Today’s internet is not the utopia that the technology-builders promised. With disinformation campaigns, hate groups, bullying, advertisements, and corporate and government surveillance, it’s hard to feel optimistic about life online. These problems are not incidental to today’s platforms– they grow out of structures and assumptions that are built into the foundations of these systems. This episode introduces a series of episodes about the history of the bundle of elements that make up the social web. By looking at the underlying political philosophies, struggles and comprises between competing visions, and paths not taken, we can better understand origin of the problems and imagine new kinds of solutions.
Steelmaking is an archetype of the rise and fall of American industry and has received a lot of attention in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. This episode is about steelmaking in the 1960s and 70s– at the turning point from growth to decline. I look at how a new automated technology (Basic Oxygen Furnace) disrupted the workforce and how trying to maintain racial segregation made the industry and union less prepared to adapt to the changes. This is a story about how once prosperous steelmaking regions became the rust belt, but it also offers lessons for facing the new kinds of automation that will soon transform every kind of work.
I don’t recognize other people’s cars. I definitely couldn’t tell you the make or model of anyone’s car. They all look the same to me. I think this has a lot to do with paint colors. With a few exceptions, all the cars seem to be black, grey, or blue.
If you want to see bright colors, look at the paint schemes of tractors. They are amazing colors. There are blue, orange, bright red, purple, and green tractors. These are colors that stand out. Aren’t tractors practical, industrial machines and so shouldn’t they be painted some sort of no-nonsense grey? How did tractors get to be the colors that they are?
I love old industrial sites. I love the texture and color of the rusted structures, the overwhelming scale, and lost-world feeling. Two places come to mind– Gas Works Park in Seattle, WA (which I can see from my apartment window) and the SteelStacks in Bethlehem, PA (where I grew up). In both, ruins have been turned into monuments of industry. But they are a strange way to remember industrial history. In both, the remains of industry are the background for recreation areas. The rusted steel towers and machines have been turned into aesthetic objects.
So what’s going on here? What does it mean to turn ruins into monuments this way?
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke.
This quote from science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has been ringing in my ears lately. I see this quote around a lot, but the more I think about it, the less clear (and the more intriguing) it seems. Who is it that can’t tell magic and technology apart? And what kind of technology counts as “advanced?” I’m not sure.
People think 3D printing is going to change the world. They imagine ways that it might transform our society, economy, and culture. In this episode I look at why 3D printing is so compelling– why everyone is so interested in it right now. I talk about where 3D printing came from and how it’s changing, examine the structure of how people popularly imagine 3D printing, and look at the Utopian hopes that people attach to the technology.
The Lisp programming language is strange, amazing, and beautiful. Some say it is the most elegant and powerful language ever created. You can learn all the basics in a few minutes, but the language is also subtle and sophisticated and learning it can bring you face-to-face with the underlying structure of thought. For decades, Lisp was the main language for artificial intelligence research and it was also the basis for two important teaching languages– Scheme and Logo. Recently, aspects of the Lisp way of thinking have also shown up in the United States’ Next Generation Science Standards. In this episode I look at where this language came from, how it works, and how it became part of the national discussion about education.
What if we could build a machine that ran forever without using up any fuel? Such a machine would be a perpetual motion machine, and, sadly, it is impossible. Even so, people have been trying to build them for as long as people have been building machines. Perpetual motion machines appear in many early books about machines, and hundreds have been patented. In this episode I look at how and why these impossible devices have interested so many people for so long. The answer is related to how people see inventors and to a tension between thermodynamics and the technological imagination. In the end, perpetual motion machines also give us a way to think about today’s ecological concerns.
Technology can be strange and wonderful. It is a creative, expressive, and speculative pursuit that can tell us about who we are and where we’re going. In this episode, I introduce the topic of the podcast series and reflect on the similarity of engineering and art. Like artists, people who make technical things act as antennas: they pick up the invisible currents of life and translate them into tangible things.