My second column for the New York Times Magazine went online today. It's about the history of technology and the forces that determine which tools end up in our everyday portfolio and which become fodder for alternate history sci-fi novels.
The key thing to remember: The technologies we use today aren't necessarily the best technologies that were available. We don't really make these decisions logically, based solely on what works best. It's more complicated than that. Technology is shaped sociocultural forces. And, in turn, it shapes them, as well. The best analogy I've come up with to summarize this: The history of technology isn't a straight line. It's more like a ball of snakes fucking. (Sadly, I couldn't figure out a good way to reword this analogy for publication in the Paper of Record.) One of my big examples is the history of the electric car:
There are plenty of reasons Americans should have adopted electric cars long ago. Early E.V.’s were easier to learn to drive than their gas cousins, and they were far cleaner and better smelling. Their battery range and speed were limited, but a vast majority of the trips we take in our cars are short ones. Most of the driving we do has been well within the range of electric-car batteries for decades, says David Kirsch, associate professor of management at the University of Maryland and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” We drive gas-powered cars today for a complex set of reasons, Kirsch says, but not because the internal-combustion engine is inherently better than the electric motor and battery.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Electric Vehicle Company was the largest carmaker in the United States. It was also the biggest owner of cars in the country. That’s because the E.V.C. opted to rent or lease its vehicles instead of selling them. You could pick up an E.V.C. car for a short trip or take it for a week or a month, but you couldn’t own it. The business model was based on the E.V.C.’s assumption that its customers didn’t have the know-how or facilities to maintain their own cars. This may have been true, but when a series of shady business dealings drove the New York-based company into bankruptcy, it took electric cars down with it. Investors, soured by their experience with the E.V.C., swore they’d never put money into the industry again, and in the lull in electric-car development that followed, gasoline-car companies improved their technology and made their vehicles cheaper. Over the next 20 years, Americans formed a new idea of what a car was. And from that point on, right up to today, it was hard to get them to try anything else.
“Part of what makes infrastructure is its invisibility,” Kirsch told me. “When we have to create infrastructure for ourselves — installing charging stations at our houses, for instance — we make the invisible visible. It becomes an overwhelming task, like having to remake the world. Most people just want a car.”
Historic image via Flickr user Alden Jewell
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.