Re-Inventing the Wheel

Re-inventing the wheel must be one of the most overused and trite expressions of the English language. The wheel is what we associate with technology, that incredible power that makes our lives easier and more comfortable. After every hike, when I finally get back to the trailhead and take off my boots, slip into my sandals, back and legs stiff, feet aching, I invariably sit down in my car, turn the ignition, throw the car into gear and roll away effortlessly. On wheels. Ah, that’s how man was meant to travel!

We forget that our entire technological world is built on infrastructure. Even something as simple as a wheel would not work without infrastructure, without a road, or at least a path, and without some power, be it an engine, a horse, an ox, or a human in front of a rickshaw. GPS would not work without satellites. Cell phones would not work without cell towers, cars would not work without gasoline, which must be refined from oil, which must be transported from far-away places, which must be pumped out of the ground. Infrastructure.

I sometimes speculate what would happen if I were suddenly time-warped into the distant past, say into the stone age about 30,000 years ago, a time before the wheel had been invented. 30,000 years ago humans made stone axes. For thousands of years sharp stones were the ultimate and most advanced technology on earth. Finding myself there with nothing but my brains and my hands and not even the clothes on my back, what would all my knowledge and education get me?

I know how to program computers. I know how an internal combustion engine works. I know how fire works. I understand what a lever is, and I know about the wheel. Would I be able to make a wheel, knowing it has been invented? Could I build a wheel with my bare hands, with rocks, wood branches and reeds? How long would it take me, with all my knowledge and skills, to build a wheelbarrow from the elements, if I could not go down to Home Depot, where they have the infrastructure, and get the necessary parts, fittings, bolts and tools? It would probably take me the better part of a year and it would not be much of a wheelbarrow, assuming I survived long enough.

What if I got an infection? I’d know all I needed was antibiotics. I know, in principle, how they work. But could I make antibiotics? Penicillin was invented accidentally when bread mold stopped bacterial growth in a petri dish. Could I cure myself eating bread mold? How much would I need? And how would I manufacture bread mold without bread? The fact is, despite all my knowledge and understanding about health and medicine, I could die of the first bacterial infection I contacted.

Ruminations like these make me aware of how fragile our society is and how dependent it is on infrastructure. Disrupting any of the elements that feed that infrastructure would cause rapid breakdown of the entire technological chain and result in quick collapse. Of all the knowledge in the world, the most valuable skills would be medicine, pharmacy and most importantly, how to make the medicines from herbs, chemistry, some rudimentary physics, farming and gardening, hunting and trapping, and perhaps skills of breaking in a wild horse.

Anyone feel like re-inventing the wheel?

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