David Weinberger
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The history of technology

29 September 2013

Ubuntu has proposed building a smart phone that is so powerful that when you get to work, you'd dock it and use it as your desktop PC. The Ubuntu Edge would be loaded with high-end features, including 128 gigabytes of storage, 4 gigabytes of RAM and the ability to connect to just about any phone network. Alas, the Edge will now be remembered as both the crowdfunded project that raised the most money and also the crowdfunded project that failed by the largest margin: Ubuntu raised $12 million but was aiming for $32 million. So, no Edge for you!

But if you're like the rest of us, what you're actually thinking is: No Edge ... yet. We have a sense of inevitability about our technology getting better and better, usually by relatively small increments. The storage capacity of phones gets bigger. Their batteries last longer. Their cameras get better. There are occasional steps backward as when a phone sacrifices battery life for more screen space, and there are occasional leaps forward, as when the iPhone was first introduced. But generally our story of technology is a tale of small technical achievements that enable the next set of achievements, and so on until the end of time.

You can see this way of telling the story of technology in the five-volume A History of Technology, edited by Charles Singer and published 1954-1958, which was hailed as a landmark when it came out. In its pages you'll find articles about everything from the cultivation of potatoes to refining silver to glass making. The overall aim is to track and explain differences and changes. For example, we learn that in 1839, machine tools were improved by the introduction of "the split nut by which the lead screw of a lathe could be engaged at will to make the saddle traverse."

The chapter on the development of mechanical clocks tells just that sort of story. From the first mechanical clocks in the fourteenth century on through spring-powered pocket watches, the story of the clock is a tale of one innovation leading to another. The anchor escapement was replaced by the verge escapement. Coiled springs were introduced, and the stackfreed was invented in order to counter the uneven force these springs exert as they unwind. If the chapter continued into the 20th century we would have heard about the disruptive invention of digital watches, and the further refinement and elaboration of that digital technology—one innovation leading to another, pretty much like the ticking of a clock.

We still tell exactly this sort of story. You could see it at this summer's clock exhibition at the Frick Collection, where the signs on the walls explained the introduction of watches in the mid-sixteenth century "following the refinement of spring-driven clocks ... " Tick tock.

A history that didn't note the dependency of a new technology on the technologies that came before it wouldn't be doing its job. But neither is one that only explains the history of technology in those terms. For example, the recently deceased David Landes begins his great book on the history of clocks, Revolution in Time, by asking why mechanical timepieces arose in the West and not in China, especially since China had a long history of non-mechanical clocks, including sophisticated water clocks. The answer Landes gives takes us out of the realm of the march of mechanisms. China didn't invent the mechanical clock, Landes concludes, because they saw no reason to coordinate human activities more closely than their existing clocks enabled. The European timepieces they saw struck them as interesting toys.

Likewise, Lewis Mumford in his 1934 Technics and Civilization traces the history of mechanical clocks back to the sense of disorder that came from the fall of the Roman Empire, and then the introduction by a seventh century Pope of a schedule of hours when prayers must be said. Further, says Mumford, we can't understand the development of clocks without understanding the philosophical framework developed in Europe and Britain that abstracted and quantified the concept of time. The history of technology is not just the history of technology. It takes more than technology to explain technology.

If something like the Ubuntu Edge is inevitable, that is not because it is the next step along a trail of incremental improvements. It's because we've decided that that step makes sense. But if we're not actively arguing about the context in which such steps do or do not make sense, then our decisions are not really decisions at all.