Imagine a new cooking device that can reduce the time of a particular cooking technique by a third or more, uses half the energy, produces more uniform results, and requires less attention on the part of the cook. In the history of technology, such an advance in efficiency would be considered a major breakthrough that could change the relation of the laborer to the technology. In today’s discourse on technology, we would imagine that such an advance would only be possible through major research and possibly the use of newly-engineered, specialized materials (I guess we don’t call them “space age materials” anymore). But neither is the case: it’s merely stuff we’ve already had, arranged in a slightly different way. Is that really “new” technology, and how does this sort of invention make us think differently about the the history and future of technology? And, just as importantly, how did my chicken and ribs turn out?Last question first: This past week, my Pit Barrel Cooker arrived, in time for me to cook up a storm over the last couple of days: pictured for a trial run on Wednesday, a couple of chickens, a rack of ribs, and some potatoes, and yesterday, a leg of lamb. They sure were tasty (except for the potatoes, which fell into the coals), once I got things figured out and adjusted for cooking at around 30 degrees outside temp.
What’s amazing about this device is its simplicity and use of pre-existing parts to make something that seems a significant advance compared to other products on the market. Basically, it’s a 30-gallon drum with five holes at strategic spots, two lengths of rebar, eight meathooks, a standard grill rack, seven horseshoes, and, the only piece that might be specially fabricated, a stainless steel tray for holding the charcoal.
Is this the future of technology? Admittedly, I’m not up on the latest in the scholarship on the history of technology, although I was when writing my first book, and I don’t remember much work on this phenomenon: the use of low-tech, common materials to make something substantially new and more efficient. There’s thought on especially elegant ways to do things, like the paper clip, or efficient ways to do things, like the adoption of anthracite coal, but not much along these lines (maybe the adoption of the Franklin stove? Moving the heat to the middle of the room made a lot of sense).
But there are other examples now, and likely to be a lot more. One is Mazda’s use of what it calls “SkyActiv” technology. Mazda has a lower R&D budget than the big boys (Toyota, GM, Ford, Fiat/Chrysler, VW, Honda), but its cars have as good or better MPG as anyone’s that isn’t a hybrid or diesel. How do they do this magic? By taking their standard combustion engines, making them really high compression, improving aerodynamics, and doing a few other tweaks. Or think of how apps and mobile operating systems are being developed: the principle goals are not only performance, but how to make them more efficient so that they use less code, less battery, fewer CPU and GPU cycles. I’m sure there are many other examples that people could bring up.
The point here is that technology not only doesn’t move forward in straight lines, or in the most efficient ways, but also that we might want to rethink what how we conceive of technological “advance,” whether by one entrepreneur in his garage or a global enterprise. There are many, many use to build a better mousetrap, and sometimes you don’t even need to trap the mouse.