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Technology Lost

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04/28/2005

Joe Kissell writes today on the Antikythera Mechanism, which seems to be an analog computer constructed by a Greek in 82 BC. Much of the technology embodied in the device was lost, only to be reinvented hundreds of years later. What does this teach us?It reminds us that the "historian's bias" is conservative, but can lead us into error. Just because something is not documented, does not mean it did not happen. My experience as a design engineer has taught me that loss of technical know-how occurs almost continuously. As the pervious generation of creators pass out of active production, leaving their works and even their designs, we do not always know why or how these creations were made. To pass on the torch of knowledge requires an input of resources.

The point is made well by Hans Hoppe: "The danger is not that a new generation of intellectuals cannot add anything new or better to the stock of knowledge inherited from the past, but rather that it will not, or only incompletely, relearn whatever knowledge already exists, and will fall into old errors instead."

All of this is to say that where there is a danger of slipping into capital consumption, so too there is a danger of losing technology. Books and articles and manuals and reports capture and carry a part of the load, but this part is perhaps smaller than most non-technical people imagine. A large part is due to the ongoing verbal dialectic between individual creators. This forms part of the reason that the internet has not obviated professional and academic conferences. Passage of knowledge in all fields from generation to generation is critical to the progress and improvement of our civilization. As with most important things, this passing of the torch of knowledge is commemorated in song. Since I design ammonia plants, I'm partial to this one:

And word by word they handed down the light that shines today
And those who came at first to scoff, remained behind to pray
...
Through all the doubt somehow they knew
And stone by stone they built it high
Until the sun broke through
A ray of hope, a shining light
Ammonia Avenue

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