“In every society, there are stabilizing Forces that protect the status quo. Some of these forces protect entrenched vested interests that might incur losses if innovations were introduced, others are simply don't-rock-the-boat kinds of forces. Technological creativity needs to overcome these forces.” - Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress
The previous Faster, Please! Long Read essay, “The Smithsonian’s dreary 'Futures' exhibition is stuck in the eco-pessimist 1970s” — my highest-traffic piece so far — recounts my disappointment with the national museum’s inept attempt to show an optimistic and inspiring future. During my recent visit, I went in expecting to see displays about reusable rockets, CRISPR, nuclear fusion, and the future of mRNA vaccines. Instead, I got displays about wastewater recycling, biodegradable mushroom bricks, and 1960s agricultural activist Cesar Chavez. The whole effort suffered from a profound lack of imagination — plus, suspiciously, a lack of any mention of Elon Musk — about a possible future built creating abundance rather than merely managing scarcity. It didn’t even qualify as good solarpunk.
After I left “Futures,” I started thinking about the Antikythera Mechanism. It’s an ancient astronomical calculating machine of such complexity that some have called it the first computer. The device, probably built around 140–100 B.C., could predict solar eclipses and organize the calendar into the four-year cycles of the Olympiad, forerunner of the modern Olympic Games. Sponge divers retrieved it in 1901 from a sunken Roman cargo ship off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera. Modern researchers, using high-resolution imaging systems, continue to learn more and more about exactly how it worked and all it could do. In the new Scientific American article “An Ancient Greek Astronomical Calculation Machine Reveals New Secrets,” Tony Freeth of the University College London Antikythera Research Team explains the group’s latest findings about how exactly this two-millennium-old bit of technology worked. Freeth concludes: