When we think about ‘technology’—a weird and wonderful, shape-shifting concept—we are quick to invoke ideas of time as a determinant. We expect some to become obsolete at some point, to come to an end, as they are replaced by new ones. This way of thinking is deeply ingrained. We think of particular historical times being characterized by particular machines or processes, and we imagine the future will be made anew by a few such machines and processes. The current favorite is something called AI. In this way of thinking some people are ‘ahead of their times’ while most of us, not having grasped the significance of what a few gurus claim to be the future, are of course ‘behind the times’.
But this still-dominant way of thinking is itself way behind the times. It’s a characteristically naïve, propagandistic way to talk about ‘technology’ which has been with us for a long time.
There are far better ways to think about the artifacts which are so central to our world. We might start with the argument that far from always replacing older types of things, new things often add to the old. We just have more of everything. We might also note that what we deem “old” things often change: they are both old and new. Similarly, lots of things we think of as new often contain very old elements. To be sure, certain things get less prevalent, though they sometimes reappear.
What then are the sorts of processes which make things disappear? It could be, for example, that spare parts, or fuels, are for some reason no longer available. It may be that something better comes along, and it is worthwhile stopping using the old machine and buying a new one. It may be that old machines simply break down, and cannot be replaced. Or it may be that certain kinds of machine or products are made illegal to own or produce. Thus there are few CFCs left in the world. Chemical weapons are much less prevalent than they were in the 1930s, say.
We might then ask what kinds of ‘technology’ might we want to be rid of in the next fifty years. Many would say any machine burning or using coal. To which others would add any machine using fossil fuels, and perhaps therefore most internal combustion engines. Note that we could, if we wished, get rid of all these things without introducing any novelties. We could extend the use of alternatives which already exist.