Old tools never die

Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine, has spent considerable time researching the fate of obsolete technology and tools, and has concluded that old tools never die -- that is, that every technology ever known to Mankind is still in modern use somewhere in the world. NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich challenged this assumption on the air, and a lively interview ensued.

In his book, What Technology Wants, Kelly claims:

A close examination of a supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it. A technique or artifact may be rare in the modern urban world but quite common in the developing rural world. For instance, Burma is full of oxcart technology; basketry is ubiquitous in most of Africa; hand spinning is still thriving in Bolivia. A supposedly dead technology may be enthusiastically embraced by a heritage-based minority in modern society, if only for ritual satisfaction. Consider the traditional ways of the Amish, or modern tribal communities or fanatical vinyl record collectors. Often old technology is obsolete, that is, it is not very ubiquitous or is second rate, but it still may be in small-time use.

Robert Krulwich challenged several of his colleagues to find an item from the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog's agricultural section that is no longer made, but they were unable to do so. Even medieval technology such as armor, and prehistoric stone tools, are still in use today, even if only by reenactors. But Kelly's point is that someone, whether for reasons of religion, historical reenactment, primitive culture, or simply because an old and simple idea still is the best solution to the problem at hand, is not only still using old style tools, but also is still making new copies of them. Stone hammers are still being used by reenactors to re-create primitive craftsmanship, and Krulwich's attempt to refute Kelly's claim revealed antique-style (but newly manufactured) farm equipment and woodworking tools offered for sale at Lehman's Hardware store, in central Ohio's Amish country. One point made by Kelly is that some of the old technology is still around because its simplicity makes it more rugged and reliable than its modern counterpart.

The NPR web site contains the complete podcast and edited transcript of the interview, along with several images from Kelly's book. There is also a challenge to NPR listeners, who are invited to offer in the Comments section their own ideas of some technology that is truly extinct rather than just rare.

Professor John Whittaker

from Grinnell taught me how to make stone knives.

(He is in the NPR story.)


That would be a fun class

I am envious, Andrixos. My grandfather used to make flint arrowheads (some using traditional methods, some using modern tools), but I never got around to having him teach me.

Interesting side-note from the NYPL video...

Near and dear to my own heart! In the video, they mention that Kevin Kelly is a beekeeper, a hobby shared with numerous SCA folk including your Publisher. :-)