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I Will Do My Best To Teach Them About Life And What It’s Worth

“See all that stuff inside, Homer? That’s why your robot never worked!”*

Here’s what I’m doing this weekend, unless a certain fetus has other plans: The Hacking as a Way of Knowing Workshop organized by the excellent Bill Turkel and the awesome Edward Jones-Imhotep.

This three-day workshop will explore the theme of E-waste and environmental data. Working in small groups, participants will be given the task of hacking some typical consumer e-waste to create reflective technological assemblages that incorporate ‘nature’ in some form while calling one or more of our basic assumptions into question.

Translation: We’re making killer robots. Reflective, nature-incorporating, assumption-questioning, killer robots. The twitterpated can follow this foolish meddling with secrets beyond our ken at #hackknow. Confession: I’ve been on Twitter for a year now (as “robotnik“) but have only managed to emit one tweet.

*I googled “that’s why your robot never worked” to be sure I had the quote right, and discovered that my own elderly LiveJournal is the number one hit for the phrase. Andy Warhol would plotz: I’ve become famous to myself.

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Technology Grows On Trees

The question should not be, “Had Edison never lived, would we have had an incandescent light bulb?” but rather, “Had the Western world never discovered electricity, would non-Western cultures eventually have developed the incandescent light bulb?” My answer to this question is basically negative. Western knowledge of nature was neither “better” nor “deeper” than the beliefs of the Chinese, Africans, or Aztecs. It just happened to be the kind of knowledge that led to the emergence of light bulbs.
–Joel Mokyr, “King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis & the History of Technology”

Like just about everybody else in the humanities wing of the ivory tower, I’m grading papers this month and not exactly loving it. You’d think somebody who can go on at such length about writing pedagogy wouldn’t find the actual doing it such a drag. I did have one assignment this term that was a pleasure to grade: in our course on Science, Technology, and Global History, Bill Turkel and I had the students critique, and suggest alternatives to, the Civilization technology tree.

In Sid Meier’s Civilization and many other simulation games, “tech trees” are used to represent possible pathways of technological change. You may start the game with no knowledge of writing, but once you “invent” writing you can then work towards inventing map-making, or literacy, or a code of laws. The game uses the term technology pretty loosely–communism, meditation, and literature are all “technologies” in the most recent edition–but then so do historians of technology. The branching paths of technological possibility are all represented as a tree. CHNM’s Trevor Owens had a nice post last month, from which I stole this post’s title, about how historians and sociologists of science might profit by playing with these models.

Civ has been a motif in our course: we used images from the game in our posters advertising the class, screen-shots have turned up in our lecture slides, and I’ve turned to the game from time to time in order to abstract examples about the interaction of science, technology, and history. (Here are my thoughts on teaching with Civ from a year or two ago, and on a course about gaming and simulation.) In my first lecture this term, we talked explicitly about the tech tree and its underlying assumptions about determinism, contingency, and technological change. Here are the slides for them that care, with the caveat that they are designed not to substitute for attendance at the lecture. (Keen-eyed geeks: yes, that is Ming-3 from GURPS Alternate Earths, and yes, that is Fu Manchu’s awesome kite-borne army from the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

The Civ tech tree offered a nice way to talk about the “Needham Question“–crudely put, why didn’t China beat England to the industrial revolution? (I thank Jon Dresner for berating Bill & I about the low China content in an early draft of the syllabus. The course is still not quite as global as we want it to be, but the Needham Question and its shortcomings became a really key theme of the modern half.) It’s easy to play a game of Civilization in which China industrializes first. It’s much harder to play a game in which nobody industrializes on the European model, and it’s impossible to play a game in which technological progress veers onto an altogether different path. The Civ tech tree offers a range of choices but is basically linear in the end, and the fact that you really need certain technologies to win the game makes it more linear still.

So after that lecture, we asked the students to come up with alternatives to the tech tree and to explain what their alternate models suggest about history and the process of scientific or technological change. The point wasn’t to come up with the “right” model, as if there is such a thing, but to imagine and explore different ways of thinking about determinism and contingency. Are future scientific discoveries lying around “out there” waiting to be invented, or do we create them only in the process of discovery?

I was happy with the assignments we got back. The students really went to town with multicolored diagrams and the like, and they had some great ideas: tech wheels, tech matrices, tech gumbo, and more. One of my favorite ideas was a riff on Katamari Damancy, that surreal “could it be any more Japanese?” game where you roll around a highly adhesive ball that grows as it picks up the things you roll over. The student’s idea was a rolling tech wheel. The spokes of the wheel represented paths of technological development you could pursue–navigation, metalworking, what have you–but you also had to adapt to technological contingencies in the form of the various things you rolled over. I’m not sure how this would actually work as a game, but as a crazy Katamari bricolage view of human history, it’s fun to wrap your head around.

Another great idea, perhaps more workable, gave players the ability to discover not only technologies but also the connections between technologies or areas of knowledge. So instead of the game presuming that electricity always leads to radio or steam power to the railroad, the player could choose what to link electricity too. Maybe electricity is connected to flight: presto, electric airships. Maybe electricity is connected to medicine: build enough links and electrical medicine becomes a physical fact of your alternate game world. Hold on, you might be saying. Is that how scientific progress really works? Well, I don’t know. But you can see how that’s a rich question for a course like ours to tackle.

If the tech tree assignment didn’t grab our students, they also had the option of suggesting an alternative to the current disciplinary structure of the university, and explaining what that model said about the underlying organization of human knowledge. Those were interesting too, but I didn’t do as good a job of setting up expectations, and so I got a lot of suggestions along the lines of “professors should answer student emails more promptly.” True enough, probably, but not quite so much food for thought.