The Separation of Technology and Culture
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
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.
Descartes, Rene Meditations, on First Philosophy, 1641. Donald A. Cress. Hackett
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
Drower, M.S., A History of Technology, from Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires
Oxford Clarendon Press, 1958.
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Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 3/27/06