The beginnings of modern technology may have developed largely because of cultural attitudes that were unrelated to technological advancement. Interestingly, technology is often a side effect of humans’ desires outside of pure technology production. New technologies may emerge due to an interest in acquiring or protecting territory, traveling, develop economically, or simply dealing with the realities of the environment. Humans’ natural wants and the production of new technologies often cycle in positive feedback loops. In other words, as humans develop certain attitudes, they alter their environments in order to fulfill the goals that they aim to achieve. As these ideals are met, new technologies emerge, and these technologies continue to influence cultural views. According to the scholar A.R. Hall, technology also “exercise[s] a ‘working control’ over [the] environment” (Adas 1989, p. 5). This paper examines the ways in which various cultural attitudes influence the development of technology throughout history, and vice versa. In addition, it discusses the past and potential environmental effects that technology has on the environment.
A prime example of technology’s influence on human behavior is European expansion throughout the world hundreds of years ago. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, technology was not valued highly in European society, and thus only small and isolated areas of Europe experienced or were aware of technological breakthroughs. At this point in time, the only Europeans visiting foreign lands were travelers, merchants, or missionaries. While technology was mildly important to those who observed foreign territories, most European travelers focused on “religion, dress, facial features” and social patterns when passing judgment on societies abroad (Adas 1989, p. 28). Since Christianity was pervasive throughout Europe, most travelers felt superior to non-Western peoples because of their distinct religious and cultural beliefs. Modern navigation instruments and technological mastery were only important in that they gave missionaries more access to the territories and ruling elite that they hoped to convert on their travels. Only later, when technology gained more importance domestically, did European observers heavily document science and technology in their travels, and use it as a point of comparison when they wrote. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when technology and innovation became widespread during the Industrial Revolution, European explorers really noticed how different they were from the Western world in terms of scientific understanding and technology. “In combination with general estimates of the level of a given society’s material culture, technological achievement did much to determine the extent to which its people were esteemed or held in contempt” (Adas 1989, p. 33). While there is no way of knowing, it may be possible that Europeans’ pride in their cultural advancement gave them the confidence to continue exploring and conquering new lands. The spread of people across the world certainly had a strong impact on the environment, because European formed new settlements throughout the world, bringing with them a strong interest in technology.
Perhaps a more specific example of the relationship between cultural attitudes and technology is the advancement of the textile industry in Europe. An economic downturn hit the rural poor particularly hard in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Linen promoters felt that charity encouraged indolence, and thus they promoted the general view of the time that work was morally redemptive (Schneider 1993, p. 185). They applied this idea to spinning, asserting that the development of the spinning industry could alleviate poverty and unemployment (Schneider 1993, p. 186).
Changing attitudes towards women also pushed the spinning revolution forward. It was becoming more acceptable for poor women to work, and since marriage was so highly valued, promoters endorsed the textile industry in a way that was attractive to women. Promoters encouraged competition in order to advance the industry, sending the message that the most feminine women would be the best spinners, and thus, the best wives. In addition, men came by in the evenings to court with the women while they were spinning. The cultural attitudes towards women ultimately enhanced population growth, and in general, pushed the technology of textiles forward. It provided employment, attracted migrant workers to cities, and encouraged marriage. In reality, the promoters were probably correct. Population rose, and marriage began to happen earlier and more frequently, likely as a result of spinning (Schneider 1993, p. 186). In this instance, the cultural attitudes of the time enhanced a certain technology, and with the development of the textile industry came a change in Europe’s demographic. This change was reflected in younger families and growth in the population – both of which could lead to further development in the textile industry, due to increasing demand. Textile production also heavily impacted the environment, resulting in nutrient-deficient soil, water pollution, and the cultivation of land (Schneider 1993, p. 203).
Worldwide, culture and human nature have induced warfare. War also promotes technological growth, and in societies with technological sophistication, there is some correlation to more frequent instances of war. Paul Ehrlich discusses humans’ motives for war in his book “The Dominance of Culture”. He cites territory and mating as the main biological reasons for engaging in war, but he also recognizes that culture promotes warfare as well. Changes in society like agricultural technology and large, stratified settlements, may make warfare more likely. Agriculture developed due to population growth about 10,000 years ago. Since intensified food production was necessary to feed a larger population, and the population only kept growing after settlements were established, it is natural that agricultural technology would become more advanced to increase production output. Better technology also meant that labor was replaced with capital. In other words, manual labor became less important, and people were able to specialize in various professions. Additionally, enhanced agricultural technology may have left more laborers available as soldiers. These soldiers were necessary because of population growth and the necessity of larger settlements and resources for the agricultural society. War was often the answer to obtaining land for settlements. Societies had an increasing need to defend their settlements, and it may be for this reason that warfare technology was propelled forward. However, it is difficult to tell whether technological innovation caused more frequent warfare, or whether more frequent warfare caused technological innovation. Most likely, the causality runs both ways, and many other cultural factors were involved as well, such as religion. In modern times, warfare technology has progressed so far that humans have the ability to kill the entire population of the Earth, and warfare can significantly degrade the environment (Ehrlich 2000, p. 212-213).
The complexities of society propel technological advancement, and technology, in return, may affect human behavior or the makeup of the environment. Certain cultural attitudes promote technological progress. For instance, intense competition for land or resources or the need for growth in the economy may drive the development of new technologies. In most cases, technological learning and progress eases peoples’ livelihoods, but we must be wary of how far technology is taken, and whether progress is made for the right reasons.
Adas, Michael. “Machines as the Measure of Men”. 1989. Cornell University Press.
Ehrlich, Paul R. “The Dominance of Culture”. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the
Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000.
Schneider, Jane. “Rumpelstiltskin's Bargain: Folklore and the Merchant Capitalist
Intensification of Linen Manufacture in Early Modern Europe.” Washington,
1993: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 3/7/10webmaster