Old technology as a totem

The evocative ability of past technology

You walk into an ancient cave beneath an equatorial jungle. The unmarked entrance is nestled between immense trees of the variety with large roots and dangling vines that one often meets in these fictional scenarios. The oppressive darkness hides rodents, arachnids, bat-borne respiratory diseases, and something else—something abiological, yet somehow less foreign to you than the continent you stand on, far away as it is from your home. As your eyes adjust to the vague phosphorescence, you gradually discern the outline of a lumpy box on a rock dais. The increasingly well-defined shapes coalesce into an incredible anachronism. Before you rests an unearthly machine that must have once known the stars individually, each in the fullness of nonlinear n-body motion, not by the false names assigned by a presumptuous, planetbound species that divided and categorized the heavens based on passing resemblances to downsampled stick-figure representations of imaginary animals that had been invented to explain fire and lightning.

Despite its alien provenance, you find that this machine is unexpectedly familiar. The creatures who constructed this device were not of this planet, but they were unmistakably products of this Universe. From the hydrogen-red wombs of spiral galaxies like our own to the inner orbits of dying, distant Betelgeuse, the chains of physical law hold fast. The parabolic contours of the smooth surface that dominates the central portion of this ancient automaton still, over eons of dormancy and kiloparsecs of travel, assert their singular, universal, electromagnetic purpose: “E.T. phone home.” Cylinder, cylinder, conic section, converging-diverging nozzle; polytetrafluoroethylene, copper, gold, silicon.

We are not all the same, but we converge in the technological limit.

The theme of technology as an object of worship and cultural inheritance appears frequently in science-fiction. One of my favorite examples comes from the prequels to Asimov’s famous Foundation series. Hari Seldon, the protagonist and soon-to-be inventor of the future-predicting science of psychohistory, happens to find himself in the insular and xenophobic Trantorian sector of Mycogen, where the basic yeasts that are later transformed into proper food for the rest of the planet are produced according to secret formulas. Mycogen is home to a temple, the Sacratorium, that honors an ancient, defunct robot from a forgotten ancestral world.

“This robot…is a symbol of all we have lost and of all we no longer have, of all that, through thousands of years, we have not forgotten and what we intend someday to return to. Because it is all that remains to us that is both material and authentic, it is dear to us…”

Asimov suggests that future civilizations will hold today’s technology in great reverence, either because it represents the totemic inheritance of a future society, or a time of superior progress and prosperity as a result of technological regression. I think we cannot yet relate to this idea because our technology is young and the origins of what we consider “high-tech” today stem from the development of the metal-oxide transistor in the 1950s, barely one lifetime ago.

I often see similar ideas put forth with regards to spaceflight; the Saturn V will never fly again, and it will stand unmatched in raw tonnage-to-LEO until SpaceX launches BFR. The decades after the end of the Apollo program, through the termination of the Space Shuttle program, consisted of a monotonic decline in human spacefaring ability; we were promised orbital cities and Moon vacations, but all we got was Facebook.

The following clip from the classic ‘90s anime Cowboy Bebop is a great example of future nostalgia for old technology as a cultural inheritance (starting at 2:45):

The mechanic restores a space shuttle to working order even though the spacecraft of the future are far more capable. He reminds us that even today’s primitive rockets are members of a class of vehicles that will one day take our species to the stars, and as such are deserving of the reverence that they will one day undoubtedly receive as pioneering creations of a young spacefaring species.

(Technically speaking, the space shuttle couldn’t have launched like that, although the jet-assisted takeoff units strapped to the nose are creative. Also, the Columbia had not yet been destroyed at the time of the show’s production.)

The graphic that partially inspired the first part of this post also evokes a sense of devotion to ancient (alright, only somewhat old) computers:

(from Zen and the Art of the Macintosh, by Michael Green)

I highly recommend reading this book, if you can find a copy—I was lucky enough to get one cheaply from a used book sale. The book was typeset on the original Macintosh and contains hundreds of pixel drawings created in MacPaint.

Another techno-religious item is the Book of Mozilla, an Easter egg hidden in Firefox that can be accessed by typing about:mozilla in the search bar.

What interested me is that while I am not religious and generally try to avoid collective belief systems, upon reading this I found myself quite ready to proclaim the glories of structures built from oxidized metals (MOSFETs). I found an answer to this discrepancy in Asimov:

“It is the chief characteristic of the religion of science that it works.”

This post doesn’t represent a finished idea but rather condenses a few thoughts I’ve had over the course of years reading sci-fi, programming, building and selling electronics, and somewhat oxymoronically, believing in science.