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Historians of technology tend to preoccupy ourselves with a narrower slice of the human experience than we have to; most of our work focuses on the “industrial age”, post-1850, and on the North Atlantic-oriented world—Western Europe and North America, and their efforts to colonize and exploit the rest of the world. That is changing quickly, though. I work in the early modern world—roughly 1500—1850—and quite a few good scholars these days write good stuff about the ancient world, the medieval world, and peoples from other parts of the world. We’ve gone beyond written sources in archives, drawing heavily on anthropology, archaeology, and material culture. We’ve broadened our understanding of “technology” to encompass every aspect of the human manipulation of the world around us, from idea to implementation to adaptation.
Still, even broadly speaking, the span of time for which our work is relevant is minuscule, even compared to the span of time that our species, in its current form, has existed. When I write “ancient world,” I’m really writing “5000 BCE to about 900 CE or so.” When I write “medieval world,” I’m talking about an even shorter span of time—about 900 to 1500 CE—600 years. Homo sapiens humans, as we currently exist, are perhaps 300,000 years old, though paleontologists could find a new fossil tomorrow and revise that estimate, and it’s complicated anyway because of course we evolved from several earlier lineages over a long time.
What strikes me, though, is that beings who were biologically just like me were walking around a quarter of a million years ago. The difference between a human knapping flint for a spear to kill an animal that hasn’t existed on this planet for tens of thousands of years and a human who flies an F-16 is not biological. It’s cultural. The other thing that strikes me is that knapping flint is just as much “technology” as flying an F-16. The two require a different set of skills in pursuit of two different ends, but both require fine motor skills, the ability to mimic complex movements made by more experienced group members, the ability to mentally map and to retain those maps, and the capacity for abstract thought, so that the involved process of mastering the technology is undertaken with anticipation of how the technology will ultimately be used. (Knapping flint is hard; I can’t do it, and neither can you, without training.)
Thinking about “prehistoric” humans knapping flint helps us to do something we need to do: broaden our understanding of “technology,” which in turn broadens our understanding of the totality of the human experience, at which point we can begin to put that experience in perspective relative to Earth-time and even cosmic time. I rarely write anything that doesn’t include the observation that we who are running around right now have perhaps the narrowest understanding of “technology” ever; that, to a lot of us, “technology” means digital electronics and the ones-and-zeroes programs that they use. This is absurd; any understanding of technology that leaves no room for traditional Japanese joiner work, by which its practitioners can build large buildings whose joints fit together perfectly with no fasteners whatsoever, is no understanding of technology at all. This hyper-narrow definition of “technology” is myopic to say the least—but the reason for its prevalence is easy enough to grasp. The pace of change in digital electronics is hyperactive, as is the pace at which we are inserting them into just about every other everyday technology we use. The popular media uses words like “dizzying”—and they’re not wrong.
When something makes us dizzy, though, we want that to stop, so we should figure out how, without resorting to knee-jerk reaction. Dizziness causes disorientation, confusion, and stress—none of which helps us live our lives well or solve problems we need to solve to do so. Here’s what helps me.
As noted, modern humans have been around maybe 300,000 years. That’s about 60 times longer than what we usually consider “recorded history”—the development of written languages that we’ve been able to find. Before then, our ancestors were around maybe 750,000 years ago—so far as we know right now. Maybe longer. Maybe quite a bit longer; the next fossil could rewrite the timeline. So, at least roughly speaking, the hominid history is maybe a million years old or so.
We’re mammals—endothermic animals who (except for the platypus and the echidna) give birth to live young and nurse them with milk; mammals were already running around when the Chicxulub asteroid hit what we call the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago. That apocalypse exterminated all the large, hyper-successful (likely also endothermic) reptiles we call “dinosaurs,” leaving the endothermic birds and ect
othermic reptiles as we know them. The dinosaurs had been dominant here for maybe 177 million years. That’s 25,286 times longer than the recorded history of modern humans.
A thousand million years is a billion. The earliest life on Earth was, we think, about 3.42 billion years old, and the Earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old.
The universe, as best we can tell, is 13.8 billion years old. To us, that is inconceivably ancient, but the universe is still very young. While we discover more planets out there than we can count, and new stars are born in nebulae we can now see, our planet, and the star upon which its existence depends, are about halfway through their lifespans. For us humans, that means some version of us could, conceivably, exist on Earth for 15,000 times longer than we have already. Right now, of course, that’s in our own hands, and that—and not all that other stuff we flatter ourselves with—is what makes us unique on this planet. We ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—a blessing and a burden.
Our ancestors did not stare at screens to find answers to big questions. They looked up, and wondered. We know so much more than they did, but they knew things we’ve forgotten. The night sky is more, not less, full of wonder for us, with all that we know about our universe, and with the anticipation that we will surely learn more, in our own lifetimes. Nothing lasts forever—not us, not Earth, not even the universe. But we are here, now, in the Age of Starlight, in a young, bright universe, that has given us life and the perfect planet on which to live it. What we do with that is up to us.