A reasoned discourse about making things
From Greek (Techne: Making or doing, Logos: Reasoned discourse)
A selection of books to cultivate ambition towards creating and learning the history of technology.
Stories of technologies:
Technology is the most important lever for growth and progress in human society for two reasons:
First, technology is autopoietic – self-generating. It compounds over successive generations of innovation thus making what was once considered impossible mundane within a single generation.
Second, technology drives positive sum outcomes, or more simply: Technology grows the pie rather than merely redistributing it.
Human existence has changed dramatically over the last few hundred years due to technology. It’s easy to forget just how markedly different our lives used to be.
One of the best books to read to understand this is The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. The book highlights the incredible change in living standards in America that occurred between 1870 and 1970. Understanding how much time Americans used to spend manually hauling water, human waste, and fuel the reader gains new appreciation for mundane luxuries of our modern world. The author, Gordon, paints a somewhat pessimistic view of how little such improvement we may see in the future as prior shifts were so fundamental they’ll be hard to top. I don’t fully share the pessimistic view - but I think the book is first class in establishing how profoundly human lives have changed over the the last 150 years.
A complimentary view to Rise and Fall is that of the investing book: Engines That Move Markets: Technology Investing from Railroads to the Internet and Beyond. One of my favourite aspects of this book (and perhaps evidence that Gordon’s pessimism may be overstated) are the skeptical quotes at the start of each chapter regarding new technologies. As the book journeys through major technological innovations such as railroads, telephones, and computers the reader watches technologies transform from completely impossible to seemingly inevitable and then ultimately entirely invisible.
The Wizard and the Prophet is a book about the interplay between human progress and our impact on the environment. The concepts in this book are particularly important because it helps the reader understand sustainability through both progress oriented/pro-growth and conserative/degrowth frameworks that have become ingrained in our society’s dialog about economic development.
Stories of technologies:
There are a set of books that cover specific categories of technologies and the changes that occurred through each. My goal with this section is to expand the sense of what technology is and provide a survey of problems, solutions, and progress across a range of domains.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat is a charming book that helps take one category of technologies we take entirely for granted and see how fundamentally they’ve shaped our lives. Reading this book will expand your notion of what may be considered a technology and, again, highlight how invisible a well adopted technology becomes.
Energy: A Human History covers one of the most foundational technologies there is - energy. In particular it covers the transitions between sources of energy, a shift often made due to crisis or competition. In some sense there is no more fundamental a technology problem than harnessing energy from our universe and Energy provides a brief but spanning history as well as a look forward.
We often think of technology as the product we can hold on to or physically touch. The Machine That Changed the World is a book that may help expand the reader’s view of technologies to include processes. This story of Toyota’s manufacturing gives the reader an appreciation for how the industrial reveloution’s assembly line worked - and how lean manufacturing disrupted it. Every leader will come away from this book with a view on how they can improve their operations.
The Dream Machine: J.C.R. Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal is a soulful story of the invention of the personal computer and the internet. This book is a great story of ambition in that it conveys are more pure and noble sense of ambition: Wanting to build exciting amazing things - not just harvest value from a business. Of course, we’ve seen huge value created by computing and the internet in time, but it’s important to learn that much of the early innovation came from a love of creation rather than averice.
The academic view
Many of the books in this guide are very narrative and detail oriented - they tell specific stories of invention, creation, and impact on lives. There are academics who have zoomed out to provide a broader view on what technology is and _how technology _is rewarded or incentivized.
Innovation and Incentives is a foundational book for developing a more comprehensive, rigorous, and analytical view of technology and associated property rights. This is a more serious economics book that is less narrative and more textbook - but engrossing nonetheless.
The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves is a book that crosses the boundary between philosophy and economics. It will help expand the reader’s view of what technology is - and challenge some assumptions. For example, many people assume that technology is an application of science but the author here shows that, in some ways, Science is actually a kind of technology… and we had technologies long before we had capital-S Science.
I read The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence when it came out over 20 years ago. It’s a bold and wild vision of how computing may change our world in the future. Not all the predictions may have become (or be on track to become) true but the book is an excellent example of how dreaming big works. We need more big dreams.
I’m currently reading The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant, the book is a sort of successor to Spiritual Machines written 15+ years later. It discusses both the advent of new technologies and how these may impact society and labor markets. Even 5 years after its publication the book appears to be a slightly too optimistic view on some technologies like robotics and self-driving cars - and a bit to credulous of some hype (e.g. their treatment of IBM Watson).
While both Machine Age and Spiritual Machines are a bit overenthusiastic about what they indicate is about to be delivered by technology in the shorter term, they get two things right: First, they encourage us to dream big dreams. Second, they both correctly point out that it’s the latter half of an exponentially compounding growth process that delivers the really big returns – something referred to as the “Second half of the chessboard”.
As you think about what could be accomplished in your life, or in your children’s lives, think about the second half of the chessboard.
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