Science and technology are two things that are often confused. This comes naturally because advancement in knowledge seems to lead directly to advances in the way we live and the stuff we have in our lives. New things require new origins, or so it seems. There is no difference biologically between us and the people who first cultivated crops and built cities which relied on their bounty 10,000 years ago, since there hasn’t been enough time for us to evolve – what separates us is nothing more than everything that has been written down or crafted since. As powerful as this idea is, it ignores the realities of invention.
The word technology literally means “the study of art and skill”. The word techne was recognized in ancient Greece as the process of producing something, which is to say a process very distinct from pure knowledge. Technology, as we’ve come to understand it, isn’t really the knowledge that comes from science but the art of applying it. That’s why a patent application, to this day, requires you to “teach the art”.
A newly learned fact is one thing, but the product is another. The scientists that came to understand that Silicon with a small impurity conducts electricity only when there is a charge across it might have filed it away as a neat little fact. William Shockley knew this was a switch, and got together a team to lay down the bits and pieces to prove it could be made into a transistor. Engineers skilled in chemistry learned how to put the needed materials down, others learned how to carry away the heat, and at some point large chips were devised to make powerful computers possible.
How did all these people come together? There was a common goal, which was to make money. The need in the market was obvious and drove them to make connections and work together as corporations. The science was one thing, but reducing it to practice was an art – a social art.
Once the bits and pieces were in place, the raw computing power allowed others working away in garages to make more advances. Apple, hp, and Medtronic are examples of places where new skills were brought to bear to advance technology. The science, the new knowledge? There were only new connections once it was all set up. The connections are why these things tend to occur in regions, such as Silicon Valley, because the art that makes technology comes from the people.
The way connections advance technology even more than new knowledge was the central thesis of James Burke. He showed how simple things, such as Herman Maybach’s wife using a perfume spray aspirator was the inspiration that solved a key problem and made internal combustion engines useful – call it a carburetor. Or how the need to teach ballistics created something that eventually led to the movie projector and, eventually, PowerPoint.
Each invention creates something new, which creates new ideas. The technologies come from finding ways to apply things in ways that weren’t thought of before. People think of these new ways because they become familiar with something in one area that looks like it might work in another. It’s the connections that make it all possible, and often those connections are between people as much as skills. Connect these ideas to the market and those people might even get very rich.
Where does it all stop? As long as there is a hunger for something new, it won’t stop. Technology isn’t about new facts, it’s about needs finding solutions. Those are made with connections to all kinds of social structures that at some point include the people with the money to make it happen.
What happens if the people with the money think they can make more money from nothing than new technologies? What happens if money itself starts to be harder and harder to get? That’s the stress that is being applied to the process of advancing technology right now.
Knowledge and science might keep advancing right along, but the connections that technology requires are often fueled more by markets and the scratch it takes to make connections to them. We may be proud of the technology that small startups used to change our world over the last 20 years, but have you tried to fund one now? And what does a slowdown in new technology eventually mean to a world that’s come to rely on new stuff all the time?