"Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology" is an important book with an iconoclastic message: namely, that many of the so-called appropriate, or "soft," technologies that are being urged on the poor countries by well-intentioned friends in the industrialized nations are "pretentious" and "romantic" -- and often just don't work.

That's the reluctantly arrived at conclusion of one of the founding fathers of appropriate technology, author Witold Rybczynski of McGill University. And he strongly suggests that it applies -- though for different reasons -- not only to the Third World, but also to this country's enchantment with "soft" technologies, such as wood-burning stoves and solar energy.

Rybczysnki's book amounts to a mightly assault on the "Small Is Beautiful" ideology that was appealingly set forth in 1973 by the late E. F. Schumacher. That work with an influence that extended from the so-called counterculture to the board rooms of big money-giving foundations, trumpeted the idea that far-out, highly developed technologies often spawned more difficulties than they solved; further, that they should be replaced by benign, ecologically harmonious machinery and devices embodying "appropriate," "intermediate," "soft" or "alternative" technologies. The movement even spread to the U.S. government, which established a National Center for Appropriate Technology in Montana.

Rybczynski cautions that the returns are incomplete from what is a relatively young worldwide movement, but he nonetheless observes that "small is not always beautiful, local is not always better, and labor intensiveness is not always desirable" -- the last a counter to the thesis that overpopulated poor countries should shun highly productive machinery. "Small technologies," he continues, "cannot avoid traditional economic strictures; a manufacturing process must produce useful products; an investment, no matter how small, must bring some increased benefit."

Despite the persistent Western belief in technological fixes for the feeble economies of developing nations, Rybczynski points out the "good intentions cannot replace good science," adding that "it appears that in India polemical considerations and influence from abroad have outweighed common sense." Examples, he says, are to be found in ingeniously designed wind-powered water pumps -- in a country whose non-coastal regions experience long seasons of windlessness; in "bio-gas" generators -- designed to turn wastes into burnable gas -- that fail to work in the cool of winter; and in specially subsidized village soap industries that quickly collapsed under competition from factory-produced brands.

In addition to technological shortcomings, Rybczynski states, there's a menace in appropriate technology's encouragement of "the belief that social reform can come about as the result of technological innovation. There is nothing in the Indian experience that supports this view. . . . Landlordism, powerful rural elites, conservative banks and rapacious moneylenders all conspire to maintain the poverty of the landless peasants. These social and political problems require social and political solutions; it is both presumptuous and naive to believe that technology alone will have any effect in a situation such as this."

As for the United States, with its growing interest in "soft" technologies, Rybczynski points out that, ironically, much of the movement here is self-indulgent rather than a steppingstone or alternative to modernization. "The wood stove," he observes, "is not an alternative to affluence. It provides satisfaction which electric baseboard heaters cannot give." And the same can be said of many other manifestations of the desire to renounce the supposed evils of advanced technology, says Rybczynski, as he concludes:

"So strident have been the demands to develop a new technology, and so eager has the public been to believe that the solution to the perceived ills of the Modern Age lies in changing horses in midstream, that these paper heroes have been believed. And now what? What if the workers don't like laborious machines? What if the bio-gas plants benefit the rich and not the poor? What if the wind machines are often too expensive? What if the solar heater falls apart after six months? What if no one wants to buy home-made soap? . . ."