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No Tool is Gone, Under the Sun
February 1, 2011 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Kevin Kelly, writer and founding executive editor of Wired magazine, made the bold statement: "I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet." The challenge was laid, including a search through the agricultural tools section of an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue. Every item listed in that section was still made, somewhere in the world (and found online, to boot). Additional challengers were found, from the 8-Track (still being made [previously]), anvils (plenty), astrolabes (pick one [listed under Astrolabe Reproductions]). Button hooks? Check. Shoe X-Ray Machine? Probably extinct (via).

Bonus fun: Montgomery Ward Catalogue no. 13, spring and summer, 1875, on Archive.org.
posted by filthy light thief (176 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite

 
I really enjoyed listening to this piece this morning, and have been looking forward to seeing what extinct tools were found.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:53 PM on February 1, 2011


I sincerely hope no one is x-raying people's feet anymore to see if their shoes fit. But that brings to mind quack remedies like radium water jugs. Would they qualify?
posted by tommasz at 1:54 PM on February 1, 2011


Man - do they still sell those road graders at Montgomery & Ward? I gotta get one of those.

Anyway, The Technium is a pretty fantastic book and while I think Kelly repeats himself in parts (ironically I think the book could have been better edited) the parallels he draws between technology and biology are fascinating and incredibly insightful. His research is fantastic and I think his insights are so keen that they often underwhelm because he builds them up so logically and effortlessly that in the end they seem obvious.
posted by GuyZero at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


They don't make 'em like that anymore.
posted by I'm Doing the Dishes at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2011


I think Polaroids would have clinched it if that grassroots hipster resurgence hadn't been successful.
posted by disillusioned at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Greek Fire, can't get that anymore.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:56 PM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


sheesh, I meant What Technology Wants which is the book and not The Technium which is the blog.
posted by GuyZero at 1:57 PM on February 1, 2011


I think we may need more specific definitions of "tool" and "species of technology." I'm pretty certain that the Nokia N-Gage is extinct.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:57 PM on February 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


What's more interesting still is that the internet can easily help foster additional interest in the "long tail" of things made the old-fashioned way. So even inventions that might now be superseded by better, more advanced technology still has its place, for reproductions or other historical purposes, sold and advertised all the easier online, without taking up shelf space. Niche fabricators of old technology and inventions have their place online now.
posted by disillusioned at 1:59 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is this conversation really happening so soon after the thorough and systematic demise of Kodachrome? The machines are no longer made (though a few still exist, and at least one is being refurbished). The parts are no longer made. The film is no longer made. The very specific set of dyes required to process the film will never be made again to spec. Dude's a goner, Kevin.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 1:59 PM on February 1, 2011 [11 favorites]


I was thinking that the Iron Lung might get there, but it turns out that there are (a few) other conditions where it or some variation is the prefered choice.

What about breech loaded weapons (muskets, etc)? Are any of them being made for anything other than nostalgia? I don't think it counts as "technology" if it doesn't actually get used.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 2:01 PM on February 1, 2011


Bold statements make the internet go round.
It seems like in this case the criteria for what does and does not qualify was changed to suit the data. Which is bad scientific method! bad! While it does create an interesting category and allow for bold statements, it doesn't actually mean much of anything.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:03 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


5 1/4 floppies? Even the GSA Catalog no longer has those, and that was the last place I've seen them.

Digital Audio Tape? Zip drives? (Reminds me, I really need to clean out my computer room...)
posted by JoanArkham at 2:03 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would posit that a shoe X-Ray machine is particular type of the X-Ray Machine species.
posted by chimaera at 2:03 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


2bucksplus: Greek Fire, can't get that anymore.

From the Additional challengers link:
Greek Fire - Disqualified

A bunch of you have mentioned "Greek Fire." I asked Kevin about this flaming stuff that ancient Greeks used to launch at each other and the problem is the formula has been lost to history. The latest thinking is that it might have been flaming tar. Technically I thought well that's Bingo! A technology lost. But Kevin says we can't prove it's been lost if we don't know what it was. How do we know people have stopped using it? So unless you have a formula for "Greek Fire," we have to put that one aside.
As for Kodachrome, that same page waffles on how to define a "tool." They say Kodachrome falls under the broader "film" category, and as such, the tool is alive and well.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:07 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember going to Sears and sticking my feet into the "machine" to see the my toe bones. I always thought it was more of a fluoroscope.
posted by jgaiser at 2:08 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


5 1/4 floppies? Even the GSA Catalog no longer has those, and that was the last place I've seen them.

I have an unopened box on my desk. They are my retirement fund.

But this is great it means that somewhere in the world there is a mint StarTAC just waitig for me.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:09 PM on February 1, 2011


My understanding is that no one knows what the "neuron" used in ancient Greek catapults actually was. (Like 2bucksplus' example.)

Damascus steel.
posted by kenko at 2:09 PM on February 1, 2011



What about breech loaded weapons (muskets, etc)? Are any of them being made for anything other than nostalgia? I don't think it counts as "technology" if it doesn't actually get used.


Lot's of Black Powder hunters here in the West. Still being used...
posted by jgaiser at 2:10 PM on February 1, 2011


(Lots of places online say that neuron was horsehair and ox tendon, but I have heard that this is not really confirmed.)
posted by kenko at 2:11 PM on February 1, 2011


But Kevin says we can't prove it's been lost if we don't know what it was. How do we know people have stopped using it? So unless you have a formula for "Greek Fire," we have to put that one aside.

Unless it hasn't been lost, it doesn't count as lost! Brilliant, Kevin!
posted by kenko at 2:12 PM on February 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


Does silphium count?
posted by kenko at 2:12 PM on February 1, 2011


What about breech loaded weapons (muskets, etc)?

I think you mean muzzle-loaded. Muzzle-loaded weapons are still made and used for hunting on a regular basis. In a lot of states there are separate muzzleloader hunting seasons.
posted by jedicus at 2:13 PM on February 1, 2011


I went to his talk on the technium in Portland a few months ago - very interesting stuff. I think he wants his theory to be completely universal, which makes his arguments a bit uncompromising. Personally, I think that in general his ideas are true, but I'm a lot more willing to admit that they fall short for some specific cases than I think he would be.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 2:13 PM on February 1, 2011


Enigma Machines

The Concorde: All repairs at this point are cannibalizing other Concordes. There is no current supersonic passenger aircraft in production.

(Also I was going to posit DDT, but India still makes and uses it. WTF India)
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:13 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


5 1/4 floppies? Even the GSA Catalog no longer has those, and that was the last place I've seen them.

I was going to say 8 inch floppies....but you can still buy those too.
posted by schmod at 2:13 PM on February 1, 2011


Damascus steel and the ancient Greek computer thinggy were both mentioned in the comment to which Robert Krulwich responded as quoted by filthy light thief above. Krulwich's response does not address either of those technologies, and his logic does not seem to apply to them (i.e. we know that Damascus steel and that Greek computer thinggy actually existed and we know what they are - we just don't know how to make Damascus steel and we're apparently not interested in making and using more of that Greek computer thinggy).
posted by The World Famous at 2:14 PM on February 1, 2011


Guillotine?
posted by newdaddy at 2:15 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Faint of Butt: "I think we may need more specific definitions of "tool" and "species of technology." I'm pretty certain that the Nokia N-Gage is extinct."

"2 'kinds' of animals on the ark, yadda yadda"
posted by symbioid at 2:15 PM on February 1, 2011


We could know people stopped using it because we don't have anything that meets its described characteristics that was available to the ancient Greeks. And even if people did rediscover it (so people would be using it once again), it would still have been lost in the interim.

What Kelly should say is that we don't know whether Greek fire ever really existed at all. I'm not sure how far he'd get with that, but it's a little less intellectually ridiculous than just disqualifying things that have been lost for so long we don't know how they were made. (I.e., things that are lost.)
posted by kenko at 2:15 PM on February 1, 2011


I mean 2 of each "kind" (ugh, i'm just sucking today).

So has anyone made a taxonomy of technology?
posted by symbioid at 2:15 PM on February 1, 2011


Mechanical calculators? VHS rewinders?
posted by kickingtheground at 2:16 PM on February 1, 2011


(Also I was going to posit DDT, but India still makes and uses it. WTF India)

There's been a very long debate about this. It's not as black-and-white as you'd think, and it's not remotely as dangerous to humans as was once thought.

posted by schmod at 2:17 PM on February 1, 2011


Sunstone?
posted by symbioid at 2:18 PM on February 1, 2011


Mechanical calculators

The E6B mechanical calculator is still used by pilots and flight students.
posted by jedicus at 2:18 PM on February 1, 2011


The trouble with this challenge is that it's unwinnable if he can redefine what he means by 'technology' to suit himself.

For instance, the 1986 Domesday project is a pile of dead technology; no machine currently produced can read the Domesday laser discs. Yet I suspect that KK would simply assert that the "technology" he was talking about was the ability to encode data digitally on discs to be read back by a laser or something, which is trivially true but not very helpful to those trying to preserve the 1986 Domesday project data.
posted by pharm at 2:18 PM on February 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


So if we view Enigma machines as specific instances of encryption tools, there are still lots of encryption tools in use.

And again with the Concorde, there are still supersonic aircraft, just not non-military supersonic aircraft.

There is a certain amount of inexactness in the thesis that results in making it broad enough to cover almost any situation.

If we look at flint knives, sure there are still flint knappers out there, but it's arguable whether it matters since no one uses flint knives in practice. On the other hand, Kelly's whole point is that even when the need for something has gone away entirely - we have many much better replacements for flint knives - the tool itself persists. Technology is an unkillable lifeform that seeks to reproduce.
posted by GuyZero at 2:20 PM on February 1, 2011


I'd bet that items in a 1950 catalog would be harder to find than ones from the 1895 catalog, if only because electronics and electromechanical tech has changed much faster than the technology of useful things made out of several pounds of metal and wood.

Also, for extinction events I think you would have to look at eras where civilization fell apart.

Greek gear-driven computing? Antikythera mechanism was created between 150 and 100 BCE, and the technology wasn't rediscovered until the 1300s CE (and the techniques used weren't as sophisticated, if the Wikipedia article is correct, until the 1700s).

Roman concrete? I think this was lost around 400 CE and rediscovered around 1500 CE.
posted by zippy at 2:20 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


The writing technology known as Linear A.
posted by kenko at 2:21 PM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wire recorders.
posted by steambadger at 2:21 PM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


They say Kodachrome falls under the broader "film" category, and as such, the tool is alive and well.

No one with authority makes that conclusion on the link you provided, that I can see. I see DEAD and ALIVE arguments, sure, but you make it sound like the "judges" of this little contest have declared Kodachrome disqualified, and that isn't the case.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 2:21 PM on February 1, 2011


I suddenly realize we're playing Calvinball.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:22 PM on February 1, 2011 [16 favorites]


kickingtheground: "Mechanical calculators? VHS rewinders?"

It's a simple gesture, "Be Kind, Rewind!"... "Leave a message after the beep, hmmmm..." (obligatory Mr Show)
posted by symbioid at 2:22 PM on February 1, 2011


What Kelly should say is that we don't know whether Greek fire ever really existed at all.

Really the argument should be that we are still making flamethrowers.
posted by empath at 2:22 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


If I'm wrong, of course, I'll just take my radium suppositories and go, but...
posted by tapesonthefloor at 2:25 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This whole thing is kind of a catch-22 game of definition and exclusion. Once we stop doing something, yeah, we're gonna forget how it's done. Nobody is using the Maxim Gun or Hotchkiss Rotating Cannon these days, and while their modern successors are around, they're different.

If you want to defend this to the hilt, it's easy. Either call broken and untrustworthy museum pieces active technology or say, "Well, that's really the same as this" so much that a javelin with a Clovis point and a Glock 9mm pistol are the same thing in your book.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:25 PM on February 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


I don't spend as much time in the cemetery as I'd like, but I haven't seen too many safety coffins around.

There was a new patent issued in 1995 in Italy, but I can't find one for sale anywhere.
posted by rmxwl at 2:25 PM on February 1, 2011


Thank you filthy light thief. I looked at that, even prepared the paragraph quoted for an FPP but felt I couldn't articulate the challenge just right. My imaginary thread would have had everyone trying to dig up things that weren't extinct after all. Now I shall hover smugly around waiting instead.
posted by infini at 2:26 PM on February 1, 2011


Trireme and higher. Unless the "species of technology" is "boat" Nthing the need for a better problem statement.
posted by DU at 2:26 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


So unless you have a formula for "Greek Fire,"

*unzips fly*
posted by Greg Nog at 2:28 PM on February 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


Whale oil lamps?
Uranium oxide glazes? (Fiestaware!)
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:28 PM on February 1, 2011


Lots of stuff from 18th C whaling. Try Pots anyone?
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:32 PM on February 1, 2011


Oh cool! So this means somebody, somewhere is making moustache spoons?

Does anyone know where I can get one? Should I ask metafilter?
posted by vacapinta at 2:33 PM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Also: Stradivarius Violins is the answer.
posted by vacapinta at 2:34 PM on February 1, 2011


I asked Kevin about this flaming stuff that ancient Greeks used to launch at each other and the problem is the formula has been lost to history.

Nthing that this is a Calvinball setup to prove some bad (and inherently Whiggish, which twigs my inner history geek negatively) ideas about the history of technology. Kelly may be a great tech guy, but that's pretty shitty history.
posted by immlass at 2:36 PM on February 1, 2011


The other aspect of the whole lost / not-lost defining technology thing, is that if it was a useless enough invention that it wasn't broadly available in the past (and thus, is in the most likely category of things to have been lost), we probably also don't remember it now.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:36 PM on February 1, 2011


War dodos.

The little helmets were adorable
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 2:36 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


If we look at flint knives, sure there are still flint knappers out there, but it's arguable whether it matters since no one uses flint knives in practice.

I've heard that obsidian knapping was producing scalpels useful for things like eye-surgery, and due to the fact that an obsidian edge is far sharper than steel this was actually conceivable.

The link demonstrates that someone is making them, but I don't have any actual evidence that they are being used though.
posted by quin at 2:37 PM on February 1, 2011


Wire recorders.

Used on the Space Shuttle of all places. Presumably, NASA has a supplier.
posted by schmod at 2:37 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Used on the Space Shuttle of all places. Presumably, NASA has a supplier.

Unless the same technology is used for the shuttle replacement it may stop being used entirely.
posted by jedicus at 2:41 PM on February 1, 2011


The scarificator, a 19th century tool for superficial bloodletting
posted by Alison at 2:41 PM on February 1, 2011


But along those same lines: does anyone make wax cylinder recorders or even blank cylinders anymore?
posted by jedicus at 2:42 PM on February 1, 2011


Also: sardine cans that open with a key (instead of a pop-top)

I have been scouring the world looking for one.
posted by vacapinta at 2:46 PM on February 1, 2011


"species of technology" - therefore, from the comments, species would include but not be restricted to the examples given therefore there are still pots for rendering blubber offland, tools for bloodletting, oil lamps etc
posted by infini at 2:46 PM on February 1, 2011


This all depends on what the definition of is is.
posted by cmoj at 2:47 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


An aside about Kevin Kelly: his true story from the very first episode of This American Life (probably called something else back then) blew me the fuck away.
posted by The ____ of Justice at 2:48 PM on February 1, 2011


Any discussion of Kevin Kelly, esp. about tools, is incomplete without reference to CoolTools.
posted by theora55 at 2:48 PM on February 1, 2011


Currently reading "What Technology Wants". I'm really enjoying it. It crystalizes a number of hunches I've had about technology. That said, it is generally a bad idea to make such sweeping generalizations as Kelly is making above.
posted by Freen at 2:49 PM on February 1, 2011


I don't believe Kelly is right. I will admit that I can't, at the moment (without research) come up with a great example to disprove his claim, but I don't see how he can possible be right.

I think it's reasonable to define a tool as "an object needed to fulfill some task." If it turns out no one in the world makes stone-age axes, I wouldn't count them as being extinct, because a stone-age person could have gotten his work done with a modern axe, and modern axes are being manufactured.

But if it turns out that there's nothing being made now that would work (reasonably well) for some human task from any time in history, I would argue that Kelly is wrong.

My guess is that there were some speciality parts needed for, say, types of printing pressed that are no longer made. Those parts, no matter how tiny, are tools.

So if you have an original Guttenberg press, and you need to replace all its parts, one by one, is it really the case that there's somewhere on Earth you can buy all those parts? Is there a place where all those parts, or parts that would work just as well, are being manufactured?

If you're going to define a tool as something a human directly holds in his hands to get work done (it can't something a human is using by proxy, like a part of a machine), then Kelly's probably right, because all the human needs that existed in the stone age exist now, at least some place on Earth. But that strikes me as a pretty arbitrary way to define a tool. If humans made it or found it, and put it to work, it's a tool.

If an 8-track tape player stopped working, would I be able to buy all the new parts for it I need, including the case that the tape fits in (the player won't play unless the tape is in one of those cases)? I know I could buy old, used parts. But that doesn't count. We're talking about things being manufactured.

You could say, "Well, the WORK an 8-track tape player does is play tapes," so you could use a cassette-tape player instead. Here, you are arbitrarily defining what an 8-track tape player does. I could counter that, no, what an 8-track tape player ACTUALLY does is play 8-TRACK tapes.

But let's say I agree with you. Okay, 8-track take players aren't extinct, because they're just a sub-species of tape players, and there are plenty of them still being made. But what if it's 2025 and no one makes tape players any more. You could say, "Well, a tape player is just a music player, and there are plenty of those: iPods, etc."

And in 3037, when all humans have lost the ability to hear, due to a freak disease that spread all over the Earth, you could say, "Yes, but a music player is just a kind of media player, and TVs still exist."

I think you need to be able to define a tool as narrowly as possible, or the whole taxonomy becomes arbitrary. Gloves and mittens are not the same thing. Gloves are hand-coverings that expose the fingers. If there are no gloves left in the world, it's dumb to say, "Yes there are, because mittens still exist."

What about some kind of ceremonial grab that priests had to wear in a no-longer-existing culture. If a priest had shown up for the ceremony without that specific costume, he would have been fired or stoned to death or whatever. That specific article of clothing WAS a tool -- it was a tool to make people believe the wearer had specific powers. And it WORKED. And no other costume would work. That costume is NOT being manufactured today.
posted by grumblebee at 2:50 PM on February 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


The problem is in the formulation of the challenge, or at least in his elaboration of it. First he said, "I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet." Then he eleborated it: ""I can't find any [invention, tool, technology] that has disappeared completely from Earth."

The first statement is undoubtedly correct, but the second is not. Lots of things were invented and never manufactured (check the patent office and its thousands of crackpot inventions). If by "species of technology" we mean the fundamental advances like stone axes, arrowheads, wheels, various kinds of metallurgy, moveable type, electricity, nuclear fission, etc., then clearly, there are no dead ends where we simply stop using something entirely and globally.

But when the category is narrowed down to "inventions and tools", there are plenty of counterexamples, from the Stradivarius violins cited above to the TRS-80 (or the ENIAC, of which there was only ever one built) to the Space Shuttle.
posted by beagle at 2:51 PM on February 1, 2011


"I can't find any [invention, tool, technology] that has disappeared completely from Earth."

This statement is correct by definition. If something has disappeared completely from Earth, it is impossible for anyone on Earth to find it. It's a tautology, not a challenge.
posted by The World Famous at 2:54 PM on February 1, 2011


"5 1/4 floppies? Even the GSA Catalog no longer has those, and that was the last place I've seen them.

I have an unopened box on my desk. They are my retirement fund." Ad hominem at 2:09 PM

I too have a box of them, and a machine to play them but they are all blank. Please share how you plan to turn these into gold. I am tired of dusting the box.
posted by Cranberry at 2:57 PM on February 1, 2011


I know it seems obvious, but what about asbestos? It's banned as a construction material pretty much everywhere now and there's no real true replacement for it. Surely this is an example of a technology that has gone extinct?
posted by BigCalm at 2:59 PM on February 1, 2011


Scouring late 19th C catalogs isn't nearly old enough, that was a period when modernity was being created and thus we are its direct inheritors, of course those things still exist. Need to go back to the Middle Ages.

For example the girdle book is no longer used or made, except as a historic relic, though it may be possible someone out there uses one for real.
posted by stbalbach at 3:02 PM on February 1, 2011


Guillotine?

Still made and used.


Re: obsidian scalpels, my dad uses those for dissecting jellyfish on occasion, and certainly they are used for electron microscope sample prep as well. They don't have them in the catalogue for fun.

Incidentally, stone tools more broadly speaking are still made and used by aboriginal groups in NW British Columbia, where their qualities for scraping hides are not surpassed by metal.
posted by Rumple at 3:02 PM on February 1, 2011


jedicus: But along those same lines: does anyone make wax cylinder recorders or even blank cylinders anymore?

According to Wikipedia, there were dictaphones that used wax cylinders in the 1950s and 60s (considered "re-writable" as the cylinder could be shaved down for a new recording), but most modern usage has been novelty or limited run, including a single released by a Steampunk band in 2010.


Kid Charlemagne: This whole thing is kind of a catch-22 game of definition and exclusion.

It is tricky to pin down where one classification ends and another begins. Phones are still being used, but the systems have changed, so such "unofficial" technology like blue boxes haven't worked since the mid to late 1990s (at least in the United States).

That said, there are still a surprising (to a non-agricultural Westerner) how many simple and archaic-seeming tools are still in production, in one form or another.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:06 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because technology is moving faster, and we have a more disposable attitude toward it, I suspect newer stuff will turn out to be truly obsolete more than older stuff. The world of electronic storage is littered with such examples. Syquests. Bernoullis. Flopticals. HD-DVDs. Digital Compact Cassettes.

Good luck finding any of those still in manufacture.

Sure, we can play games with categories vs specific instances. Each of these represents a specific constellation of technologies that is gone.
posted by adamrice at 3:07 PM on February 1, 2011


It's Never Lurgi: "What about breech loaded weapons (muskets, etc)? Are any of them being made for anything other than nostalgia? I don't think it counts as "technology" if it doesn't actually get used"

Zip guns are still manufactured and used.
posted by Splunge at 3:07 PM on February 1, 2011


Sure, it's an extreme claim that relies on some definitional wankery.

But it's not that much more absurd than the singularity/futurist religion which routinely argues that everything is about to radically change in ways that will result in the quick exinction of the printed word, the personal computer, and possibly underpants, often in response to some entirely evolutionary consumer product like the iPad.

(I suspect they're probably right for all the wrong reasons. I see more bronze helmets and stone axes in humanity's future than superhuman AI fashion designers.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:08 PM on February 1, 2011


Never mind. I think you meant "muzzle loading", in which case a zip gun doesn't qualify. Sorry.
posted by Splunge at 3:09 PM on February 1, 2011


This is an obviously moronic challenge, because the author can simply declare everything to be a 'species' of something else. Commodore 128s are just "computers", for example. Kodachrome is just "film" and so on. What about Wax cylinders, like someone said? Are they just 'records'? Obviously technology found harmful, like radium dial paint and the aforementioned X-rays.

Oh, and let's not forget the space shuttle. It's still being used, but not being made

Analog NTSC signals are no longer being sent in the air, although lots of devices still produce those signals.

---

This is the kind of sloppy thinking that "Technologists" like KK or Chris Anderson. They want to make profound statements without knowing anything.
posted by delmoi at 3:09 PM on February 1, 2011


the quick exinction of the printed word, the personal computer, and possibly underpants, often in response to some entirely evolutionary consumer product like the iPad.

The main reason I haven't purchased an iPad is that I'm afraid it will make my underpants redundant.
posted by The World Famous at 3:10 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


If we look at flint knives, sure there are still flint knappers out there, but it's arguable whether it matters since no one uses flint knives in practice. On the other hand, Kelly's whole point is that even when the need for something has gone away entirely - we have many much better replacements for flint knives - the tool itself persists.

I've heard that obsidian knapping was producing scalpels useful for things like eye-surgery, and due to the fact that an obsidian edge is far sharper than steel this was actually conceivable.

The link demonstrates that someone is making them, but I don't have any actual evidence that they are being used though.


This link provides some interesting facts on some of the medical uses of flint blades in modern surgery.
posted by fairmettle at 3:14 PM on February 1, 2011


5 1/4 floppies? Even the GSA Catalog no longer has those, and that was the last place I've seen them.

Still being made. And so are 3.5" and 8" for that matter.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 3:15 PM on February 1, 2011


Ziggaruts for burning children to improve weather?

Granted, I haven't looked to see what new casinos they're building in Vegas lately...
posted by yeloson at 3:16 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's banned as a construction material pretty much everywhere now and there's no real true replacement for it. Surely this is an example of a technology that has gone extinct?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. It was never "produced" as much as it was mined. It remains a hazard for miners in certain regions, and always will (until they're replaced by robo-miners, that is...)
posted by schmod at 3:16 PM on February 1, 2011


But that brings to mind quack remedies like radium water jugs. Would they qualify?

The nature of the Free Marketplace ensures that anything claimed to provide a Miracle Cure will always have a few people willing to buy it. Of course, most of the quack remedies now available have been diluted to homeopathic concentrations.

(Only slightly related) And as far as our ability to build new technologies: Pfizer is slashing its R&D budget to please Wall Street.
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:16 PM on February 1, 2011


If Kevin Kelly would tell me where I can buy a strigil, I'd really appreciate it. I want one!
posted by interrobang at 3:17 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Really, what he means is not technology superseded, but technology that we choose to no longer use as a class, because they are wrong. so I would look for things such as

the cat piano ("with a great bear for the musician") and the man-tiger-organ
poison gas.
the rack, other torture instruments
with any luck, H-bombs. etc.
posted by msalt at 3:18 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ziggaruts for burning children to improve weather?

Well, exactly -- tools for sacrifices to the gods. But Kelly would probably say we simply use a more modern version of the tool (donations to televangelists).
posted by msalt at 3:20 PM on February 1, 2011


the rack, other torture instruments

You might want to check with the newly-appointed Vice-President of Egypt on those...
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:22 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Uranium glazes?

Check. It's a colorant, not the main makeup of the glaze (unlike lead, which is also still used in glazes, just not food safe glazes), so it's available to anyone who can get uranium.

Wax Cylinders?

Still done in the 90's. Also acoustic recording (not electronic) techniques are still very widely known, if not widely implemented.

But yeah, at what point does the line cross from "can get it at the local Fry's" to "specialized suppliers still carry it" to "specialized knowledge is needed to actually produce one yourself in your own machine shop" to "dead, dead, dead, and gone forever."? And which line is he referencing? I know quite a few that have crossed from the first to second phase, and a few more in the third phase, but for something to be "dead and gone, we've all forgotten about it and how to do it, and it's not coming back" seems to me to still be a fringe state.

posted by 1f2frfbf at 3:22 PM on February 1, 2011


Guillotine?

Not hard to find either!
posted by sammyo at 3:22 PM on February 1, 2011


interrobang: If Kevin Kelly would tell me where I can buy a strigil, I'd really appreciate it. I want one!

The internet has that. Seriously, it looks like a modern strigil (listed as oewter with steel finish), sold from a British store. Only one size is made, so you'll have to make do with that.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:22 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


The elementary school library in my town had an experimenter's handbook for young adults, called, "Fun With Electrons." One of the projects was building your own X-Ray fluoroscope. Unfortunately, the book is not there anymore.

That in and of itself was depressing news to me. At the time I went looking for it, I held the belief that libraries were permanent, historical archives.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:23 PM on February 1, 2011


I couldn't imagine that this feminine hygiene product (NSFW) was still being made but sure enough, somebody's trying to bring them back as lingerie and Amazon still sells the "regular" kind.
posted by fuse theorem at 3:23 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interocitor.
posted by notmydesk at 3:25 PM on February 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


The main reason I haven't purchased an iPad is that I'm afraid it will make my underpants redundant.

It certainly will, once a miracle happens and the mass computing power of iPods on Earth magically becomes a super-human sentient designer, we can't predict what the undergarments of the 22nd century will look like. Perhaps they will, as Stross suggests, corner the cotton and silk markets into the production of self-replicating Jaquard looms. Or in Kurzweil's view, patents about underpants will be filed at an rate of exponential growth leading to a point where the concept of underpants becomes incomprehensible to non-uplifted mortals. And if you do upload your brain, well, underpants arn't much of a concern.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:25 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Seriously, who suggested anvils? I have like, five in my apartment.* Anyone who thinks anvils no longer exist either 1) never studied metalwork or 2) never dated a metal worker.

*as, a bonus, cartoon coyotes are terrified of the apartment.
posted by piratebowling at 3:26 PM on February 1, 2011 [8 favorites]


I suspect that the only right answer applicable in this case would be either a pointless ancient tool whose use is completely unknown or a tool so useless as to belong to a dada art collection (a catapult that extracts water from stones).
posted by Omon Ra at 3:27 PM on February 1, 2011


The Sony Elcaset. A giant cassette tape Sony invented as a superior audio format, intended to replace standard cassette tapes.
posted by Marky at 3:30 PM on February 1, 2011


The scythed chariot? War elephant armor? The spar torpedo? The dandy horse?
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:31 PM on February 1, 2011


Ediphone Cylinders, wax cylinders used to record on from Ediphones. Admittedly, audio recording has passed it by, but no one's making them (at least according to Google).
posted by doctor_negative at 3:33 PM on February 1, 2011


A timely thread. I just took delivery of a 'new' (old-stock) Chinese military tube radio set (same model as this) whose main components were made in 1968 and 1973, packed and stored, and not opened again til yesterday afternoon, in my case.

It tickles me to think that this 43 year-old clone of a 60+ year-old design is still worth serious money, while a 5-year-old Nokia is worth almost nothing, and not repairable or updatable, or has much in the way of salvageable content.

Also, tubes are cool.
posted by Artful Codger at 3:34 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's Never Lurgi: "What about breech loaded weapons (muskets, etc)?

My brother is a deer hunter, and the hunting season opens earlier, incrementally for antique weapons. Bows, cross-bows, muzzle-loaders, flint-locks, single-shot guns, multi-shot guns, I think in that order.

I've never shot his muzzle-loader, but the flintlock is surprisingly accurate once you get the hang of it. I could do better with that than with his AK-47. The barrel so so thick and heavy, that it's self-stabilizing. The giant round bullets seem to be easier to place in the target, also. At any rate, they make a bigger hole.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:38 PM on February 1, 2011


Come to think of it, that flintlock was a muzzle loader.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:39 PM on February 1, 2011


Analog NTSC signals are no longer being sent in the air, although lots of devices still produce those signals.

Low-power repeater stations in the US still send analog NTSC. Also it's still being broadcast in Canada.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 3:44 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nike Pumps. BAM. Discussion over.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 3:46 PM on February 1, 2011


LSD? I can't find any for sale. I'm sure someone is still manufacturing it, though.
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 3:49 PM on February 1, 2011


Stonehenge - we don't know how it was built, we can't figure out what it did, and unlike greek fire it still exists.
posted by roofus at 3:52 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


The bumble loader.
posted by brundlefly at 4:01 PM on February 1, 2011


(Actually, I just made that up.)
posted by brundlefly at 4:01 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Did someone say Stonehenge?

"No one know who they were...or wot they were doing..."
posted by JoanArkham at 4:01 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


How To War Successfully Against Non-Human Homo Species (e.g. Neanderthals) Using Stone-Age Technology.
posted by alasdair at 4:06 PM on February 1, 2011


Wire recorders.

Used on the Space Shuttle of all places. Presumably, NASA has a supplier.


Wow. I had no idea. Thank you.
posted by steambadger at 4:08 PM on February 1, 2011


It's an interesting question and it makes the most sense visualizing it in a tree view.

Media Players - Not Extinct & Active Category
-- Audio-only media players - Not Extinct & Active Category
 --- Audio-only analog players - Not Extinct but Fading
  ---- Audio-only analog players using records - Not Extinct but specialist / hobbyist / hipster only
  ---- Audio-only analog players using a cassette format - Dying out
  ---- Audio-only analog players using wax cylinders - EXTINCT
  ---- Audio-only analog players using 8-Track tapes - New Spare Parts & media only; newly produced units EXTINCT

And thus you could easily trace the path of obsolescence in all sorts of areas without getting lost in arguments about what exactly is going extinct. And it would lend itself to endless expansion. For example, under cassettes, you could add a branch for metal cassettes and under that, a branch for metal cassettes made by TDK using their patented "blood from virgins" technique. So every minute aspect could be covered.
posted by honestcoyote at 4:08 PM on February 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


Phonautographs
Magic Lanterns
Craniometers
Capacitance Electronic Discs

We can also plumb the depths of the Dead Media Archive
posted by The White Hat at 4:12 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Analog magnetic disk cameras
posted by delmoi at 4:13 PM on February 1, 2011


Re: Stonehenge: as it turns out you can actually build a henge yourself with little more than muscles and clever engineering.

There's at least a couple of other pre-historic henges (Woodhenge, Bluestonehenge) that are currently known, and the best part is they keep finding remnants of neighboring henges. They started a three-year project to scan the area and found two within the first couple of weeks. So it is actually possible we could really discover their intended purpose, Spinal Tap notwithstanding.
posted by lhall at 4:17 PM on February 1, 2011


Anybody know where I can pick up a nice chastity belt?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:18 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I did an inventory of the AV equipment at a large hospital in 1984 (on an Apple IIc computer!) and wish I had that list still today. Lots of the stuff was very obscure then, various types of projectors and players. Almost all extinct now, I imagine. Can you even get a film strip player anymore? That was the top 40 hit of the bunch.
posted by msalt at 4:22 PM on February 1, 2011


Kirth Gerson -- Yes. (nsfw)
posted by kyrademon at 4:24 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Regarding stonehenge: megaliths are still built in "traditional" idioms in such places as Indonesia (photo is historical but practice continues).
posted by Rumple at 4:25 PM on February 1, 2011


Guillotine?

Millions of bagels of all flavour, mass and bread still suffer at the hands on the guillotine each and every day.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:28 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jarts.
posted by The World Famous at 4:29 PM on February 1, 2011


Anvils are not only still in use, but also for recreational purposes.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:29 PM on February 1, 2011


I'm also looking forward to an upswing in 8-track launching.
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:31 PM on February 1, 2011


Mercury-based hat carroting (felting) machines.

But then Kelly would just move the goalposts by pointing out that we adapted the machines to use less toxic stuff. Bah.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:38 PM on February 1, 2011


Glad to see that catapults are still being used.
posted by Sailormom at 4:39 PM on February 1, 2011


Does anyone use siege towers anymore? That seems to fit the requirement that we still know how to make it but nobody does.
posted by The World Famous at 4:42 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


He probably should have said genus instead of species.
posted by dng at 4:42 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had the difficult task this past weekend of rifling through the final resting place of my family business. The wedge-shaped profiles of 16/35 silver halide microfilm duplicators stood in a jumble like neglected headstones in the back of a grim industrial park warehouse space, surrounded by crates and crates of archived microfilm being packed up for donation to a local college. The Kroy-Type machine we used to label our target sheets sat in a dusty corner, beside a wobbly stack of Selectric II typewriters that once served the purpose of typing identifying metadata onto the frosted title bar of crinkly plastic sleeves that one used to mount 16mm microfilm in a microfiche format.

The GAF 16/35 diazo microfilm duplicator with an anhydrous ammonia conversion kit stood in the next room, covered with a hazy film of disuse and serving only as a point on which other things were piled. On the floor, my jagged, irrational handwriting marked a stack of reused 16mm Ektamate film cartridge boxes where I'd carefully sorted and stored the parts and tools I'd used to maintain the wheezing, smelly old monster over the many years that it was my charge. The cover for the ultraviolet lamp was loose, but it was always loose, a nagging irritation that had always stayed on the back burner. The drive belt, which carried the film around in a loop around a glass drum that surrounded the lamp, was threadbare and cracked.

It was unacceptable, a condition I'd have never allowed, but those days have gone.

We sold that business, six or seven years ago, to a trusted employee my father had personally trained, and I mostly left it behind, stopping in for a job or two now and then and fixing the machines I knew well. In our day, our firm was pulling in twenty four million dollars a year, with employees spread across the country, each working their site with impeccably maintained Bell & Howell planetary microfilm cameras. The film came flooding in, and we processed, duplicated, distributed, and archived.

Number one litigation support firm in the country.

Things changed. We got embezzled, people at the top were asleep at the switch when the industry was changing, new fads came and ran out proven technologies. The bulk of the old business was sold off, in one more humiliating exercise of bankers bullying a broken man. It turned out, as it happened, that a former unit of the company, which we'd bought in and integrated a decade prior, was still legally independent, equipment in all, so we kept the fire burning. It was a little guttering flame, but there was light.

My father died. The steam engine running the boilers was gone.

We had to move on under our own power, and did so.

For a time, I was processing microfilm in my basement, with an old Prostar processor we'd gotten in trade for our Bruning OP40 microfiche duplicator. I was glad to see the OP40 go, the wretched beast, and we were specializing, working with museums and million dollar medieval books that you handled only with antique ivory tongs. I knew that Prostar inside and out, from its fiddly little roller modules to the external chemistry mixing unit, and I made little money, but I was satisfied with my efforts. I met and beat standards that deep tank machines set, all with a little beige box.

We moved to the grim industrial park, and the business chugged along, supporting my mother until she could retire, and the last of our old employees, who had his own close, ritualistic relationships with the big cameras from the thirties, forties, and fifties. In the end, he would be the last holdout.

There's still a place for microfilm. The work I did will still be in the archives of the Walters Art Museum in five hundred years, about four hundred fifty years after the last of the lousy digital "archives" have all faded or become corrupt. In five hundred years, you'll need a computer whiz to recover that data. As to mine—you just need a magnifying glass—but that's the victory of the salesman, selling ease and convenience with enough sunshine to drown the down-sides in a glossy glare of this-is-how-we-do-things-now.

I'd been using a bit of space in the back to store my most unwieldy power tools, my Rockwell table saw with the perfect milled deck, or my full sized Craftsman drill press from the age when Craftsman still meant something, and with a few days left, I rented a truck.

It'd been too long, and I remembered why. The machinery is too familiar, too ready on the draw. Every piece and every part has been in my hand at one time or another. The deep tank processor smells vinegary and holds its shine, and the automixer that I bought from a reseller in the days when I connected to his firm via telnet was still holding out. You just get lost, in all of it, wandering through the forest of Hollywood film winders and light tables, passing the old Androcles mixer and the Bausch & Lomb chemistry analyzer tucked into the cramped overhead loft.

The machine my dad built by hand to convert microfiche to 16mm film, a process unknown in the industry, sat up there, too. Every piece milled by hand, mounted in hand-bent frameworks on a tabletop of heavy particle board with an ostentatious mahogany edge—it was a work of grassroots art, but will never be used again.

I gathered up my own things, helped out a bit with the task of sorting some of the remains, some of which were going with the last employee, who had a hair-brained scheme about someday resurrecting the business. I sat and talked a while with the second owner, a good guy, a we regaled each other with stories, and then I found I'd finished, with a pickup truck packed to the gills. The second owner was finished, too, having dissolved the last legal fragments of the business, and that was that.

I did not wait to see some of the machines go into the growing pile of things heading for the dump. Sometimes, you don't linger over these things.

There will still be microfilm. There are still those who get it, and who carry on in a business that will delight the archivists and explorers of the next millennium, but on that grand old scale, driven by a thundering, forceful engine of production and ingenuity, there's nothing left.

The machines are all unloved now, except for their weight in metals.

In my head, though, the real tools are still intact. The subtle way you had to feather the leading edge of a leader tape while loading a film cartridge, or the lighting quick movement it took to live-thread the duplicator without stopping, so you would get the little blur where the drive belt slips, or the mastery of chemistry in a desktop processor, where you can tell if things are right almost entirely by your olfactory senses...they're all still here, several careers later.

Sometimes, I wish I could just forget, and let those tools fade away, too.
posted by sonascope at 4:43 PM on February 1, 2011 [46 favorites]


battleshipkropotkin: "LSD? I can't find any for sale. I'm sure someone is still manufacturing it, though"

Call me.
posted by Splunge at 4:44 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


The GAF 16/35 diazo microfilm duplicator with an anhydrous ammonia conversion kit stood in the next room, covered with a hazy film of disuse and serving only as a point on which other things were piled. On the floor, my jagged, irrational handwriting marked a stack of reused 16mm Ektamate film cartridge boxes where I'd carefully sorted and stored the parts and tools I'd used to maintain the wheezing, smelly old monster over the many years that it was my charge. The cover for the ultraviolet lamp was loose, but it was always loose, a nagging irritation that had always stayed on the back burner. The drive belt, which carried the film around in a loop around a glass drum that surrounded the lamp, was threadbare and cracked.

We still use some of the old tools. Just not what they're supposed to be used for. We use the big old cameras to burn plates to print plastic bags, and we use a few old light tables to recreate the half-tones from old analog print jobs.

There's a brand new DTG press, covered and gathering dust, sitting in a corner of the floor because we were never able to get it running.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 5:01 PM on February 1, 2011



Wire recorders.
Used on the Space Shuttle of all places. Presumably, NASA has a supplier.


Seriously, I would like to know why you believe this to be true because I have high confidence that it isn't.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 5:35 PM on February 1, 2011


5 1/4 floppies?

I have a neat little tool at home gathering dust, which punches an extra read-enable hole in single sided floppies & turns them into flippies.

Is someone going to try & tell me that isn't as extinct as Megatherium?
posted by HiroProtagonist at 5:46 PM on February 1, 2011


I still have a working Commodore 64 and a 1541 floppy drive. While I have no, read zero access to new floppies, I still have older 5 1/4 floppies that have never been written. If I ever had to play Red Storm Rising again, I'd need a few save disks. So I'd give it a shot.

Or course I did it with an Exacto knife.
posted by Splunge at 5:54 PM on February 1, 2011


I have access to a wire recorder. And wire. Found it at a friend's house while helping clear out her late dad's techno-debris.

Used also in lots of commercial aircraft as flight data recorders until very recently.
posted by FauxScot at 5:58 PM on February 1, 2011


Mechanical television
posted by Brian B. at 5:59 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This argument, "no technology goes extinct," is a prolonged and premeditated example of moving the goalposts, as BitterOldPunk well notes. In other words, Kevin Kelly is trolling. He's trolling his field to sell some books.

But it's so well done, and so apposite to his field, that goddamn if I don't want to read his book now.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 6:04 PM on February 1, 2011


But this is great it means that somewhere in the world there is a mint StarTAC just waitig for me.

Ad hominem, I'm your new best friend. lekki.fr (The "somewhere in the world" is France, but maybe they deliver.)
posted by Alt F4 at 6:30 PM on February 1, 2011


Pyramids? Triremes? Greek fire? Edison wax cylinders?
posted by gnossie at 6:46 PM on February 1, 2011


Seriously, I would like to know why you believe this to be true because I have high confidence that it isn't.

Flight data recorder. IIRC, the spools of wire were recovered from Columbia, and NASA had a somewhat difficult time finding equipment that would read them. Wish I could find a source though... maybe I'm remembering it incorrectly...
posted by schmod at 6:54 PM on February 1, 2011


sonascope: "Sometimes, I wish I could just forget, and let those tools fade away, too."

You already know this, sonascope, but that was a thing of beauty. I apprenticed on phototypesetters in high school, thinking I was setting myself up with a skill that would see me through grad school at least. In way (excepting grad school) it did - it taught me that things change goddamn fast and I had best be quick on my feet. It also taught me tag-based text formatting, the very basis of HTML. And of course it taught me photochemistry and fine-gear machine maintenance.

/pours a 40-point
posted by mwhybark at 7:02 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


---- Audio-only analog players using records - Not Extinct but specialist / hobbyist / hipster only
---- Audio-only analog players using a cassette format -
Also Not Extinct but specialist / hobbyist / hipster only.
posted by mykescipark at 7:07 PM on February 1, 2011


Amps that go to eleven.
posted by digsrus at 7:08 PM on February 1, 2011


Amps that go to eleven.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but we have the technology to make amps go to 12 now.
posted by The World Famous at 7:17 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


gnossie: "Triremes?"

I think we may have a winner!
posted by mwhybark at 7:23 PM on February 1, 2011


So, tell me then, where I can go buy my own working, physical (not software) Antikythera mechanism.

Oh sure, "no species...", well, the reason people are astonished by it is that it is in a class far beyond anything else ever conceived (at least, up until the 20th century). So I'd claim that it is a species, and it (and the knowledge that crafted it) was globally extinct for thousands of years (because of the destruction and extinction of that knowledge).

I'd even boldly surmise that there is stuff out there that noone realizes used to be technology. Because if noone don't know what it did/does, as a tool it's extinct, even though it survives as a physical object.
posted by Twang at 7:28 PM on February 1, 2011


P.S. I'd fix that double negative if MF had a five-minute edit capability.
posted by Twang at 7:29 PM on February 1, 2011


Sonascope: The steam engine running the boilers was gone.

No disrespect to you or your late Dad, but the Society for Responsible Metaphors have asked me to point out that fire heats the boiler(s), producing steam, whose pressure is controlled and directed to perform work by pushing on one or more pistons*. This whole assemblage is most commonly known as a steam engine.

*For purposes of brevity,I have chosen to disregard for the moment the workings of a steam turbine.

See me after class.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:36 PM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Kevin Kelly is trolling. He's trolling his field to sell some books. [...] But it's so well done, and so apposite to his field, that goddamn if I don't want to read his book now.

What on earth is Kevin Kelly's "field" supposed to be? He's an energetic and interesting guy with an eye for neat techie stuff, and yeah, I also like Cool Tools,* but he's always preposterously wrong when he makes broad claims like this about society or history. (Yes, always: I say there is no Kevin Kelly historical argument that has ever been plausible on this planet.) He specializes in exactly this kind of broad-brush, obviously indefensible generalizing, nearly always about the history of science, a field of which he appears to have only the most superficial knowledge and in which he has no education. His work gets the mileage it does by being provocative and glib, and by being pitched as "outside-the-box" thinking to audiences with backgrounds in engineering/geekery/hard science but not used to thinking about history and society. It's a formula that later writers like Jared Diamond or Malcolm Gladwell have used to great effect, but Kelly pioneered it.

* despite Cool Tools also seeming like a constant reminder that Kelly was the person principally responsible for depoliticizing and defanging the Whole Earth Catalog into something indistinguishable from the commodity-fetish catalogs that it initially meant to mock
posted by RogerB at 7:54 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ooh! Ooh! I've got one. Lobotomy tools. (hopefully)
posted by msalt at 8:08 PM on February 1, 2011


I submit that human languages are tools, cultural constructs.

And languages have gone extinct; thousands more are at risk today, as indigenous languages are replaced by colonizing languages.
posted by orthogonality at 8:34 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I posted an AskMe a while back that posed a similar question with a slightly wider framing.

As the comments suggest, the stuff of everyday life rarely vanishes entirely from the earth.
posted by holgate at 8:59 PM on February 1, 2011


msalt: "Ooh! Ooh! I've got one. Lobotomy tools. (hopefully"

knitting needles, innit?
posted by mwhybark at 9:17 PM on February 1, 2011


Schmod, you're probably thinking of the OEX recorder which used tape.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:18 PM on February 1, 2011


in passing, isn't KK one of Mefi's Own? I could swear he dropped in on an earlier thread.
posted by mwhybark at 9:20 PM on February 1, 2011


So, tell me then, where I can go buy my own working, physical (not software) Antikythera mechanism.

Oh sure, "no species...", well, the reason people are astonished by it is that it is in a class far beyond anything else ever conceived (at least, up until the 20th century).
What are you talking about? First of all, people do make replicas of it. Secondly The Antikythera mechanism is an Orrery, something that people started making again in the 1700s. It isn't even remotely that complicated or advanced by 20th century standards. I can't even fathom where you got that idea.
posted by delmoi at 9:24 PM on February 1, 2011


Collecting dust to my dismay.
posted by Sailormom at 9:53 PM on February 1, 2011


I say there is no Kevin Kelly historical argument that has ever been plausible on this planet.

Oh yeah? What about that time when... um...

Touche, sir. Touche.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 10:12 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ooh! Ooh! I've got one. Lobotomy tools. (hopefully)

There are ways, Dude. You don't wanna know about it, believe me. Hell, I can get you an icepick and mallet by 3 o'clock this afternoon... with cotton wool.
posted by WhackyparseThis at 10:36 PM on February 1, 2011


I think this is actually a useful bit of insight, overstated and misrepresented. Technologies don't die out until after we lose the words and concepts that describe them. It's something a little more complex than Kelly constantly moving the goalposts, although that is a valid critisicm. It's that the evolution of our language and culture shapes what we define as the different classes of technology. It is our culture that moves the goalposts, and the implication of Kelly's statement is that the cultural concept of a technology dies out before the technology itself does.

I imagine thousands of years ago there were many, many types of spear, all very distinct in the minds of those who use them. If one of those spears suddenly stopped being made in the world, the person from thousands of years ago would say that a technology has died out, but we would point out that there are still spears, that by our classification of technology the world is not lessened by a loss of one particular type of spear. Today we still differentiate in the common vernacular between the various types of sword--if katanas stopped being made today I myself would say a species of technology has died out--but it is not difficult to imagine that will change some day and all swords will be thought of as one monolithic entity. And then the loss of the scottish longsword, say, does not then seem like the loss of a species of technology.

So Kevin Kelly could in fact be right. If the world was first spears and then swords, then the people who made swords could rightly say that according to their perfectly reasonable classification of technology no technologies had been lost, since the cultural classification of the different types of spears as different types of technology was lost before the different types of spears stopped being produced. He could also be wrong, but if he is, I think they are exceptions to a pretty good general rule.
posted by Bobicus at 10:41 PM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'll stipulate a definition: a technology goes extinct if it's no longer being manufactured or used by anyone for its original purpose. (So for example, if a heavy metal artifact survives, and gets used as a doorstop by people who've forgotten what it ever was made for, that would NOT count as the technology being "alive".)

For purposes of this definition, a technology can be extinct if:
- there are no surviving examples of it
- there are surviving examples but nobody knows what they were for
- the only surviving examples are behind glass in museums with tidy labels and never get used.

The examples I'm thinking of are mainly in the "in museums with tidy labels" category.

One good place to look is old medical theories, which gave rise to instruments and rigs and gizmos and whatnot. The rigs and gizmos of specific old medical theories would probably work.

vacapinta has a good point about the arcana of Victorian silverware - some items of which are so specific to their purpose that you'd look at them now and think "ok, it's a stabber or twiddler of some kind, but what was it for? no clue"
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:43 PM on February 1, 2011


Two thousand years ago there was an immensely valuable blue dye used for ritual purposes by Jews. Five hundred years later nobody even knew what sea creature it was sourced from. There are people who think they've rediscovered it, but there are lots of problems with their theory - for one thing, producing their dye requires technology that was unavailable back then.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:50 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some debates are philosophical in nature. One common disagreement is over whether a species is defined by the characteristics that biologists use to identify the species, or whether a species is an evolving entity in nature. Every named species has been formally described as a type of organism with particular defining characteristics. These defining traits are used to identify which species organisms belong to. But for many species, all of the individuals that fit the defining criteria also make up a single evolving unit. These two different ways of thinking about species, as a category and as an evolving population, are quite different from each other.

The Species Problem.
posted by romanb at 5:12 AM on February 2, 2011


Where is a Brazen Bull wholesaler when you need one?
posted by gallagho at 6:40 AM on February 2, 2011


Dodo bird pluckers.
posted by tarvuz at 9:27 AM on February 2, 2011


Well, there's a German company that'll sell you a magic lantern kit, and IIRC the same Japanese company that makes automaton and orrery model kits may too. And I wouldn't be surprised if there were other sources for pre-made replicas, because apparently some people are charmed enough by them to want to do shows with them.

But I love this discussion not for the nitpicking (on the original speaker's part or our parts) or the availability of various replicas, but all the things that really are still in production. Both the neophile and ... paleophile? aspects of my personality are pretty tickled right now.
posted by wintersweet at 9:33 AM on February 2, 2011


Damascus steel is still being made, or at least duplicated, by hobbyists and professional knifemakers -- now that we have a detailed analysis of the steel's contents, it can be duplicated using a furnace and crucible. Sure, it's not exactly the same process, so there are arguments about whether it can truly be called damascus, wootz, or whatever, but since the end material is indistinguishable from the historical, calling it "lost" seems premature.
posted by Blackanvil at 9:55 AM on February 2, 2011


calling it "lost" seems premature.

Ok, so we found it again. It was still lost. And if enough samples of Damascus steel had been melted or lost, the technique would have been lost for good, so it's pretty contingent that we're now able to recreate it. (Of course if all the Damascus steel samples had been lost, Kelly would say we haven't lost Damascus steel because we don't know what it is we've lost…)

This just gets at another problem with the "extinct" metaphor:barring Jurassic Park–like scenarios, a species of creature that goes extinct is really extinct; it ain't coming back. But a piece of technology can be rediscovered or decoded. But that is, often, a matter of antiquarian interest (perhaps not for Damascus steel if its properties really are so nifty).
posted by kenko at 10:26 AM on February 2, 2011


Definitions and rules and specifics aside, this does call attention to the massive and enduring effect of technology on the human race. Some of us sometimes look at our cell phones or video game consoles and think that technology is a fleeting and silly thing, when it is in fact as important to us as our arms and legs.
posted by aesacus at 8:03 PM on February 2, 2011


jedicus writes "The E6B mechanical calculator is still used by pilots and flight students."

That's just a specialized slide rule. Is anyone making Curtas or reasonable facsimiles?

BigCalm writes "I know it seems obvious, but what about asbestos? It's banned as a construction material pretty much everywhere now and there's no real true replacement for it."

Asbestos is still used in construction in many developing countries and in the US (Cement Asbestos Pipe). Though I don't think you can buy asbestos siding or faux slate roof anymore.

I don't think anyone is making physical stereophotogrammetry machines and it's not something a hobbyist will be whipping up as it involves very large castings and then precision machining of same. I imagine there are lots of obsolete business and industrial machines that fall into this category. I've got test equipment for H2S residential refrigeration equipment. I imagine it falls into LobsterMitten's "museum with tidy labels category" though in this case it's stored away in a dusty box with no label at all.

No one is making Fiero Space frames anymore. The only machine set up to do it was destroyed.
posted by Mitheral at 9:10 PM on February 2, 2011


The ease with which these proposals are being disqualified leads me to think something is wrong with the challenge. I think its this: that the boundary between "tool" and "technology" is being jumped when it helps the challengers. Witness ...

"Kodachrome" - as a tool, this is dead, but as a technology, it lives on. Color film continues to be made and Kodachrome has been supplanted by other film technology.

"Greek fire" - as a technology, this appears to be dead, but in Kevin treats it like a tool, as if in this case the specific composition of Greek Fire matters. That's been lost, so we don't know if other flaming liquids are actually Greek Fire.

The second argument undermines the first; we know that Kodachrome chemicals aren't being made anymore, right? So if that doesn't matter, how can the chemical composition of Greek Fire be important?
posted by cotterpin at 3:22 AM on February 3, 2011


The ease with which these proposals are being disqualified leads me to think something is wrong with the challenge. I think its this: that the boundary between "tool" and "technology" is being jumped when it helps the challengers. Witness ...

"Kodachrome" - as a tool, this is dead, but as a technology, it lives on. Color film continues to be made and Kodachrome has been supplanted by other film technology.


Kelly's thesis also fails at the level of the connoisseur.

I claim that a certain kind of movie-making technique no longer exists: the technique used to create Stanley-Kubrick movies. (I am not claiming the Kubrick movies are tools. And I won't try, here, to claim that the techniques used in making them were tools. I'm just making an analogy.)

But I can only make that claim because I'm a movie connoisseur and a Stanley Kubrick fan. To someone less into movies (or Kubrick) the category Stanley-Kubrick movie might not be meaningful. They's say, "Sure, no one is making Stanley-Kubrick movies any more, but people are still making MOVIES. The real category is movies. Kubrick movies are just a kind of movie."

To me, though, that's like saying that we lost nothing when dodos went extinct, because dodos are just a kind of animal, and animals still exist.

It all depends how you slice the category case.

There are photographers -- and photography connoisseurs -- who can tell the difference between Kodachrome photos and non-Kodachrome photos. To them, something very real is gone. You can say, "Yes, but color film still exists," but that's just because you happen to think of all color film as being one category. So, of course, to you, as long as there's one member in the category, it exists. But if your categories are, say, Kodachrome film and non-Kodachrome film, one of them is for-real gone!

Kelly's whole thesis is based on HIS categories. But categories are arbitrary.
posted by grumblebee at 10:04 AM on February 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some debates are philosophical in nature. One common disagreement is over whether a species is defined by the characteristics that biologists use to identify the species, or whether a species is an evolving entity in nature. Every named species has been formally described as a type of organism with particular defining characteristics. These defining traits are used to identify which species organisms belong to. But for many species, all of the individuals that fit the defining criteria also make up a single evolving unit. These two different ways of thinking about species, as a category and as an evolving population, are quite different from each other.

This is more of a practical debate than a philosophical one, but people continually make the mistake of thinking of definitional debates as philosophical (or existential).

Fred: I'm going to invent a word called "Blurg." It means something that's both round and green.

Alice: Well, I'm going to use "Blurg" to mean something square and red!

Pseudo-Philosopher: Ah, a conundrum! What does "Blug" REALLY mean? Round and green or square and red? This is a great paradox that will take us centuries to unravel!

There's no such thing as a species. (I'm not saying the word isn't useful. I'm saying you can't point to a species in the external world.) It's a human-invented classification. What exists are a bunch of different animals with similar and different features*.

We can CHOOSE to categorize these creatures in certain ways, and we can argue over which way it's more useful to categorize them. And when we do so, we should define useful, pinning it down to a specific task or field: useful for what?

It aslo makes sense to talk about what people mean when they say the world "species." Different people mean different things. But that's not a philosophical question. It's a question of what concepts are linked with certain vocal utterances.

* Even that's not strictly-speaking true. If an animal is standing next to a fence, is there two things there animal-and-fence? Or is there one thing, an animalfence? We mentally carve things up in whatever way is useful to us -- on how we're forced to carve things up by the limitations of our brains. But if someone insists that the animal and the fence are just one thing, they're not wrong (or right). They're just eccentric. And there's still no philosophical issue here.
posted by grumblebee at 10:16 AM on February 3, 2011


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