Sunday, December 7, 2014

Alien Technologies

Just as some explain the Ancient Egyptian Pyramids as the result of space alien intervention, some look at the exponential growth in computer and communications technologies over the last fifty years and conclude intellectual exchange with an extraterrestrial race must have occurred.  There is no other way to explain the sudden surge in complexity, they argue. 

It's true modern technology has taken off at a near-unbelievable rate.  My grandmother grew up with the horse and buggy, without central heat or running water.  A hundred years later, her great-grandchildren take SnapChat and robotic space exploration for granted.  For emerging middle classes in developing nations, the change must appear even more sudden.  Even more striking, perceived within a geologic timeframe this all appears to have happened in the blink of an eye. 

Sudden and successful innovation tends to alter the environment and ecology so rapidly it obscures our ability to perceive what was there before.  Whether it is the development of cell life, the Cambrian Explosion, the development of language and writing, agriculture, pyramids or modern technologies, the rapid onset and lack of historical knowledge leads humans to conclude it arose in the blink of an eye, created by an intelligence far beyond our own.  Just as the fog of war impacts the historical record, the success and domination of a well-adapted organism or technology obscures evidence of the world as it was before.  Unbounded success as well as catastrophe is the fodder for myth-building. 

The rapid growth of modern technologies was created through incremental gains in scientific knowledge and mechanical innovations.  The benefits of energy-hungry technologies outweighed the costs, creating pressure for the technology to be conserved.  Yet resource constrictions exerted pressure for technologies to become ever more efficient.  As a result, first and second generation technologies (think 8tracks and floppy disks) were not conserved and reproduced. 

It is easy for me to say this, I witnessed the transition.  However for the next generation, blessed with flash drives and computers which don't even have a port for a floppy disk, it would be easy to assume the flash drive was invented ex nihilo (or to misinterpret a floppy disc as a funky beverage coaster).  Careful investigation (and faithful transmission) of how technologies developed is necessary to avoid these misperceptions. 

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