Look to the Past to Know Technology will Thrive in the Future


We are living in what is perhaps the greatest technological era in human history. The list of what humanity has invented in the last 100 years is truly staggering and the pace of innovation seems like it is accelerating. Who knows what kind of technology will be around us in 5 or 10 years?

In his 2005 book, Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near talks about how we are hurtling towards an inevitability of humans combining with technology in such a way that we become something more than human.

While this idea seems both thrilling and terrifying, I am not sure of where we are heading as a species. Will technology play a role in our future? Yes. Will it change us into something more than human? In my view, no.


Making us more human

I think the “best” technology is in fact that which makes us more human. It’s the kind of technology that almost disappears from our field of consciousness and allows us to live our lives in a more natural and harmonious way (with other humans and the world around us).

I would argue that so much of what we see as “good” technology today is transient and won’t be around long. Perhaps a good way to think about technology is to look to our past and to what technology invented thousands (or millions) of years ago is still around. Now, that is some serious long-term value!

For example, perhaps the oldest human invented technology is the stone tool that we used like a hammer or cutting tool to do what we couldn’t do with our hands alone.

Acheulean handaxe; Olduvai Gorge, paleoanthropolocial site, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, United Republic of Tanzania. Lower Palaeolithic era; Homo erectus; Olduvai Gorge; Oldupai Gorge; paleoanthropolocial site; in the Great Rift Valley; Ngorongoro Conse

What I find fascinating about this invention is that it actually amplified a natural motion for us: the act of swinging our arm and hand down to strike something. Even a baby can intuitively make this motion without going to a training class or watching a how-to YouTube video.

Also, it’s interesting to see that the modern hammer or axe isn’t that different from this tool. How is that for a pretty damned good minimum viable product? 40 million years of iteration hasn’t changed this invention much because it didn’t need it!


Lessons from the past for the future

What is it about this ancient tool that has kept it around for so long AND what can we learn about “good” technology from it?

I recently did an informal poll of some of my colleagues and friends about what makes a good technology for them. We came up with a few ideas that seem to guide the long-term resilience of technology and perhaps give us a roadmap for what we should think about when creating new technology:

  1. Does it allow us to do something naturally human but in a faster, easier, better way? For example, swinging our arm to strike something was made so much better by the ancient tool from above.
  2. Can we take it with us easily? Humans are after all naturally mobile creatures and technology that fixes us in one place doesn’t seem right. For example, you can easily carry a hammer with you.
  3. Does it make our lives better? For example, having the ancient hammer made it easier to cut down a tree so we could have shelter by having a house or warmth from building a fire. The tool created something better for us in our lives.


Liberating us to do more

I wonder if the third rule is the most important “test” of technology.

Something that creates fundamental value for us like shelter, food, or anything that liberates our time from survival (or even rote) activities gives us room in our lives to do other things. This kind of technology can liberate a potentially massive cognitive surplus in humanity that we can then turn to something else.

Imagine, for example, what a human who is tied to widget making (in a factory or in an office) can do with her time when she gets to leverage her unique human creativity and bring it to bear on an important problem to solve for the world?

Over the past few days, I’ve been applying these guidelines to technology I see around me and it’s interesting how often they fail this simple three-part test.

I am sure there are other ways to look at technology and their value to us and I’d love to hear what other people think.

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