Man’s first big technological achievement was fire. And there’s the belief that fire also sparked the development of language and community. People gathered around the fire to eat and ward off predators. Stories were told as the food cooked. I wonder who cracked the first joke. What was it and when was it told? A lion, a llama and an elk walk into a cave … You can imagine the development of group humor, of the discovery of playing the clown.
Eventually, someone got the idea of putting stories on cave walls. Later, phonetic symbols were created. And the written word was developed. Literacy emerged out of a long, dark tunnel. It was a kind of miracle. Many years later, in approximately 1440, Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press, an advancement that pushed along the Enlightenment and the ability to spread the written word to the masses. Now, millions more could read the Bible; the old religious order was drastically altered. Now, men and women could spread their art, their politics, their version of events to an increasingly literate and informed society, who could interpret those writings and pass them along, forming a new type of tree of knowledge.
It’s interesting how technology fundamentally alters the world. We’ve seen so many incredible advancements in the past 150 years. Think of phones, cars, railroads, planes, electricity, medicine, radio, television, personal computers, the Internet. I sometimes think of that long rope of human history and how so much of it involved incremental and localized improvements. For instance, think of how big a deal improved spearmaking was to early people, how it helped them survive. But think about how long such improvements would take to work around to faraway people. Any big innovation needed decades or centuries to take hold elsewhere. Now, new developments are immediately patented, manufactured and aggressively marketed across the globe.
Usually the good far outweighs the bad when man puts his mind to a problem and succeeds. But for any positive achievement, there is also the potential devious use. Fire was a life-affirming force. It was also used to burn down your enemy’s hut.
Of course, there’s an impatience with those who fret over rapid technological advancement. Many chuckle at those who fear technology. But even those who love every next gadget must concede that we are in a period of human history where everything has changed so rapidly that no one can really be sure what to make of all this. There are countless luxuries that no one before us has ever enjoyed. Try explaining Google or Facebook — or all that came before — to Abe Lincoln.We now have the ability both to save many lives, but also to end many lives with our advanced know how. And that has to give pause to anyone who actually puts down his iPhone to think for a minute.
I write all this, having just read a story in Newsweek about scientists at the National Ignition Facility who hope to power the planet with just a tiny pellet the size of a multivitamin. They are trying to use lasers to ignite a sustainable fusion energy, the same kind of energy that powers the sun. Instead of splitting an atom, they’re trying to force a “deuterium nucleus to merge, or fuse, with a tritium nucleus.” Beats me what that means. But a new energy source would alter the world. That much is clear. Critics say fusion energy is a pipe dream and a waste of taxpayer money. But those who favor the research point out that even if unsuccessful, the effort will lead to other advancements, such as in laser technology. And technology does tend to work in a splintered way like that.
I feel sure this century will include the kind of rapid and profound change we saw over the past 100 years. There are things on the horizon we can’t imagine. Hopefully, we’ll harness that new fire in a good way — and won’t burn down our huts.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.