Why do we keep hiding the history of technology?

Ilustration by Global Voices

In my childhood and teen years, I went from large broadcast transmitters and long-distance telephones to the popularization of wifi. I witnessed how the fields of electronic communications blurred into information technologies. Today, I am wondering how to do technological archeology.

There are ways to dig into the memory of technology in which our understanding of telecommunications and the internet comprises geopolitical, socio-environmental, and telecommunications and governance issues.

In 1982, Japan donated legendary technological equipment to Mexico. One of these was a digital telephone switch. This device the size of a closet allowed interconnecting telephone lines and contained the first digital signal processor that was introduced in telecommunications. The Centro de Estudios Tecnológico Mexicano-Japonés, a technology school that was located in the industrial zone of the municipality of Celaya in the State of Guanajuato, in central Mexico, was one institution that received such equipment.

These switchboards introduced computing to the world of telecommunications, Professor Fermín, one of the people in charge of the laboratory of the school, told me when I arrived as a student at the age of 15. Fermín was among the first wave of electronic communications engineers in Mexico. I never knew his last name; he was known by all as Professor Fermín.

By that time, this device was already considered obsolete and was part of the lab's warehouse. I was unaware of the value that this equipment had for the foundation of modern technology and I wanted to understand the meaning of Professor Fermín's words. The importance of this equipment did not seem to coincide with the space they were given in the lab. I wondered, how was it possible that the equipment that transformed the face of telecommunications was now hidden and stored, covered in dust and neglected?

I began to curiously study the machine, with the support of Fermín and, later, of other classmates. By 2005, we were able to make them work and that is how we started to become apprentice archaeologists with the equipment that was donated to us from Japan in 1982.

The digital telephone switch is the closest precursor to the computer network router we know today. It aims to combine the physical and logical interfaces in a digital switching abstraction, replacing the old electromechanical mechanisms used in the past. This fusion between data transport and data content ushered computation into electronic communications.

Technological archeology allowed us to observe, through the physicality of this telephone switching equipment, that the concepts of transport and content were a substantial part of what had allowed the beginning of modern telecommunications, thanks to computing.

I still wonder sometimes if the machines arrived through the Pacific or the Mexican Gulf, or perhaps by air at cruising speed. One thing I still can't quite answer is why we hide the history of the tech infrastructure. Yet, I can say that this exploration was a very significant milestone in my passion for the history of telecommunications, computing, and audio-visual technologies.

Crime escalated around the educational center as insecurity became common in Guanajuato, a situation that has not changed to date. This led to the abrupt suspension of my studies in 2006 and my time of that encounter with Japan.

In Latin American contexts, it seems to me even more important to do technological archeology, because it also covers a political dimension. The so-called “tech obsolescence” is, in many cases, more a programmed and perceived obsolescence than a real one. Tech that is considered outdated is relevant in our regions.

There are technologies that are seen as ruins, while at the same time, for our regions, represent an opportunity for autonomy. An example of this is the radio. Today we know thanks to the Map of Latin American and Caribbean radios that by 2020 there were at least 6,667 community radio stations in the region.

This is the case of the native Masewal people in Mexico, who keep their radios under their own economic and social standards of community life. The youngest members of one of the radio stations of the Masewal told me that for them their radio station was “born independent” because their radio stations have always existed beyond the permissions and concessions of the State.

One of Fermín's dreams was to reactivate a radio club to build antennas and learn about the transmission and propagation of waves between lengths and distances. He also defended the public access to labs in the face of institutional forces that kept them as decaying and crumbling museums.

I still wonder what became of my colleagues, what became of Fermín. I wonder what became of all the people who participated and participate in the construction of many of the technologies we use today.

Perhaps it is too early for an archeology of today's tech, where one looks at the features of past equipment in today's machines. However, for those of us who come from computer science, craftsmanship and programming, it seems relevant to recognize the finitude of the technologies we build and their aging process. The relationships we generated with technology and our histories matter; the conversations they sparked for us, the joys and contradictions that became part of our day-to-day life.

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