Decay on the Technology Tree

I’m going to start throwing down thoughts on this site, preferably at a rate of one per week. Hopefully it’s coherent enough to follow.

This week, I’m re-appropriating the idea of a technology tree. It’s not what I thought I’d start writing, but it’s what came out.

Also, the red squigglies are hyperlinks, not spelling errors. Maybe I’ll do something about that sometime.



Technology Trees

This is a technology tree from Civilization.

Click to zoom




Rhetorically, it makes enough sense. As you progress in the game, you can strategically invest in technological breakthroughs that can help you to accomplish your goals. The past and its technologies are still reproducible, and the technological future is predictable and universal. Knowledge loss from the past doesn’t happen, all breakthroughs towards the future are coordinated, and the buildings you constructed in the early game aren’t viewed with suspicion from your late game units as the possible work of Ancient Aliens.

I’ve decided that I’m going to try to write in this blog regularly for the foreseeable future. I’m interested in the ways people think and the things they build. That’s a broad enough topic that I give myself license to write about anything, but for the first few weeks I wanted to start with a thread of posts mulling about how we think about older cultures and the things they accomplished.

The strangeness of trying to empathize with ancient humans is weird to think about. They are more-or-less biologically interchangeable with anyone reading this blog and yet most of human history seems to have gone pretty miserably. There are plenty of excuses we could make for our intelligent ancestors: information technology wasn’t conceived of, let alone a priority; there were more important matters of fighting the elements and the guys across the river to devote precious cognitive energy to; maybe many ideas we accept as self-evident were the result of a lot of exploring and scaffolding and are not so self-evident at all; maybe the idea of constant, driving, singular technological progress is a warm and fuzzy myth.

Empathizing with other cultures becomes harder still when we start talking trees that never sufficiently fed into our own. Technology trees are extremely path-dependent. Different resources are abundant, different histories and ideas are in the air, and sometimes branches or whole trees end abruptly, ending and erasing their own histories, reducing any artifacts that we find of them into stereotype, re-appropriation, or enigma.


At Least Two Ways to Move Rocks

When asked about how the multi-ton stone statues were moved to their current resting place, miles away from their apparent quarry, the people of Easter Island quote their oral history, “They walked.”

I imagine that this hypothesis, literally taken, was quickly shelved. But the Rapa Nui people weren’t known to have wheels or pulleys. Clearly, the statues were there, so the challenge was to imagine how they did it in a world without Ancient Aliens.

One theory popularized by Jared Diamond (bear with me!) asserts that the statues, called Moai, were transported by wooden sledges and tracks, which requires a lot of wood. According to this story, competing tribes would be driven to construct and move more and bigger Moai. This escalation, (alongside the growing population’s farmland needs), would be a major accelerator to the decline of the Rapa Nui people. As the stone heads and their wooden equipment would grow, the forests would shrink, and a long descent of famine and civil conflict would eventually wear down the population. The Diamond story might end at the point where the long-suffering Rapa Nui people topple their own idols. Or maybe the story ends with a sad account of possible cannibalism among the few remaining natives in the 19th century.

Though elegant, (and fitting as a cautionary tale!) this story doesn’t encompass all of the evidence left behind about the Rapa Nui technology and methods. There are many unfinished Moai littering the pathways where ancient roads once existed. They look as though they’ve all tumbled downhill on their way to the platforms from the quarry, their eyes unfinished, their bases very large and front-heavy. They don’t look the same as the Moai who survived the journey to a pedestal.

So what if they were designed to walk?

Testing confirmed that a team of a few people could effectively move the statues by wrapping a rope around the head, in the notches where the eyes would later be etched. By pulling back and forth, they could wobble the statue as it balanced, leaning forward, scooting right and then left. The travelling Moai’s large base would take the wear of the road until the monolith arrives at its destination, and then its base and eyes would be completed.  And if the oversized statues were to fall over on their journey, the simple machines that could have pulled them back up didn’t exist (full documentary here). We still don’t know for sure, but this view both lines up with oral history on the island and fits more of the raw data than the Diamond story.

The Moai Walk does give a lot more color and character to the Rapa Nui culture. There is now also strong evidence that non-native rodents were major contributors to the ecological disaster on Rapa Nui, perhaps much more so than human deforestation. This doesn’t necessarily exclude farm-clearing and overpopulation from the list of ecological pressures, but it does interfere with the power of the Diamond story. The Rapa Nui were not empty-headed. They experimented with unique methods and technologies and found what we would consider a non-standard, though valid, solution to many problems they faced. It could also be argued that the wheel may not have been invented independently that many times, or that without beasts of burden the benefits of a wheel may not have seemed particularly apparent, especially considering the trouble they are to make and maintain. The Rapa Nui people had an abundance of rocks on the island, and so that was a source of much of their innovation that has survived the decline of their culture. “Manavai” were large circular windbreaks made of stone that were used to protect crops and to collect moisture in the island’s fields which saw irregular rain. Volcanic rock was broken up to mulch fields. They were humans; they were not fantastically stupid.


Decay in the Branches

“Everything that can be invented has already been invented.” -Charles Duell, 1899 (attributed)

Technology trees are constructs visualizing the growth and inter-dependencies of knowledge (represented as nodes) with time and resources. Branches are an isolated sequence of nodes and their children and parents across time. So far, I’ve sketched out decay of whole cultures and contexts that are separated from us by both time and distance. But for most of the rest of the time I’m probably inclined to write about what we might consider our own technology tree, and how branches in our own tree behave and interact.

Knowledge can be grown, or decayed, or rediscovered, or refactored. Branches on the technology tree can decay and fall off from misuse. Roman aqueducts were maintained by locals some time after the ability to construct them was lost. Their famously durable concrete was only recently rediscovered after centuries of speculation. Surely, many alternative forms of technological, informational, and political infrastructure are gone forever. FOGBANK, part of this site’s namesake, was a material used in American nuclear devices. At some point in the late 20th century we discovered that we didn’t know how to make it anymore. The experts who had made the original batches were gone. Recently, efforts were made to reverse engineer FOGBANK to rediscover the manufacturing process.

Sometimes branches of a technology tree plateau and stagnate without disappearing. This video rebutting Moon Hoax theories argues [@ 4:30] that at the time of the moon landings, it was technologically more feasible to just send men to the moon than it would be to fake the moon landing with movie magic in real time. Clearly, these days the frontier of digital media is far more powerful (and cheaper) and the frontier of manned spaceflight has stagnated significantly, but it wasn’t the case four decades ago. We didn’t really predict digital media, and we overpromised on the rocketry frontier. Now, we adopt cynical/nostalgic reactions to the absent jetpacks and flying cars we were promised then. These things are still physically possible but are too economically idiotic to scale – for now, and perhaps forever.

I don’t blame Civilization for keeping things simple. Imagine Civilization with an ever-evolving path-dependent graph of technological adaptation, with unpredictable revolutions in some fields and varying speeds of decay in others, forcing players to witness expensive, vital infrastructure becoming replaced or redundant or disassembled or re-purposed. Like the engineering wonder that was the Roman Eifel Aqueduct, later used as a quarry by future settlers who didn’t recognize its use. Or the giant, immutable stone heads on the beach overlooking confused American tourists, scratching their heads and mumbling about aliens. Who would want to simulate that?