Sunday , 21 December 2014
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Popcorn Apocalypse

The fecundity of technology comes alive with a bang in this vernacular, incendiary popcorn popper (video via BoingBoing). Seeing this video reminded me of the antic incredulity with which NPR’s “sciencey” correspondent Robert Krulwich greets Kevin Kelly’s assertion that no technology has ever gone extinct. In his recent book What Technology Wants, Kelly claims to find no instance of a past technology that isn’t still being manufactured by humans somewhere on the planet. You can find latter-day manufacturers of everything from jab-sowers to steam-powered automobile engines to flint axes, he observes. From there, Kelly goes on to elaborate an axiom of technological development: techs don’t die; they merely incorporate themselves into the technium.

It is a striking feature of technological history that it doesn’t exhibit anything like the PermianTriassic extinction, which saw the death of more than half of biological families and four-fifths of all genera on the planet. And yet I think the observation may miss some of the richnessand the dangerof what makes technology different from the biology that gives rise to it. And maybe the Chinese popcorn popper in the video gives us a glimpse of that richness. Here, the durability and ephemerality of technology are present at once. The machine is basically an unplugged version of the machinery used to process puffed grains:

(Caveat: the advertisement isn’t a realistic depiction of industrial puffed-grain technology. Nor of Quakers.)

The Chinese version, a kind of vernacular gadget, owes debts to the bronze age as well as the industrial revolution. Its components are durable consitituents of the technological genome. And yet will we see a popcorn popper like this in ten, twenty-five, a hundred years? (It seems more likely to survive than 8-inch floppy disks, much less core-rope memory; perhaps one day we’ll have Apollo re-enactors simulating every aspect of the lunar landings’ Jurassic gadgetry.)

While we haven’t yet seen a global implosion of the technosphere, there have been plenty of extinctions localized in time and place. When I think of technological extinction, I think of Tasmania; as Jared Diamond tells the story, Tasmania was the scene of a local technological snuffing-out that took humans back to pre-Pleistocene levels:

When it was first visited by Europeans in 1642, Tasmania was occupied by 4,000 hunter/gatherers related to mainland Australians, but with the simplest technology of any recent people on Earth. Unlike mainland Aboriginal Australians, Tasmanians couldn’t start a fire; they had no boomerangs, spear throwers, or shields; they had no bone tools, no specialized stone tools, and no compound tools like an axe head mounted on a handle; they couldn’t cut down a tree or hollow out a canoe; they lacked sewing to make sewn clothing, despite Tasmania’s cold winter climate with snow; and, incredibly, though they lived mostly on the sea coast, the Tasmanians didn’t catch or eat fish. How did those enormous gaps in Tasmanian material culture arise?

The answer stems from the fact that Tasmania used to be joined to the southern Australian mainland at Pleistocene times of low sea level, until that land bridge was severed by rising sea level 10,000 years ago. People walked out to Tasmania tens of thousands of years ago, when it was still part of Australia. Once that land bridge was severed, though, there was absolutely no further contact of Tasmanians with mainland Australians or with any other people on Earth until European arrival in 1642, because both Tasmanians and mainland Australians lacked watercraft capable of crossing those 130-mile straits between Tasmania and Australia. Tasmanian history is thus a study of human isolation unprecedented except in science fiction namely, complete isolation from other humans for 10,000 years. Tasmania had the smallest and most isolated human population in the world. If population size and isolation have any effect on accumulation of inventions, we should expect to see that effect in Tasmania.

Not only did the Tasmanians fail to transfer mainland tech when they arrived in their new home; they also dropped a number of gadgets and practices that they did bring with them. Presumably, the tiny population of Tasmania was below a certain critical capacity not only for the invention or rediscovery of Paleolithic-era technologies, but for the maintenance of extant technological traditions as well. Which prompts a question: what is the critical population level below which the information society is no longer possible?

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