GCN Tech Blog

By GCN Staff

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Will your best work be remembered?

We just got around to reading a fascinating article in the New Yorker about a long-unexplainable piece of Greek technology, called the Antikythera Mechanism.

Found undersea in an ancient boat wreck, this mechanical device was thought to have been built by the Greek sometime around the first century B.C. The article's author suggested that the device, which was built from a number of interlocking gears that functioned in a way that still isn't clearly understood, may have been the world's first computer.

What is startling about the Antikythera is that, when it was found in 1900, archaeologists and historians had long assumed that the Greeks didn't have any ability to build and deploy gears'those abilities came to humans centuries later. In fact, the story tracks the efforts of one scholar, Derek de Solla Price, who was convinced that its existence called for a rewriting of the history of technology. Contrary to current historical accounts, we obviously knew how to make gears 2,000 years ago.

He failed to make much of an impression though. The Antikythera remains a cultural oddity, not understood and marginalized by historians.

The part we found a little disturbing in all this was the reason behind the reluctance of writing the Antikythera into history. The article quotes Paul Keyser, a software developer and history buff, as saying:
Classical scholarship is very literary, and focusses on texts'such as the writing of Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, or Horace, or it is old-fashioned and historical, and focusses on leaders and battles, through the texts of Herodotus and Thucydides, or it is anthropological-archeological, and focusses on population distributions and suchlike. So when an archeological discovery about ancient technology arrives, it does not fit, because it's new, it's scientific, and it's not a text.

For anyone who works in technology, Keyser's observations can be a bit discouraging. I'm sure Keyser himself, who works for IBM, understood the implications.

When it comes to project management or development, you know why you make the decisions you make, and assume others could understand them as well. But, given that you work in technology, this just may not be the case. Will the languages you write in and circuits you build be nonsensical-gibberish to students of future centuries? Is your history a secret one, the beauty of your most elegant works never to be truly understood'let alone admired--by your progeny? (And don't talk to me about documentation. I know the state of your documentation).

That's the depressing part.

On the bright side, if you work in government IT, you can think about what you do as being very historically significant. Ours is the first generation to computerize government. And government being what it is, the work done now will'if done right'be in place for centuries. At least the software and architectural portions of that work.

So even if the historians of the future may never grasp what you are doing, your work will be vital. As Mitch Kapor put it "Architecture is politics."

Posted by Joab Jackson on Jun 15, 2007 at 9:39 AM


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