Transformative Technologies

Riding into work on the vanpool this morning, my mind started musing on transformative technologies — specifically, the beam. Just think about it for a bit. What transformed a simple small room residence into a castle was the ability to have large roofed congregating areas — great rooms. What made the Great Room possible was the beam: a single long span strong enough to support a roof without the need for pillars in the way. But what did it take to get us the simple beam?

In the days when all we had was wood, we might be lucky to find a single tree that was large enough to give us the beam, but we then had to mill it to make it be what we wanted. That milling required small metal devices: axes, saws, sawmills. This is why the ages of metals were so important: they gave us the ability to mill wood (and cook, and so many things).

Suppose we couldn’t find a single tree long enough. We might combine multiple smaller pieces to make a beam. That required two more transformative technologies: glue and the nail. We don’t often think about glue and adhesives, but they are what make it possible to create long beams by gluing together multiple small beams. These are then strengthened by nailing them together (and later, screws and bands). Nails and screws are a key technology: they allow us to fastened in a strong manner. Just think about the difference in strength between a peg and a bolt or nail.

There are other technologies that the beam leads us to. Consider beams made out of metal. That requires, at minimum, foundries and forges to make long long pieces of metal: longer than can be worked by a single individual alone. There’s also cement, which can combine with natural objects to give us concrete. Concrete allows us to move from whatever natural rock we can find into shaping rock into the image we want. In some ways, brick is less transformative, because brick requires mortar for longer pieces, and mortar can fail.

Now, when we look at today’s world, what is the key overlooked technology? Looking at the last 300 years, what invention completely transformed society? My answer is the same as was given in the classic movie The Graduateplastics.

When we think of hydrocarbons, we generally think of oil and gas and how they changed transportation and make large scale electricity possible. But now think about the role of plastics in your everyday life, and just try to imagine a world without them. Insulation on wires. Cases for computers. Uses in circuit boards. Medical uses, from syringes to pill bottles to gloves to sterile enclosures. Think of how much plastic goes into a car. Think of how much you use everyday — and how much you throw away, from sandwich bags to trash bags. Think about the use for leftovers, for piping, even in the clothes and buttons we wear.

When we worry about the impact of the cost of oil and the fact that it is a limited, non-renewable resource, think about where much of our plastic comes from. A small percentage is recycled, and a small percentage comes from renewable oil — corn, soy, etc. But the bulk? Petrochemicals.

When you look around your world, what little technologies do you realize are critical to life and society?