Friday, January 1, 2016

A Pixelized Meditation

From The Frailest Thing - Electrification, Refrigerators, and the Social Construction of Technology:

The history of technology is full of similar stores about social factors conditioning the adoption of new technologies. In a post titled “How the refrigerator got its hum,” science writer Alice Bell briefly recounts the story of early refrigeration and the adoption of electric over gas refrigerators. It’s a quick and interesting read if your are not familiar with the story. She notes near the end that, “In many respects, the history of technology is a history of failed machines; of routes we didn’t take, not the ones we did.” And she cites David Edgerton’s Shock of the Old to the same effect:

The history of invention is not the history of a necessary future to which we must adapt or die, but rather of failed futures, and of futures firmly fixed in the past. We do not have a history of invention, but instead histories of the invention of only some of the technologies which were later successful (Edgerton, 2006: 184. Emphasis as original).

She then ties it all up with the following conclusion:

And there’s the moral of the story: the possibilities around technology are multiple. They are not limitless, but they aren’t singular either, and they certainly are not linear. There are choices when it comes to the technologies we choose to take on, and choices about how we make use of them, when and if.

This is very well and succinctly put. I would only add that these choices later constrain and condition future choices yielding what Thomas Hughes has called “technological momentum.”

On the wheel:

The English word wheel comes from the Old English word hweol, hweogol, from Proto-Germanic *hwehwlan, *hwegwlan, from Proto-Indo-European *kwekwlo- an extended form of the root *kwel- "to revolve, move around". Cognates within Indo-European include Icelandic hjól "wheel, tyre", Greek κύκλος kúklos, and Sanskrit chakra, the latter both meaning "circle" or "wheel".

Reader Mark comments:

But, if you look at historical trends as the author suggests, was there ever a point in human history that an emergent technology was not fully developed/weaponized/exploited/optimized, down to its dregs? I suppose there may be a few footnotes in history where such symbolic acts occurred, but this are local minima which were promptly subsumed by other actors. Whether it’s China closing its and inducing a dark age, Luddites smashing their mills, or the errant Kaczynskis and eco-terrorists, whatever efforts we’ve undertaken to shape or direct technology seem to have been largely fruitless. I suppose you could argue in the vein of counter factual history that we _did_ divert the rivers somehow, but that kind of reasoning seems downright conspiratorial, e.g. the folks on certain forums where the design of perpetual motion machines is treated seriously believe the technologies they are developing are being intentional thwarted by nefarious forces. 
Setting aside historical trends, though, if you take the view, as I do, that technology is fundamentally an extension of the life force and not a rump appendage foisted upon us by happenstance, then there is a certain inevitability to it. Recent proposals in this area suggest that technology really is as inexorable as the laws of thermodynamics.

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