Our Tools Will Not Save Us: Why Study the History of Technology

There are several great reasons to explore technological change using historical perspectives and methods of research but so many people are unaware of them–or opposed.  In the present, we have a popular view of history that is focused on great men and epic battles but these emphases provide little to explain momentous changes at the core of today’s major events.  To be fair, historians have long challenged the formulaic conventions of rulers and generals as the only subjects worthy of consideration.  However, most of the public is unaware of this shift.  Consequently, most would suggest that the study of technology belongs to those with the greatest level of technical expertise (i.e. engineers).  While a high degree of technical expertise certainly yields useful perspectives on technological shifts, there is much to be gained from a study of technological change based in the humanities.

1. As Ira Brodsky has argued, technology continues to play an increasingly important role in historical change but few people take the time to consider these changes in perspective and the broader historical impact of their evolution. Far too often our views of technological change tend to operate in two camps.  One the one hand, we tend to exalt technology to the level of a sentient force as evidenced in the concept of the technium popularized by Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants. At the other extreme we tend to minimize the negative impacts of technology and its ongoing relevance or react strongly to particular forms of technology we dislike.  We are largely oblivious to broader social and economic consequences of our adoptions and rejections. This form of Neo-Luddism (a misnomer in itself), tends to be particularly true for those trained in the so-called ‘soft’ disciplines of the humanities. The consequences are that we really have an underdeveloped idea of technology and its impact on human history.

2. A growing number of graduates from ‘hard’ disciplines are coming to terms with an inability to express their technological insights to a broader audience outside of the silos of their areas of expertise. Thinking and talking about technology in historical terms allows us to employ the power of the narrative as a tool to teach and understand even some of the most complicated technological subjects. This is particularly important given the findings of past reports of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC):

“Technology has become so user friendly it is largely “invisible.” Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and affect its development.” (Science and Engineering Indicators 2004)

3. Our education about the future, nay even the present, is more interdisciplinary in nature today than it has ever been. As the American university becomes more specialized, the workplace and the world around us has become much more responsive to ideas from vastly different disciplinary, cultural, and regional contexts. Traditionally, fields like history tended to focus on periods and regions as the central focus of explaining change over time. Today, major thinkers in both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ disciplines are transgressing long established disciplinary boundaries in how they innovate and engage core questions.  Poets now code with the meter of Tennyson, artists extemporize on 3-D printers, and engineers must design with the insights of Jung.

While we marvel at these transgressions, we also underscore our own ignorance of the past.  Ada Lovelace cut her teeth on mathematics and programming while incorporating literary and poetic sensibilities. Leonardo Da Vinci, the world’s most famous polymath,  is well-known as a painter and an engineer.  B.F. Skinner, who made significant contributions to debates in modern psychology, was also an inventor and a tinkerer. Studying the history of technology will enable us to think about both inventors and innovation as part of a ‘big history’ or grand overlapping narrative of the exchange and application of knowledge instead of disjointed episodes of periodic genius. After all, great men and their battles are so overrated.

Most importantly, we need to think historically and critically about technology, emphasizing the broader cultural, economic, and political contexts of technological change over time in various eras of the past. We should be engaged in a broader cross-disciplinary discussion about the complex intellectual demands of a STEM-driven (science, technology, engineering, and math) society. What questions relevant to the human experience should educators and students be engaging if in fact we are in a society supposedly ‘driven’ by technology?  To what extent is humankind advanced and/or hindered by the tools we create? What historical lessons can we derive from technological events of the past to better engage the present as informed citizens, regardless of our level of technological expertise?

Why No Black Students Took the AP Computer Science Test in 11 States in 2013 and What I Intend to Do About It

Philip Emeagwali, computer scientist who black students can be inspired by.

There has been a lot of speculation concerning the lack of black students in technology fields.  Consistently, critics of policies promoting greater inclusiveness and differentiation of teaching strategies have argued that the reason for the disparities are rooted in mental capability and interest–not in structural problems.

Statistics released by the AP College Board in January of 2014 reveal some troubling disparities:

  • 11 states had no Black students take the exam: Alaska (21 exam takers -4.3% Black by population), Idaho (47 – 0.9% Black), Kansas (47 – 6.2% Black), Maine (161 – 1.0%), Mississippi (1 – 37.3%), Montana (11 – 0.67%), Nebraska (46 – 4.5%), New Mexico (57 – 3%), North Dakota (9 – 1%), Utah (103 – 1.2%), and Wyoming (0 – 1.2%).

Some people believe that this is a matter of inherent intelligence, arguing that black students are not good at computer science.  I disagree. I believe that this is a problem largely about pedagogy and less about aptitude.  Recent reports have emphasized how particular problem-based approaches to computer science and other fields have benefited minority students.  There is a lack of accessibility to these approaches and tech courses in many struggling schools where minorities are disproportionately represented.

Surely, in states where more than 25% of the population is African American yet less than ten black students attempt the test, common sense and probability would point to serious questions of accessibility not ability.

I think the solution to addressing this problem will probably not be championed by STEM field professionals alone. Integrated, interdisciplinary, cross-cultural approaches poses significant promise in educating the general public and aspiring STEM students about the barriers preventing access and achievement in the STEM fields by black students. It is necessary to tackle this problem from outside of the self-contained silo that often precludes effective minority recruitment to STEM fields.   This is what I intend to do about it.

1. Have students in my history classes identify the historical reasons for the disparity and write open letters to school districts and educators that should be doing better.

2. Request that the AP College Board donate promotional materials and preparatory resources to districts who have low numbers of black students who are participating in the exam.

3. Raise awareness about the popular misconceptions surrounding this issue.

Relationship Between Race and Technology: How Society Uses You (Part 1)

At the risk of oversimplification: race is how society defines and reacts to you; ethnicity is how you define and react to others most like yourself. During the last six years there has been a lot of reaction and little time to reflect on what this means for our emerging ideas of race and culture.

Today it is very popular to argue that race is irrelevant and it has become equally fashionable to embrace one’s ethnicity while denying one’s whiteness. I think both of these practices are quite dangerous and counterproductive for variety of reasons. Largely, they underscore a widespread denial of the ongoing impact of race in American society and its relevance to every major question of social and economic justice today. I argue that there are major differences between race and ethnicity that we really ought to think more carefully about because they affect us in a variety of important ways.

One of the reasons this must be is there is no biological or genetic rationale for racial identity. Race is a result of how populations have historically and socially constructed delimiters based on perceived physical and cultural assumptions. Whether these differences are accurate or not, as dominant perceptions they reflect how a society is structured.

People of different races often share the same cultural traditions, homeland, and language but have very different normative assumptions, experiences, and expectations. So for example, if you take two groups of people who occupy the same Caribbean island, formally known as Hispaniola– today we refer to it as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The racial concepts at play in this island are often imported to the United States by Latino immigrants who find that their understanding of who they perceive themselves to be is superseded by how people assign meaning to them. We see this played out between Latinos but more pointedly in the discussions following President Obama’s executive order on immigration

Another reason this question is important is because ethnicity is largely how people culturally orient themselves in a society. Whereas race is determined mostly from the outside to the inside, ethnicity reflects how communities identify themselves from the inside to the outside.

Lastly, we should consider this carefully because ethnic and racial designations often do overlap so these designations can become quite complex. In someways it can be analogous to they way society views the relationship between gender and sexuality. Gender (race) is how society assigns meaning to you while sexuality (ethnicity) is more about how you express your own identity.

This is important because technology to some great extent is an amalgamation of both race and ethnicity. It is how society uses you and how you use yourself.  Although human beings create technology (like race) we lack control over how it is used and develops.  Although we all use technology on some scale, we interpret our experiences differently via the tools we employ. One some scale, technology is an extrinsic categorical tool like race but also intrinsically significant like ethnicity.

Instead of accepting technologies as extensions of human control of the environment or tools, I prefer to think of technology equally as a product and byproduct of human experiences. The future of the United States (and the world) depends to a degree on what extent the history of race is understood and integrated into our consciousness but it is also how we perceive our role and complicity in that process.

After all, race is a form of technology. It is using us as we use it.

The $19 Spark Photon Can Turn Anything Into A Web-Connected Whatsit

Here we go again…


The original Spark Core was a Kickstarter hit but it had a fatal flaw: you had to be a total electronics nerd to figure it out. Now, however, you can be less of a nerd with the Spark Photon.

The Photon is very similar to the original Core but it’s slightly faster and more compact. To use it you connect a sensor or motor to the core and then interact with it using a simple programming interface. The goal is to make things far easier for hobbyists, artists, and tinkerers and at $19 you probably can’t beat the price.

The team is triggering a manufacturing run when they sell 10,000 units, a clever marketing effort. If this new unit is anything like the old Core it should be a fun little thing to mess around with while waiting for the coming wireless robot apocalypse.

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What Technology Wants (From the Oppressed)

What Technology Wants (From the Oppressed)

What_Technology_Wants,_Book_Cover_Art cabral

Norman Kelly’s What Technology Wants (2010) argues that technology is falsely understood as physical outgrowth of human ingenuity.  Instead, says Kelly, technology is a living force that predates human innovation and is somewhat of a cosmic sibling also spawned from life.  For Kelly, the technium (the term he uses to describe technology’s autonomous attributes) is capable of not only fulfilling human desires but also to desiderate on its own terms.

I took liberty here to push Kelly’s line of reasoning into a realm of thought regarding exploitation that some would find absurd.  Nonetheless, if the technium sent an email to oppressed people, what would it say?

Dear Species So Enthralled with Selfies That You Are Willing to Destroy Thousands of Lives to Procure Precious Metals and Millions More Through Narcissism and Snark:

  1. The technium wants oppressed people to understand that I prey on resources; I will aid in ‘progress’ as you call it but by my nature I must exploit the weaker. This is not personal though you may believe so.  The technium needs resources to expand and simply follows “the path of least resistance” as you would put it.  The rationale is a bit more complex but this simple heuristic will do.  It’s not about you.  It’s about me and my cronies.
  2. The technium wants oppressed people to understand that although it is used by the powerful, it also uses the powerful. The powerful claim that their particular genius and their scientific superiority is why they command wealth.  This falsity is accepted as truth by both the strong and the weak.  You should understand that the sole basis of power is consent.  Is this not evidenced in how your cultures so willingly accept prevailing doctrines of wealth?  In how you so willingly adopt every new innovation I deliver while accepting the loss of your own autonomy, resources, and sense of humanity in the process?  The technium does not think of money as wealth but rather the ability to survive, to evolve, and to expand.  While most humans, particularly the powerful, have signified money alone as a measure of these traits, technology wants more of the following: efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability. (270)  Both the oppressed and the powerful base their faith in monetary instruments to achieve freedom.  However, all living things that use me–including human beings–are my currency because they consent to allow my influence to reign.  In this way, you can think of your powerful as larger denominations ($100) that I use to purchase my will as they help me to constitute the masses of lesser units ($1s, $5s, $10s) and the billions of pennies.  Neither powerful nor weak have any inherent value to me beyond the ability for coordinate my will–to be my tools even as they use me.
  3. The technium wants oppressed people to listen to the insight of Max More’s  philosophy but without abandoning the psycho-social inquiries of W.E.B. Du Bois.  As Amilcar Cabral wrote: “…however fine and attractive the reality of others may be — can only be transformed by detailed knowledge of it, by our own efforts, by our own sacrifices.”

P.S. Stop wasting so much time on twitter.


Orange Harp Brings Socially Conscious Shopping To iPhone

I like your style!


A new e-commerce startup called Orange Harp – a phrase referencing the co-founders’ own nickname for the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco – is looking to make it easier for consumers to buy socially conscious products, including fashion, accessories and other beauty care items. Available as of this morning as an iOS app for iPhone and iPad, Orange Harp lets you shop for for a variety of high-quality goods which are made with either natural or recycled materials, which are environmentally friendly, which come from brands who support fair working conditions, and more.

The idea, explains Orange Harp co-founder and engineer Anbu Anbalagapandian, is to take this dense concept of sustainable shopping which can mean so many things, and boil it down to a simpler experience through the use of storytelling to help consumers connect with the products they buy, the problems they solve, and the companies behind them.

“For instance,” she explains, “cotton is…

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