Why the History of Technology

The search for ways to understand and apply new technology has been going on
for centuries. One of the easiest ways for us to understand how to approach
the our own new technology is to try and understand something about how previous
generations absorbed and applied the new technology of their time.


There is a rich and varied history of technological change. At many points
in the past, a confluence of technical development and the ideas about how to
use them resulted in changing the way the world works and adding important building
blocks that lead to why we are where we are now. I want to look at examples
of these changes, especially ones which happened within the span of a lifetime.


We are being hyped for fast technological change. We are being told that we
are living in an era of unprecedented change, both in the speed and in the magnitude
of change. While this may be true, is does not help us cope with the change.
The idea that we are living with unprecedented change leads to the inescapable
conclusion that, if there is no precedent for the change we are experiencing,
then there is nothing in history that can help us to accommodate this change.
Futhermore, many previous eras of western civilization have believed that they
lived in the time of unprecedented change. Just look at the last half of the
19th century, for example. Those folks witnessed unprecedented industrialization
including the invention of the telegraph and then the telephone. The invention
of chemical dyes that lead to great advances in organic chemistry. It’s hard
for us to imagine the impact of seeing someone wearing clothes coloured magenta
or mauve for the first time. That was just the tip of the iceberg but, of course,
it’s the everyday, visual things that have the most effect.


By the end of the 19th century the proliferation of railways (including street
cars and underground railways) and electricity had changed the way people lived
in a most physical sense. Their houses, and the communities those houses were built
in, were re-shaped to reflect all this new technology.


If we attempt to move forward in an environment of change while reciting in
our heads the motto that “history can teach us nothing” we risk some serious
problems, not least of which is that we are bound to repeat some of the same
mistakes that have been made before us! It would be better to have historical
precedents to act as guideposts along the way. Whether our pace of technological
change is unprecedented or not, it does not mean that we can learn nothing from
how change was managed in the past. That is the parallel aim of the digital
cobbler: to help us pick through the reams of historical record to find examples
of historical technological change that we can use to help us manage with today’s


There’s more in the Digital Cobbler Blog . [Note: that reference is to the old DC blog which had more about history of tech. The current DC blog may or may not have so much. But check it out nonetheless.]


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