Author's blog

On this page, observations of various kinds will appear that are related to big history teaching as well as to big history in general.
Earlier blogs
- Big history and web site design
- Did Galileo overstate the magnification of his telescope? 
- Did Columbus falsify his latitude measurements?
- Reflections on observations in big history
- What about questions in learning goals?
- What to think about machines that think?
- Was the Juan de la Cosa map (1500 CE) an instrument to stake claims?
- How can we examine chance and necessity in big history?
- How did Europeans acquire the first accurate nautical charts and Arabic numerals?
- What about experimental history?
- How did European mariners chart unknown coastlines all around the world?
- Out-of-the-box thinking?
August 16, 2017
How does the technology work that we are using today? Is that a question still asked by the younger generations? Who of them would wonder, for instance, how an iPhone camera focuses its lens so as to obtain the sharpest possible picture, or how it determines the correct exposure, so that the resulting picture is neither too dark nor too light?
And how would, in general terms, the iPhone computer system work, or a laptop? When, this spring, I asked my students such questions, none of them knew the answers. Most of them never even seem to have contemplated such questions.
I do not blame them, of course. With the arrival of the digital computer age, the question of how such technology works appears to have almost completely disappeared from view.
Yet contrast this with my experiences in the Peruvian Andean village of Zurite in the mid 1980s, where Julián Cconucuyca F., a very talented local carpenter with a great interest in, and understanding of, local technology, once asked me how my photo camera was made. I was then using a little Minox 35 GL camera, which was very handy for shooting pictures during my fieldwork.
I could not answer Julián’s perceptive question, because by that time such questions had almost completely disappeared from view for me. In fact, I was stunned, because that was the very moment at which I became aware of that situation. Yet for Julián it was a ‘natural’ question to ask, because in his world many people could still make a lot of daily technology themselves, or obtain it from other people who could make it themselves, while they could be watched making such things.
Surely, at that time they had radios, and, if lucky, cheap watches. They also had a few light bulbs that worked, while they used public transport, mostly old buses and minivans. But because so much of their daily stuff, such as tables, chairs, stoves, textiles, adobe bricks, roof tiles, and ploughs were still made by hand, the question of how things were made was an obvious one to pose for a curious and technologically gifted person such as Julián.
But it was not an obvious question for me, because I came from a culture in which most things were made in factories by experts, out of sight for most other people such as me, while these factories or workshops –then and now–  would often prefer not to show how they were making these things out of fear of being copied by others.
Surely, not everyone in the village of Zurite would pose such questions. Those who did were probably a minority. Yet most people in the village appeared to have at least some awareness of how things were made, an awareness that by that time had almost completely disappeared from the Dutch society that I was part of.
Since that time, stimulated by my Peruvian experiences I have tried to make many things myself, while I have often wondered how other, more complicated, things are made, including photo cameras and lenses. This exploration has led me onto many fascinating tracks, including a growing awareness of what I can, and cannot, make myself.
Yet before the Internet appeared the answers to such questions were sometimes hard to find, if at all, even though books existed explaining such things. But such books did not always contain the answers that I was looking for.
But even though I did not know how my camera was made, at least I knew how to operate it, which at that time required some basic knowledge of how those cameras worked: how to make sure the lens was focused, and how to correctly set the aperture and shutter speed (even with automatic exposure).
I had learned to do these things in the 1960s with manually operated photo cameras without any electronics before things such as automatic exposure appeared. This experience helped me to understand, and use, the Minox camera in better ways. As a result I still had that sort of an awareness, even though the need for it was diminishing because of the emerging electronic technology.
I also understood how a typewriter worked, or a car, or a rocket engine. That was still fairly basic technology in the 1960s, and lots of books existed explaining those things, while just looking carefully at a typewriter, for instance, made clear how it worked.
Yet the production technology in factories was already being automated, and therefore harder to grasp, especially when computers were introduced to do so.
My father once told me the following story. In the 1960s and 1970s he organized tours for secondary schools at the Unilever Research Laboratory in Vlaardingen, Netherlands, where he led a research group that was working on improving detergents. While showing their latest technology to those secondary school students, he noticed that virtually none of them were interested in how it worked. All they wanted to know, he said, was what could be done with it.
With the appearance of digital cameras, and especially with the rapid advances of software controlling the cameras, the need for understanding how such cameras function, let alone how they were made, disappeared even more from view, especially after cameras became integrated into cell phones. Who would worry about such questions while taking one’s daily pictures, because the camera is doing all these things for you so well?
This is part of the current wave of informatization: the replacement of human brains by computers. And the camera is only one example of this huge wave of technological change that deeply influences our lives today, from making and operating planes to making candies.
This development, together with the sharply decreasing costs of taking pictures as well as the increasing affluence of many people in the world has led to a huge wave of what can be called the ‘democratization and simplification of picture (and video) taking’. Before that time, only more affluent people had access to such technology, while doing those things required much more attention and care than it does today.
Yet as a result, for most people who now routinely take pictures and record videos the questions of how this technology was made as well as how it works have almost completely disappeared from view. The major questions are now: how can I operate it, and what can I do with it?
These questions were, of course, also very important in earlier days. But they came together with the other questions just mentioned. As a result, many earlier people had a better overview of daily technology than most people have today.
This means that not only the knowledge about these vitally important aspects of society in all of human history is now in the hands of a tiny minority, but that even the awareness of this knowledge has largely disappeared from view for most people.
Would it be a good idea to try to bring back some of this awareness, so that we know a little better what we are dependent on? Of course, we would not want, or need, to know all these details. But without such an awareness we would not even be able to pose such fundamental questions anymore. Could big history perhaps play a role in doing so?
International Big History Association
Un. of Amsterdam big history
Cosmic Evolution
Big History Project
Book: Teaching Big History
Bill Bryson: Short History of Nearly Everything
Other useful stuff on the web
Other big history
How to use the book
Course models
Learning goals and objectives
Teaching tools
Assignments (little big histories)
Answers to FAQs by students
Questions by students and teachers that go beyond the book
Examination models
Teaching big history