In Praise of Tech That Doesn't Change

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It was today 115 years ago that William Roentgen discovered how to use x-rays to image objects. And as Motherboard's Michael Byrne notes, x-ray technology hasn't fundamentally changed since then.

Damnedest thing though: in those intervening 115 years, we're still basically shooting X-rays through bodies onto film. The technology remains about the same. We've dialed in the doses to keep it safer, sure, but the principle is one of those things simple enough that it resists evolution. We have MRIs now and various other body imaging systems--but we still use X-rays because it works. And it works cheaply, quickly, and used sparingly enough, safely.

The point is that doctors will be shooting X-rays through us in a 100 years.

As you all might expect, I love this line of thinking. Some human problems are roughly eternal. X-rays solved one these: how do you see your bones through your skin, or more generally, how do you see through opaque objects? An answer emerged in fundamental science -- use light with a smaller wavelength -- and it has continued to be useful for more than a hundred years.

There are plenty of other less fancy problems that we've solved with human implements that do not change. Knives and forks in modern form come to mind. Or, how about vice grip pliers? Stewart Brand once sang their praises in the pages of The Whole Earth Catalog. His review is so beautiful that I like to put line breaks in it, so you can see its poetry.

A locking plier wrench

which grips and holds

with the size of the grip

adjustable.

Hold things hard without muscle,

hold things together,

hold things with just the right pressure.

Many's the busted faucet you see

with a vise-grip biting it

as temporary handle.

All this to suggest that perhaps we need different names for things that are rapidly changing and those that are, in essence, settled in form. In my own mind, I often call the changing stuff "technologies" and the static stuff "tools."

Anyone got a better way of thinking about this?

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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