Guy LeBas                                                                                        

February 22, 2003


Time, Culture, and Technology

This is the second essay of the Spring 2003 semester for Environmental Studies 2: Human Nature, Technology, and the Environment, a first-time offering at Swarthmore College.

I bring to the environmental studies program an interesting and rare persopective: that of an economist and businessman.(Give me some time and I might even jazz up the HTML ;-)

Humans are programmed for survival. No matter the debate between nature and nurture, the fact that we exist as biological entities to survive to reproduce in undeniable. Accordingly, the primary motivation and worry present in human instinct is the preservation impulse—whether it refers to avoiding three hundred pound cats, hunting water buffalo, or simply being amicable to our neighbors. Once that chief concern for survival has been alleviated, however, we then are able to turn our previously occupied attention and efforts to less pressing matters, along the lines of taking photographs, for example. Given this basic overarching model on the hierarchies of human consternation, it seems clear that the sole method of creating free time to expend on leisure is to release time normally spent on the activities necessary for survival. There are a limited number of generalized methods of achieving this free time, the prime among which are specialization of labor and resultant gains from trade, and an improvement in the level of technology. Following this specialization and technological improvement, comes the advent of leisure activity, most of which we today call “culture.”

In his infamous 1776 treatise, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith first proposed a scientific explanation to gains from trade resulting from specialization of the labor force. Prior to that publication, there had been no formal or scientific study of anything we might now call economics, yet principles of efficiency still found their realization in the “every man for himself” mentality. A brief economic explanation of specialization and gains from trade is as follows: person A has the ability to catch four fish per hour or collect eight mangongo nuts per hour. Person B can catch just two fish or collect three mangongo nuts per hour.< Independently, (assuming each values fish and mangongo nuts equally) A and B can collect six fish or eleven mangongos. If each is to specialize exclusively in the most efficient activity possible, the total sums to four fish collected by A and three mangongo nuts collected by B.< If these two are to trade, they are then capable of achieving their preferred mix of consumption, maximized across the whole “economy.” Without realizing it, and dating back to prehistory, humans have maximized their production and then traded amongst themselves to achieve this very effect, albeit without consciousness of the importance or economic description of this process. It is well within the range of conception that A and B, who may have barely been finding enough food on their own, following these gains from trade, now need to spend significantly less time searching for food.

The second benefactor of free time and the corresponding cultural development is growth in technology. For a brief estimate of the growth impact of technology on standards of living, please consider this essay . Suffice it for now to say that, over the last ten-thousand years, technology has increased our standards of living by thousands of times their original numbers (as measured by “gross world product” per capita). Many of these technologies—which, incidentally, extend beyond sheer physical into human capital, or knowledge about the world embodied in our minds—developed over the past twelve millennia made for greater efficiency in the production of food, shelter, and retrieval of water. These are the three basic criteria for human survival. One such technology known to many was the efficient introduction of the iron plough and three field of medieval times, which together increased wheat crop yields from four grains per seed to roughly twelve grains (Wheat yields describe the results of planting a single grain relation to the number of grains that it produces. Note that one to two grains of yield must be returned to the field for planting the following year. Current yields on the order of forty-five to one.). One example of a technology devoted to the efficiency of shelter was the introduction by the Romans of poured concrete into structures which shortened the time and reduced the efforts of masonry. Finally, a simple example of a technology that promoted efficiency in gathering water belongs to the ancient civilizations that first dug wells for ground water. These three technologies alone have combined to create huge efficiencies resulting in an increase in available time and a subsequent boost in what we would call “culture.”

In order to facilitate my point more clearly, I will define the rather amorphous notion of culture as the socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, and institutions of a given society. Explaining the ways in which these beliefs are developed would take far more than the space here—in fact, the possibility that any scholar for surety can elucidate those ways appears quite remote. Suffice it to say that it takes thought and experimentation as well as a large degree of accidental exposure to unusual phenomenon. The end goal of said culture is entertainment, although not the type gleaned from a Mariah Carrey film, but the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical entertainment prevalent in the every day life of modern times. One of the world’s most prevalent religions, Catholicism, required the work of over a millennia of scholars before cultural traditions became firmly entrenched. Catholicism, because of its strict doctrine and relatively recent advent is an excellent study for an example of “culture.” Considering that not long ago, nearly the entire population of a given civilization was consumed in gathering the biological necessities for human life, how were these scholars able to devote time to sheer thought and conception of tradition? Well, clearly they had a great deal of free time, free time that stems directly form the specialization of activity, gains from trade, and improvements in technology. In that sense, technologies are devices capable of encouraging culture. Return to the example of medieval improvements in crop yield. Following this invention, a farmer could support three times as many people from his land without a corresponding increase in effort and time. He could then sell his crops to others who could engage in alternate professions; others were no longer required by physical necessity to spend their hours in hunting or agriculture. The result was an immense boom in cities, artistic professions, religious study, government—in a word, culture.

Everything that met the requirements of the above-defined “culture,” particularly during the Middle Ages, stems from the free time required for thought, contemplation, and production of artifacts. In that sense, technology, a primary driver of efficiency and disposable time along with economic concepts of specialization and gains from trade, has proven throughout to be very much an enabling device. In particular, those who believe the advancement of human culture to be the ultimate objective and destiny of human existence, owe a great deal to the liberating effects of technology on the development of culture.