Category Archives: Technology

Richard L. Currier – Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink

Richard L. Currier – Unbound: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink

I hastily bought this book on sale thinking it was a yet another Schumpeter-inspired history of technology by an economist. I was pleasantly surprised to find it is written from an anthropologist’s perspective, and most of the book has little to do with economics or markets. Moreover, it is excellently done.

Currier has packed Unbound with evolutionary, biological, social, and behavioral insights into how technology has influenced the human condition, and vice versa. Causality’s arrow points in both directions, with massive implications for everything from our anatomy to gender roles, sexual behavior, and even our species’ geographic range. Bipedalism freed up our hands to use weapons and tools. The extra food provided calories for larger brains to use and improve these tools. Larger brains meant longer gestations and tougher childbirths, which effectively made hunting a men-only activity; this is the origin of gender roles that are unique to our species, though obviously this dynamic does not apply as it once did. To tease out these insights, Currier ranges all the way back to our Australopithecine and Homo habilis ancestors, as well as other primates such as chimpanzees and bonobos.

Among the other things the reader learns is that our species’ relative hairlessness was a direct result of our taming fire. This had obvious safety benefits, and I was probably not the only reader to have a Gary Larson-inspired chuckle at how this may have affected some of our more hirsute ancestors as natural selection did its work.

Chapters on tools, fire, clothing, and language give way to agriculture, transportation and eventually industrial production, around which point the book changes tone. By the 19th century or so the book begins to read less like an anthropology story and more like a history of business and technology, along the lines of Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. The eighth and final technology is the emerging digital age, which is still maturing as we speak. Even at this early stage, Currier is correct about how the Internet, digitalization, and rapid globalization are having a transformative impact on par with the other great technologies.

There is another abrupt change in the final chapter, which is mostly paint-by-numbers hysterics over mass extinction and environmental apocalypse. This is alluded to in the book’s subtitle, though mostly absent until this point. Here, Currier shows that he has not often ventured outside his disciplinary home of anthropology. He would have benefited from an understanding of more diverse thinkers such as Julian Simon, Hans Rosling, Johan Norberg, Deirdre McCloskey, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Joel Mokyr, Bjorn Lomborg, and other scholars from a range of disciplines from statistics to economic history to psychology, who are more adept in the study of progress.

Unlike the rest of an otherwise carefully written book, this final chapter reads like it was written in a single caffeinated cram session. Cautious words like “could” and “might” gradually morph into more certain proclamations such as “will” and “have” as the chapter proceeds. The very end also oddly mentions the 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs, but Currier correctly identifies tariffs as harmful policies, and his emotions carry him in favor of international openness and inclusion. At the very end, Currier suddenly goes through another mood swing and ends on an optimistic note about. Unlike just a few pages before, Currier now argues that dynamism and progress might forestall the coming environmental apocalypse after all. Before he can change his mind again, the book ends. In all, that odd journey reminded me of the occasional all-nighter I pulled back in undergrad trying to finish term papers on time.

Despite the weird rollercoaster ending, Unbound was one of my better reads of the year. It is almost like a wider-ranging sequel to Richard Wrangham’s excellent Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which Currier cites liberally in his early chapter about fire. It also pairs well with Arthur Diamond’s Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism, though that book’s Pollyanna-ish tone is a bit much even for this optimist.

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Walter Isaacson – The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Walter Isaacson – The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Think Joseph Schumpeter’s ethos of creative destruction mixed with economic historian Joel Mokyr’s emphasis on technology and how culture enables it, as told by a tech journalist, and you have this book. It’s essentially a history of great personalities of the digital age, with the broader aim of identifying cultural factors that aid innovation. While Isaacson’s arguments are nothing groundbreaking, he is a compelling biographer, and he ties together some wildly disparate personalities into a cohesive narrative of computer history.

One of the first great personalities behind the computer was the mathematician Ada Lovelace, who of all things was the daughter of the Romantic-era poet Lord Byron. Lovelace’s work with Charles Babbage would go on to influence Alan Turing, and when their efforts combined with the invention of the transistor, the cascading effect led to the emergence of numerous other innovations and innovators, who are all more interconnected than most of them realized.

Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

John Harrison gets his due. Even now his name is virtually unknown, but he made one of the most important discoveries in the history of exploration—how to find longitude. It’s easy to find one’s latitude. If you can see the North Star, you’re in the northern hemisphere. The higher up in the sky it is, the farther north you are. Ditto for the Southern Cross and other features in the southern hemisphere’s night key.

Longitude is also easy in concept—just compare when noon local time is with noon Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and you’ll know exactly how far east or west you are. The trouble is that building a clock that kept accurate time while enduring rough shipboard conditions was impossible for all of human history. Everyone from Phoenician sailors on up through Columbus and Magellan had no idea what longitudes their discoveries were located at. They could only guess, and they often did a lousy job of it.

The key to finding accurate longitude was a centuries-long pop culture joke, similar to pre-1969 “they’ll put a man on the moon before that happens” jokes. The longitude joke’s currency ended in the mid-1700s when a watchmaker named John Harrison, spurred on by a £20,000 prize sponsored by the Royal Society, invented a series of clocks that were finally up to the task.

Sobel tells the story masterfully, setting up the history of the problem and why it matters, the origins of the Royal Society and prizes for inventions, the significance of the Scientific Revolution, John Harrison’s life story and his chase of the prize, and fascinating descriptions of the materials and craftsmanship that went into Harrison’s remarkable inventions. He made five clocks, each outdoing the last, though H-4, as it is known, is the most famous.

Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick – The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

A look at the 16th-century Scientific Revolution as one of the founding processes of modernity, with a special focus on England and the Royal Society. Pairs well with much of Joel Mokyr’s work on how cultural attitudes affect technological progress. Dolnick’s book is narrower in focus and not as rigorous, but it is more accessible, and provides a good look at the Republic of Letters, though its England-heavy focus doesn’t fully capture the scientific movement’s cross-national and cross-religious character. Dolnick could also have done more on the Scientific Revolution’s greater historical context. Its secular, cosmopolitan, and dynamist outlook built upon earlier Renaissance and Reformation thought, or at least their more liberal strains. At the same time, the Scientific Revolution was a necessary practical predecessor to the more philosophical Enlightenment that flowered in the 18th century in Scotland, France, America, and elsewhere. A useful book, but more of a sketch than a full-fledged investigation of the beginnings of modernity.

James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3

James S.A. Corey – Abbadon’s Gate: The Expanse, Vol. 3

The best of the series so far. The protomolecule that was the major plot axis of the first two books forms a 1,000 km-wide ring between Uranus and Neptune’s orbits. The space inside the ring seems to be some kind of wormhole leading to a million-kilometer wide space with more than a thousand other rings spread along its edges. Earth, Mars, and the Belt waver between war and peace, both inside and outside the ring space. Protagonist James Holden  and his crew, along with a few other characters try to keep the peace, and try to ward off a vengeful character whose father and sister figured prominently in the first two volumes. The drama of a continually worsening situation keeps building and building, with some elaborate physics involved—gravity and inertia turn out to be excellent plot devices. The final battle scene is fantastically done—one of the best I’ve read.

Tim Peake – Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space

Tim Peake – Ask an Astronaut: My Guide to Life in Space

A book-length Q&A session with an astronaut who spent six months on the International Space Station. The tone is friendly and conversational, and the questions are good—Peake drew from public responses using the Twitter hashtag #askanastronaut.

His answers cover everything from training, liftoff, the various irks and quirks of life on the ISS, from food to using the bathroom, what space smells like, what happens when you sweat inside a spacesuit in zero-gravity, and the scary thrill of reentry. I can see this book appealing to younger space enthusiasts, too.

Jeffrey Kluger – Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon

Jeffrey Kluger – Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon

This one was hard to put down. An exciting account of the first time men flew to the moon and orbited around it. Less than a year later, Apollo 11 would actually land on the moon and Neil Armstrong would utter his famous words. But he couldn’t have done it without the Apollo 8 team paving the way through many difficulties, both physical and political.