The Founding Fathers of Technology

I want to propose to you a powerful way of looking at technology. The plural form of the word, technologies, is becoming meaningless. There is only one globe-spanning beast, comprising vast systems of engineering design, production and operations, held together by a web of standards, and a central nervous system called ‘the Internet’ (ever wonder why we use the definite article?) This beast is what answers to the singular noun ‘technology.’ I started exploring this idea in a comic book format recently, in my story Mousetrap 2.0. With Nicholas Carr’s Big Switch, the idea seems set for the big time. In this post I want to introduce you to four of my favorite scientist-engineers, who conceived and enabled the creation of this beast in the short span of 50 years between the end of World War II and the turn of the century. Reading from left to right below, these are: Claude Shannon, Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener and Herbert Simon.

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Arguably, these four gentlemen (all dead white males, sorry postmodernists) created the beast of technology as we know it. Von Neumann almost made ‘founder’ status, but why he fell short is a story for another blog post. Of course this is a reductive model of history, and hundreds of thousands of people labored to create the technological world as we know it, but history as fast-scrolling movie credits is not interesting.

There are also more common ways of telling this story, but I argue that mine is better than the joke that Al Gore invented the Internet (the core integrative element of technology in the singular), and it is not quite as weak as a story that backtracks way too much and attempts to attribute everything to Aristotle and the Chinese. So I offer this quartet of founding fathers as my single best proximal-people-cause explanation of how the world as we know it came about. Call it a rhetorical origin myth to provoke debate. Consider the contributions each of these four made towards cocooning our world in a single web of technology (and no, it is no accident that all four are American).

(by the way, please welcome to ribbonfarm, illustrator Yurij Alexander, responsible for these great portraits!)

Claude Shannon

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Claude Shannon is important for one simple reason: he provided the single most important idea we need to view technology as a unified entity: information theory. It was a close call between Shannon and Turing (for the Universal Turing Machine), but in my mind, information theory wins by a whisker as the more fundamental idea, primarily due to the deep connections it achieves between discrete mathematics on the one hand, and statistical physics, entropy and the material world on the other. Turing’s idea would have to wait for Landaeur’s theorem to acquire an equally fundamental grounding in material reality.

Vannevar Bush

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Vannevar Bush is probably the most important engineer-scientist lay people have not heard of. What did he do, you ask? He was a founder of not one but two fields that dominated the technology of the second half of the 21st century: computer science and control theory. He also invented the modern American model of research, including the model for agencies like DARPA, and via a clever accounting idea called indirect cost support, the modern American research university. And oh yeah, he wrote that seminal bit of 1945 visioning, As We May Think, which introduced a little idea called the Memex. The Memex went to inspire three generations of technologists to invent, respectively, the fundamental architecture of the Internet (incidentally enabled by the agency he helped create, DARPA), the World Wide Web and the concept of wikis. And I am not making this up — the people behind these technologies (J. C. R. Licklider, Robert Taylor, Tim Berners-Lee and Ward Cunningham) all acknowledge Bush as a (if not the) inspiration for their work. Another tidbit: Bush’s student Jay Forrester went on to found the modern field of system dynamics, the application of control theory (and more) to modeling everything from cities and corporations to the whole darn world. One more: another student, Fredrick Terman, helped create Silicon Valley as we know it. To my knowledge V. Bush is unrelated to the G. W. Bush clan. The phenomenal impact of Bush can probably never be fully estimated.

Norbert Wiener

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Norbert Wiener, also a founder of control theory and computing, and a contemporary and collaborator of Bush, thought rather more of himself than an objective historian would, but you have to give it to him. To write, in 1948, a prescient and courageous grand synthesis of control, computing and communication (I refer here to Cybernetics of course) was a striking act of imagination. The book is startling in that it leaps back and forth from detailed mathematics to metaphor and history. And the guy wasn’t all visionary — he was a formidable mathematician, and in many ways the stuff he did in control theory was so advanced (in areas like nonlinear and stochastic control) that it took the field decades of slogging through linear noiseless system-theoretic ideas before it could really pay serious attention to Wiener’s work. But Wiener is probably most important for getting us think of technology as a connected, organic whole. Though is book had less real impact than Bush’s more quiet work, I argue that it helped create a scientific-technological culture that would head inevitably towards greater and greater technological integration.

Herbert Simon

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The last of the quartet, Herbert Simon, has two claims to fame: as a founding father of Artificial Intelligence, and as the first engineer/scientist to really attempt to bridge the worlds of technology and economics by paying attention to the problem of bounded rationality. But really, he cemented his place in this set due to one important contribution: the book The Sciences of the Artificial, which challenged us to think of the artificial landscape created by technology with the same sort of stance with which we view the natural world. Without Simon’s efforts, it would have taken us much longer to think of technology as more than applied science, and as a socio-economic entity.

Further Reading

You can explore more of the history behind these four people and their ideas via these books.

I’ll be talking a lot more about this theme in future posts, so there are more references to share, but if this thread of thinking interests you, this starter set is all must-reads. No serious technologist should go without at least a passing familiarity with these founding fathers, their work and the historical context within which they created our world.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Most useful, VGR. Thanks for the whistle stop tour. Not knowing too much about any of these worthies, I’ll leave it at that. The only other thing is that I’m broadly in agreement with leaving Turing out, leave him to be the god of mathematics and computer science that he is, and out of the technology space.

  2. Venkat, great article as usual. I am almost ashamed to admit that I had heard of none of these people (save for Turing, and even then only in passing) but I think you might have inspired me to learn more.

    On a side note, I think that the portraits are wonderful! They are well done and fit nicely into the style of Ribbonfarm.

    Take care!

    JMK

  3. Justin, you’d be surprised at the number of experienced technologists with long resumes who don’t know of these four… a sense of history is not something that everybody develops, since it is possible to survive and be productive in technology without it. I think though that people who do great work, as opposed to people who do merely good work, always have a deep sense of history.

  4. Venkat – based on our back and forth on KM vs. SM, I took some time to read through your content here. Very good stuff. I especially like the tip-of-the-hat to Camus in The Parrot post. It is rare to come across a Renaissance polymath in IT circles – and so prolific too – where do you find all the time? You’re going on the RSS feed and I look forward to more food for thought (and argument ;o) in the future!

    – Jeff

  5. Thanks, glad you liked the piece. Sisyphus is definitely my role model and I cite Camus too much. One of my readers rightly called me out on this and suggested I use Wile E. Coyote as a role model in the future. I might start doing that.

    Venkat