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Does Technology Ever Die?

Kevin Kelly has been saying for some years that technological species, unlike biological ones, are more or less immortal. They never go extinct. A few people persist in using quill pens (wouldn’t you know, there are websites), and even more people still wear leather boots.

When he said that on NPR’s Morning Edition, he got an argument from the science correspondent Robert Krulwich.

Nothing? I asked. Brass helmets? Detachable shirt collars? Chariot wheels?
Nothing, he said.
Can’t be, I told him. Tools do hang around, but some must go extinct.

So they’ve been having a debate. Krulwich appealed to his readers and listeners, who are legion, for suggestions. It seems like an easy parlor game, at first blush. The cotton gin? The flint arrowhead? Betamax? But Kelly is not to be underestimated; he seems to know every remote tribesman and antique gadget enthusiast on earth. And now Krulwich has surrendered—sort of—in a deeply thoughtful blog post titled Tools Never Die, the Finale.

Some of the arguments on both sides hinge on matters of definition, which aren’t so interesting: for example, what qualifies as a species of technology. But the fundamental issue is profound and well worth our attention, and I’m not just saying that because Krulwich ends up quoting from The Information.

It may simply be that, as Krulwich puts it, “there are so many people on Earth with different incomes, traditions, religions, enthusiasms that so far, as a young species, we don’t need to throw anything away.” But it is also true that technology is memetic.

Inventions are memes. And memes may not be immortal, but they are surely long-lived.

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  1. Scott Love says

    Your thoughtful post is worth a thousand discussions. And after all, we’re the species that created these immortal tools in the first place. Or did we? Only the monolith knows for sure.

  2. Martine says

    Technology has also got something to do with ‘inside out’. Vague but true. If you ask me. Gateways between minds. The more fragmentation, the more sharp the splinters. Containers full of great energy, but at the same time all the more containers full of nothing.

  3. Mark says

    Technologies go extinct in the world, even if they are preserved in zoos or museums or by individuals here and there. But many of their tech genes live on in their descendants. The keyboard, a technology to interface between the brain and hand and a machine, started out as a mechanism on a typewriter. It became electric, then digital, and now virtual, but it’s still a keyboard from the 19th Century.

  4. lazenby says

    The well-built, over-engineered Mercedes went extinct in the mid-seventies

    It’s very easy to prove ridiculous points by arbitrarily restricting the domain under consideration. For simple technologies their extinction and eradication is made impossible by their simplicity. But expand the field to complicated technologies like a car company producing good cars and it’s not at all difficult to find unrecoverable lapses.

  5. Paul Pangaro says

    Gordon Pask, seeking a framework for his theory of conversations that is consistent with the traditions of science, proposed “consciousness” as that which is conserved (think: analogous to matter and energy). By consciousness he meant concepts that are shared across individual brains, rather than something internal to a brain (for which he, following the tradition of Warren McCulloch, preferred the term “awareness”). In that sense, ideas expressed in technological embodiments do not die, but they become substrate for an evolution to new ideas. This suggests a way to move along, considering how all evolution is co-evolution, and to focus a methodology for design toward that end.

  6. Long says

    Of course technology dies. And to me the dilemma is, the ones that died are the ones which nobody has a clue. So we can’t name them.
    Do we know any parasite only feed on dinosaurs? And can anyone prove there wasn’t one?

  7. L.Edwards says

    Well of course it does. Computers die, phones die, cars die, microwaves, etc.

    Technology as a whole may continue to spawn new creations, but that doesn’t mean they’ll physically last forever.

    For those considering merging themselves with technology, keep that in mind.

    You’re also putting yourselves at high risk for others to control your thoughts and actions under the guise of “the betterment of humanity”. Look at these transhumanists. They’re like a cult.

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