Friday, March 19, 2010

Why I Love the History of Technology

[Update 3/21/2010:  The quote I paraphrased is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, not Shakespeare.  Good thing I wasn't an English major.]

How do I love the History of Technology?  Let me count the ways... 

Okay, so that is a very bad paraphrase of Shakespeare.  Sometimes I ask myself, "why are you so interested in this stuff?"  Maybe you are asking that same question?  To answer my own question, here, in no particular order, are ten things that popped into my head about why I love the History of Technology:

  1. Creativity and Innovation:  New technology brings something into the world that wasn't there before.  It taps into that urge that we all feel to create.
  2. Beauty:  Yes, technology can be beautiful, whether it is the sweeping curves of a suspension bridge of the elegance of a functional design.  We create technology that has an aesthetic to it.  Well-designed technology possesses deep beauty.
  3. Interesting People:  Technology always comes from people and new technology comes from people who are passionate, quirky, resourceful, and determined.  They can be inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs.  Their desire to create makes for fascinating personalities.
  4. Exciting Stories: The birth of a new technology is always filled with drama.  To read about what people had to overcome to see their ideas through is always interesting. Sometimes the story is about personal sacrifice.  Sometimes the story is high adventure.  They are all interesting.
  5. Society and Culture:  Technology shapes our culture at its most fundamental level.  We become different people because of new technologies.  But technology also has a darker side, creating real dilemmas for society to grapple with.  Look at the issues we now face in our digital world.
  6. Legacy:  All of the people who have persevered to bring their ideas into the world have left us a legacy.  Their work stands as a testament to their having been here and having made a difference. The old saw for some kind of immortality says, "plant a tree, write a book, have a child."  I think you could add, "birth a new technology".
  7. Science:  Science and technology are intimately linked although it has not always been so.  Technology used to precede new science and then the science would provide the understanding on how to advance a technology.  Technology provides the tools of science. But, while often written in one phrase, science and technology are not identical twins. They are fraternal twins: linked but different.
  8. Enterprise:  Technology is not the same thing as invention.  There have been many inventions that have never made any difference in our lives.  To make a difference technology needs to come into the world and the path is by way of enterprise.  The story of business is intimately linked with any history of technology - and the struggle to create the business is often just as dramatic as the struggle to create the technology.
  9. Learning:  The History of Technology demands that I learn new things all the time.    It also provides great lessons about life.  While our world is very different than even thirty years ago, the characteristics innovators need and the challenges they face are the same. The past has much to teach us and I, for one, am the better for knowing.
  10. Perspective:  The History of Technology allows me to see a story against a larger background.  Often, the clarity of hindsight makes it much easier to see the relationships, the nuances, what worked and what didn't...and why. As an added bonus, we get to know how it all came out!

I am sure that I could come up with more reasons but this seems like a pretty good list for now.  As I look the list over, it seems like many of these reasons apply to almost anything you might find deeply interesting.  So maybe I haven't gotten to the nub of it just yet.  For whatever reason, it just resonates with me.  What does that for you?

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