Culture and Technology


While the first inklings of human culture could never have developed if technology had not developed first, in later societies, culture served more as the determining factor than technology. Culture: “the predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group”. Technology: “the body of knowledge available to a society that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials”. Technology aids in the functioning of a group: it is what enables “predominating attitudes and behavior” to be acted upon. Therefore, initially, a culture must provide incentive for the development/adoption of a technology. Once adopted, the technology must then be incorporated into the society, requiring cultural adjustments. Always, usefulness is the key determining factor. Cultural adjustments must be worth the effort, the technology must meet a societal need. The technologies that each society chooses to adopt are the ones that they find the most useful. Societies have not developed different technologies by accident: the criteria for determining “usefulness” is culturally based.

The Near East is not a particularly fertile area. Dry land and large rivers that periodically flood characterize the landscape. Obtaining sufficient food was not easy. “The most vital need of early man in regions of scanty rainfall such as the Near East is water.” (Drower, 520). Because this was the most difficult challenge facing them, from an early stage the people who populated the area must have focused on developing effective farming practices. For them, there was probably little else that was as important as water.

Because of this, the cultures of peoples in the area centered around the water. Everything was defined by the river. The oracle of Amen, for example, defined Egypt to be “The entire tract which the Nile overspreads and irrigates” (Drower, 526). The religions focused on the river, the way that it gave and took: it was often personified in the form of river gods such as Ea, “lord of the sweet waters that flow under the earth” (Drower, 526), and Hapi, the Nile-god. The governments focused on the river, as well. In Egypt, Pharaohs devoted much time to digging new wells, constructing dams, and improving irrigation systems. This was because of the nature of the land: people needed water more than anything else. To fulfill this need was to gain their loyalty.

Because of the scarcity of water, in many ways, an abundant supply of water came to be viewed as the ultimate luxury. There are many surviving pictures of formal Egyptian gardens, and descriptions of “hanging gardens” that were suspended above the ground. Pleasure gardens were everywhere, every country estate had a garden, and “the Pharaohs were horticultural connoisseurs. From their foreign campaigns they brought back exotic trees and plants to grow in their palace gardens or in the temples” (Drower, 543).

While what initially began as a focus on agriculture necessitated by the bleak nature of the landscape developed into a strong cultural love of the practice, the valuing of farming practices was consistent throughout. It was this strong valuing that influenced what sorts of technologies flourished in Egypt.

Let us return to what was said at the beginning: technology aids in the functioning of a group by enabling the continuation of “predominating attitudes and behavior”. For Egyptians, who valued agriculture above all else, the most sophisticated technologies that developed were, unsurprisingly, agricultural in nature. Devices for lifting water, wells, dams and cisterns, and, perhaps most importantly, the “Pharaonic system of basin-irrigation” (Drower, 536) all were well developed and heavily relied on.

This was true of other near-eastern civilizations, as well. For example, although the land required extensive irrigation and elaborate water management techniques, “The fertility of Babylonia was a source of astonishment and envy to the Greeks”. Greece was naturally far better for farming. Because there had been no need to develop elaborate technologies, and because agriculture was not the utmost culturally valued thing, the Greeks had focused on developing other sorts of technologies. This idea of usefulness as the governing notion determining which technologies are developed by a particular culture was not specific to the Near East.

In Greece, the culture was more urban than in the Near East, political structures requiring that everyone live in close proximity. Most of the technologies that developed were geared towards architecture: especially temple architecture and the design of public buildings. Like the development of irrigation technologies in Egypt, the public building projects that dominated much of Greek culture were sponsored by those in power. “They intended to enlist the support of the urban poor” (Chant, 65).

The monarchs who sponsored these projects were not simply randomly deciding that the common people needed elaborate bath houses and bazaars and temples. Such objects were things that were culturally necessary, and therefore greatly appreciated. Developing public building technologies was a useful goal in such a situation. Chant poses the question, “How important were the various Greek political and social structures to the physical structure of their cities?” (65). He then goes on to compare Greece to Sparta, a city founded on very different values and organized very differently, thereby answering his own question. Political and social structures were very important.

While some cultures developed their own technologies, many cultures borrowed from others. In such cases, how a technology was used varied from culture to culture. A prime example of this is China. While they were the first to develop gunpowder, their technologies did not focus on the development of sophisticated weapons. Rather, they were known for their extraordinary fireworks. When the Europeans were introduced to gunpowder, they did not go on to develop fireworks-making capabilities. They focused on guns, eventually making ones far superior to those of the Chinese, enabling them to dominate many other civilizations. This extended to many Chinese technologies. They had boats for a very long time, but did not explore nearly as much as the Europeans did. The difference was cultural. “A combination of Chinese politics and attitudes that valued inwardness and denigrated ‘business’ appears to have intervened to dampen the entrepreneurial spirit, which animated so much European exploration.” (Ehrlich, 269). For the Europeans, who had very few technologies of their own, exploration and guns, which improved their ability to exploit other civilizations, were far more important.

This seems to extend to most societies. While many different technologies could potentially be developed, only those that prove useful are concentrated on. These technologies then turn around and encourage the development of certain aspects of a society. Hence Europe’s prominence on the international scene today, while China is quieter and less involved. Take a single culture, split it up, and put pieces in different locations: they’ll develop until their cultures are distinct. Everyone wants to survive: culture and technology both are merely tools to aid in survival. Usefulness is the governing factor for both. If part of a culture is no longer useful because of a change in the environment, that culture will change. If technologies may be developed to make an environment more hospitable, thus avoiding cultural change, then those technologies are focused on. What is most important to people is the maintenance of their culture.

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last updated 3/16/03