Cultural Effects of Technology Transfer

Jessie Whitfield

Human history has demonstrated that the flow of information is inevitable; cultures across the world have been trading ideas for thousands of years. Dick Teresi claims, however, that "a technology evolves within a culture and its particular demands and preoccupations, intertwined with that society’s particular environment.” (Lost Discoveries, 356) While this statement holds true for many innovations, not all technologies are direct products of the cultures using them. As human communications increased, technologies were frequently invented in one culture and transferred to another. The cultures that acquired technologies from outside sources oftentimes utilized them in ways originally not intended. Did these external technologies have positive or negative effects on the cultures that accepted them? The consequences of implanted technologies vary from case to case depending on a number of factors, including environmental and lifestyle differences between the two communities. To highlight the networking of these factors and weigh the effects of transferring technologies, I will compare two scenarios: the European’s introduction of guns into Inuit culture and the bringing of horses to the Native Americans by the Spaniards.

The story of European small arms begins with the cannon. The cannon, first used in the 1346 Battle of Cressey, was gradually reduced in size over the next three centuries until a cannon small enough to attach to the end of a stick emerged (Ferris, 3). This innovation gave birth to the gun, an invention that revolutionalized European warfare. Because the gun was invented for primarily military purposes, Europeans used it more in battlefields than on hunting grounds, where bows and arrows still dominated (Ferris, 3). When the Europeans introduced small arms into Inuit culture, however, they became instruments of seal hunting. The Inuit’s original seal hunting methods involved harpooning the animals through a hole in the ice. Seal carcass retrieval was difficult, so the Inuit designed their harpoons specifically for efficient recovery of seal bodies. Their engineering was so successful that only one seal body sunk out of every twenty (Ehrlich, 216).

Unlike the harpoon, however, the gun was not specially designed for seal hunting. Thus, when the Inuit acquired rifles from the Hudson’s Bay Company and started shooting seals, the bodies would sink before they could be harpooned and retrieved. Hunting efficiency plummeted dramatically; nineteen out of every twenty seals hunted with guns sank (Ehrlich 216). Before long, Inuit hunting began depleting seal populations. The introduction of small arms dealt a blow to both the Inuit community, whose hunting efficiency decreased, and their environment, which suffered a loss of mass numbers of animals. In this case, the technological advance was detrimental to the culture.

In my opinion, this pattern resulted because the culprit technology did not arise from the Inuit culture but was instead adapted from an outside source. For many years the Inuit harpoon sufficed for their hunting needs, but the introduction of European weaponry upset the progression of Inuit technology. In other words, the Europeans implanted a product that was not needed in Inuit culture and in doing so, produced harmful effects for both the Inuits and their environment. If the Inuit had developed a need for small arms over time and designed a gun suited to their hunting methods, perhaps the gun would generate less harmful effects. Therefore, this scenario suggests that technologies inserted into community from an external source affect a culture in a more damaging way than technologies that arise from within a culture.

The Spaniards’ introduction of horses into North American provides a similar example of this argument. Previous to the arrival of the Spaniards, horses did not exist in North America. During the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors brought cavalries with them to Central America and left behind many horses. Over time, mustang herds migrated northward and eventually reached the Plains Indians, who adopted them into their hunting methods (Native Americans and the Horse, 1). With the increased mobility afforded by riding horses, Plains Indians could target larger game animals (class discussion, February 11, 2003).

Hunting larger prey benefited these Native Americans because it increased their food intake and allowed their populations to expand. Eventually, the mounted Plains Indians became extremely efficient buffalo hunters, perhaps too efficient for their own good (Native Americans and the Horse, 1). A common hunting method included herding bison into canyons, killing animals in excess of what was needed by the tribe to survive. For example, in Colorado ten thousand years ago, Plains Indians incited a stampede off a cliff and killed two hundred bison, many of which could not be recovered for food (Ponting, 30). With this wasteful hunting system, the mounted Plains Indians rapidly depleted the bison population. Their hunting abilities wreaked havoc on the environment around them. The Plains Indians gained this efficiency from their horses, a technology introduced from an outside culture. Thus, although the introduction of horses benefited the Plains Indians, the environment suffered greatly for it.

This case of technology transfer carries many of the same implications as the transfer of guns from Europeans to Inuits. As with the Inuits, the insertion of an outside technology into the Plains Indian culture resulted in a drastic plunge in animal population numbers. Horse riding may have initially improved Indian hunting techniques, but by facilitating the near extinction of bison, it caused problems for Native American tribes later on. I believe that because neither community was accustomed to these technologies, their introduction produced harmful effects.

Of course, there are exceptions to this argument; cases exist in which the transfer of a technology from one culture to another benefits the recipient culture without any deleterious side effects. My assertion, however, does not claim that the sharing of technology is damaging in all scenarios. Instead, I believe that the risk of harmful consequences increases when one culture introduces a technology into a foreign culture as opposed to the latter culture developing the technology on its own. According to Teresi, inventions arise in a community for a specific purpose: to fill a technological void. As evidenced by the Plains Indian and Inuit examples, introducing a technology into a culture that has no void upsets the natural progression of technological development, oftentimes with drastic consequences.

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last updated 2/6/03