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Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Evolution of Technology by George Basalla

The Evolution of Technology
by George Basalla
p. 1988
Cambridge University Press

  This is a great book- it's only two hundred pages long, written without technical language or lengthy end notes, and it goes a great way towards demolishing many conceptions that normal educated people have about the role of technology in our society.  The number one myth that Basalla targets is the idea of the 'heroic inventor'- a concept that has been peddled by two hundred years of corporate propaganda and patent law.  The second myth that Basalla tackles is science's claims that science is what leads to technological innovation.  Finally, The Evolution of Technology provides a variety of theories about why the human need for novelty- which is a universal, rather then western, characteristic, shapes technological innovation.

   According to Basalla, technology evolves in that humans make variations of existing things, and the new things supplant the old things in "evolutionary" fashion over time.  One of the main underlying assumptions that Basalla uses to construct his model of evolutionary technology is by linking the modern post-industrial revolution led proliferation of machines and inventions to the earliest attempts by humans to make knives and axes from rocks.

  Basalla places the responsibility for the modern divergence between western and non-western technological innovation squarely on the Renaissance- Basalla points out that many of what Marx would call "pre-conditions" for technological advance in the 17th and 18th century in the West were firmly established by hits of the Renaissance- indeed the intense craving for novelty which characterizes modern (not to mention post-modern) civilization is a direct product of the Renaissance.

   Later, the acceleration of technological innovation that culminated in the industrial revolution was a competition of the general culture of novelty, coupled with specific economic factors, like "supply" and "demand."  For example, in 18th century England, Mill owners were paying ALOT for union weavers to super intend the non-automatic weaving process.  They paid inventors to create machines, to specifically get rid of these workers.

   Basalla is equally skeptical of the technologically based "religion of progress" and spends some time discussing the abject failure of technologies like super sonic air transport, electric cars (!) and nuclear cargo ships.

  There are probably some interesting observations to be made about the vinyl record- an example of a technological innovation being discarded and reclaimed- not a frequent occurence.

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