Why Writing:

The Influence of Culture on Technology

Elizabeth Crampton

When I first began looking at this assignment, my head kept reversing the topic to the influence of human technology on culture instead of the impact of culture on human technology. Growing up in the modern world, I have become accustomed to the notion that our culture has been intrinsically shaped by the technologies that were created by each of the past generations and the possibility of what future generations might discover rather than the other way around. Yet the more I thought about the topic, the more sense it made. While humanity’s cultural and social evolution is jumpstarted each time a new type of technology is put to use within our society, the technology itself could never have been taken advantage of without the driving force of some sort of cultural need. It is possible for someone to invent a piece of technology without being influenced by any particular cultural demand; however, without a societal niche, the technology will never be able to spread and effect change within the human population. For despite how potentially valuable the piece of technology might be in theory, our definition of technology is inextricably tied up within its usefulness to humanity; therefore a piece of technology can only be considered truly significant if it can help bring about changes on a broader cultural scale rather than being limited to mere individual amusements. Without a cultural vacuum to demand the invention of new ideas, technology would not be able to spread and evolve and thus never be able to exist at its maximum potential.

While technology could spread during the era of the hunter-gatherers, the development of the modern state resulted in the creation of a more efficient conduit through which culture could express its needs; however, the primary shapers of technological innovation were those involved within commerce and government. These people were attempting to establish their dominance within their culture, based upon the division of labor and resources, and in order to fulfill that need they adopted innovative technologies such as the written word in order to maintain their cultural hegemony.

The modern state had begun to evolve as hunter-gatherers began to stay in one place for longer periods of time and invest more time and energy into the cultivation of crops. With the advent of settled life, communities could make use of technologies like farm implements and irrigation systems that no longer had to be easily portable as well as useful and as a result they were able to produce a generous surplus (Ehrlich, 237, 238). This surplus resulted in a greater population as the availability of food provided the resources to support an increased human presence. Yet these people did not all need to be farmers in order to feed the continually growing human population; the original surplus and the new developments within technology were more than enough to feed the burgeoning population. Therefore as environmental pressures forced regions together in order to protect their valued items and ensure the stability of their food supply in times of crisis, men who no longer had to produce the surplus took on the responsibility of managing it. These men would then appoint friends and family members to appropriate others’ surpluses and a group of “proto-soldiers” to deal with anyone who might protest the confiscation of their resources, a system which further exacerbated the stratification of society and the division of labor and ultimately led to the creation of the modern state (Ehrlich, 249). Without a system of trade, however, the agricultural surplus would not allow the men in positions of power within these new states to retain their authority because the justification for their position came from the ability to obtain resources that were essential to the life of the community.

Trade originally began with a very limited exchanging of goods and services between hunter-gathers but as communities became more stable and increasing able to indulge in luxuries, markets became more formal and some goods were given a standard value of exchange (Ehrlich, 266). Beads, crops, gold and salt, among other things, became known as “commodity money” and allowed individuals to show off their wealth and store it in a more convenient form. Yet as communities became more specialized and reliant on outside goods and states began to more clearly define the lines that separated them from their neighbors, money was invented in order to keep the wheels of both local and long distance markets well greased. Money was more portable then most other goods and so it allowed merchants to travel farther faster as well as guarantee a specific value for their goods that would not change once they arrived back to their home markets. Early states in particular, however, benefited from this system because it provided another mechanism of control over their people and added another layer of bureaucracy to further establish their credibility and extend their influence (Ehrlich, 267).

The first known writing developed in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 ago as a way increase the efficiency of the Sumerian accounting system (Ehrlich, 267). Yet while the reasons for creating iconographic images originally developed in response to the extended system of trade which had sprung up with the advent of the modern state, the reason that this particular technology began to evolve into the system we know today was because of the cultural demands of the ruling elites.

As the population under the state’s control continued to grow, the ratio of people in charge of ruling and administering the state and those who were being forced to abide by its demands became increasingly lopsided. The state was attempting to expand its influence along with its population but as people became even more distant from one another, geographically and monetarily, the elites were continually searching for even more efficient means of control. The culture that they had established was based on each individual being limited to a specialized function and writing proved to be a perfect mechanism to keep their society from falling back into egalitarianism.

Writing allowed the human brain to access new realms of stored information that could be preserved across space and time; therefore it permitted economic systems to reach whole new levels of complexity and thus limited the participation within that system to the literate and their accountants, further establishing the hegemony of the ruling class (Ehrlich, 267, 268). The power of the written word soon moved out of the purely economic sphere, however, as the culture of the elites continued to demand a more effective way to control the people under their influence. Personal contact with specific individuals had diminished as the state and the people had become farther removed from one another and so the written word, in the form of laws and religious commandments, became an even more important way of projecting the power of a localized state over a vast region (Ehrlich, 267). Yet as writing became increasingly important to modern culture, more effective ways of producing it and understanding it were continually developed to provide access to a greater number of people.

However, despite the cultural benefits that writing has provided for humanity in the past and the present, and its obvious effectiveness as an agent of change, writing was not necessarily hardwired into humanity’s destiny. The Incas were able to engage in complex and successful economy without a system of writing (Ehrlich, 267) and early Middle Eastern societies could have probably flourished as well.  The reason that writing did not die out was because of its usefulness as a technology to the particular culture in power.

Yet despite all of the various practical and social concerns that plagued the ruling class of the early states thereby creating a niche that writing could fill, I think that the biggest lure of the written word was its sense of permanence. As men began to revel in their individual accomplishments rather than their communities’ success, they would want to ensure that their deeds would be remembered not only to their children but their grandchildren’s children. Therefore these men adopted the technology of the written word to not only control those beneath them but to allow them to die with the knowledge that their power and legend lived on, even if they did not.

Works Cited

Ehrlich, Paul R. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect. Island P, 2000.


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last updated 1/25/06