Have you ever held in your hand a prehistoric stone tool and considered the processes involved in making it? The hand that struck the flakes and who it belonged to, and the world in which they encountered this technology? And pondered the time scale of the evolutionary technology involved in the transformation of stone into an artifact, and one which holds the potential to make other tools? And hold that thought (as well as the object) as you consider the technological change in your own lifetime (computers you have used?), and the acceleration of the rate of change that is now made even more complex by overlays of hype, something which is itself generated and spread by means of escalating technologies.
For the past eight years I have taught a course on Archaeology and Anthropology to American High School students. These young people are juggling their own rites of passage into adulthood with the external demands of an increasingly challenging world. They don't talk readily about what happened in their grandmother's day, or what their parents grew up with. They can see more relevance in discussing what their older siblings used at school. Last year's model is the new archaeology. I encourage them to think about the evolution of the computer over a few decades as if considering stone tool technology over millenia. It's not change that is significant, it's the rate of change, and that's a tricky concept to convey to students who have never used a pen to write an essay.
But what is unique about the 21st century perspective of these Americans is they have, potentially, more than objects to teach them about change—they can hear the folk-memory of these archaic forms in the stories of the Apple on which a mother wrote her thesis; the DEC PD11 on which a father worked. They can learn to evaluate change from observing the material culture of still-functioning computers, all the more so because of the work of individuals and institutions such as the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, who seek to preserve them. And they can also consider the inequalities of technology by finding out what becomes of old computers which are not yet interesting, but simply out-moded.
Without a sense of the past, there is a danger of raising a generation of change-junkies, weaned on the rush of accelerating technologies, for whom history has no relevance. They would recognise technological change only through its material culture—the stuff—brought to them on the street and in a welter of media hits. In their world where nothing stands still, they are left with no space to evaluate why technological change happens and, crucially, its implications.
Change happens. The challenge is to work with the materiality and mass consumerism of our everyday world, and to use it to communicate a scientific context in which technological leaps and bounds make sense. Not just to American High School students. But to all of us.
Archaeologist and Journalist
Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, and Research Associate, The Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford.
Author of Artifacts: An Archaeologist's Year In Silicon Valley.