Influence of Culture on Human Technology


The influence that culture has had on human technology is undeniable. One could even go as far as to say that sometimes, it is difficult to distinguish between the two. The term “culture” is extremely difficult to define because of the vast array of meanings that people attach to it. For this very reason, it is imperative to examine the most basic notion of culture, namely: “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought” (as taken from Given this definition, it seems reasonable to conclude that human technologies fall under the category of “all other products of human work and thought”. Yet, although human technologies are closely linked to culture, we must draw certain distinctions between the two.


Today, for example, pop culture is thought of as the exportation of American music, food, and cinema. This is a legitimate example of a culture because it encompasses the ideas/beliefs/traditions of a vast group of people. Computers on the other hand, although great as inventions, cannot be considered a culture. One might argue that computers are part of a culture, or may have even led to a culture (namely, the information age), but in and of themselves, computers and other such human technologies are just that, technologies. Technologies can either be of the mechanical/scientific sort (such as the car) or they can be a type of innovative idea that changes life in some profound way.


Having established workable definitions for both culture and human technology, we can now deal with the question of how culture has affected human technology. Given the broad scope of the question, there are several ways to answer it.  One way of doing this would be to examine several different cultural movements or characteristics (i.e. art, religion, etc.) and see how they have helped create different human technologies. Another way of analyzing the relationship between the two however, is to look at a human technology and see how culture has altered it. This will be the method employed in this essay.


I) Religion and War

            One of the most obvious examples of a culture or a cultural aspect influencing a human technology is the relationship between religion and the nation-state. The nation-state, at least as we know it now, is a governing structure with a certain set of beliefs and laws (what we know now could undoubtedly be considered a culture). In the beginning however, it was simply an innovative way of organizing a group of people who happened to live together because of the recent discovery of agriculture. The discovery of agriculture, according to Ehrlich, “led to a regional…expansion of the numbers of people that could be supported without decreasing an area’s capacity to support people in the future”(pg. 236). With this increase in the number of people living together, there was an increase in intensification and the division of labor, which gradually led to new social arrangements (Ehrlich pg. 238).


This new and innovative way of organizing the population was soon transformed by religion. In his book entitled The Sacred and the Profane, the theologian Mircea Eliade argues that “archaic societies” tended to be completely engulfed by the sacred (or religious aspects of life) while engaging in activities, sleeping, eating- essentially throughout most of their lives (pg. 12). Ehrlich argues that part of a human’s need to hold on to religion is his/her fear of death and his/her need for a comforting and coherent world view (213). As he puts it:


“Science tells us that we are creatures of accident clinging to a ball of mud hurling aimlessly through space. This it not a notion to warm hearts or rouse multitudes,” (Ehrlich p.214).


Given Eliade’s claim that “archaic societies” were constantly submerged in the sacred and given Ehrlich’s support of the importance of religion to humans, it is easy to see how many of these newly developed, pre-ideological, nation-states became run by religion.


With the institutionalization of religion, came the legitimization of war and conquest. When religion became politicized many things changed for the nation-state. First of all, at the top of the social hierarchy were non-other than the priests, the shamans, the Popes, etc. The people, according to Ehrlich, saw comfort in their rule (this is very much like Marx’s notion of religion as opium of the masses) because they brought sanctity to the ruling structure that otherwise would not have had any (256). This therefore legitimized almost any action the government chose to take. History is filled with examples of religious wars or religious justification for conquest (i.e., the Crusades, the Spaniard conquest of Mexico, Central and most of South America) and even today, we have seen a leader of a secular state try to use religion to legitimize war (regardless of what one’s viewpoint is on the issue, it is common knowledge that during the Gulf War Saddam Hussein called for the unification of all Muslims against the Christian invaders).

Therefore, this serves as an example of a human innovation being completely influenced by a cultural aspect.


II) Modern War and Violence

            A second, and final, example of culture influencing a human technology is that of violence and modern warfare.  The invention of modern warfare revolutionized warfare as we know it. The principles of Just War theory (namely that war must be legitimized by the ruler of a state, civilian targets must be avoided, truces must be honored, war must be stopped and started on command, etc.) turned warfare from a rage-filled activity to a cold and calculating goal-achieving strategy. As Ehrlich puts it,


“Hormonally induced rage may lead to a barroom brawl; the ability to send surrogates to battle with calm deliberation lead to war,” (259).


So how does culture fit in with modern warfare? The themes we are discussing are at the heart of a highly debated topic. Many people argue that violence and rage are biological. Man, in other words, is inherently violent. Ehrlich however, argues that people are not violent by nature, but instead, are violent as a result of their culture. I personally support Ehrlich’s view, in that, if violence were biological rather than cultural, restraint in warfare would be impossible.


Many will use examples like the Nanking Massacre and the Holocaust to support the notion of man’s innate violent side. Yet, if one looks at the ruling parties in both countries at the time one will see the extreme pressure to conform to the ruler’s orders and furthermore, one would see the continual brainwashing that went on (whether it be by propaganda or whether it be through institutions such as the army and schools). In Haruko Taya Cook’s Japan At War: An Oral History, Tominaga Shozo, a Japanese soldier during WWII, wrote:


“[at the military training camp] human beings were turned into murdering demons. Everyone became a demon within three months…this was the Emperor’s army…my only thought was to do my duty,” (43).


Tominaga Shozo was not inherently evil, he was brainwashed into coercion. He was turned into a “demon”.


Therefore, and coming back to the main point of this section, since the evidence above shows that violence can be characterized more so as a cultural trait rather than a biological trait, it is evident that this culturally-induced violence helps to carry out modern warfare when needed, but also provides the ability to stop fighting just as easily (this is it’s influence on the innovation).  It is only when the indoctrination is too thorough and too savage that it results in atrocities.


III) Conclusion

Hopefully, after having defined “culture” and “human technologies” and specified the distinctions between the two, the two examples provided above have made it clear how certain cultural aspects have the potential to influence a human technology. The first example detailed the relationship between religion and the nation-states and how religion had a tremendous influence both in the activities of the state and in legitimizing war and conquest. The second example also emphasized the main theme of this essay, but also provided evidence that violence may indeed be cultural rather than biological.


Outside Bibliography:


Mircea Eliade.The Sacred and the Profane: the Nature of Religion. (1957).


Haruko Taya Cook & Theodore F. Cook. Japan at War: An Oral History. (1992).