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The rapid march of technological progress is masking the general lack of human progress, at least as people in Western nations have understood that phrase since the late 18th century and experienced it for much of the 19th and 20th.


Another aphorism about youth and technology: If you truly believe all information is at your fingertips, you are less likely to really dig for it–or learn how to dig for it.

Technological innovation leads to greater efficiency: a simple maxim that seems to carry the force of law. But you don’t have to scratch deep to find other effects of innovation.

Hoping to stave off riots, Pennsylvania officials separated the red and white wines.

You can read books to discern those effects, including Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch or David Noble’s Forces of Production.

No time to read? Stroll into a Pennsylvania supermarket and gawk at a wine kiosk (left), a frightening cross between a vending machine, an ATM and a prison, brought to us by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Anyone care to argue that this technology is the most efficient way to sell wine? The machine obviously serves other purposes, mostly having to do with control–and they haven’ t even been very good at that.

In this case, technology’s other purposes are obvious. Other cases are less obvious, which allows me to circle back to highways, my original inspiration for blogging this year. Highways are synonymous with freedom. But why?


Here is yet another curious fact about A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, the book he published in 1920 to recount his experiences motoring across country in search of new highway routes. He rarely seems to encounter a horse and buggy (or a train, but we’ll leave that for another post).

This is curious because, supposedly, horses were the main method of transportation before the internal combustion engine came along. And Westgard was traveling mostly on existing trails, so somebody–or  some horse–must have been using them.

Buggies disappeared by the 1920s. Fringe stayed with us for another half-century.

When Westgard does finally encounter a horse, the poor animal is, of course, on death’s door. Westgard et al are winding their way up and through the Cascades in Washington state when they come upon this tableau:

an old man who was endeavoring to coax an emaciated old horse to exert another ounce of effort in attempting to drag a dilapidated buggy up the trail. The bony structure of the horse was so evident under its gray and mangy skin that he appeared more like a skeleton of a horse than one of flesh and blood.

Lest you wonder about what the horse was pulling, Westgard goes on:

The buggy was held together with generous applications and sundry bandages of baling wire. All in all, the whole outfit–man, horse and buggy–was about as nearly played out as any outfit I had ever seen in all my travels.

The man was apparently hoping to strike it rich in Canada (in case you thought he was hunting for cheaper prescription drugs). But instead, he served as a visible sign marking the end of the road for one technology and the birth of another.

Fittingly, the chapter ends not on a lament for the passing of the horse-and-buggy crowd, but on Westgard’s description of how the Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascades was eventually paved.



Note the absence of operating instructions.

Today’s college students are tech-savvy, sure. But here is how I would boil down my experience of digital natives trying to navigate the Internet:

People may grow up in a forest, but that doesn’t mean they know how to climb trees.

It is a short chapter in A.L. Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder, and it doesn’t appear until page 83. But it’s an important one. It clearly seeks to establish his claim as the most-traveled pathfinder of his day.

The chapter is curiously titled “Deadly Figures.” Westgard begins by listing the top two questions he gets: What kinds of tires do you use, and how far have you driven? His answer to the second?

My answer is invariably that I do not know, though I have most likely traveled more different (note the different) miles on rubber tires than any man in the world. This I believe to be true.

In the old days, drivers had to affix their own odometers to the dash. While inconvenient, it was much easier to roll back--or forward, depending on whom you were trying to impress.

But to establish the truth, Westgard needs more than  belief. So he  proceeds to deconstruct the assertion of some “relatively” young man who told reporters he  had traveled 800,000 miles in 15 years. A little math from Westgard reveals that the man would have had to travel 141 miles a day,  every day. It’s possible, Westgard writes. But given the condition of roads in those days, it is “hardly within the range of probability.”

Let the record show that Westgard was not one to make idle boasts, nor one to tolerate them either. After demolishing the young man’s claim, Westgard reassures the reader that he limits himself to a simple proclamation, that he has made “more trips across the United States, East and West, North and South, than any other man, and that those trips were mostly over different routes.”

I’m still wondering what was so deadly about those figures. I’m also wondering about his tires. Surely he could have earned a little extra cash for in-book product placement.

The key to posterity, apparently, is eating an opossum. Such was the act that helped enshrine Pan, the wire-haired fox terrier that accompanied our hero, A.L. Westgard, on his cross-country pathfinding missions.

Westgard’s driver had received two small possums as a gift. They were intended to be pets (yes, opossums as pets). But Pan ate them during an

Pan, a wire-fox terrier, was nothing like a hound dog.

overnight stay in a stable. The two small marsupials had escaped from their cage, Pan ate them and then cleverly concealed his act, though Westgard eventually ferreted it out. Westgard writes:

That was the time he deserved corporal punishment but didn’t get it. It was not in my heart to give him anything stronger than a round scolding in appreciation for his cunning in hiding the remains of his victims from our view when we first inspected the stable.

For this, and for being a companion loyal and true, Pan earned his own chapter in Westgard’s Tales of a Pathfinder. It’s more than can be said, at least in the first 85 pages, of the man’s wife, Helen.

Westgard also took a moment in earlier chapter to name his driver, Heinie, but only by way of illustrating the man’s poor sense of direction. Knowing this, Westgard nonetheless sent Heinie out in a trackless plain to hunt down a team of horses to pull the car out of a ditch.

I guess if you’re a famous autoist, it looks bad to have a driver. But if that driver has no idea how to get from point A to point B, then you really are the “hero of the highways” meriting congratulatory greetings at every stop.

It’s a paradox of modern life: We are mobile, yet sedentary. Blame the auto? Blame the glowing, pixellated screen? Surely it can be no coincidence that the rise of those two great technologies–moving carriages and moving pictures–took place over roughly the same period.

And at their joint birth was our friend, A.L. Westgard. In 1916, he conceived–or at least was associated with–the idea of taking motion pictures of the

It would have been more exciting if the car had fallen off the planks. But that would have to wait for more sophisticated film editors.

entire United States. This according to an article in volume 20 of The Camera: An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Advancement of Photography.

Here is a selection from the article (note how two nascent industries stand to gain, and, of course, use of the word “dream,” as in “The American Dream”):

Mr. Westgard, who knows the beauty spots as no other man knows them, believes that he can show Americans things about their own country of which they scarcely dream.

The Pathe Company, which will distribute the films, believes so, too, and so does the Combitone Picture Company, which is financing the expedition. The pictures are to be entirely different from any hitherto seen, because made by the new Combitone process, invented and perfected by F. W. Hochstetter, formerly of the Edison staff, now consulting photo chemist of the American Photo Chemical Company.

Today, with our much richer business vocabulary, we would call this commercial venture an example of synergy.

We often romanticize the jobs displaced by technology, especially if the people who held those jobs are long dead. Consider the blacksmith, the milkman and the manufacturer of flint-lock muskets. But the people who helped kill off those jobs showed about as much remorse as we do today when obsolete jobs disappear.

Umbrellas are useful on flat boats, as there is usually very little shade.

The loss of the ferryman’s job was a sign of progress for our friend A.L. Westgard. The indications lie in his 1920 book, Tales of a Pathfinder, a collection of anecdotes from his many cross-country trips. In one chapter, a very short one, he describes the fate of motorists suffering from the strict hourly schedule of the man who operated a ferry across the Colorado River outside Yuma, Ariz. Motorists often had to sleep in their cars, the lights of Yuma blinking across the river, because the ferryman refused to work outside his normal day.

I suppose Westgard could have recommended adding another shift or two to ensure 24-hour ferry coverage, or at least late-evening rides for tardy motorists. But that would not have been progress. Instead he campaigned for a bridge, eventually spurring action by Arizona, California and the feds–“and the ferryman lost his job as he fully deserved,” in Westgard’s words (page 46, Tales). Nothing personal about progress, eh? Or to paraphrase: All progress is personal.

* Find the lyrics here!

My goal is to headline all posts with song titles from the Grateful Dead. Mission accomplished so far.

Yesterday I achieved a giant technological breakthrough: I read a downloaded PDF file on my Kindle. Yes, not much of a reveal, I know. But here’s the kicker.

It was a book by the guy to the right. His name is A.L. Westgard and he, like our buddy William Warwick, spent the early part of the 20th century criss-crossing the United States in an effort to find and map the best routes for future highways. He’s obviously progressive because, as Roland Barthes once noted, progressive thinkers look into the distance when photographed. He appears also to be looking into the sun.

Westgard’s book, Tales of a Pathfinder, published in 1920, is essentially a collection of anecdotes from his cross-country trips. The first anecdote involves his coming across a man nearly dying of hunger and thirst in the desert near Yuma. It’s a gripping start, and a fine way for Westgard to earn the reader’s respect as a good man and kind. But can he keep it for the next 240 pages? Stay tuned.