cc licensed flickr photo shared by John Kannenberg

A few weeks ago we had author Kevin Kelly appear as a guest on the Connect@NMC webinars to talk about his book “What Technology Wants” (a full archive is available). In his work, Kelly uses a broad umbrella to include what is technology, and suggests an ecosystem/evolution perspective to look at what he calls “the Technium”.

In one section, he makes a strong case that, unlike dinosaurs, the quagga, Tasmanian Tiger, etc invented tools never go extinct. He described this in 2006 as Immortal Technologies:

One of my hypothesis is that species of technology, unlike species in biology, do not go extinct. When I really look at supposed extinct species of technology, I find they still survive in some fashion. A close examination of by-gone technologies shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it. A technique or artifact may be rare in the developed world but quite common in the developing world. For instance, Burma is full of ox-cart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa; hand spinning still thriving in Bolivia. A technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for traditional satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities. Often old technology is obsolete, that is, it is not very ubiquitous or second rate, but it still may be in small-time use, as many old-fashioned ways are.

In What technology Wants, he described taking a page of farming tools in the 1898 Montgomery Ward catalog, and how with not too much googling effort, was able to find some place where those same exact tools were being manufactured, made, sold somewhere in the world today.

Farm tools seemed like certain dinosaurs. Who needs a hand-powered corn cob sheller, or a paint mill?

Today on NPR I heard Robert Krulich try to punch a hole in Kelly’s assertion and is now appealing to the internet to find at least one thing to disprove the idea.

That seems to be missing the point. I am confident someone somewhere can find something that was made at some point that is no longer made today- though it is a difficult claim to make (it is like saying you have seen every page on the internet). The point is that even tools we think are dead are not, and that lends itself to Kelly’s notion that there is a life force, if you will, or life-like force to technology, that they are not merely tools, but exist in some symbiotic relationship to humans.

And in fact, Kelly had disproved it himself in 2008: One Dead Media

Edge-notched cards were invented in 1896. These are index cards with holes on their edges, which can be selectively slotted to indicate traits or categories, or in our language today, to act as a field. Before the advent of computers were one of the few ways you could sort large databases for more than one term at once. In computer science terms, you could do a “logical OR” operation. This ability of the system to sort and link prompted Douglas Engelbart in 1962 to suggest these cards could impliement part of the Memex vision of hypertext.

The post goes on for a while with a rich romp through computer history (as does the comment stream with people sharing how they used edge-notched cards in recent history).

But again the point is not to declare this as an absolute law, but to ponder what does it mean if none or very few of the things we invent really disappear? And the flip side, what is the extension of this in the digital world, where we know that tools/inventions disappear (or appear to). What do you think- does technology really go extinct?

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

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