Time and Technology

There is so much hyperbole coming out of Silicon Valley about innovation, disruption, changing the world and so on, that some perspective on technology and time would be useful. When our ancestors learned how to move a heavy object by rolling it on a log, and how to light a fire, the steam locomotive and the automobile were already there in principle. It didn’t need any further creativity or invention to bring them about, only time, like the growth of a plant. Take a perspective from ten thousand years ahead—why not? Is humanity not planning to stick around that long? Human history is about five thousand years so far—are we really that close to the end? Our descendants will smile at the cleverness that made a contained and mobile fire and turned heat into motion, and perhaps use the same principles in a children’s toy, but for them the automobile and the jet plane will be periodized with the stone age—the era of burning things up and pumping the heat around.

Science is contemplation of the world to detect and trace the actual relations between things so that the engineers can use them, but most of the work done by both professions is just filling in blanks. Moments of creativity and invention are rare. Whoever looked at a wild horse and imagined riding it was a creative genius, as was the first to tame a fire—the consequences of these moments were inevitable and natural and didn’t take much talent to realize. Figures such as Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Mach or Leibniz, who have genuinely new insights,  are very rare, though becoming more common as a result of social changes, not least the simple growth of the population. What is most interesting is that the contribution of these exceptional individuals in the sciences is more in the realm of creative speculation than experiment. In other words, there is a strong element of “art” in what they do. This raises the question of whether as to method art might have some advantage over science.

But the thought experiment above would be mere wool gathering if we are in fact approaching the limits of what we can understand about nature. That isn’t clearly so, but it is at least possible. In that case we can project millennia in which life will be more or less the same as it is now. From such a perspective the achievements of science will become mere tedium, and the speculative genius of the imagination the only source of interest in history. Naturally its products will be recognized as fictions.

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