It Lost Its Utility

In the chapter I read from James Gleick’s novel, The Information, I was fascinated by the history behind modern technology and the problems pioneers such as Charles Babbage faced when developing them. Innovators such as Babbage, Leibniz, Shannon, and a number of others solved a range of issues, which in effect, set foundation for modern technology as a result.

Thinking about language, while thinking in language, leads to puzzles and paradoxes. – Charles Babbage

Developing a universal language in mathematics was invaluable to the progression of modern technology and science. Babbage, at the forefront of the crusade, played a key role in standardizing mathematical language on a global scale. Without the ambiguities, false metaphors, and confusion behind the meanings of words, Babbage was able to establish a universal language in mathematics into what it is today. “It is always difficult to think and reason in a new language…the dots of Newton faded from the scene, his fluxions replaced by the notation and language of Leibniz” (Gleick).

Something else I uncovered in the book, which I found equally interesting, was how the development of technology has affected our culture throughout the years.

Steam was the driver of all engines, the enabler of industry. If only for these few decades, the word stood for power and force and all that was vigorous and modern… Hot steam generated by burning coal and brought under control by ingenious inventors, had portability and versatility. It replaced muscles everywhere. It became a watchword: people on the go would now “steam up” or “get more steam on” or “blow off steam.” – Gleick

I found this passage of the chapter to be particularly interesting. I recognized that with any and all great technological advancement comes equal cultural influence and change. As Gleick points out, the expression, “blow off some steam,” clearly originated from the awesome power of the steam engine. But where else have we seen the development of new technology influence culture?

The search engine, Google, for example is a revolutionary resource for those with access to the Internet. As a result, it comes as no surprise that this great tool has influenced our culture and way of thinking. People now say things like: “I’ll Google it” or “just look it up on Google”. The simplicity in getting our answers online has changed our culture and the way of thinking indefinitely.

In 2006, Encyclopedia Britannica published its last printed edition of their world-renowned information resource. Encyclopedia Britannica, which has been in circulation since 1771, has now gone digital after 244 years. – Google

The print edition became more difficult to maintain and wasn’t the best physical element to deliver the quality of our database and the quality of our editorial. – Jorge Cauz. President of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.

So what happened? I can’t even recall the last time I used an encyclopedia. The thought of looking something up in a book to me is redundant and inefficient. As George Biddell Airy once said, “the engine was useless.”

Whatever happened to the encyclopedia is the same that happened to the steam engine, the rotary phone, the typewriter, the VHS player, and what will inevitably happen to the technology we find so innovative and useful today – they simply lost their utility. As new technology takes place of the old what we find useful today will eventually make its way in the attic or in the garbage tomorrow. It’s all simply a matter of time before something new comes along and takes over.



  1. Dawoud Kazimee

    You bring up many valid points from the reading, which are important for the future of our world. I didn’t know that Britannica went digital for the first time in 244 years, but that is a big accomplishment. I remember being in middle school and going to our schools library and looking through and encyclopedia. There would be about 15 different books you’d have to go through to find what you were looking for. Those 15 huge books can now be replaced by a tiny tablet or even a tiny cell phone, which has the same amount of power yet more than a thousand times the capacity or memory to store information. As you mentioned, the Google search engine is now one of our main ways of gathering information. It will be interesting to see if these devices that are just now becoming mainstream will stick around for the next couple decades to come. I definitely think it is a good thing though. Its a lot nicer being able to carry an iPad around rather than 5 school books!

  2. Billy Birch

    I agree with your thoughts on how technology advances and about the changes we as a people experience because of technology. As previously stated by Dawoud Kazimee, I too remember when used encyclopedias to learn about things or look them up. It was back when I still did not understand what a computer was or what it did. I just knew that my father used one while he was at work and it allowed him to do and find things. Growing up my family and I did not really have much money yet we owned an encyclopedia set. If I recall it was a gift from a grand parent who had owned it, but no longer needed it. I lived in a small town with not many kids so I read when I was younger. Though the only things we had were the set of encyclopedias. What would happen from time to time is I would get bored and bother my dad with tons of questions. Till he finally got to the point of having me start looking things up in the books. Since I had to do use those as a child I am very grateful that I do not need to use them again. Even now when I look at a set of encyclopedias I slightly cringe. One thing that I disagree with is that you state some technologies that lost their utilities. The reason I say this is because I see what you mean by that statement, but I think instead of lost they merely got repurposed or at the least a part of the technology is reused. For example, we still use the general idea of the key board that came from the typewriter even though it may not do the same thing. The lay outs for both are very similar and do still carry some of the aspects a type writer was invented for.

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