...all this time...

The Relationship Between Culture and Technology

Lindsay Devon Brin

What I’m thinking about:
What affect does technology have on culture? As in, how does what we work with dictate how we relate to each other? (Do we have war for limited resources? Would hate have arisen without jealousy? Could it be conquered with plenty?)

The relationship between technology and culture is cyclical. Logically, a culture will develop technologies based on the needs or desires of the people, because this is where the creative influences lie. As this technology spreads and is absorbed into the people’s lives, it affects their culture and way of life. This change in lifestyle can also occur when a technology developed outside a culture is introduced into the culture, providing an external influence. As Paul Ehrlich explains, there are technological evolutions and associated cultural evolutions, and they do not necessarily occur concurrently. Ehrlich [believes] that, in our modern era, technology is evolving faster than culture, and a major cultural evolution needs to occur to be able to deal with modern technology properly. (NPR, Ehrlich) Throughout history, though, there have also been cultural evolutions that lead to the creation and evolution of technology; hence, the cycle.

History often makes it evident that when people desire something that another culture has, they show little hesitation in taking it. In many cases, trade has taken the place of blatant theft and warfare, but there are always exceptions. As technologies evolved and spread to different parts of the world, the interdependence between peoples increased. At this point there are few self-sustaining societies. (Even our interdependent societies are not permanently sustainable on our Earth).

This limitation of resources leads to need, which in turn may lead to warfare. It is true that the civilized, even moral – if morality can be an argument in this politically correct world – approach involves trade and does not involve senseless killing. And, of course, not all conflicts are based on immediate need. However, many conflicts can be traced to a limitation of resources (i.e. land, water, women). Thus culture – warfare – is affected by technology, and the needs that it creates.

Technology is developed as a way to further a way of life, thus making common tasks easier, if not simpler. It doesn’t make sense for a culture to invent something that is not relevant or useful. Technologies are determined by a culture’s “demands and preoccupations,” and depend on the existing environment of the society. (Teresi) For example, nomadic cultures have no use for architecture or other developments of a non-mobile life, but in 1600 BCE the chariot was a welcome addition to daily life. (Chant) In China in the 11th century, Tseng Kung-Lang published a formula for gunpowder, following centuries of his people’s interest in explosions, eruptions and colorful displays of fireworks. (Teresi) Eskimos developed harpoons with detachable heads, so that, upon killing a seal, the shaft would float to the surface of the sea and simplify retrieval of the seal (Ehrlich). The time-consuming activity of seal hunting was often the Eskimos’ only source of food, and so it was important to develop a technology that was not wasteful. In the Indus Valley in the third millennium BC, a people developed who were more interested in organized cities than in temples or warfare. Artifacts found there include seals, beads, and ceramics, but there is no evidence of warfare. (Teresi) More warlike cultures leave artifacts such as spears, shields and helmets. The Harappa had no use for these technologies. Thus, the culture of each people dictated the technologies that they developed.

This connection runs the other way as well: people are affected by the technologies that are incorporated into their societies. In ancient Greece, a natural spring was an important criterion for the settling of a city. (Chant) Fountain-houses between the 7th and 5th centuries BCE provided water for many Greek towns. Women and girls met at the fountain-house to collect water, and so this daily interaction became a central part of their social lives. (Chant) Furthermore, the very existence of a city in a certain place is intertwined with technology. People will not settle down in a place without agriculture, natural resources (or something to trade for them) such as metal, minerals, and energy sources, and a good location, for both defense and transportation. That is to say, for a localized society to exist and survive, these things are necessary, and the sedentary society will develop technologies such as trade and agriculture. This creates a dependent cycle between certain technologies and culture.

In some cases, the introduction of a technology developed in an external society has dramatic consequences. Europeans in the 13th century saw China’s navigational expertise and gunpowder and had ideas other than exploration and entertainment. (Teresi) Europe was densely populated and so uncomfortably crowded, physically and ideologically. (Ehrlich) During the First Crusade, Pope Urban II told the French nobility that the bordered land they inhabited was “too narrow for [their] large population” and encouraged them to “wrest [the holy land] froom the wicked race and subject it to [themselves].” (Ehrlich) With this sort of pressure throughout the centuries, Europeans ran with the idea of ships and explored the world, with the intention of claiming found land, whether or not anyone already lived there. With them, they took guns based on the gunpowder that the Chinese had invented, using this power as leverage. (The Chinese had most definitely used their gunpowder for war and not just for entertainment, and their inventions were lethal. However, they had not used the gunpowder to turn exploration to conquest.)

When Eskimos were introduced to guns and large ships, they used these inventions to hunt for seals. In the fresh water, 9 out of 10 killed seals sank too quickly to be retrieved. But even though the method was inefficient, the Eskimos were able to collect more seals than before, leading to a general increase in output and an endangerment of the seal population. (Ehrlich) (Note the connection to agriculture, in that, while the methods may not have been as efficient as and were definitely more time-consuming than gathering, the total output was significantly increased. Thus the technology is accepted unconditionally. Maybe we should stop to think sometimes.)

Ehrlich expands this idea to technological and cultural evolutions, specifically explaining that in modern America, we have progressed farther technologically than culturally. We now need a cultural evolution – not a genetic evolution – to steer us in the right direction, especially in terms of our relationship to the environment (i.e. disposal of waste). (NPR, Ehrlich) Technologies that we have developed to make energy usable, such as the burning of coal and nuclear power, have changed the way we interact with the environment and with other societies. (In fact, we have been affecting the environment since we first started burning wood.) We have developed a need for materials from other countries and from the earth that we live on, and we don’t yet have a culture that is aware of this dependency or lack of sustainability. We need to progress culturally to take care of the technology we already have.

Often the need for something we don’t have leads to intense desire and then warfare. If energy could be created without localized resources (i.e. solar hydrogen power), could this lessened need lead to decreased warfare? Countries will always be dependent on each other for goods that require specialization, such as technology. Economically, this interdependence is the most viable, logical and sensible approach. (Econ.) (I am not arguing for independence or an isolated culture; I am arguing for a source of energy that does not require tearing up someone else’s land and people.) And it’s true that the deep-seated hatred that exists in this world cannot be eradicated with the invention of a new technology. But it is possible that some of the inter-country desperation could be ended.


And as these words were spoken I swear I hear
The old man laughing,
'What good is a used up world, and how could it be
worth having'
-Sting, All This Time


All bibliographical information taken from Professor Carr Everbach’s blackboard site for this Envs02 class: Human Nature, Technology and the Environment
Chant, Colin, "Chapter 2: Greece" in "Pre-industrial Cities and Technology," Routledge Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.
Econ.: Introductory Economics, taught by Prof. Amanda Bayer at Swarthmore College, Fall 2001. [So it turns out that it was useful to take Economics, after all. If you ever read this, Prof. Bayer, thank you.]
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.
Ehrlich takes the Pope Urban II quote from “Burns, 1963, p. 358”
NPR interview with author Paul Ehrlich on his book "Human Natures, Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect" from October 27, 2000.
Teresi, Dick, "Lost Discoveries: The ancient roots of modern science", Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8, pp. 325-367.
*****I can’t find this source…can anyone else? email me! thanks.
Ehrlich pulls the Pope Urban II quote from “Burns, 1963, p. 358”


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last updated le 21 fevrier 2003