What’s the Last Useful Technology That Humans Have Invented?

Here’s a cool story about studying super accurate Medieval sailing maps: “The Mapmakers Mystery.” The article is about portolan charts made in the 12th and 13th Centuries, and about how they’re still usable today, if you only need to know specific information about getting around in a particular region. I admit that I don’t understand all the angles and math and magnetic vs. true north explanations in the article, but it’s more important to me as a recognition that progress is a myth; if we can use maps made 800 years ago, then surely we passed the threshold of developing actually useful technology long, long ago. Since then, “progress” has just been re-creating the same stuff over and over again, and collectively pretending that it’s been new.

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but the opposite is probably closer to the truth: any sufficiently useful technology is so simple and helpful that even though everyone clearly knows it’s not magic, it can be recycled in each new era and still be taken for novel. I mean, ask yourself how many inventions—even the “cutting-edge” ones of today—are basically just wheels.

And indeed, any actually useful technology will resurface no matter the culture or means of production available. Modern preventative medicine is, in the ultimate analysis, a continuation of foraging for edible plants. Yes, surgery is also incredibly useful, but isn’t a technology that doesn’t require a global oil-based infrastructure more elegant, more sustainable, and more, um, advanced?

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