Culture as Technology 3/12/06
If technology is considered to be the application of knowledge towards the accomplishment of specific goals and we use Geertz's view of culture as a set of “shared symbols” that allow the needs of the individuals within the culture to be met, technology can be conceptualized as tools or practices that promote cultural function, and thus help individual members meet their needs. According to Geertz, culture is a human construction in which meanings are networked in an agreed-upon way. Technology could be viewed similarly, although it is more the product of shared meanings than it is the meanings themselves. In other words, technology usually refers to application of a theory to an everyday problem. As cultural needs are met by technologies, new needs develop, essentially created by this technology. New technologies are developed to meet these new needs, and so on (McGinn 1991). Thus, technologies are both mirrors and shapers of the cultures that they support, and technological applications of similar theories may differ across cultures.
The variability of technologies that are informed by similar theories becomes particularly salient within the realm of product design. When one compares modern products designed within different cultural frameworks, These electric water-boilers, for example, are found in almost every Japanese home, but have little relevance for most Americans or Europeans not of Japanese descent, although boiling water is used in these cultures. It is more difficult to find uniquely Western products that have not been exported to other industrialized parts of the world, but products like the typewriter, which is only relevant to cultures that have phonetic alphabets and assign value to official-looking documents, or the lawnmower, which is useless for agriculture and is instead meant for independent homeowners who subscribe to a normative cultural image of “house” are distinctly Western technologies informed by somewhat universal values (communication and control over the natural landscape).
This culturally-mediated application of ideas through technology also existed in far earlier times, and can be observed by examining the differences between irrigation technologies associated with different cultures. Dower writes of early irrigation that “each region [of the near-east] had its own methods, determined by geological formation and hydrography...and, not the least bit by social conditions” (Dower 522). As is the case with modern product design, the desire to move water to the most productive areas was common to most early agricultural civilizations, but the specific technology employed to accomplish this task differed. The Phoenicians constructed aqueducts to shuttle water from the mountains of Lebanon to their agricultural sites, and this technology greatly influenced Greek and Roman water conduction techniques. Earlier, Assyrians used a lever-based lift called a shaduf to raise water up a series of sequentially higher terraced pools. While these different techniques were largely a response to the ecology local to each culture, the rise of the city and its comparatively dense population necessitated the development of some technologies, such as large reservoirs and wells, that may have been of less value to a spread-out, purely agricultural society. Centralized government also allowed the construction of large projects, such as aqueducts and dams, while water-control devices such as the shaduf and small canals were available tools for small groups of farmers.
Because the knowledge (of which water delivery was a significant part), practices, and institutions that comprise culture were largely responsible for the success and growth of early civilizations, could culture itself be considered a kind of technology? This is an ambiguous question, and quickly becomes one of semantics; if technology is by definition adaptive or useful, then culture does not qualify. While it is critical to the onset and maintenance of large-scale human populations, culture may include a number of maladaptive aspects. These features may have been adaptive at a certain time, but can become entrenched traditions that persist even as changing conditions render them maladaptive. The degeneration of Easter Island society is a clear example of self-destructive culture. Technology and culture are not so easily teased apart however, and tradition may play a role in the retention of obsolete technologies. Furthermore, the requirement that technology be useful and adaptive leaves very few items within this realm, as most of our technologies, particularly large-scale technologies that relate to energy or manufacturing, are unsustainable in the very long term. Recognizing that most technologies are adaptive and useful for a limited period of time, culture could certainly be described as a sort of meta-technology, one that is required as a foundation for and is shaped by all others.
Drower, M.S., "Ch. 19: Water-supply, irrigation, and agriculture," in "A History of Technology, from Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires" edited by Singer, Holmyard, and Hall, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1958, pp. 520-557.
Geertz, Clifford. "Thick Description: Toward an Interpretative Theory of Culture." In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.