Kevin Kelly has been saying for some years that technological species, unlike biological ones, are more or less immortal. They never go extinct. A few people persist in using quill pens (wouldn’t you know, there are websites), and even more people still wear leather boots.
When he said that on NPR’s Morning Edition, he got an argument from the science correspondent Robert Krulwich.
Nothing? I asked. Brass helmets? Detachable shirt collars? Chariot wheels?
Nothing, he said.
Can’t be, I told him. Tools do hang around, but some must go extinct.
So they’ve been having a debate. Krulwich appealed to his readers and listeners, who are legion, for suggestions. It seems like an easy parlor game, at first blush. The cotton gin? The flint arrowhead? Betamax? But Kelly is not to be underestimated; he seems to know every remote tribesman and antique gadget enthusiast on earth. And now Krulwich has surrendered—sort of—in a deeply thoughtful blog post titled Tools Never Die, the Finale.
Some of the arguments on both sides hinge on matters of definition, which aren’t so interesting: for example, what qualifies as a species of technology. But the fundamental issue is profound and well worth our attention, and I’m not just saying that because Krulwich ends up quoting from The Information.
It may simply be that, as Krulwich puts it, “there are so many people on Earth with different incomes, traditions, religions, enthusiasms that so far, as a young species, we don’t need to throw anything away.” But it is also true that technology is memetic.
Inventions are memes. And memes may not be immortal, but they are surely long-lived.