Thursday, November 30, 2006

Elucidating low technology

All manner of news outlets are reporting on the just announced unraveling of the heretofore mysterious Antikythera mechanism, rediscovered over 100 years ago after falling to the bottom of the Sea of Crete nearly 2000 years before that. Network World has a few photos of the X-ray and tomographic technicians at work, and Wired has put up some beautiful pictures of the device produced from Hewlett-Packard's gallery of reflectance images, in which the user can control how the object is lit. Especially interesting are the fragments of documentation etched into the works, although I must say, it's all Greek to me.

As long-time readers know, I have a soft spot for collisions between the old and the new. It's rather appealing to see the advances in imaging technology over the past century reverse the effects of the elements grinding away for millennia. Consider how lucky we are that it was recovered late enough in history that non-destructive methods were used to study it; it's not too hard to imagine a Victorian-era engineer attempting to take it apart or washing it with baking soda and vinegar.

Having recently read Guns, Germs, and Steel, I can't help but be reminded of the Phaistos disk, another artifact illustrating that Cretan technology was far ahead of its time. It would seem that in both cases the adaptive advantage offered by adopting the new technology (in the case of Phaistos, movable type; in the case of Antikythera, geared wheels) was insufficient to merit the labor required to implement them. The criteria for an innovative idea to be "good" depends on context much more than many people realize.

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