Why 'appropriate technology' has everything to do with the Catholic concept of subsidiarity

In his 1973 bestseller Small Is Beautiful, the British economist E.F. Schumacher outlined a concept that would come to be known as “appropriate technology.” This meant, in essence, adopting technologies that actually suit the needs they’re meant to address and the contexts in which they’re meant to operate. He was worried chiefly about technological overkill in international development, but it’s an idea that resonates elsewhere. In sum: Use the tool that fits the need.

Not incidentally, Schumacher converted to Catholicism two years before the book appeared; appropriate technology has everything to do with the Catholic (and common-sensical) concept of subsidiarity, which calls for simple, local problem-solving whenever possible. Catholic personalism, too, looks askew at any technology that furnishes more demands on its humans than the human needs it satisfies.

The concept of appropriate technology raises all sorts of questions about the use and proliferation of technology in the world today. Why do we invent labor-saving robots when there are people in need of work? Why do we build enough bombs to make the planet uninhabitable for the survivors? Why do we sell selfie sticks when there are plenty of other tourists around to take our picture for us?

My anxiety here is less dire than any of those. But it bugs me nonetheless. (As the title of Schumacher’s book suggests, perhaps seemingly small things matter more than we realize.) My anxiety, right now, is the perverse and pervasive overuse of PDF documents.

PDF stands for Portable Document Format. It first appeared in 1993 as a proprietary specification controlled by Adobe Systems. The goal was to allow people to pass around digital documents in such a way that they’d look the same no matter what computer they were loaded and printed on. In order to do that, the idea was, a document had to be very rigidly structured, with a defined size and all the fonts and images packaged together. This made eminent sense at a time when lots of people still printed out all their emails, when the computer was thought of as a document’s temporary waystation before reaching almighty paper. PDF’s popularity became good business for Adobe.

Many of us nowadays, however, have the gizmos sufficient to make screen reading quite practical and pleasant. We have light, portable tablets and phones. We can scale text to a comfortable size and, with the right software, choose a color scheme that’s easy on the eyes. At least until we open a PDF. Then, all of a sudden, we’re squinting to make out the text of an 8.5" x 11" page scaled to the size of a prayer card. And if you’re expected to fill out forms or “sign” the document, too, my condolences if you’re not running precisely the same version of Adobe Acrobat as was used to make the thing. (This is almost impossible for me, since Adobe stopped supporting Acrobat for Linux operating systems in 2013.) The kinds of interactivity PDF is expected to perform these days has made the specification hideously complex. It was first intended, after all, to become a printout.

On a daily basis, someone sends me a PDF file that I’m expected to read — perhaps an article or a book, or a form they’d like filled out. I don’t blame the senders; this is the way of things. For the same reason, I assign PDFs as readings to my students, wishing I had something better. Inevitably I try to read the thing on my computer or phone, and the shape of the file is at war with the shape of my screen. It begs to be printed.

Another way is possible. A far more appropriate technology for many of the things PDFs are used for today is EPUB — the non-proprietary, open ebook format employed by just about all digital-book sellers except Amazon. Based on HTML, EPUB can embed fonts and graphics like PDF, but it can also scale effortlessly to whatever screen it appears on. HTML is built for interactivity, so it’s only natural that the new version of EPUB can handle dynamic forms and scripts, too. EPUB files can be read not only on desktops, laptops, and smartphones, but on energy-saving ereaders.

Like PDFs, EPUB documents are designed to be seen and not edited, so they have that veneer of a finished publication to them. But nobody ever sends me EPUBs. Even Pope Francis’ latest encyclical is available on the Vatican website only in HTML and PDF. I had to convert it myself with Calibre so that I could have the reading experience the text deserves.

Technically speaking, EPUB is a fairly simple and adaptable format — just a webpage, really, with some extra goodies — but adoption has been slow, limited mostly to the book industry. It can do so much more than just ebooks. In theory, it should be fairly easy to export a robust EPUB from any word processor (complete with formatting and a table of contents), though only a luckyfew word processors support this. Most popular EPUB reading software — like iBooks and Nook — seem mostly built to get you to buy more ebooks. Exceptions like the open-source FBReader demonstrate how well-suited EPUB is for an adaptable, distraction-free reading experience. Perhaps commercial imperatives are getting in the way of appropriate technology that digital readers deserve.

I don’t pretend that Schumacher proposed his noble doctrine with my reading habits in mind. And PDF remains a sensible format for people intending to print something. It also works pretty well for presentation slides. But it’s a far-too-common, far-too-bloated obstruction for just about anything else. Appropriate is beautiful.

J Cosgrove
1 year 5 months ago
Hurrah for pdf's. They have reduced my paper footprint by about 80%. I have a reference library for my business of about 7,000 references. For years I would go to the library and copy documents. Now they are on my hard drive and available in an instance. I can search them, copy them and send them easily to a friend or colleague. They are also sizable so I do not understand the complaint. I know you can not change the font size and re-paginate but I can make them as big as I want for readability. I have nothing against epub except I cannot read them without a special program on my computer. PDF's just open and are sizable. Maybe some day soon epub will be as accessible as pdf's. Pdf's are a remarkable improvement. Are they the end technology and will not disappear in a few years? Certainly not. Just try to find audible tapes any more.
Nathan Schneider
1 year 5 months ago

Thanks for your rousing defense of PDF! I'm glad to hear the format has done so well by you. Note that the reason PDFs "just open" is that Adobe has made arrangements to ensure that its software is fairly ubiquitous on new, commercial operating systems; but when your OS can no longer run the new version of Acrobat, or (as in the case of my Linux OS) Adobe simply stops making new versions, one realizes how finicky the PDF format can be. It's a shame, too, that EPUB readers are not more plentiful; it's much the same technology as is found in any web browser.

One further advantage of EPUB, which you might appreciate in your library, is that they're more easily searchable, and it's much easier to copy text from them. PDFs prioritize layout over flowing text, and so often pasting text that was copied in a PDF comes out as gobblygook. In the long run, these are other reasons that EPUB is a superior format for digital-only libraries, when the priority is the text itself, not the layout.

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