At the official opening plenary session of Techonomy, Kevin Kelly--a co-founder of Wired, and author of the forthcoming book What Technology Wants--made what I considered a pretty profound remark. “The first animal we domesticated was humans,” Kelly said. He went on to describe how we “physically changed ourselves through agriculture, through cooking…we’re both masters of technology and also the children of technology.”
Kelly sounded, in this statement, as though he’d read a book that I recently recommended and blogged about, and whose author I interviewed for BBC 2’s “The Culture Show”: Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. It’s hard to think of a better example than cooking if you want to show how human beings and technology are “co-produced,” which I take to be Kelly’s argument.
In Wrangham’s account, our ancestors discovered fire and cooking at some hard-to-fix point in the past—but farther back than most scientists had previously assumed. At this point, the power of this innovation then dramatically drove human evolution.
Cooking food was a game changer.
It made it so much easier to get energy economically from meats or plants that we no longer needed the big jaws, big guts, and gigantic teeth that we see in our primate relatives today. We didn’t have to spend all day chewing and chewing and digesting and digesting. So we could effectively reallocate resources within our own bodies--and thus evolution invested, instead, in our big brains.
This is a pretty fundamental example of how humans (or in this case, our ancestors) innovate, and how that innovation then also changes human society in a kind of feedback loop. And that’s a central motto of Techonomy—we have big problems, but we can also effect really, really big change through innovation. That means the problems are, indeed, fixable.
Just look at how cooking turned us into who we are today—and made us the dominant species on the planet—and you get some sense of the scale of what technology really can create.