The Technium

Major Transitions in Technology

The evolution of knowledge and science parallels the evolution of nature. The major transitions in their histories are passages from one level of informational organization to another emergent level of order. Rather than catalog important inventions such as iron, steam power, or electricity, it is far more useful to dwell on how the structure of information is reshaped by new technology. Progress, in this view, is the evolution of the shape of knowledge. A prime example would be the invention of writing which enabled radically new forms of information, such as alphabets, books, indexes, libraries and so on.

In a parallel to Smith and Szathmary, I have arranged the major transitions in technology chronologically according to the level at which information is organized. In each step, information and knowledge are processed at a level not present before.

The major transitions in technology are:

Primate communication –) Language
Oral lore –) Writing/math notation
Scripts –) Printing
Scholarly knowledge –) Science
Social production –) Industrial production
Material culture –) Universal communication

No transition has affected our species, or the world at large, more than the creation of language. Indeed many would define humanity by its possession of true language. The informational aspects of language are now obvious. Chief among the changes language birthed was the innovation which it allowed learning and adaptation to spread through a population faster, outside of genetic inheritance.

Over time language also enabled information to be stored in a memory greater than an individual’s recall. A language-based culture accumulated stories and oral wisdom to disseminate to future generations. Therefore the learning of individuals, even if they died before reproducing offspring, would be remembered.

The invention of writing systems for language and math structured this learning even more. Ideas could be remembered more accurately, and just as importantly, their organization could be examined and analyzed. Ideas could also be indexed, retrieved, and propagated easier. Writing allowed the organization of information to penetrate into many aspects of life and vastly accelerated trade, creation of calendars, and laws – all of which organized information further.

Printing structured information still more by making literacy widespread. As printing became ubiquitous so did symbolic manipulation. Libraries, catalogs, cross referencing, dictionaries, concordances and publishing of observations all blossomed, producing a new level of organization of bits present everywhere – to the extant that we don’t even notice that printing covers our visual landscape.

The scientific method followed printing as a more refined way to deal with the exploding amount of information humans were generating. Via scholarly correspondence and later journals, science offered a method of extracting reliable information, testing it, and then linking it to a growing body of other tested, interlinked facts.

This newly ordered information could then be used to restructure the organization of matter. New materials, new processes for making stuff, new tools, and new perspectives all re-organized our material world. When the scientific method was applied to craft, we invented mass production of interchangeable parts, the assembly line, efficiency, and specialization. All these forms of information organization launched the incredible rise in standards of living we take for granted.

Finally, the last major transition in the organization of knowledge is happening right now. We are in the midst of a movement where we embed information into all matter around us. We inject order into everything we manufacture by designing it, but now we are also adding small microscopic chips that can perform small amounts of computation and communication. Even the smallest disposable item will share a small thin sliver of our collective mind. This all-pervasive flow of information, expanded to include manufactured objects as well as humans, and distributed around the globe in one large web, is the greatest (but not final) ordering of information. And it marks the most recent major stage of technology.


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