The Technium

Technologies Don’t Go Extinct

In an earlier posting I claimed that technologies don’t go extinct. By that I mean that no species, no specific invention, has been eliminated from the world at a global level. Somewhere, someone is still making that technology brand new today. Anything I could think of.

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I repeated that claim in What Technology Wants, but science journalist Robert Krulwich was not buying it. Krulwich challenged me in public, on the radio, that he could easily find extinct technologies. He crafted a very fun NPR segment (worth listening to), where he sets out the challenge. Krulwich admits

I tried carbon paper (still being made), steam powered car engine parts (still being made), Paleolithic hammers (still being made), 6 pages of agricultural tools from an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue (every one of them still being made), and to my utter astonishment, I couldn’t find a provable example of an technology that has disappeared completely.

Krulwich then crowdsourced the problem and asks NPR listeners to suggest technologies that have gone extinct globally. Lots of listeners responded and the NPR kept a log of the suggested extinct technologies. They ranged from obviously wrong candidates such as anvils and telegraphs, to more promising nominations, like shoe X-ray machines, whalebone corset stays, or the solar bath (as depicted below by NPR’s Benjamin Arthur).

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From all the candidates, Krulwich selected three that they submitted to me as very likely to be extinct:

The Roman Corvus — a pivoting bridge with a spike dropped on enemy ships.

Ferrite Memory Cores — found in early jukeboxes and primitive computers.

Radium Suppositories — radioactive sticks you insert into your anus.

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I supplied counter examples of ways in which I felt these species are still alive, still being used. I found radioactive therapy devices for the rectum, and gang planks for boats, and ferrite cores being made for non-computer use.

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It may be a game of semantics whether these are the same species, but you can judge for yourself in Krulwich’s great summary of our wager.

In the final episode he gracefully conceded: “consider me beaten. To a degree I didn’t appreciate until Kevin forced me to look – technology does indeed persist. Tools, machines, they change, they adapt, they morph, but they continue to be made. I hadn’t noticed this tenaciousness before.”

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This story of technology’s persistence is told in full by a book that was published after I finished my book (and so it was not included in my bibliography) — The Shock of the Old. Author David Edgerton makes the important point that old technologies don’t die; they continue to influence us, and often to shape our lives more than the new does. Just consider concrete, slaughtering tools, sewing machines and so on.

There is more old technology around they we admit, and it is more powerful than we recognize.

  • grisscoat

    If we’re going to say that technologies don’t go extinct, then we should be just as willing to say that life never becomes extinct. It just becomes outmoded. This is great news of course. I never have to really die. I’ll just go out of style one day.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Life does not go extinct. In fact, even weirder, there is literally only one life. All life today is a duplication and continuation —without interruption — of the very first cell.

      • Awesome

        Why can’t there be two origination points? supposing it is simple enough. 

        • AnthonyC

           If there were multiple originations, we would expect them to have very different biochemistries. This would be incredible news and an amazing discovery – if nothing else, multiple originations on one planet would greatly increase the likelihood of finding life elsewhere.

  • What about the Inca technology for cutting stones and arranging them without even a centimeter of space between them, and yet no mortar? I had always understood that this knowledge was lost. But OK, I’m nitpicking (and I’m curious, if anyone can comment on the Inca technology); you make an amazing point.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I am not sure this is lost. I know the results are amazing but stone masons elsewhere can do amazing things with very little more than a hammer.

  • Your point about technology persistence keeps coming back to my mind as I listen to the BBC podcast series A History of the World in 100 Objects:

    Quite a fascinating way of looking at human history – have you come across it yet?

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I was not aware of the program, but now thanks to your tip I have added it to my iTunes podcast list. Looking forward to it.

  • Great stuff

  • Eric

    Damascus Steel?

    “The original method of producing Damascus steel is not known. Due to differences in raw materials and manufacturing techniques, modern attempts to duplicate the metal have not been entirely successful.”

  • Hiom Paul

    Eight track tapes.  Still around with collectors but no new ones produced since ’88 commercially and ’95 as bootlegs

  • JeffreyMartin360Cities

    Kevin, your idea is a trick – if a technology has been truly forgotten, we don’t know about it anymore, thus can’t name it. I think this argument is not fair!

    Oh, and +1 on damascus steel. :-)