History of Technology banner

Lecture: Introduction

What is technology?

arm and hammerTechnology is an extension of ourselves that we create. For example, a hammer is an extension of ones arm, increasing its effectiveness. Technology can also be anything that isn't "natural", that is manufactured by humans.

In this class, we will focus on the technologies that emerged in Western culture, from the beginnings to today. But we don't want a laundry list of inventions and devices. Rather we want to explore how those devices came about, and what they say about us and our history.

Whenever we learn about history, any kind of history, we are influenced by our own era. At present, to look at technology means to focus on innovation (1). I think this is partly because of the business emphasis on new products and inventions, which our contemporary society values highly. That focus is then reflected back through the past. Anything new or different is seen as a turning point, and items used for years or centuries are often ignored. Another trend at the moment is the idea that technology causes things, such as social change. This may be because in our own time it often feels like technology has a will of its own, that technology is changing faster than we can handle.

I think both of these perspectives, the focus on innovation and technological causation, have some merit but cannot tell the whole story. To focus only on new inventions, or to see innovation as something conscious in past societies, is deceptive. It may well be that inventions used over very long periods of time are those which have staying power, and thus reflect our history better than new items. The idea that technology is deterministic is also problematic. To me it seems like putting animate objectives onto inanimate objects. When a particular technology causes something, or when it "wants" something (2), we imply that its power is beyond our control.

Kevin Kelley on What Technology Wants, TED Talk (20 minutes)


Trouble viewing? Watch here on TED Talk website.

Although there have been times when technology has indeed been beyond our control, to study history within a framework beyond human control is dangerous. It is hazardous in terms of accuracy, but it also is morally dangerous in that it may imply lack of responsibility for our own creations.

How does technology happen?

The old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. In other words, when there is a need, someone invents something to fill the gap.

If this is so, there would be many incremental inventions and technological changes over the years. Something works, but not as well as it could, so an insightful user adds a part or changes something slightly. The more useful designs, presumably, get adopted.

Leonardo aerial screwAnd yet, when we study history, we are often presented with Great Inventions and Great Inventors (Gutenberg, Leonardo, Maxim, Oppenheimer). This fits with the "Great Man" theory of history. It's the same kind of thinking that leads us to talk about "revolutions" - the Neolithic Revolution (suddenly, agriculture!), the Agricultural Revolution (suddenly, lots of food!), the Industrial Revolution (suddenly, industry!). As you can tell, I distrust this kind of history. It's useful to help explain when certain elements of technology come together to create social, economic or political change.

I prefer the idea of continual development, where incremental changes make technology more useful, and ideas emerge and re-emerge. Take, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's work. His Aerial Screw is a15th century design for what we would today call a helicopter. The idea of human-powered flight emerges and re-emerges. So does submarine transport (there were submarines spying in the American Revolution) and body part replacement ( there was a leg transplant in the 3rd century).

My approach

My focus in this class will be three-fold: showing the significance of those innovations that somehow changed human productivity, explore the unexpected consequences of these technologies, and determine (where possible) which useful technologies were lost in the process.

Pessary sheathBecause things were lost. It's easy to assume that each technology replaces "outdated" technologies, and to some extent this is true. But some of those "outdated" technologies were good, useful, efficient, or even superior to the technologies that replaced them. The first example that comes to my mind is the pessary/sheath, an early 20th century birth control device. Rolled up, it was a cervical cap, used by a woman. Unrolled, it was a condom used by the man. In between, it was easy to clean, and could be reused by either party. Some more recent examples might be Betamax tape (better than VHS) and Firewire cables (better than USB). I'd also argue that high-fidelity long-playing vinyl records sound better than compact discs. For obvious reasons, lost technologies are hard to study! We'll include them wherever we can.

In fact, I'd say there's a theme for this class: When technology advances, important things are always lost.

I also want to leave time for dreams. During every era, creative people explored nature to consider how to control and adapt its power to answer human needs and desires. Particularly with the popularity of fictional writing from the 18th century on, we also have stories where authors imagine technologies that could be. These science fiction and futurist writers, scholars, and artists provide visions of technology that both reflect their own time, and provide blueprints for later innovations. In many cases, these works also provide advance warning that technology can cost us our morality and our humanity.

 

 

(1) David Edgerton, Innovation, Technology, or History: What is the Historiography of Technology About? Technology and Culture, Volume 51, Number 3, July 2010, pp. 680-697

(2) Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Penguin Books, 2011.