Why E.F. Schumacher would embrace the digital revolution, by Adam Lent

Adam Lent is European Director of Research and Innovation at Ashoka. He is crowdfunding for his new book, Small is Powerful: Why the era of big business, big government and big culture is over (and why it’s a good thing). You can back the book and bag yourself a copy here

Adam is on Twitter here. You can see him speak at our Schumacher Circle talks on the 20th June, Small is Powerful

What would E.F.Schumacher make of the world were he alive today? He would doubtless be deeply alarmed at the way the use of fossil fuels had escalated since he wrote Small is Beautiful in 1973. He would also be dismayed that the developing world had so enthusiastically embraced ‘western’ economic models rather than carving out their own sustainable approach.

But one development would, I think, surprise but also delight him: the rise of new digital technologies.

Although Schumacher is probably best known now for his environmental arguments, Small is Beautiful is equally concerned with the promotion of a world where small scale enterprise based on affordable technologies allows creativity and autonomy to flourish. It is often forgotten that Schumacher believed strongly in private property and markets. His main worry was that these practices ceased to serve a useful purpose when businesses grew so large that they lost sight of their true purpose and simply became profit generation machines that treated humans as commodities.

Schumacher seemed to believe that the West had gone too far down the corporate road to change. Instead, he concentrated all of his efforts in his final years on persuading the developing world to adopt smaller scale, affordable technologies that would allow millions of small businesses to flourish.

However, the place where this spirit really caught on was not the back streets of Delhi or the rice fields of Burma but in the garages and workshops of California. It was there that a movement emerged that aimed to create a new computer technology that could be used by everyone in their own homes and businesses. As I explain in my book, Small is Powerful, the early pioneers who founded this movement were deeply inspired by a desire to challenge companies like IBM that had developed computer systems so expensive and complex that only corporations and governments could afford and use them.

Schumacher died only four years after his masterpiece was published, so he never got to see even the early stages of how digital technologies would change our world. But I think he would have been amazed and excited at how home computing and then the internet has put creative and entrepreneurial  power in the hands of millions that once belonged solely to large corporations.

He would see it as a vindication of his views on the need for affordable, human scale technology that the number of small firms has grown so enormously since the 1970s.  I think he would be excited by the way millions can now give free rein to their creativity through on-line platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.  He would also be gratified that a new type of economy was growing up around the internet based on peer-to-peer exchange and sharing much of which is done for free rather than material gain.

E.F.Schumacher could never be accused of complacency however. He would doubtless be looking to challenge the way technology firms themselves had become the vast, manipulative corporations those early pioneers had wanted to destroy.

I’m sure he would also be exploring how the full potential of digital technologies could be used to address inequality and poverty. What stands in the way, he might ask, of extending to other countries and sectors the mobile phone revolution in Kenya and Tanzania that has empowered small farmers.

He would be impatient also for the development of the ‘internet of things’ which looks set to challenge and decentralise a whole new range of sectors dominated by big firms including the energy market.

In short, Fritz Schumacher would see our world as one where both the threats and the opportunities to address those threats have expanded exponentially since the 1970s. This would be a source of great frustration to him but as a determined optimist I think he would also regard it as a great source of hope.