History of technology

Please take a moment to appreciate the stunning interactive essay from The New York Times, which uses the medieval manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry as a reference to explore how time is perceived through the utilization of time-keeping devices, like calendars.

The following video provides a fascinating look into the gradual demise and transformation of the electronics giant Philips. Since I’ve seen the brand so much throughout my entire life, the video had a different impact on me even though the story is probably similar to that of many other older tech companies:

Interestingly, recent events have sparked attention in global politics to ASML, a major player in the microchip industry and one of the companies connected to Philips. See this article on policito.eu for information on the government’s announcement to impose new export restrictions on AML’s products to China.

After the acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk the whole platform seems to be in disarray and to have an uncertain future. Ian Bogost writing at The Atlantic provides some perspectives on the rise of Twitter and change from social networking to social media:

The terms social network and social media are used interchangeably now, but they shouldn’t be. A social network is an idle, inactive system—a Rolodex of contacts, a notebook of sales targets, a yearbook of possible soul mates. But social media is active—hyperactive, really—spewing material across those networks instead of leaving them alone until needed.

Twitter, which launched in 2006, was probably the first true social-media site, even if nobody called it that at the time. Instead of focusing on connecting people, the site amounted to a giant, asynchronous chat room for the world.

Read the full article here.

In this older article from Dave Young he writes about the change of how we interact with computers and their filesystems. He notes how the hierarchical structure of files and folders is being replaced by an app-centric interface.

In the present though, it has become increasingly clear that the interface bias of the smart OS prioritises data-access and content-delivery, focusing on consumption rather than production […] we can’t easily understand the behaviour of an app and the data it produces/accesses, we can’t explore what logs exist on our devices, and what personal data is potentially exposed to typical threats such as viruses, malware, hacks, and thieves. The perspective we have is simplified, and in this case, to simplify is to remove options, alternatives, and user-agency. The use-possibilities of our devices are parametrised, governed, and constrained by the overarching system of app-centricity, while opportunities for subversive intervention and creative misuse are reduced as we are obliged to act and respond within the increasingly powerful context of app store regimes.

This reminds me of a Twitter thread I recently saw in which teachers were complaining about their students no longer having enough knowlegde about “traditional” file management using hierarchical file systems. There seems to be a major paradigm shift in file retrieval: from knowing where your files are located (and using our own file structures), to retrieval through the use of search.

Two interesting quotes from Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde concerning file-sharing in an article at TorrentFreak. First, he mentions how file-sharing “paved the way for legal streaming services”:

“File-sharing has definitely helped the rise of services like Spotify and Netflix,” Sunde told M3, noting that this wasn’t what the Pirate Bay team envisioned. Instead, they wanted to move the power back from large companies to individual artists.”

Second, the importance of file-sharing for people around the world:

“I constantly meet people all over the world who tell me how important it has been (and is) for them to have access to materials. People who otherwise could not have the profession they have or who have learned the language and culture,” Sunde said.

I came across this interesting short video documentary on the historical developments of the typewriter for the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). The following article by Young Back Choi gives a fascinating insight in the developments of this technology and its various path dependencies. From the article:

The evolution of the Korean keyboard reveals complex processes of dealing with nested path dependencies. As technologies change, one type of path dependence may turn into another type, and then into yet another. What had been first-degree path dependence in the age of handwriting had to be reexamined with the possibility of the mechanical typewriter. Difficulties for a mechanical typewriter included the conventions of writing vertically (instead of horizontally), the mixed use of the Korean alphabet and Chinese characters (which was impossible for a mechanical typewriter), and certain design features of the Korean alphabet, FALIASITB. Had all the conventions been kept, the Korean mechanical typewriter would not have been possible and Koreans would have had to rely on handwriting for much longer—second-degree path dependence. As it was, Koreans quickly adopted the convention of writing horizontally—third-degree path dependence. The mixed use of Chinese characters was also suspended, for the purpose of typing—third-degree path dependence. But FALIASITB was kept, after vigorous debates over whether a switch should be made to OLAAH—second-degree path dependence.

An article from Open Culture describes why “A Rare Smile Captured in a 19th Century Photograph” is peculiar in the history of photography:

For one thing, we are not used to seeing them in old photographs, especially ones from the 19th century. When photography was first invented, exposures could take 45 minutes. Having a portrait taken meant sitting stock still for a very long time, so smiling was right out. It was only near the end of the 19th century that shutter speeds improved, as did emulsions, meaning that spontaneous moments could be captured. Still, smiling was not part of many cultures. It could be seen as unseemly or undignified, and many people rarely sat for photos anyway. Photographs were seen by many people as a “passage to immortality” and seriousness was seen as less ephemeral.

With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic I have spent most I my time at home, working and away from friends and family. I therefore have had to significantly make use of video chat for work meetings and meeting loved ones. In an article on Vox, Adam Clark Estes writes about the history of this technology and how these changes are shaping our lives and the technology itself:

(…) hosting a party with a video chat component certainly sounds less weird today than it would have six months ago. If it was already evident that videoconferencing had become a mainstay of many offices, that it could be a prominent part of our social lives is a new idea to me. That explains my initial surprise when the folks from Microsoft Teams started telling me how their workplace software had taken on new roles, like social networking, in many users’ lives. In other words, the pandemic has fundamentally changed our relationship with these tools and with digital spaces generally.

The article further delves in the changes made to the technology to make more pleasant to use. Read the full article here.

Matt Alt at The New Yorker wrote a great piece about the Walkman, “the gadget that taught the world to socially distance”:

Hosokawa noted how listeners used the devices to tame the unpredictability of urban spaces, with all of their unexpected intrusions and loud noises. Wearing headphones functioned both as a personal “Do Not Disturb” sign and an alternate soundtrack to the cacophony of the city. This was a new form of human experience, engaged disengagement, a technological shield from the world and an antidote to ennui. Whenever nerves frayed or boredom crept in, one could just hit Play and fast-forward life a little. One of the first Westerners to grasp the import of this new human capacity was the author William Gibson, a pioneer of the genre of science fiction called cyberpunk, who wrote years later that “the Sony Walkman has done more to change human perception than any virtual reality gadget.”

Read the full article here.

Two interesting articles from The Fast Company: