I’ve been watching the James Burke series “Connections” recently, in between studying for finals. One striking element of the series (if you haven’t seen it, you can watch them all here) is how bizarre and almost incomprehensible many old (but absolutely essential) technologies seem to us today. For example, gear manipulation was the basis for all industry for 1500 years, but I doubt most people could identify a cam if they saw one today. Particularly with the recent past, however, we have seen technology and change speed up to such an extent that these broad technological changes are taking place within people’s lifetimes and even smaller increments. Within ten years, a technological can go from novelty to ubiquitous or ubiquitous to obsolete.
I wonder, however, how much this speed sacrifices the benefits of advancing technology. That is to say, one of the benefits of living now is that we have all the knowledge and technology of the past at our fingertips. I don’t have to reinvent electricity; I just have to flick on the light switch. I no longer have to reinvent algebra; I just have to use it. Unfortunately, this leads to a world where we get farther and farther away from first principles, where those who have the knowledge are few and far between. The information age has made it so easy to find things, that we have no reason to find them for ourselves in the first place.
Without context, without history, how will we as a society ever understand our fast-moving present? That’s not to say that everyone should know what a punch card is or how it works. One should, however, understand that the development of the world we live in is essential to the development of the world to come.