Throughout history, the march of technological innovation has impacted every aspect and tenet of our society and culture. Some of society’s greatest inventions – the printing press, the steam engine, electricity – can be seen as the heralds of a new age, or the forbearers of a time of great progress. Since the first patent was awarded to Brunelleschi in 1421 for a barge that hoisted and shipped marble, people have been associating inventions with individuals, and while the work of certain notable men and women should not be downplayed, this view of technological development as a series of isolated advancements distorts our understanding. Technological progress is as gradated as any other development, be it cultural, social, or economic, and it is much more accurately represented as a social process than as a simple series of itemized dates (Pacey 57). Like any other process, it displays characteristics and tendencies, providing hints as to future developments and directions. But unlike any other process, technology has begun to sustain a consistent acceleration, obscuring the future of its development even while cementing its impact on our lives.
In comparing Sullivan’s “form follows function” quote with Churchill’s “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” Stewart Brand writes in How Buildings Learn that neither is individually true. Rather, “first we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again – ad infinitum” (Brand 3). Technology follows in the same vein: When viewed as a gradual process, the innovations that crop up throughout history provide insight into the situations that surrounded the development, while still representing the forward-looking set of new opportunities afforded to the societies in question. As Manuel Castells puts it in The Rise of the Network Society, “technological innovation is not an isolated instance. It reflects a given state of knowledge, a particular institutional and industrial environment, a certain availability of skills to define a technical problem and to solve it, an economic mentality to make such application cost-efficient, and a network of producers and users who can communicate their experiences cumulatively, learning by using and by doing” (35). Humans have used progress as both a counterpoint and a solution to their own limitations for millennia. In the 13th century, geometric principles were widely used in everything from the mapping of the oceans to the mapping of the human face (Pacey 49-51). Two hundred years later, the printing press exponentially increased the individual’s access to information, marking the onset of an entire intellectual movement. The development of the steam engine in the 18th century was perhaps even more influential, as many scholars regard it as the central most important event contributing to the Industrial Revolution (Castells 37). However, technological change has never been simply a means to an end. From the religious zeal that drove the Gothic cathedrals to new heights to the celestial obsession that spurred the development of water-driven clocks and astrolabes, the effort put into this progress has always contained some symbolic meaning or level of mystery. Arnold Pacey remarks in The Maze of Ingenuity that the “cathedral crusade” of the 12th and 13th centuries marked the beginning of the modern era of technology, for it was in this time that “changes [were] deliberately made in order to approach some unrealized ideal that is always one step beyond what current techniques [made] possible” (23). Not only were the cathedral builders continually questioning: they were eternally spurred by a zeal that was built upon idealistic imagination, a spirit that ultimately encouraged creativity above and beyond reason or logic. Even into the Renaissance, an age characterized by ration and intellect, “what we now call technology still had something of the quality of magic” (Pacey 65).
While the “positive effects of new industrial technologies on economic growth, living standards, and the human mastery of a hostile Nature” are obvious (Castells 36), there remain other, less highlighted effects in this continuing climb. Analyzing the development of technology, both as a gradual process and as marked by important instances, reveals several growing tendencies that have begun to accelerate in recent decades. For instance, the introduction of the mechanical bobbin and flyer into the spinning wheel perhaps marks the beginning trend of automation (defined by Merriam-Webster as “automatically controlled operation of an apparatus, process, or system by mechanical or electronic devices that take the place of human labor”), a process that would see its greatest growth in the industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries. Another example is standardization, which may have had its birth in the metal type used in the printing presses of the 15th century. Considering the explosion of the number of printing presses (over 1000 were produced in the half century following its introduction) and the cultural impact that these presses had, the concept of standardization may have gained a crucial early foothold in influencing further technological development. The printing press saw the onset of another major trend: mass production. What started with the spread of knowledge via literature eventually grew to nearly every industry, from food to automotive.
These growing tendencies point toward a natural trend in technological development: the push for efficiency. In one respect, this matches up perfectly with the idea of self-improvement, as we are continually trying to find ways to better our situation, both for ourselves and for future generations. Automation and mass production are now conceivable at increasingly advanced levels of production – an entire branch of architectural style (prefabrication) has grown out of this seemingly economic model. Standardization has had similar influences, introducing codes and regulations into almost every stage of architectural design. What is perhaps most important about the last fifty years of technological development, however, is the accelerated pace at which these processes are being implemented. Although steam power was a central tenet to the Industrial Revolution, it took nearly half a century for the technology to begin having any real effect. By contrast, several milestones of the computer revolution – namely, the invention of the transistor in 1947, the integrated circuit in 1957, and the microprocessor in 1971 – saw an explosion of development that have pushed the progress of computers at an astounding rate (Moore’s Law has actually predicted this relatively accurately, stating that the number of transistors on integrated circuits will double about every two years). Computers, once the size of gymnasiums, are now handheld devices, and rapidly approaching ubiquity. According to one popular saying, the technology used to land men on the moon is less powerful than that found in a child’s cell phone. Of course, this speed is seen most clearly in the advent of the internet, which has connected the world in a way never before imaginable. The tools and information available to individuals are now almost limitless. Castells states, “the feedback loop between introducing new technology, using it, and developing it into new realms becomes much faster under the new technological paradigm. As a result, diffusion of technology endlessly amplifies the power of technology, as it becomes appropriated and redefined by its users. New information technologies are not simply tools to be applied, but processes to be developed” (31).
Efficiency is no longer one opportunity amongst a larger quest: it is instead its own self-perpetuating goal. Previously driven by religious zeal, commercial gains, or military aspirations, technological development is now fueled by its own internal ideal. As referenced earlier, the previous eras of technological change, as rational as they may have been, always contained an element of mysticism. The modern approach to technology, however, has lost much of this wonder. Scientific thought has become almost entirely self-referential, ridding itself of any correlated ideals held by separate pursuits and embodying instead a “materialistic, disenchanted rationalism” that has become socially expected (Pacey 65). Spurred by the incredibly widespread Industrial Revolution and accelerated by a rapidly increasing world population, scientific development has adopted a model of science for science’s sake, and the digital medium has provided the perfect environment in which this model can thrive. “The current process of technological transformation expands exponentially because of its ability to create an interface between technological fields through common digital language in which information is generated, stored, retrieved, processed, and transmitted” (Castells 29). However, Castells later cautions, “but the price to pay for inclusion in the system is to adapt to its logic, to its language, to its points of entry, to its encoding and decoding” (405). In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier writes extensively of the suppression of basic human nature inherent in this adaptation. In describing one of the first (and most foundational) computer operating systems, he states, “UNIX expresses too large a belief in discrete abstract symbols and not enough of a belief in temporal, continuous, non-abstract reality; it is more like a typewriter than a dance partner” (11). Lanier’s description of this issue reveals how un-checked digital development results in a form of reduction that cannot encompass our normal experience without some loss of quality. The speed and capabilities of technology have increased to such a state that we are no longer adapting the tools to meet our needs, but rather are beginning to adapt ourselves and our needs to an ideal model of machine-like efficiency.
Brand, Stewart. How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built. New York, NY: Viking, 1994. Print.
Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996. Print.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.
Pacey, Arnold. The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1992. Print.