A Brief History of Technology, Part 1

Information and Material

Let’s take a few steps back for a minute and look at the history of technology.  But first, when you think of what technology is, what comes to mind?  Most of you probably think software, computers, smartphones and the ever-expanding vastness of the digital world that exists, quite literally, under our thumbs.  I decided to ask Instagram…




However intangible it all seems, it is still grounded in a materiality more intricate than you might realize.  Products of the digital revolution do not compose the whole of technology, they are only a small part of it; a blip on the map.   250 years ago, technology had no name.  It wasn’t until 1802 that German economics professor Johann Beckmann coined the term in his textbook Guide to Technology.  Until this time, we all assumed the general belief that what we now know as technology was simply the randomly good ideas of proprietary ingenuity; the “useful arts” as it was called.  However, as Kevin Kelly explains in his book What Technology Wants, “technology could be found everywhere in the world, except in the minds of humans.”  We were blinded to its presence.  But it was there all along.  And it wasn’t that random.

Technology summed up rather succinctly in Sid Meier’s Civilization II
Found: Trevor Owens

Technology is an intricate network of systems.   As Beckmann discovered, it’s completely dependent and vastly interconnected; requires the existence of some other technology in order to build upon and create new.  Just about every human invention is a technology, from mathematics to masonry to medicine.  And every technological invention develops from the innovation of technological information already obtained.  Take navigation for example, this technology would not have been possible without cartography, which in turn would not exist without the invention of the alphabet.  All technologies, one, more or less, directly leading to the next.  They are individually technologies, but when linked together in this way, they become something different, something greater.  Kelly calls it the technium.

Ok, so what about material?  Hopefully it’s obvious to see that it too is a part of this technium, a category of its own within the network map of interconnected technologies. But I will argue that it’s much more than simple points along it, it plays a much more important role.  Material is the technium.  Every technology is composed of material, but that materiality is growing smaller every day, it’s becoming increasingly disembodied.  Some technologies, in and of themselves, such as philosophy or software, have no materiality at all, but they are no less composed of material than the wheel or steel.  Kelly explains that in observing technologies “process of disembodiment speeding up,” that scientists came to a “startling realization: However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue or flesh, but in the intangible organization of the energy and information contained in those material forms […] both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information.”

But are we really just an intangible organization of information?  I mean, what do scientists know?  Well, a lot actually.  But this observation is certainly not the end of the argument.  It never really is, even within the scientific community, which is made up of scholars and academics looking to prove their own theories by disproving the theories of their colleagues.  It’s a little like the technium actually, in that the innovation that evolves must feed on the missteps of their predecessors, fueled by competition and a desire for glory. You can call that narrow sighted, but if you distill it, competition breeds success.  My point is that the immateriality of technology observed was a catalyst for further questioning and understanding.  And it was a really good observation.  No matter what you call it, there is definitely an essence that steers all life, as well as the technium.  It is both intangible and unexplainable.  It is a flow of information and a progression of ideas.

But even information and ideas are composed of material.  Technology is information and ideas, and it is physical…

R. H. Holley


One response to “A Brief History of Technology, Part 1

  1. Pingback: And Then There Was Teflon | Material Strategies·

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