Lost Technologies

In February 2011, Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired made the following assertion: “I say there is no species of technology that has ever gone globally extinct on this planet”.  You can listen to the NPR interview here.  In his book, What Technology Wants Kelly amplifies his argument writing:

A close examination of a supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it. A technique or artifact may be rare in the modern urban world but quite common in the developing rural world. For instance, Burma is full of oxcart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa; hand spinning is still thriving in Bolivia. A supposedly dead technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for ritual satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities or fanatical vinyl record collectors. Often old technology is obsolete, that is, it is not very ubiquitous or is second rate, but it still may be in small-time use.

Robert Krulwich, who interviewed Kelly for NPR took up the challenge and tried to find a technology that was truly extinct with the results posted on the interview’s comments section and here.

I have been thinking on and off about Kelly’s comment since archaeology in large measure relies on the regular life cycle of styles and technologies and yet has also long attended more to the additive, rather than subtractive, process of technological change.  Today I was pleased to see this story:

Technologies that weve lost – and the quest to find them again.

Greek fire and Damascus steel appear to represent technologies that are not currently under production.  Except, as the article points out, we do make other kinds of steel and we also have petroleum based substances that are used as military incendiaries.

One potential response to Kelly’s claim is to note how unique this historical period is.  Thanks to archaeology, we have not only curated current technologies, but also tried to recreate how ancient ones were made.  Hence, 500 years ago, Acheulean hand axes would have been an extinct technology, even if they are not today.  Thus Kelly’s claim seems to say less about history per se than it does about modernity’s museological impulse–the remarkable desire to resuscitate and curate formerly extinct technologies.

2 Responses to Lost Technologies

  1. Kathryn O'Neil Weber

    I think a key point here, is Kelly’s initial phrase “species of technology.” The examples given in the paragraph also suggest that he’s thinking of technologies as not individual tools, but categories of tools? For example, the water clock (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_clock#Modern_water_clock_designs) may no longer be actually utilized to tell time, but time-telling technologies are still around. On the other hand, if this is the kind of example that Kelly’s thinking of… there are some people who still construct water clocks (according to wikipedia), but they are doing it for artistic purposes. Which raises the same question as the Acheulean hand axes… If it’s the same object, but it serves a completely different purpose, is it still the same technology?

  2. I would agree. Context of technological production matters. So a modern flint knapper working with stone tools to understand how they were made is simply not the same context as someone making stone tools to hunt for their next meal. In this case then, technology isn’t the object, it’s the social relationship between object and human communities. Which interestingly is what Wired magazine is really all about. So it was surprising that Kelly tok a narrower definition.

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