Jiva Technology

What History can teach us about technology

Every now and then the argument resurfaces. Are some subjects more valuable than others? Are some degrees a good idea and others … well, worthless? The argument is usually framed as ‘technical’ or STEM subjects versus the liberal arts, where studying medicine is patently worthwhile and studying renaissance painting less so. It can feel as though science and technology has all the arguments – even if we’re talking about obscure mathematics or unusual chemistry that has no apparent application, we know from past experience that even the oddest topics can suddenly be found useful. Sometimes hundreds of years later. Riemann geometry anyone?

But there’s a subtlety here that is perhaps overlooked. Take for example the study of history. It feels as though we live in interesting times where technological and political upheaval is on the horizon. But is it so far outside the norm? Is this perhaps where historians can help us? May Beard is a fabulous example of a historian whose deep knowledge of long dead people and their customers is actually terribly relevant to the world we live in today. And I came across an example which struck me had equal bearing on a world staring down the barrel of artificial intelligence, bioinformatics and driverless cars. The first bridge across the Thames was built in 50 AD, around the site of the current London Bridge. The second wasn’t built until 1,700 years later. In the meantime, the gap was filled by numerous Thames ferrymen who plied their trade, were licensed and made a decent living from it. In the 1800’s, bridge building began nearest and a new technology (the bridge) displaced thousands of ferrymen jobs. The response of the government was interesting. They compensated the ferrymen for their loss of earnings and in some cases, continue to do so today.

What history offers is a toolbox, an understanding of examples from the past and a grasp of what would or would not be outside the norm. For the tech industry grappling with the cultural (and political) upheaval they’re about to unleash on us, perhaps a few students of history might be a useful addition to the armies of engineers and mathematicians. It shows that advanced skills have their uses and sometimes it pays to look beyond the obvious, to engage in some second and third order thinking to really solve a problem. Its one thing to create new science and new technologies, its quite another to get people to accept it. And if it fails to get accepted, that technology is another of those useless topics we were talking about earlier.



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