Technological Time Travellers

I’ve just started reading The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate). It is about the history of information, writing, and IT, and it won the English PEN Hessel-Tiltman Prize this year.

I was struck by a passage in the book, discussing ‘African Talking Drums’:

Before long, there were people for whom the path of communication technology had lept directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages.

This rang a few bells.  First, this nugget from Alain de Botton:

If technology is developing well, what was normal when you were a child should by now seem ridiculous.

Which seems to me to be a variation on Arthur C. Clarke’s famous suggestion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.  What’s interesting with regard to the African Talking Drums is that they are seen as a kind of primitive technology, even thought (as The Information explains) the language is so complex it appeared to be a form of magic to the white slavers, colonialists and anthropologists who heard them.

These technological leaps are interesting, I think, because so much of our culture is tied up in technological advancement.  It dictates what kind of jobs are necessary and profitable, of course, but also influences design.

I am reminded of Jason Kottke’s posts on Timeline Twins (for example, watching Back to the Future today is like watching Bridge on the River Kwai in 1985, because the gap is 27 years in both cases), and also Human Wormholes and The Great Span (for example, this old man who witnessed the Lincoln Assassination).

It also makes me think of my great-grandfather, who (along with everyone else of his particular generation, I suppose) was alive to hear the news of the Wright Brothers achieving powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and also to watch the Apollo landings on the moon from 1969-72.

Think finally of the uncontacted tribes of Puapa New Guinea and the Amazon, who must consider the aeroplanes that fly overhead to be magic.

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