Technology depends on cultural decisions

Chris Trucksess

Human technology is developed to serve a purpose and this reason often is dependent on what needs a particular society has. In the case of war and in other aspects of culture, technology is developed for a particular reason, such as to defeat the declared enemy.  This connection serves to influence the type of inventions developed.

 Ehrlich notes that in World War II during the battle at Midway Island in 1942, there was a difference in capabilities between the Americans and the Japanese. While it would be apparent that there was a direct correlation between the readiness of resources and success in battle this connection turned out not to be true. In reality, planning, expertise, and chance were more of a determinant (Ehrlich, 2000). This result shows that technical knowledge is not sufficient to be successful but usage of available resources is necessary to ensure gains. This combination underscores the need for culture to move technology forward. A new invention without cultural demand would not serve much benefit since it would not be used to improve society. However, a cultural need can lead to the development of an invention since the demand moves the technology to an outcome.

Trade provides a primary method of connecting technology to the world. Initially trade was exchanged as items of barter. Cattle, shells, crops, salt, and other items served as a means of providing a fair exchange of goods between parties. The invention of currency has much to do with the needs of trade. It is impractical to ferry a heard a cattle to a place of sale in order to buy the good. However money is more portable than livestock and many other items of barter and helped ease the trade process (Ehrlich, 2000). The importance of trade to culture led to a streamlined process with the invention of currency. While items of barter have value that is tangible, such as food produced by crops, modern currency is only valued by the culture since a government body guarantees it. As a result of the governmental backing, currency can be used a meaningful method of exchanging value. Money that does not contain precious metals is simply a symbolic way of representing value. A culture recognizes the currency as representing value and can be used as an effective accounting system for trade. Additionally, the influence from the cultural value of trade translates into placing less significance on the intrinsic value of the currency itself and instead considers what convenience the technology can provide to improve trade.

In addition to currency, trade assisted the use of writing. Writing enabled people to store large quantities of information that is accessible in any place or time. Economic structure such as the tax code could now have an increased level of sophistication and power could be better delineated among people. Writing also brought about modern states as it limited the need to have rituals and contact in person with individuals in power. Modern societies that use a large amount of science and technology depend on writing to maintain the complex societal structure (Ehrlich, 2000). In addition to technology being linked to cultural progress there is also a connection that once society develops that technology, it then can become dependent on it. This need shows that the benefits from technology soon become expectations of society and reverting back to an older method without the technological improvements is not a viable option since society builds around and shapes the technology. This merging is a type that creates a unit that is not easily broken back into components. The close relation between culture and technology shows the importance that culture has with invention.

Considering religion as a form of technology, organized belief shows the progression of this field as the needs of a society changed. When human groups transitioned from groups that were based on the family to states, the demand placed upon religion changed. Religion served more as a form of structure to codes of conduct and in turn made societies function more effectively. Also, religion served as an equalizing force between different classes in society. The calming aspects of religion sought to preserve order and keep elites in control of society (Ehrlich, 2000). Religion became more than a method of explaining the concept of belief and also served as a mechanism for preserving societal order. Since culture shapes the production and usage of technology, it can also craft alternate uses for the technology apart from what was originally intended. This degree of flexibility allows for the technology to still remain useful as a society evolves but it also can serve as a method of fulfilling a personal agenda. Members of status in society can manipulate technological capabilities to preserve the status quo or carry out some objective. Technology as a tool means that it can be use to benefit those who use it or it can also be used to cause harm.

In multiple situations, society uses technology to benefit the progression of their culture. The simple existence of an invention carries little value unless it can be put to productive use by the culture. The invention can also have less intrinsic value but be more convenient and still be widely accepted in society. Culture as the driving force of technology also can make technology succumb to the weaknesses of society. Technology itself cannot guard against this problem but it is up to the good judgment of the culture to maintain that inventions continue to provide a benefit to the public.



Ehrlich, Paul. (2000). “Ch.11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy” in “Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect.” Island Press.

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last updated 2003-02-22