Culture's Influence on Technology: The Human Element of the Development Feedback Loop

e-mail: Dan Hammer

This comic strip was taken from There's Treasure Everywhere, a collection of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. Bill Watterson has been able to adequately describe in full the trials and tribulations of humanity using only the exploits of a six-year-old and his stuffed tiger; a genius beyond his time.

Culture and technology are in a constantly expanding positive feedback loop. The greatest changes in human culture are almost always the result of a technological innovation. However, a technology capable of a cultural shift can only have come from the culture itself. Without the culture's choice to refine the technology, the practical applications would have been left as only fleeting ideas; technology will only be developed if the culture has some immediate and apparent use for it. Although a culture will develop a technology based on its inherent valence towards a particular application, that culture cannot possibly fathom the ultimate repercussions of its collective decision. The inherent multiplier effect in the feedback loop along with unforeseen applications of the technology will guide the "trajectories of cultural evolution" (Ehrlich 255) in completely unexpected ways. Even though cultures can and do have an effect on their course through history, it is only slight when compared to the monstrous effect that their technologies have on them.

The nature and importance of this type of self-propagating relationship are described in my previous paper and Paul Ehrlich's book "Human Nature: Genes, Culture, and the Human Prospect." Ehrlich describes his own opinion on human development and feedback loops in the following passage: "It is important to know what shapes the course of history, how that influences the evolution of our natures, and how that in turn feeds back on evolutionary history itself." (Ehrlich 254) The statement briefly describes the general form of the positive feedback loop for human development throughout history. The influences he refers to could be anything from the environment to culture to technology. However he goes further in depth in an example later on in his book to describe how culture influences technology which once again has vast potential for shifting an entire culture. Ehrlich uses the example of organized religion to illustrate culture's importance in the development of technology. He contends that organized religion stabilized the hierarchical social structure such that the society could carry out complex tasks required to support growing populations with a limited resource base. (Ehrlich 256). Technology is created to magnify human capabilities (Everbach ENVS2) and it was technology that was able to sustain a large population on scarce resources. Without a centralized planning base, the complexities of technological innovation would never have been organized enough to develop into a practical device. Ehrlich's specific example in this case is that of the Mesoamerican cultures of the first century. The large urban civilization of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico is believed to be a result of a complex religious institution with the intention of glorifying the religious elites. The religious culture of the Central American natives allowed for major advances in architecture and urban planning that would never have been developed if the culture had no need for large structures. If these cultures had, for example, been largely nomadic peoples, the "magnificent pyramids" of Teotihuacan would not exist today (Ehrlich 257).

Ancient Greece also offers an interesting insight into the relationship between culture and technology. Colin Chant wrote that the development of the Aegean region that the urbanization was the result of "economic specialization and external trade." (Chant 48) Whether economic specialization is a technology or a social structure is a question of semantics, but regardless of its classification it had a major impact on social shifts and technological innovation. Chant tries to prove that European urbanization was not the direct result of metallurgy or agriculture, but that of trade. He shows with the assistance of maps from the Aegean region that the major cities were a result of intensive trade routes. The social interaction that took place in the new urban centers laid the foundations for key cultural shifts. The technology that came out of external trade was mostly in transportation. The Minoan civilization is estimated to have begun around 2600 BCE and lasted until about 1400 BCE on the island of Crete. Because the civilization was on an island, external trade could only exist if there was significant technological progress in sailing vessels. Chant states that "there must have been specialist production of wooden sailing ships" in order for the civilization to exist as part of the booming trading system of the time (Chant 50). With the extra benefits as a result of specialization shared among all the trading civilizations at the time, the Minoans were able to "satisfy their enthusiasm for chariot-riding" by building an intricate system of roads (Chant 56). This is just another example of how a technological innovation leads to a cultural shift which in turn leads to the development of an entirely new technology. However, the feedback loop in this civilization was interrupted by Greek urban culture which supplanted the Minoan people in about 900 BCE. The Greek culture also depended heavily on sea travel, but did not have the same cultural tendencies towards chariots. As such, the roads that the Minoans had left for Greek use were "neglected by the Greeks." (Chant 56) In fact Chant goes on to quote another source that states that "Greece in the thirteenth century [BCE] probably had a better system of roads than it did in the third." (Casson 27) The Greek neglect of the Minoan roads is an example of how culture will ultimately choose which technologies to pursue. Although the road as a technology is a major advance in a civilization, it had no real use to the Greeks and was therefore not developed in their society. On the other hand, the Medes and Persian civilizations had an intricate system of paved roads in the first millennium BCE. Both cultures depended on horses for transportation, communication, and military operations. Paved roads were essential to these cultures and as such they made major technological innovations in the field.

Chant mentions a similar situation when he discusses the Indo-European ethnic migrations during the early Greek Iron Age. He tries to demonstrate to his readers that the nomadic cultures during this period were no less "equipped" than the sedentary cultures of the time, only that these cultures had more mobile technologies suited to their way of life. Whereas the sedentary cultures were able to develop glass making and pottery (perhaps because of a complex social structure like that discussed earlier), the nomadic peoples may have been responsible for the development of wheeled carts and wagons as well as the military chariot, introduced around 1600 BCE (Chant 54). Nomads had neither the need nor the capability to develop pottery or glass making. They did not have the resources and could not carry a kiln. They did, however, have an immediate and apparent use for the chariot, which could increase their speed and power by an innumerable factor.

Although culture is able to guide the technological innovations that are borne from it, humanity does not seem to have much of a say in its course through history. Each step through time is a result of an infinite amount of steps before it all pushing history towards an unknown end. Even the individual who invents an integral technology is only a very small ripple in a tide of inexorable humanity.

Works Cited:

Chant, Colin. "Chapter 2:Greece" in "Pre-Industrial Cities and Technology." Routledge Press, 1999. pp. 48-80.

Ehrlich,Paul R. "Ch. 11: Gods, Dive-Bombers, and Bureaucracy" in "Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect." Island Press, 2000. pp. 253-279.

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last updated 2/24/02