Culture and Technology:
A Symbiotic Relationship

Throughout human history the fundamental driving force behind any change culturally or technologically is the human goal. The innate human ability for abstract thought has made us able to project a plan for our own future. Originally our foresight directly pertained to our own survival, making our way to the next meal, and perpetually intertwined with our interaction with and relationship to our own environment. The living environments that we experience include the places where we live, those that we visit, and anything else that constitutes what we may see or do. Therefore our relationship to the environment which we experience is very location-dependant in terms of resources and environmental factors. For example, nomadic people who live in the desert lead drastically different lives to those who live in the rainforest or those who live in cities. In this way many different human cultures developed all over earth, and have had varying effects on the development of culture and technology. I believe that these different cultures provided different goals for each society that motivated technological innovations at different time and for different reasons. As we all, no doubt, see everyday the advent of technology has greatly affected our living environment. Twenty years ago hardly anyone had heard of the internet, and now it’s a worldwide information superhighway. People have made their lives revolve solely around the internet; fortunes have been won and lost on the computer industry. But there are countless other examples of how technology has molded and changed cultures, and so I also believe that technology and culture have a symbiotic relationship; they feed off of and grow from one another similar to what we have dubbed a feedback loop in our class discussions.

There are many examples where cultural needs drive technological change, and inspire innovation. In many cases the most fundamental need of any human culture is the need to know what happens after we die, or the need to answer questions about things that happen outside of our control. Humans have used religion to help allay some of their fears of the unknown, and to help to explain why things are the way they are. “Religion is sort of like love—it’s difficult to define, yet everyone thinks he or she knows what it means. …Religious or spiritual belief is clearly both a product and a critical part of most human natures.” (Ehrlich, 2000, 213) With the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals humans had an increase in the amount of time they could spend on other things, such as religion. On Easter Island the populations diverted their attention and excess time to the production of large religious relics. They created large statues of faces that were made of stone. The process to manufacture these large statues was “a socially advanced and technologically complex task [which included] carving, transporting, and erecting statues.” (Ponting, 1991, 2) But these tasks required the use of valuable natural resources. In this way the culture of Easter Island used religion as a tool that shaped the technological advances of the culture. The consequences of this religious technology led to the destruction of the culture and the society of the island. “The cause of the collapse and the key to understanding the ‘mysteries’ of Easter Island was massive environmental degradation brought on by deforestation of the whole island.” (Ponting, 1991, 5) With the deforestation came the destruction of the habitat that supported their food supply, and consequently the destruction of the culture that they had built around their ecosystem. Many lessons can be drawn from the occurrences on Easter Island, not the least of which is that culture affects the development of technology.

If we briefly look at other examples we can see that the symbiotic relationship between technology and culture persists. First let’s look at the development of gunpowder. Originally it was invented in China, and used during religious ceremonies and for fireworks. Once this technology made its way to western civilizations it was immediately put to use in the invention of guns and ammunition. Only after China was threatened by western forces with these new weapons did they start using it for the same purpose. In this case, from the Chinese perspective, the original conception of gunpowder was a technological innovation driven by a cultural need, namely religion. From the western perspective, we see that gunpowder was a technology that inspired a cultural change. The art of warfare was forever altered after the west got its hand on gunpowder. So warfare is another of cultural aspect that is affected by technological improvements.

We can see a more localized effect on how the culture of the Inuit has been altered by the use of many western technologies. The Inuit, in a very inefficient manner, killed off a lot of there seal population due to the introduction of the gun. They were used to getting every seal they killed because they used harpoons attached to strings to haul in the seals. With the introduction of guns they ended up losing a majority of the seals they shot, partially because they didn’t have the bullets attached to a string like the harpoon, but also from other technologically induced changes to their living environment. They changed the density of the seawater after they purchased motorboats with money from fur trading, which consequently made the seals shot with bullets sink whereas before they would float. (Ehrlich, 2000, 220)

According to the diffusionist model of the urbanization of the Aegean region presented to us in the Colin Chant reading, the urbanization of the Aegean region came about from economic pressures from the primary urban centers in Egypt, Sumer and the Indus Valley. These primary centers demanded raw materials that were available in the secondary regions, like the Aegean. (Chant, 1999, 48) The urban culture that was present in Egypt, Sumer and the Indus Valley created a demand for raw materials that were only available in other regions. Here we see the location dependence of cultural development because those secondary regions were induced to build up external trade, and specialization due to the presence of raw materials in the area. Chant dubs it “a resource imbalance that stimulated trade.”(Chant, 1999, 50) In this case the primary cultures are affecting the development of the secondary cultures due the demand for metallurgy materials. The technological development in those secondary cultures began to reflect these economic pressures and the threat of warfare as seen through the inspired leaps in nautical technologies.

Paul Ehrlich uses the terms microevolution and macroevolution to distinguish between human induced effects on cultural evolution and those caused by environmental factors. I am focusing on his idea of microevolution, but if you think about how the microevolutionary factors hold sway over the macroevolutionary ones, you'll realize that human induced technological advances have an effect on the environment around us. For example, ever since the Industrial Revolution man has introduced some horrible pollutants into the environment in the name of manufacturing efficiency that greatly affect the delicate balance of the ecosystem. There are smokestacks that pump out Sulfur Dioxide into the air, and human waste is pumped into our waterways. Both of these examples affect the environment causing such things as acid rain, and fish-kills caused by the depletion of the oxygen available in rivers. The terms micro- and macroevolution discuss the relationship between technology and culture on a broad sweeping scope, and may have been more appropriate for more historic times when human technology and the its effects on the environment were more removed from one another. However, the interaction of human and environmental factors are more intertwined, and do not deserve the separation that Ehrlich promotes. Chant discusses the relationship between technology and culture using economic terms to look at the urbanization of the Aegean region. The development of cities and the urbanization of the Aegean region was a feedback loop with economic objectives built in. What I think they are both Ehrlich and Chant are hinting at is that technology and culture affect one another in a symbiotic manner. Culture drives the wheels of technological advancement whether it is through religion, warfare or commerce, and these technological advances gained by humans in turn affect cultural evolution.

Works Cited:

Ehrlich, Paul R., in "Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect" Island Press, 2000

Chant, Colin, "Chapter 2: Greece" in "Pre-industrial Cities and Technology," Routledge Press, 1999

Ponting, Clive. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991