Culture and Technology

How do they relate?

Erin Dwyer-Frazier

It is almost impossible to imagine the world without technology. Try for a moment to imagine life without the wheel, or agriculture, or even fire. It is equally difficult to imagine the human world without culture. The self-definition that comes with belonging to a culture is fundamental to ourselves, and would be very difficult to eradicate completely. How closely connected are cultures and their technologies? This seemed to be a burning question in the class discussions within the last weeks, and was often implicitly and explicitly referred to in the class articles. The relationship between culture and technology is often circular, similar to the problem of the chicken or the egg. Do technologies develop as a result of the needs of the culture, or does the culture simply adapt to the changing abilities provided by technology? Different theorists give supremacy to culture over the development of technology, while others tend to believe that human creativity and invention tends to control changes in culture. It seems unlikely to me that the relationship could possibly be entirely one-way, but seems that it can easily combine elements of both.

Culture serves an important role in modern life, and it seems likely that it was even more important in the lives of early hunter-gatherer tribes and early urban civilizations before the development of modern communications. Culture is the lens through which we observe the world, and therefore it seems logical that culture would greatly influence the development of technology in early civilizations. A clear example of this would be the differences in the early technologies developed by the northern steppe people compared to that of the southern urban civilizations, as described by Colin Chant. The nomadic people of the north tended to develop technologies that increased mobility. There seems to be some evidence that they developed the first chariots, and almost certainly were the first to domesticate horses. However, the southern urban civilizations developed different technologies. Urban civilizations, such as Greece, developed new architectural technologies including building styles, stone working, and water-transport systems (Chant, 1999). The reasoning behind the development of these technologies seems self-evident. If you are a mobile, nomadic people then technologies that make travel easier would be in high demand. In contrast, if you are a sedentary, primarily agricultural people who wish to begin to gather in larger groups, then the ability to build larger buildings would be necessary. However, there are also problems with this construction of the history of technology.

The theory that technology develops merely as a response to the needs of culture fails to explain several significant trends in technological history. Technologies that are largely destructive tend to break with this construction. The rapid spread of many technologies from one culture to another raises an important question, if technologies are developed specifically for the use of a culture then why do they adapt so easily to other cultures? A perfect example would be agriculture. Agriculture was developed by certain cultures that found it particularly useful, especially those that existed near many domesticated plants. However, it spread throughout the world to much less well-suited lands, changing these cultures to agricultural societies despite this problem. Charles Southwick blamed the “deforestation, overgrazing, intensive burning, over cropping, land scarring, and extravagant use of irrigation” necessary for agriculture in less well-suited lands for many environmental ills that plague us today (Southwick, 130-131, 1996). In addition, even cultures themselves could develop destructive technologies and practices, such as the much studied culture of Easter Island. In addition, if technology is developed to serve culture, then why does culture not react more quickly when it becomes evident that a technology is dangerous? It seems evident that technologies have a certain hold over cultures, and that they are not easy to get rid of once they are established. Culture does not merely dictate the nature of technology, but it seems that technology must also affect culture.

However, some thinkers have seemed to argue that technology dictates strongly the nature of culture. These types of thinkers tend to view technology as a kind of unstoppable juggernaut, which appears in cultures and forcibly changes it. Carlo Cipolla presented this type of argument about the “Two Revolutions.” He portrayed the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions as introducing technologies to the culture, which then caused a major shift in the economic and social culture. (Cipolla, 1978) Certainly, many of the writers seemed to think about agriculture as being a technology which had great power over culture. Karl Marx seemed to be an advocate of this type of historic construction, with technology largely in control. Marx structured his view of history as being distinguishable in epochs, and that the epochs were defined by their modes of production. In each epoch, the mode of production strongly dictated the social patterns and structures practiced within the culture. Since mode of production is very closely related to the available technologies, it seems as though the inevitable historical progression of Marx bears a eerie similarity to the theory of the technological juggernaut. However, there are certainly problems with the juggernaut theory as well.

My chief problem with the idea of culture simply reacting to the inevitable and irresistible march of technology is that cultures do not seem to be particularly adept at this process. There are numerous examples of technologies that were developed within cultures and adopted from without to which cultures do not adapt well. The Easter Island culture did not adapt well to the technology which allowed them to move their large monuments, but was so terribly costly in the way of wood. Similarly, the Inuit Native Americans who used spear guns introduced from outside sources to great cultural and environmental detriment are another example. Neither of these cultures were able to adapt their practices very efficiently to the new technologies, and instead suffered greatly from the shortages caused by overuse. Tradition within a culture is an immensely conservative force, and seems to debunk the notion of cultures which are meant to swiftly adapt to the sometimes very rapid development of technology.

I have showed positive and negative arguments for both of the theories of the relationship between culture and technological development. Now I will be brutally honest, I do not know what the most appropriate construction would be. Honestly, I’m not sure that anyone would be able to know. Often, the evidence has been lost in the shadow of history, and even people of that time would have difficulty fully characterizing the relationship. If we are honest, I’m not sure that we could say for sure whether computers grew out of a cultural need for greater processing power, or whether our culture simply reacted to the invention by increasing our information output. Most likely, the relationship is not a linearly causal one but would instead feature examples of both constructions. Within every technological development there can probably be found an element of cultural necessity and an element of simple scientific and technological creativity.


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Last modified: 2/20/03