The Future Depends on Harnessing the Tools of the Past. #45 #cong16

By Billy Kennedy.

In my childhood days, Ireland in the 1940’s had changed very little for over 150 years and since them I have watched with awe as our society has metamorphosed and leap frogged, mainly due to technology.  Ireland now is certainly better than it was then.

Now in my 70’s I look at the changes and see the necessity and openings for embracing some of the tools of the past in safe guarding our future and harnessing some of the age old ways of doing things.

Lets address the necessity first.  

Storage

Following the detonation of the first atomic bombs one of the bi-products was electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which effectively rendered all electronic devices as lumps of plastic and silicon.  As we enter an age where more and more of our communications, memories and data is stored electronically we need to start thinking about how we safeguard this knowledge.  Recent hacking attacks and the decay in digital storage (CDs, spinning hard drive disks) also high-light this issue.  Paper is by no means the perfect solution (neither was ogham or cave drawings) but they do not need a battery and we need to think of alternatives.

Communication

billy kennedy vacum tube

One of the other vulnerbilities of EMP was that mass communication would be hampered.  Invented in 1904 the vacuum electron tube was adopted as an alternative if electronics were rendered useless.  An old technology but an alternative if need be.  This was also highlighted recently in the electricity outages where many people struggled to find a battery powered radio to get news updates.

How we build redundancy into how we communicate and storage knowledge is critical but there are many other ways we can benefit from past technology, tools and processes to help us find new solutions.

Victor Del Rosal’s post talks about the automation of jobs and the impact on education and Joy Redmonds post also caught my eye in the benefits of not obediently following the road of specialisation.

As the world evolves so quickly and specialisation can mean redundancy we can look to the past to see how previous generation managed.  My belief is that we can benefit from having a wide variety of skills.  I was a mechanic, in a previous life and to do my job I had to be competent in electronics, plumbing, engineering in order to problem solve and find ways to fix a car – may of them quite inventive.  To work I had to bring a wide selection of skills to solve a problem.

I am not implying that we embrace older technology in favour of new but perhaps we think of the problem solving and creative idea generation that they inspired and cultivated.  Think how powerful a hackaton can be when people can bring a wide variety of skills to one setting and build things.

Computer fire power has grown enormously and taken away much of the unproductive, repetitive tasks that people used to struggle with.  However I sometimes feel that this incredible facility may also be eroding our ability to think creatively and laterally.  As machines not only do the computation for us they also handle the process through algorithms.  When machines or the algorithms fail can we still remember what the process was and can we replicate in simple pen and paper format?

Let me give you another example.  My grandfather was blacksmith.  One of the processes he deployed to weld two pieces of metals together was call fusion.  Although a very simple process of heating and beating two metals together until they became one but I struggle to find anyone who remembers this process.  With our manufacturing world focusing on faster electronic welding automation perhaps there could also be something to be learn from older, forgotten processes.

As I watch my grand children bury their heads in messaging platforms on their phones I also wonder if they are enhancing their communications skills or reducing them.  They communicate electronically with a fluency I will never have but again I fear that the intimacy and skill of face to face storytelling could also be lost.

My thinking may make me appear as a luddite but I truly appreciate technology and its power to bring wealth, prosperity and a long list of virtues to society.  My questioning is more around safe guarding ourselves and perhaps looking backward for solutions for tomorrow.

I am always struck by the lessons of history.  We went from the inspired highs of the Roman Civilisation with glass windows and indoor heat to the dark ages in a matter of generations and I wonder why.  We also ‘forgot’ the technological achievements of the Egyptians and Chinese only to return to them many centuries later.

I would hope we don’t experience these hard lessons again but a greater understanding of what makes humans truly unique, that technology can augment, can only lead to good.

My mind is also full of questions about technologies of the past, present and future.

Why did we have cars, milk floats and electric bikes driven by battery power in the 70’s to only rediscover them again in the form of Tesla and hybrids and worse to regulate electric bikes out of the market?

Why did we power Ireland on mini hydro powered mills and turbines to turn our backs on them in 2000’s?

Why did we forget about all the railways, trams and tunnels, only to reinvest massively in reinstalling many years?

In summary, as we gaze forward lets incorporate the lessons of the past, the ideas of the old, processes that took millennia to evolve and perhaps some old technology to craft a braver and better new world that we all own and enhances the worlds of our children. 

© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie