Monday, April 29, 2024

Six ago at the blog -- Old Tech April (and why we care)

Regular readers of the blog have probably noticed that I am at least mildly obsessed with the technology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We have run countless posts largely consisting of pictures and often articles from Scientific American published from 1880 to 1910. Admittedly part of the appeal is that the indispensable Internet Archive has an excellent collection from that era, all of which are now in the public domain. The pictures are undeniably cool and, frankly, it's nice to have a topic that doesn't require a lot of work or thought on my part.

But there's another more substantive reason. I honestly believe that any conversation about our present day attitudes towards technology, progress, and what we expect from the future basically starts somewhere in or near that 30-year range. The way we think about these things, the narratives, the imagery, the language, the assumptions all largely formed around that time. Add in a few refinements from the post-war era (stretching it a bit to include Hiroshima) and you have the foundation of the vast majority of conversations on the subject you hear today. Listen to a future-focused TED Talk, or an Elon Musk interview, or an effective accelerationist manifesto and you will find almost all of the ideas are over 50 years old and many if not most are over 100.

Knowing the context of these ideas is useful, perhaps even essential for an informed conversation. It can also make you a bit jaded, which might not be a bad thing.

Friday, April 27, 2018

..."and we'll visit the Man in the Moon"

When you see one of those pretty, quaint yet ingenious and functional turn-of-the-century aircraft, chances are it came from this guy.
Alberto Santos-Dumont; 20 July 1873 – 23 July 1932, usually referred to as simply Santos-Dumont) was a Brazilian inventor and aviation pioneer, one of the very few people to have contributed significantly to the development of both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air aircraft.


In 1904, after Santos-Dumont complained to his friend Louis Cartier about the difficulty of checking his pocket watch during flight, Cartier created his first men's wristwatch, thus allowing Santos-Dumont to check his flight performance while keeping both hands on the controls. Cartier still markets a line of Santos-Dumont watches and sunglasses.

From Scientific American, 1905/10/14


And from Wikipedia (circa 1900)

When I started on this post, I immediately thought of a song a friend of mine named Jerron had introduced me to, so I did a quick Google search for the title and guess what popped up...


  1. It would be helpful to have some examples of how our conceptions of technology, progress, and the future formed between, say 1890 and 1950 (to extend it a bit) and have remain unchanged. Even without examples, I agree with you for the most part.

    My question is: Don't you find it disturbing, or notable at a very minimum, that that would be the case?! As you said, and I agree, there hasn't been much that's REALLY new in the past 50 to 100 years, including ideas for the next 50 to 100 years. That suggests that despite all the Silicon Valley blather about a knowledge economy, INNOVATION, and generative AI, there isn't much progress anymore. What happened to us? And why are you so unperturbed by it? I'm curious!

    1. Ellie,

      We've got some upcoming posts and reposts that fill out the details but the basic argument is that the late 19th century technology spike introduced ideas like tech messiahs and technology based apocalypses (and lots of others. it's a long list), ideas that were overblown then and are more so now. The Musks and the Andreessens capitalize on these stories in a way that is bad for society and, ironically, bad for the innovation they claim to promote. -- MP