The Duck of Minerva

Lego Antikythera Machine and musings prompted thereby

10 December 2010

Massively cool.

And here’s the earlier Lego Difference Engine:

Anyway, the juxtaposition of these two computers intersects (oddly enough) with one of the themes in the Steampunk debates I alluded to earlier. Steampunk extrapolates from the real (and imaginary) technology of the Victorian era. Cosma Shalizi identifies that period (i.e., the Industrial Revolution) as the true “singularity,” prompting Patrick Nielson Hayden to remark:

I hope Shalizi will forgive my quoting his entire post, but it seems to me to have resonance with certain recent arguments over steampunk. It might even hint at why SF (and fantasy!) keep returning to the “long nineteenth century” like a dog to its bone.

I’m also reminded of this, from one of Nietzsche’s books of aphorisms: “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.”*

I’m led to wonder why more isn’t done with extrapolations of Roman technology. As Bryan Ward-Perkins reminds us in his excellent book,productivity in the Roman Empire was pretty robust–and likely significantly higher than what Europe would see for the centuries following its decline and fall. Findings such as the Antithykera Machine demonstrate rather advanced technical and scientific skills. I suspect that the later Roman Empire, let alone various periods of Chinese history, might be worth mining for an alternative technological imaginary.**

*I should note that one of the best discussions consistent with Shalzi’s argument remains that found in Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918.

**Beyond the issue of SF potential, the lack of a Roman-era “industrial revolution” is a chronically under-theorized issue in comparative-historical sociology.