacities, rather than human deliberation, determine how we work and what we work at. The impact of technology on human development is not considered. Individuals in a Technopoly “seek authorization in technology, find satisfaction in technology, and take orders from technology”. The society is characterized by a surplus of information generated by technology which technological tools are then employed to cope with. Technology – rather than human deliberation – provides direction and purpose for society and individuals. The computer epitomizes a “near-perfect” technology in Technopoly because it establishes sovereignty over all areas of human experience based on the claim that it “‘thinks’ better than we can”. Since Technopoly’s idea of progress entails “obtaining information for its own sake”, it undermines cultural coherence and our capacity to access a “transcendent sense of purpose or meaning”. 13
While we cannot predict what new technologies will appear, nor even the application and rate of advance of technologies already in existence, we can discern how humans adapt to technology. Such adaptations impact the knowledge, skills, capacities, and emotional experience of those who work with the technology as well those who are rendered workless because the technological advancement has made human labor irrelevant.14 Assessment of whether work can and should be automated necessitates re-assessment of the purposes and functions of human endeavor. If there is no limit to the type of human work that technology could conceivably eliminate, are there categories of knowledge, skill, and capacities worth retaining? Conversely, are there skills, knowledge and capacities that have little or no intrinsic worth, and may just as well be discarded? Technological innovation inevitably entails assumptions about the ultimate purposes, functions, and ends of human endeavor, regardless of whether we subject these assumptions to scrutiny. Technological advancement proceeds in the absence of sufficient deliberation relative to the impact of such advancement on humans. Technology advances, but humans may regress as a result of such advancement. Technological advancement proceeds despite the likelihood that profoundly negative consequences ensue when the values that incline us to apply technology remain unexamined.
All italicized quotations are from the following source unless otherwise noted:
Schumacher, E.F. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Harper & Row. New
York. 2010. Originally published in 1973.
1. See “The Paradox of Play” (https://workosophy.org/2021/10/02/the-paradox-of-play/) and
“Beauty Alone Makes the World Happy (https://workosophy.org/2021/10/16/beauty-alone-
2. See “The WPA as Working Model: Guiding Principles and Key Projects”
projects/) See also Bernstein, Peter. The Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the
Making of a Great Nation. WW Norton & Company. 2006.
3. Carr, Nicholas. The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Norton & Company, 2014.
5. https://web.archive.org/web/20130511071426/ http://blog.paulpolak.com:80/?p=376
8. Amy Smith’s D-Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jim Patell’s Design for
Extreme Affordability at Stanford exemplify organizations that employ such principles.
9. George Dyson is quoted in: Carr, Nicholas. The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Norton &
11. Greenfield, Susan. Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our
Brains. Random House. 2015.
12. Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage. 1993.
14. Brown, Andrew O. “Technology-Induced Workplace Change.” Bulletin of the Academy of
Organizational & Occupational Psychiatry. April 2015.