Last night I was struggling to fall asleep. So I started to reflect on a documentary I had seen. It was dedicated to Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor who was obsessed with electrical energy at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The story that made me reflect is the famous “currents war” (a movie version with Benedict Cumberbatch has just been released). Thomas Alva Edison argued that direct current was the ideal solution to “electrify” the world, and invested on it large sums. Tesla, who worked a few months for Edison, was instead convinced that alternating current was to be used.
I do not go into technical explanations. Let’s just say that Tesla, allying with Edison’s rival, the industrialist George Westinghouse, won it. Today we use alternating current (AC), but then transform it into continuous (DC) when we need to power our digital devices (or any other battery-powered object).
The question I asked myself was: if there were no Westinghouse and Tesla, would we have direct current distribution networks today?
Most likely not, because the advantages of AC distribution would still have emerged, and even rather soon.
More generally, the question is: are there unavoidable technologies?
Are there any alternative technological paths?
In the only case study available, that of human civilization, some discoveries and inventions, and the order with which they were made, seems to be obligatory: fire-> metals-> agriculture-> city-> wheel-> earthenware for example.
But also hunter-gatherer societies could have invented the wheel: it would have been very convenient for them, there was no reason not to have the idea and they had the ability to build it. Perhaps some tribes did so, using it for generations before memory was lost.
Scholars think that to get to the monumental buildings, cities and civilizations we must go through the agriculture: the production surplus is able to support a large number of people and to give birth to social classes, as nobles and priests dispensed from manual work but able to “commission” great works.
The extraordinary discovery of the Göbekli Tepe temple — dating from around 9,500 BC — has however questioned the need for the transition to an urban society with social differentiations to create such buildings.
Another example. Sophisticated mechanisms such as those of clocks began to spread in the early Middle Ages, with the first specimens placed in church bell towers.
Why did not the Greeks or the Romans, so skilled in the practical arts, come to develop similar mechanisms? In fact, after the discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, a sophisticated astronomical calculator, we have seen how the capabilities (for example to have minimum tolerances) and the techniques to build high precision instruments existed. Probably social, economic and commercial structures more than technological limits did not allow to have Roman pendulum clocks. In the same way, having a lot of low-cost labor, the slaves, did not stimulate the invention of steam engines, if not some rare and simple system used for “special effects” in the temples.
With regard to the innovations of the last 120 years, it is important to underline, alas, the crucial importance of the two world wars, especially the second, for the acceleration of technological development; we only think of rocketry and computer science, born in that period, and electronics developed shortly after (and there was the Cold War …).
If there had not been World War II, what technologies would be surrounded by our daily life?
Probably we will be at the level of the 60s / 70s, with mainframes, first satellites in orbit, color televisions but with cathode ray tubes, first commercial jet planes, just in time production chains etc.
Perhaps an analog Internet would have developed, thanks to unpredictable developments in the amateur radio network hybridized to systems such as fax and video / audio cassettes.
Difficult to establish the timelines, life cycles of individual technologies, their interconnections and interdependencies.
In a complex system such as that of human society, small variations in the initial conditions can generate great changes in the trajectories and directions of the space of innovations.
As a last example we think of the web. Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee created it while working at CERN in 1990.
The web (or a similar one) could have been developed at least 10 years before, in one of the American universities already inter-connected with a telematic network.
This would have meant that the portals of the first web would have appeared at the end of the 80s, the web 2.0 around 1994, the social networks would have been established around 1997 and today … we can not know it. Also because there would have been a longer interval to have the mobile web, since in any case the evolution of mobile telephony would have followed its course as in our timeline. Or not?