The first "clock" was a twig taken from a tree thousands of years ago and placed vertically on the ground to cast its shadow. The first camera was not the Brownie from 1900, but the camera obscura from at least two-and-a-half thousand years earlier. The telephone is a more recent invention, yet the first ones looked nothing like today's devices. The forebears of today's electronic computers are unrecognizable as part of the same family of technology.
Even in recent history, devices that could perform the functions of telling time, recording images, transmitting speech over long distances and performing computations required the space of a large room to function. Today one device performs all four functions and fits in our hand.
Barely a day goes by without some important technology announcement. September, though, has become the most important month in the annual technology calendar and last month did not disappoint. The world's most coveted "smart" phone received its annual upgrade and sold over thirteen million units by the first weekend of availability. Photographers began to see the next round of the "megapixel war". The sixth version of the microprocessor that powers most of the world's computers was released. The "smart" watch whose announcement stole the headlines a year ago, now has a crown that can be used as a snooze button. And the company behind it was strongly rumored to be close to developing a "smart" car.
When humans were evolving millions of years ago on the African Savannah, successive "versions" of us survived because of our ability to understand and record time, communicate, compute and innovate; we became smart enough to avoid danger. Any technology can pose danger if misused. Writing — invented thousands of years ago — can be misused, for example, to spread propaganda and to misinform. Literacy seems simple enough that most of us probably do not think of writing as a technology. It is. And after thousands of years it has still not reached everyone: many languages spoken today still cannot be written.
I took this photo in a small Qeqchi village in the Guatemalan Highlands. The man using his phone is from a generation of Maya who rarely had access to the kind of technology that most of us consider indispensible such as electricity and literacy. As the rate of evolution of technology continues to exceed the rate of our biological evolution we should expect an increase in "technology dyslexia." Many journalists suffer from that syndrome already: almost nothing reported as a "computer glitch" really is one.
Perhaps one day we will realize — as the ancient Maya once did — the role that "smarter" "versions" of humans could play in our society if we would only educate them.
The Qeqchi Maya are featured in our documentary, Ancient and Modern Mayan Peoples.
If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting independent, advertising-free journalism by buying us a coffee to help us cover the cost of hosting our web site. Please click on the link or scan the QR code. Thanks!