Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lost knowledge -- the paradox of technology

It's hard being an alien.

Really, I'm not, but my perspective is that of someone transplanted, and I'm acutely aware of the potential for giving offense. On the other hand, I hope it's good fertilizer for my alien romances.

It would probably be a splendid idea if Prince Thor-quentin were to visit America in a future book.

Take rain.

Where I grew up (an island that relies on collected rainwater, a reservoir, a few artesian bores, and a desalination plant for its water) we've been directing the downpipes from our homes' gutters into series of rain barrels for generations. Each barrel is at a different height, and by a simple but clever mechanism, the full one "overflows" to fill the next, and so on, and a simple tap near the base of a barrel can be opened to release water into a watering can.

Yet, I saw a documentary on The Weather Channel the other day that seemed to treat such a system in America as one man's genius invention.

Last month, a prize was awarded to an environmentally conscious youngster (all kudos to her) for inventing a small hydro-electric system to take advantage of the flow of rainwater inside a downpipe and produce enough electricity to power a battery.

A few years ago on the radio, some local builder in Michigan claimed to have invented the dormer window.

I should think a lot of "reinventing the wheel" goes on, because even with Google, it is impossible to know everything that has already been done somewhere in the world, and I daresay there is no invention that is so perfect that it couldn't be improved if a very smart person started from scratch and was open to the best materials and the best thinking, no matter where in the world it came from.

So, even if my alien empires and communicating worlds have the materials, resources and technology to map wormholes, and travel vast distances at unbelievable speeds, I don't think it impossible that they could have lost --or never encountered-- some "backward" knowledge or capabilities along the way.


  1. Ah now Rowenna you've hit the nail on the head. We as a society as a whole have forgotten more than we can think of. Look at the dark ages, soo much math and physics was claimed to be satans work so the population took a major step downward in overall intelligence quotient. Could that have happened on your world? A sort of galactic dark age where learning and understanding of a key part/way was lost due to totalitarian regimes?

  2. Thank you for your comment, Natalie.

    I'm going to think about a proper response. I wouldn't want to reveal a spoiler!

    Best wishes,

  3. So true. China invented the printing press before Gutenberg, but they never shared the technology so look who gets the credit. The Roman Empire had a sophisticated plumbing system, but Middle Age Europe in the following years just about died for lack of cleanliness.

  4. People today seem to think they are the only ones to have any brains or immagination.

    By the way in the city of Cincinnati it is against board of health regulation to hook a rain barrel to your downspout, and you have to get special permitt, which is not easy, to save gray water to use on your lawn.

    Go figure.
    I'm glad I don't live in the city limits.