The Dynamic Relationship Between Technology and Culture

Amanda Cravens

Human culture and technology are continually co-evolving in a dynamic relationship. All technologies (See Note 1) develop in a particular cultural context as the result of changing needs or constraints. But once developed, a technology changes the culture that gave it birth. When a technology spreads to another culture, the cultural context affects the speed or way in which the technology is adopted and how it is used. The diffusion of technologies to other cultures changes those other cultures as well. The changes in culture that one technology creates may then influence the development of another or different technology.

Culture is a broad term. The dictionary definition of culture is "the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group." (2) Any of the social forms or beliefs of a group may influence or in turn be influenced by a new technology. One important aspect of a society's culture is the relationship between human and environment. (3) In this essay, I shall concentrate on how technology interacts with this element of culture, analyzing how particular societies' relationships with their environment gave rise to particular technologies and how those technologies in turn influenced these societies' relationships with their environments.

All technologies are shaped by their particular cultural context. Different physical environments and geographies create different needs that require solutions. A number of examples can be found in the Levant of the Middle East, where the first Mesopotamian civilizations developed. About 10,000 years ago, sedentary populations in this area started domesticating the native cereal plants and developing agriculture. Agriculture as a technology emerged very gradually and in the form it did because of the culture context of the people who developed it. Sedentary hunter-gatherers in the area (like all hunter-gatherers) (4) had an intimate knowledge of the natural environment, including growing cycles and preferred environments of edible cereal species. As Bruce Smith explains, (5) domestication probably resulted from the intensification of previous cultivation behaviors, perhaps in response to population or other stress. Hunter-gather populations manipulate their environments in order to reduce the risk of food shortages or to increase supplies of favored species. (6) This manipulation can take various forms, including cultivation behaviors such as replanting seedlings in more watered ground. Over time, these human actions changed the selection pressures on wild species, resulting in the development of domesticated varieties. This gradual process happened as it did because of the existing cultural context of hunter-gather populations who were not only familiar with the grain species that became domesticated, but also were "actively intervening in the life cycles of those species." (7)

Another set of technologies that developed in the Middle East in a particular cultural context were irrigation and the movement of water. As M.S. Drower describes, (8) agriculture in the arid areas of this region required the ability to supply crops with water. Primitive irrigation was even part of the cultivation behaviors practiced by hunter-gatherers that was part of the cultural context which led to agriculture. More advanced irrigation technologies developed when agricultural societies had a need to bring more arid land under production. For example, the shaduf in Egypt developed in a society where agriculture took place in a particular location (along the rivers or canals of the Nile) and where the society had enough surplus labor available to operate the shadufs.

Even though all technologies develop in a particular culture context, however, does not mean that they stay within there. Useful technologies spread, either through migration of populations or by diffusion of techniques to neighboring populations. The needs and norms of the culture that adopts a new technology shape how that technology is used within the culture. One example, still from the Middle East, is domesticated horses. Horses were domesticated around 4000 B.C. in the area of modern-day Ukraine, and from there spread south and eastward, reaching Anatolia around 3000 B.C. and Mesopotamia probably around 2100 B.C. (9) Although the steppe cultures that first domesticated the horse first used it for riding, horses in Mesopotamia were first used for draught, replacing the smaller donkeys and onagers which had been domesticated in the area and were already used for draught. When horses were first ridden nearly a thousand years later, riders rode them the same way as donkeys. The riding of horses in the Middle East was delayed by the Mesopotamian culture, which had built city environments where riding horses didn't give the same advantage as it did on the open steppes of the north, and which also tended to view northern peoples as barbarian. As a result, grooms and messengers are portrayed riding horses centuries before the elite adopted the practice. (10) The early adoption of the horse for draught, however, happened because the Mesopotamian culture had the other technologies to use the horse effectively and recognized that its larger size provided an advantage over the smaller donkey or onager.

A technology can also be adopted by a "new culture" in a less direct fashion if the new culture is not a new group of people, but the same group of people taking a technology to a new environment. In this case, the interaction between environment and society of the group is new and thus their old technologies exist in a new cultural context. Numerous examples of this can be found in Polynesia, of which the most famous is Easter Island. The agricultural complex of the Polynesian peoples was applied in quite a different manner in the environment of Easter Island. Because of the environment's scarce resources and more temperate climate, the settlers of Easter Island found their semi-tropical crops wouldn't grow. As a result, a new "technology" in the form of a new agricultural complex based solely on sweet potatoes and chicken developed on Easter Island. This new agricultural complex, like all technologies, depended on the cultural context it emerged from, in this case the interaction of the Polynesian settlers with the new environment of the island. And like all technologies, this new agricultural complex of sweet potatoes and chicken would influence the culture (and thus the human/nature interaction) that gave it life. (11)

As the above examples show, all technologies are useful in the short run. Domesticating cereals in the Levant allowed for more intensive food production on the same land, irrigation technologies allowed agriculture to happen in areas where an arid climate made dry farming impossible, the horse was new source of energy for draught purposes, and an agricultural complex based on chicken and sweet potatoes allowed Polynesian settlers to feed themselves on Easter Island. If the adoption of a technology does not fulfill some need to society - even if it's a need in response to outside forces as in the case of Easter Island where not adapting the new subsistence pattern meant starving because of the climate - there would be motivation for people to adopt that new technology. In the short run, then, new technologies come about because they help - or prevent harm - to a society with a particular culture.

Yet the dynamic relationship between culture and technology means that technologies also alter the cultures that use them. Presumably, this change in culture is for the better in at least the foreseeable future, or there would be no reason to use the new technology. As Paul Ehrlich reminds us, however, humans tend to focus on the short run without considering long-term consequences. (12) Whether the inability to predict how technologies will affect culture is the result of a biological tendency to ignore the long term or simply the lack of an ability to understand and predict all possible consequences is debatable, but largely irrelevant. What is relevant is that sometimes technologies lead to cultural changes that become maladaptive in the long run.

It is not always easy to say whether a certain cultural change was maladaptive or not. One example is agriculture. Agriculture allowed massive population growth, permitting the development of sophisticated civilizations by providing food surpluses that meant not everyone had to be a farmer. Our own civilization would not exist without agriculture, nor would art or scholarship as we know them. On the other hand, agriculture set of a positive feedback loop that put hunter-gathers at a disadvantage. (13) Surpluses led to social stratification and inequality. Agriculture also "set in motion several major forces that had significant geographic and meteorologic consequences." (14) Another example is the development of metal tools such as iron ploughs in Mesopotamia. Iron ploughs allowed the cultivation of 'heavy soils,' permitting agriculture in areas such as Greece and Italy. (15) But iron ploughs also increased the rate of the spread of agriculture, aiding the harmful consequences of agriculture detailed above. Technologies such as metal tools and agriculture probably form the majority; there are many technologies to which we can attribute both positive and negative cultural changes, and which are so intimately intertwined with our own society's existence that it is difficult to judge them as maladaptive or not. Keeping this in mind, however, we can examine some changes that we can probably agree were maladaptive since their destructive effects were so pronounced.

How do maladaptive situations arise? Ehrlich suggests that it is not cultural changes in response to technologies that give rise to maladaptive situations but the lack of cultural change. He terms these situations "evolutionary hangovers." (16) These are situations where either human culture or human biology does not evolve fast enough to adequately cope with changing conditions, whether they are changes within the culture such as those caused by technology or whether they are changes caused by outside forces such as population growth or climate change. As discussed above, Ehrlich argues that humans have a biological tendency to ignore the long term, but I believe that part of the problem also arises from lack of information. Humans cannot always predict population growth or the other effects of a new technology (such as not knowing that DDT would harm the environment) and humans have never been able to predict climate change, although some would argue that has become a possibility in our own century. However these "evolutionary hangovers" arise, however, they create a variety of maladaptive situations. Sometimes a technology that was suited to one environment is not suited to another, such as on Easter Island. The new chickens and sweet potato diet meant that the islanders had much more time on Easter Island than on other islands where they'd cultivated a full range of crops because sweet potatoes take very little time to tend. This new technology led to an increase in the free time available, increasing the importance of ritual and competition between groups. For a while, this resulted in an increasingly sophisticated society. But eventually the stone head carving led to the deforestation of the island. Part of the reason that the carving had such drastic effects is that the Easter Island palm trees were much slower growing than species on other islands. The wood-based technologies that were suited to an environment with fast growing palms weren't suited to Easter Island. The islanders' culture didn't evolve fast enough to account for this difference in palm regrowing rate. (17)

Maladaptive situations may also result when a technological development changes and human biology does not change as fast. For example, humans evolved to desire fat and sugar since these nutrients were generally scarce. But with modern technological advances, this desire is now maladaptive. (18) In other cases, there is something in a group's culture that conflicts with the way a new technology is used. When guns were first introduced to the Inuit, for example, they made killing seals much easier. But they also allowed the Inuit to kill seals in areas with more freshwater, where the seals sank faster and thus were retrieved less often and wasted more often. The technology of guns hurt the seal populations. Yet what really made the situation maladaptive was the Inuit belief that the seals were annually replenished by the gods, which meant that it took a lot of time and wasted seals for an ethic of conservation to develop. (19)

Finally, maladaptive situations can arise when outside forces alter the impact of a technology or cultural practice. The main such outside forces are population growth and climate change. Sometimes, a cultural practice that works at a certain level of population or within a certain climate doesn't work in another. In medieval Europe, for example, extensive use of wood did not become maladaptive until the population reached a level where annual use of wood was greater than the capacity of the forests to regrow. These situations are perhaps the most serious, since technological changes can actually cause climate change or induce population growth. Examples abound in the modern world: CFCs depleting the ozone layer, penicillin reducing death rates, deforestation altering the microclimate of an area and reducing precipitation. These types of changes are the source of our current environmental dilemmas, since our cultural practices have not yet evolved to take them into account.

These examples of maladaptive solutions resulting from cultural change (often in response to technological development) suggest not only the reasons for these dilemmas, but where the solutions lie as well. In order to speed up the rate of cultural evolution, we need to use mechanisms from within our culture, since the alternative way of changing culture involves coercion. If we want to make a certain kind of decision part of our culture, such as considering pollution when deciding what kinds of transportation to use, we need to examine the cultural mechanisms that influence how we make decisions and use those mechanisms to bring about cultural evolution. This is the reason that I believe many promising solutions to our current environmental dilemmas lie in economic solutions.

However we decide to bring about cultural evolution, it is apparent it is necessary. Our cultures, which gave birth to our technologies, have been profoundly influenced by those technologies throughout human history. In the twenty first century, very sophisticated technologies have influenced our cultures, making it possible and often desirable in the short term for us to alter our natural environment on an unprecedented scale. We do not yet understand the full impact of the cultural changes new technologies will lead to. But an examination of various examples has shown that even the simplest technologies can change cultures - and the human/environment interaction that is a part of culture - in unforeseen and possibly undesirable ways, sometimes necessitating cultural evolution to prevent harm. These complex interactions are all the result of the dynamic and perpetual relationship between technology and culture.

Notes and Sources:

1. For a definition of technology, please see my previous essay on Human Impact on Ancient Environments.

2. "culture" in Merriam Webster Online Dictionary

3. For an example of view of the environment as a product of culture, we can look at the contact between English colonists and North American native populations in the seventeenth century. Conflicts over land were partially the result of different view of the proper relationship between human and landscape, since the English cultural norm was outright ownership of the land while the native norm was the right to certain uses (usufruct rights). For a detailed history, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land, New York : Hill and Wang, 1983.

4. Charles H. Southwick. Chapter 13, "Historical Aspects of Environmental Destruction," Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 127

5. Bruce D. Smith. The Emergence of Agriculture. New York: Scientific American Library. 1995.

6. Smith pp. 16-17

7. Smith 17

8. M.S. Drower. "Ch. 19: Water-supply, irrigation, and agriculture," in A History of Technology, from Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires Singer, Holmyard, and Hall, eds. Oxford Clarendon Press, 1958, pp. 520-557.

9. David W. Anthony "Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth: Identification of the Earliest Bitted Equids and the Microscopic Analysis of Wear." In Early Animal Domestication and Its Cultural Context, edited by Pam J. Crabtree, Douglas Campana and Kathleen Ryan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1989. pp. 99

10. Sandra Olsen, ed. Horses Through Time. Boulder, CO: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1996. pp 61-63. and Juliet Clutton-Brock. Horse Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. pp 58-73.

11. Clive Ponting. "Ch. 1: Easter Island," in A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991. pp. 1-7.

12. Paul Ehrlich argues that human beings evolved to focus on the short term Chapter 9 and 10 of Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000, pp. 203-25, and in an NPR interview from October 27, 2000.

13. Ehrlich 234-236

14. Southwick pp. 130-131. He lists "deforestation, overgrazing, intensive burning, over-cropping, land scarring, and extravagant use of irrigation" which had consequences such as "increased erosion, soil loss, declining water tables, salination…reduced atmospheric humidity and cloud cover, increased heat reflectivity, and lower amounts of rainfall."

15. Carlo M. Cipolla. The Economic History of World Population. The Harvester Press, 1978, p. 46

16. Ehrlich NPR interview

17. Ponting 1-7

18. Ehrlich NPR interview

19. Ehrlich p. 124

Read the author's other essays:

Technology, Population, and the Impact of Ancient Humans on the Environment

Luck and 'backwardness': A new story of European contact with the Americas

Population and the Environment: Are We Doomed?

Yucca Mountain and Nuclear Waste (Final Project)

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last updated 2/22/03