History Lessons From Chain Emails

A colleague recently sent me a chain email about the old adage on how new technology is driven by thousand year old standards. I had seen that particular chain email plenty of times. I remember liking it and playing along then. But, my new habit on chain emails or viral urban legends is to poke around. This one is a fun story where one can mine some good nuggets.

The chain email essentially notes how historical inventions are connected. It connotes how the width of the space shuttle rocket boosters are due to width of the railroad tunnel. Then, how the width of railroad tracks are due to the width of the carriage wheel. And how that width is tied to chariot width because of the width of two horses. Point being, the boosters’ width is derived due to the width of two horses rear-ends.

So Why Are We Talking About Chain Emails?

Like I said, it is fun, but the tangents are more loosely coupled and coincidental than the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” concept. For another way to exam this, Snopes nicely walks us through how while this is true, but only through generalities. It is not unlike how someone could say the clothes we wear now is because a medieval tailor sized it that way. Snopes can be a party-pooper some time. But, they did also note a few things about people and change. This is why I do like stories such as this. I can tie in my own tangential takeaways from it.

Takeaways From Snopes

The website Snopes points out humans presets on change:

We humans can be remarkably inventive. Unfortunately, we are also often resistant to change. This is mainly because we can be persistently stubborn in trying to apply old solutions to new conditions. When confronted with a new idea such as a “rail,” why go to the expense and effort of designing a new vehicle for it? Instead, we could simply adapt ones already in abundant use on roadways. If someone comes along with an invention known as an “iron horse,” wouldn’t it make sense to put the same type of conveyance pulled by “regular” horses behind it?

The article goes on for several more examples. Each one notes how new innovations leverage the blueprints from the previous generation’s inventions, regardless of their direct influence. This kind of continuity is not necessarily a bad thing.

Disruption and the Hierarchy of Needs

As a physical society building infrastructure to share, they require this compatibility to limit the impact of disruption. In doing so, we would progress towards addressing the global societal challenges of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

For example, let’s say there is a future decision to stop using dams for hydroelectric power. Instead we would go into a series of nano-electric generators that works off river flow. By doing this, we would impede water less and generators more power. This would be great as we would have a lower cost and a simpler, more efficient solution. Also, we would not disrupt the ecosystem such as riparian development, fish spawning, etc. like dams have for decades.

But How Do We Make The Transition?

How do we transition to the new nano solution? The railroad story says we would use the previous footprint of the dam, and once ready, slowly migrate to the new solution to allow the water flow to slowly come back in place. This would allow the wetlands and riparian ecosystem to grow back at nature’s pace, and allow for fish and river life to adapt over generations.

However, the new solution does not require the same footprint. We could build it anywhere along the river. In theory, it could even be setup in a series of micro generators, and once the level of energy put into the grid matches the dams, the dam could just be exploded, and we could progress on without anyone in the future Anthropocene historic footprint to be aware that a dam was ever there.

But, responsibly removing the previous infrastructure way will be key. Blowing up a dam means the water release would cause major sediment displacement and kill the already-adapted riparians and wetland ecosystems, along with generations of fish and other river life. The dismantling process, though not required for the new direction, is very critical to consider the indirect impact of the evolved ecosystem. In other words, when coming up with a new direction, you need a plan so that you can properly handle all the inevitable headaches.

If you are still interested, check out the coming follow-up blog post so what is the point of this metaphoric drivel?