Sunday, 20 December 2015


The Ripples of Technology

I am immersed in a book called The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. The topic is a tad arcane, but the message regarding the evolution and impact of new technology is universal. Writing transformed sounds into visuals which led to the invention of the book. This great leap forward in human communication posed a new and unforeseen problem. How to safely preserve and store these collected scrolls and codices, these records, these histories, these poems, these dramas? The hinged modern books which we store vertically on dedicated furniture whose shelves display minimal sag, a system we take for granted, required centuries of refinement.

The proliferation of books had other consequences. Architecture was affected, specifically the size, placement and quantity of windows because early monastic libraries thrived on natural light in the days before electricity and open flames in a room crammed with valuable flammable material courted catastrophe. The printing press had to be invented. Literacy spread, and with it, new ideas and knowledge as the number of writers grew. Publishers and bookshops opened their doors. Legible fonts, some beautiful, elegant and utterly timeless, were designed. The existence of books gave birth to an art form, the novel; there’s no chicken and egg riddle to ponder.

Books and shelves took time to evolve into something suggestive of their Platonic ideals. More recent and advanced technologies don’t garner such unabashedly positive reviews. Consider the automobile with mixed emotions; freedom for the middle class it helped inflate through factory jobs, paved infrastructure and peripheral businesses like service stations and garages, motor inns, roadside attractions and drive-ins. ‘Rocket 88’ which many consider the first rock ‘n’ roll song is an ode to an Oldsmobile; Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen made out all right writing and singing songs about cars; Detroit muscle endures as the only worthy ride into the heart of the American Dream.

But those new highways bypassed towns and killed them. The drive-ins were cookie cut into burger chains. Our cities and suburbs ceased to welcome pedestrians. One family car became impractical, almost peculiar; car dealers became money lenders. Is there any need to mention Volkswagen and das auto emissions, or General Motors dithering for a decade and 115 deaths before recalling its products because of a faulty, paltry $5 part? Fossil fuels have powered all engines, including geopolitics and national economies.

Perhaps the automobile has driven us headlong into an even newer technology, hydraulic fracturing. Well fracking is clever technology. The main ingredients are water, a cocktail of chemicals and sand. The pressurized solution creates fissures in sedimentary stone. The cracks bleed hidden reserves of oil and natural gas. The process is a North American energy ‘Open Sesame;’ a self-reliant middle finger to the House of Saud and OPEC if you will, and a Washington snub of Alberta’s ‘dirty’ tar sands. Inexpensive and abundant natural gas is critical as electrical power generation stations are weaned off coal. Cleaner times are coming.

Fracking requires tremendous amounts of water, a natural resource that’s no longer considered to be limitless. Air pollutants include methane which smells like ass. Environmentalists are convinced the extraction process leaves nasty residue in the groundwater: since the fracking boom began in the 1970s, not that long ago, evidence of negative long term health effects on folk who have the misfortune of living in proximity to the noisy sites is inconclusive. Recent studies have proven that fracking triggers earthquakes. ‘Did the earth move, Little Rabbit?’ ‘Truly, the earth did move.’ Still, I wonder about the impact of even modest seismic activity on the integrity of pipelines and railroad track beds.

Time is the greatest teacher in the world. What a gift it would be to fast forward time in order to understand the ramifications and consequences of our new technologies. Who knows how it’ll all shake out when you’re in the middle of it with incomplete information and without the luxury of foresight? The Book on the Bookshelf is available on Amazon as a download.


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