This is the 30th installment of 774: weekly lessons from history about science, technology, and the miscellaneous.
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Why America Will Lose Semiconductors
Modern man has formed a curiously distorted picture of himself, by interpreting his early history in terms of his present interests in making machines and conquering nature. And then in turn he has justified his present concerns by calling his prehistoric self a tool-making animal and assuming that the material instruments of production dominated all his other activities. As long as the paleoanthropologist regarded material objects - mainly bones and stones - as the only scientifically admissible evidence of early man’s activities, nothing could be done to alter this stereotype.
-Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine
Myth of the Machine is a revisionist reflection on human culture. Lewis Mumford supposed that history has a misguided image of what ancient civilizations were interested in. The misunderstanding arose because the only thing to study of very old peoples are their stone tools that could survive for long periods of time. There is comparatively little to examine of ancient cultures in the way of their writings, textiles, art, etc. When all that is left to be studied of a group is a singular aspect of their culture, one’s tendency is to filter all speculations about that culture through their few surviving artifacts.
Today’s most notable tools, the personal computer and the internet, will be impossible to ignore for historians thousands of years from now. But how much would knowledge of the inner workings of a MacBook Pro tap into what it was like to actually interact with others through that machine and how those interactions impacted daily life?
Unlike modern paleontologists, it is possible that future researchers will have knowledge of the machines we currently use and the precise information that was communicated through them. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that researchers years from now will be able to sift through the data littered across the internet by previous generations. Researchers from the future may have the exact opposite problem from those of today: there will be too much information to make sense of.
In Martin Gurri’s book, The Revolt of the Publiche highlights the dramatic increase in the volume of information humans create. The amount of information in the world is doubling every year and 93% of all information (as of 2003) ever created by humans was done so digitally. When so much information is on the table, it is difficult for anyone to fully parse what is useful and true.
It seems unlikely that the amount of information will continue to climb at its current rate for the next few thousand years, and some of that information will likely be lost to time, but there will still be an unfathomable data set of human writing, calculations, and communication available to future researchers.
The Lewis Mumford of 5934 AD might write a book called The Myth of Information about how researchers have misjudged the ancient 2000s by assuming that the stores of online communication and writing were particularly influential to the culture of “the real world”. Suppose a researcher gets access to a several thousand year old Twitter server. When the researcher combs through billions of messages, they will come away with a wholly misplaced view of how ancient humans spoke with each other and the kinds of words that normal people used in conversation. LinkedIn, the YouTube comment section, college football message boards: each data trove will deliver inconsistent and inaccurate representations of the broad culture and how people interacted with each other in real life.