The Separation of Technology and Culture

Matt Klinman

Perhaps a good way to look at the relationship between human culture and technology is to liken it to Descartes’ idea of the dualism inside the self of the body and the mind. That is to say, culture is to society as the mind is to the self. Similarly, technology is, while not quite the body of a culture, a representation of a culture’s knowledge of its environment. Directly related to this is the manner in which a culture interacts with the environment it is in. To explain the failures of man, Descartes reasons that man errs when his will extends beyond his knowledge (Descartes). Extending the metaphor further I will posit that a society fails when its cultural practices extend beyond, or act without reference too, that culture’s knowledge of an environment. This abuse of an environment happens by way of the technologies that this culture has developed.
To step away from the abstraction of that metaphor, it will help to look at an example. Clive Ponting in the first chapter of his book A Green History of the World tells the story of the development and degradation of the civilization on Easter Island. It is an interesting case to study because it is clear that what caused the failure of the Easter Island society was a self-induced cultural dependence on trees. The civilization on Easter Island had flourished for a thousand years after the island had first been settled. Indeed, despite the island’s small size and somewhat limited resources, the civilization on Easter Island grew and developed, becoming the most advanced of all the Polynesian societies, Due to relatively lax agricultural demands, the people of Easter Island we free to develop complex rituals and a sophisticated understanding of astronomical alignments (Ponting, 4). However, the technologies the Easter islanders had developed and integrated into their culture eventually caused their downfall. The reason this cultural masochism is possible lies in the fundamentals of the relationship between cultural change and technological development.
In the Easter Island culture a large importance was placed on the creation of enormous statues called ahu. These statues were used both for religious ceremonies as well as a form of competition between clans on the island. The technology that the Easter Islanders had developed to transport these enormous statues, often weighing tens of tons, involved great quantities of man power and trees. In addition to this, the people of Easter Island relied on trees to create shelter, boats, and other living necessities. Because of these cultural pursuits, the resources on the island were abused and, sometime before about 1600, depleted entirely. When Europeans discovered Easter Island in the eighteenth century they found a civilization of about 3000 people in complete cultural disrepair. The survivors of this failed civilization had resorted to cannibalism and had quite literally forgotten all of the cultural and technological achievement of their own society at its peak (Ponting, 4-7).
As shown in this example, cultural change and development is always constant but is not always a progression towards success. While a culture will be aided by, and relies on, its own technological advancements to prosper, it is not a natural tendency for a culture to heed to the limitations of its environment. This can be explained by saying that technology will always advance at the demands of a culture and will give to a culture what it needs from nature, however, culture will not necessarily advance and become more efficient with respect to its relationship with its environment. It is typical for a culture to take for granted technology; integrating technology into itself, but not allow itself to be directly affected by anything but itself.
To clarify this further it perhaps help to look at the manner with which a culture will progress. There have been many theories as to how to explain cultural progression but it is not an easy thing to quantify. Paul Ehrlich in addressing this question points to the ideas of Marx and Hegel. Marx, as he says, “postulated that human history was a sequence of epochs based on modes of production – slavery, feudalism, capitalism – each of which led to characteristic social relations. (Ehrlich, 230)”
Ehrlich, with this, introduces the idea of “cultural evolution.” He defines this as “a gradual change, often into a more complex form, of the body of extregenetic information possessed by humanity.” The term cultural evolution means cultural change and increases in cultural complexity but it also implies that human beings have arrived at the cultural state they are in because of some form of natural selection. That is to say, our governmental, economic, and social systems are all the most efficient in human history and those that no longer exist have fallen to the wayside because they were unsuited for the environment they were in.
But what about these failed societies? How could a civilization such as the one on Easter Island create a cultural state that would naturally move to a point of self-destruction due to environmental neglect? Why is the environment marginalized by cultures that are so clearly dependant on it? To refer back to our Descartes metaphor, it can be rationalized that culture does not look out side of itself to its physical component, technology, when going through changes.
The importance, however, of technology and the environment on a culture is actually exceedingly significant. As Paul Ehrlich points out the agricultural revolution was a period of technological progress that similarly “led to a period of cultural evolution unprecedented in its rapidity and scale (Ehrlich, 227).” Successful civilizations realize this importance. Take, for example, technologies associated with water or agriculture. Water supply and irrigation technologies were the most fundamental to early societies and a very large amount of effort was put into their developments, especially in areas where water was scarce, such as the Middle East (Drower, Ch. 19). For proof of the cultural importance of water related technologies in ancient societies one doesn’t have to look much further than Hammurabi’s code which contains several laws pertaining specifically to irrigation (Drower, 548). Technological advancements are always based on cultural need, be those basic needs such as food and water or the needs of leisure and warfare.
While the story of Easter Island is unique, its lessons are unquestionably universal. We see here an interplay of culture and technology that is all too familiar to our modern day world. A civilization that will fail is one that relies on its environment and is able to utilize its resources in an increasingly complex manner but does not put technological advancement over culture. This is a culture that will prosper due to technological advancement, but will not acknowledge when its own relationship with its environment is unsustainable. The inhabitants of Easter Island continued to spend their efforts building ahus to foster tribe rivalries rather than develop a better method of transport for them. This civilization, like others, made the erroneous assumption that technology would always be able to provide for culture what it desires, but this simply is not true.
What people such as Paul Ehrlich point out is, in order for modern humans to avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders, we must adopt the mentality of another Pacific Island civilization, that of Tikopia. The civilization on Tikopia, a dot in the Pacific even smaller than Easter Island, recognized its trajectory towards resource depletion and began to institute cultural changes. By developing an intensive arboriculture system and instating various population-control mechanisms they were able to avoid the degradation that befell the Easter Islanders (Ehrlich 247). A similar forced change of modern culture based on the realities of the environment that we live in is perhaps the only way to ensure that all off human civilization does not go the way of the Easter Islanders. It is imperative that we as a civilization realize that the relationship between us and our environment is a two way street. We use technology to take from our environment, but we must also use technology to sustain our environment.
Works Cited
Descartes, Rene Meditations, on First Philosophy, 1641. Donald A. Cress. Hackett Publishing, 1993.
Ponting, Clive, A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991.
Ehrlich, Paul R., Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect Island Press, 2000
Drower, M.S., A History of Technology, from Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires Oxford Clarendon Press, 1958.


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last updated 3/27/06