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Technology (19): Kevin Kelly on technological transitions as informational revolutions

This is a crossover post with the Literacy as Technology thread – I’ll weave some of these ideas in there in the coming days.

Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants is a fantastic (and fantastical) look at technology through an ecological lens – highly recommended.

The evolution of science and technology parallels the evolution of nature. The major technological transitions are also passages from one level of organization to another. Rather than catalog important inventions such as iron, steam power, or electricity, in this view we catalog how the structure of information is reshaped by new technology. A prime example would be the transformation of alphabets (strings of symbols not unlike DNA) into highly organized knowledge in books, indexes, libraries, and so on (not unlike cells and organisms).

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

Primate communication ➔ Language Oral lore ➔ Writing/mathematical notation Scripts ➔ Printing Book knowledge ➔ Scientific method Artisan production ➔ Mass production Industrial culture ➔ Ubiquitous global communication.

No transition in technology has affected our species, or the world at large, more than the first one, the creation of language. Language 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. The learning of individuals, even if they died before reproducing, would be remembered. From a systems point of view, language enabled humans to adapt and transmit learning faster than genes.

The invention of writing systems for language and math structured this learning even more. Ideas could be indexed, retrieved, and propagated more easily. Writing allowed the organization of information to penetrate into many everyday aspects of life. It accelerated trade, the creation of calendars, and the formation of laws—all of which organized information further.

Printing organized information still more by making literacy widespread. As printing became ubiquitous, so did symbolic manipulation. Libraries, catalogs, cross-referencing, dictionaries, concordances, and the publishing of minute observations all blossomed, producing a new level of informational ubiquity—to the extent that today 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 peer-reviewed 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—what we call science—could then be used to restructure the organization of matter. It birthed new materials, new processes for making stuff, new tools, and new perspectives.

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 informational organization launched the incredible rise in standards of living we take for granted.

Finally, the latest transition in the organization of knowledge is happening now. We inject order and design into everything we manufacture. We are also adding microscopic chips that can perform small amounts of computation and communication. Even the tiniest disposable item with a bar code shares a 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.

The trajectory of increasing order in the technium follows the same path that it does in life.

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants (this link is to a blog post on Kelly’s website – you kind find the book wherever you get your highly organised knowledge)

See also:
Machine. Ecosystem. (6) – Kevin Kelly on the techium
Listen to the technology: Kevin Kelly and the giant copy machine
“If you think you saw a mouse, you did,” and other advice from Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly on the future of progress and prosperity
Deep literacy: Kevin Kelly on more than reading
All posts that mention Kevin Kelly

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...