a16z Podcast: Textiles as Tech, Science, Math, Culture… or Civilization

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they’re indistinguishable from it.” That quote from computer scientist Mark Weiser is from a 1991 paper where he outlined the vision of ubiquitous computing; in it, he also referenced “seamlessness”… We just can’t get away from textile metaphors: we catch airline “shuttles”, we “weave” through traffic, we follow comment “threads” — the metaphors are as ubiquitous and abundant and threaded throughout our lives as the textiles (and computing) all around us.

In fact, argues author and columnist Virginia Postrel, the story of textiles IS the story of technology and science (across all kinds of fields, from biology to chemistry); of commerce (as well as management, measurement, machines); but most of all, of civilization (vs. just culture) itself. That’s what her new book, The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World is all about. But it’s really a story and history of innovation, and of human ingenuity… which is also the theme of the a16z Podcast — and of this special, inaugural book launch episode with the author in conversation with showrunner Sonal Chokshi.

The discussion both dives deep and lightly dips into a wide range of topics: fabrics, from the genetics of cotton to the supply chain of silk (including pre-Industrial Revolution factories, early payment and incentive alignment, “maestre” and notions of expertise); knowledge, from the storage and transmission of it to sharing tacit and explicit code (including manuals, notation, measures); and math as the science of patterns, origins of mathematics (including early education and getting paid for it). The touch on the NASA space program, knitting and AI, and the environmental impact of dyes. Throughout, they discuss the what and the why — the warp and weft of this episode! — of HOW innovation happens, from incremental improvements to sudden leaps, also taking a closer look at the demographics and images involved. And finally, they cover the evolution and meaning of kente cloth (as well as other patterns) in Ghana and beyond… Because the story of textiles — and of technology — is not just a story of one culture or time or place: it is a universally human story, woven from countless threads and wires.

links & other articles mentioned in this episode:

images: composite of knitting by © sarah-marie belcastro (courtesy Virginia Postrel) + magnetic core memory wires & beads, magnified 60x (photo from Virginia Postrel) — combined by Sonal Chokshi for the a16z Podcast

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