Techsploitation: This Is Not Progress

I can't stop thinking about the Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,000-year-old computer-like device made by some Greeks who wanted to predict the motion of the sun, moon, and stars. Fashioned out of highly sophisticated interlocking gears, the mechanism was discovered a little over a century ago in a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island Antikythera. About the size of a shoebox and operated with a hand crank, the machine can also plot the dates of eclipses.

I know all these details because a group of international researchers used cool new X-ray imaging technologies to look at the mechanism, which to the naked eye appears rather like a pile of crusty, corroded plates that have stuck together. Using X-rays, however, scientists could see how the gears fit together. Pictures are available on Nature.com and reveal a machine whose complexity rivals the internals on a Rolex. Researchers say it was probably state-of-the-art technology around 30 BC. It's likely that Greek astronomers on Rhodes had been perfecting such gear-driven temporal charts of the heavens for decades or even centuries before inventing the Antikythera Mechanism.

As Nature editor Jo Marchant points out, what's intriguing is not so much that the device existed 2,000 years ago but that the technology behind it ceased to exist for the next 1,000 years until the first mechanical astrolabes and clocks worked their way out of the Arab world and into the West. It's very possible that gear-driven mechanisms were made throughout the first millennium in the Middle East, but Western scholars have yet to gain access to the ancient texts that describe them.

For people interested in the evolution of technology and so-called scientific progress, the Antikythera Mechanism doesn't just provoke questions about history. Instead, it asks us to rethink the future. If the ancient Greeks and Romans managed to invent the precursor to information technology 2,000 years ago and then essentially forget about it, what does that say about the kinds of amazing advances we might be throwing away right now?

Tech historians have two theories about why the Greeks and Romans didn't get into gear mechanisms full bore and invent some kind of clock or computer before the Holy Roman Empire smooshed Europe. First of all, there was no power source for their gear devices other than the hand crank. Weight-powered clocks weren't invented until the late Middle Ages in Europe. So devices like the Antikythera Mechanism weren't particularly practical unless you were an astronomer or a rich collector. Plus, who needed to know time down to the minute? As long as you knew the hours and seasons, you could get by just fine in classical antiquity.

More interesting to me is the theory that the widespread practice of slavery in Greece and Rome would have prevented people from trying to create machines that could perform human labor. It's not that having slaves kept people from inventing gear mechanisms -- it just kept them from imagining possible outcomes and applications. If you already have people performing all the manual and intellectual labor you don't want to do, there's no need to figure out what kinds of machines would be capable of doing it.

Obviously, it's impossible to know what stopped our ancestors from connecting the dots and ushering in the information age 2,000 years ago. And it may be equally impossible to figure out what our sociological blind spots are today that prevent us from hurtling into a better world more quickly. Still, there are some missteps in progress we can see and correct before plunging into another Dark Ages. It's clear that our dependence on oil has halted progress toward finding cleaner, more efficient energy sources. Similarly, the widespread use of cars has halted progress in public transportation.

Who knows what kinds of great discoveries are cast aside when labs lose their funding or graduate students lose hope and slink away from experiments in defeat? Tomorrow's Antikythera Mechanism is probably sitting in some disgruntled engineer's garage right now, rusting. Let's hope we discover it in two years rather than 2,000.

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