10,000-Year Technology

This post was co-written with Matt Sparks.

Iconic science fiction author William Gibson dreams up futuristic worlds where the characters still wear denim jeans and t-shirts. While this possibility seems counterintuitive for novels set in the distant future, it’s not entirely far-fetched. Why would people still be wearing fashion first designed and patented between the late 1800s and early 1900s? It’s a fair question. But before we debate the merits of timeless fashion, we’d like to tell you the story of how we came upon the idea of what we call 10,000-year technology. This will provide some insight into our thinking and why century-old technologies like denim and t-shirts have and will last for centuries to come.

Lessons from Cuba

Our story begins in Cuba, in the late spring of 2018. Matt Sparks and I traveled throughout Cuba to film a 360-degree video documentary about organic farming. While we learned about urban and rural organic farming on the island, we also observed various expected and unexpected technologies being used by Cubans. We saw technologies that are dozens, hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years old in daily use, often alongside modern-day technologies. For example, we saw people walking, riding horses, riding bicycles, riding motorcycles, riding in buses, driving 1940s cars, and driving brand new cars…often all on the same street at the same time. This stark juxtaposition caused us to question how many (or how few) of our modern-day technologies will still be around hundreds or thousands of years into the future.

Transportation from many epochs, a common scene on Cuban roads

After more travels and lots of research, we began to fully absorb what we were seeing and experiencing. We realized that these old and sometimes prehistoric technologies had something important to teach us, especially as we continue to create new technologies. We also realized old technologies—and the ways in which they came to be—might be critically important to creating a sustainable future for our species and planet. The more we thought about it, the more we considered and researched the following questions: 

  • What do we mean when we say “technology”?
  • What makes a particular technology last an extraordinarily long time? 
  • Why do some technologies last while others fade away? 
  • What are some examples of very old technologies?
  • What do very old technologies have in common? 
  • How and why were they originally designed? 
  • How long was the time frame in which they were adopted, and by whom? 
  • What can we learn from very old technologies that can be applied to designing modern-day technologies? 
  • What would it take to design technology and products that last 10,000 years into the future?
  • What are the upsides to creating 10,000-year tech? What are the downsides, if any?
  • How important is it for us to create technologies that last hundreds or thousands of years?
  • What are the implications when we do design technology that lasts 10,000 years? What are the implications when we don’t?

Ephemerals and the Island Mindset

As we continued to probe and address these questions, this led us to some unexpected discoveries. For example, we realized how we’re all acting like “ephemerals”—relatively short-lived characters from Dennis E. Taylor’s Bobiverse science fiction trilogy—and why that’s unsustainable and anachronistic in the 21st century and beyond. An ephemeral mindset serves as the foundation of the throwaway culture that’s so pervasive and destructive in the world today. 

We also observed what we call an island mindset. An island mindset differs from an ephemeral mindset—or what we also sometimes called a mainland mindset—in several nontrivial ways, especially regarding tools, technology, and trash. In general, someone with an island mindset views, designs, adopts, and acquires new technologies and tools much more mindfully than someone with a mainland or ephemeral mindset typically does. An island mindset is the diametric opposite of an ephemeral mindset. 

The Impact of Science Fiction

It’s not surprising that our theories were influenced by science fiction. Besides being avid sci-fi fans, sci-fi isn’t about the future. It’s about the present, and what the futuristic extrapolations of present trends can show us about where we’re headed. If we’re searching for a clearer picture of how current technologies could impact the future of the human race, science fiction novels like Gibson’s and Taylor’s are a great place to look. As Yuval Noah Harari said in Wired Magazine’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, “Today, science fiction is the most important artistic genre. It shapes the understanding of the public on things like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.” 

In addition to studying history and researching the past, we, as writers, designers, and entrepreneurs, see that a big part of our job is to read and watch good science fiction and then consider its relevance to the society in which we live. This exercise helps us understand and share what works and what doesn’t. Ultimately, our mission—and our reason for researching and writing about 10,000-year tech—is to help us all create a better present and future that works for everyone. 

History informs our present, and our thoughts about the future also inform our thoughts and designs in the present. Using both historical and futuristic lenses helps demonstrate why some technologies last and others fade away. For example, blue jeans and t-shirts serve as more modern examples of technologies that last a very long time. They have been the standard for casual attire across genders, ages, races, and cultures for a century and a half, and their popularity will likely continue for centuries. They were designed with both form and function in mind, which certainly contributes to their cultural longevity. More importantly, the design processes behind the creation of blue jeans and t-shirts share many similarities with how ancient 10,000-year tech was originally created.

In future articles, we’ll discuss these design processes at length, how we can use them intentionally when designing new modern technologies, and why the survival of our species depends on this new way of designing and thinking. We’ll also explore 10,000-year tech, ephemerals, and the island mindset in greater detail. 

What Do You Think?

In the meanwhile, we’d love to hear from you, our readers, about all this. What are your thoughts on and examples of 10,000-year tech and its subtopics? We disabled the comment section, because comments bring out the worst in the internet, often eliciting myopic, angry, and downright cruel responses. In the spirit of 10,000-year technology, contact us directly via social media (T / IG: @engineercambio), email (jenn at jennifergallegos dot tech), or the contact form on this website. We will absolutely read your message, and we’ll even respond if we can.