“Technology is human innovation in action.” ~ Author Unknown
Humans and all hominids before humans were - and are - the maker of tools. The two qualities that separate humans from all other species on this planet are our ability to create technology and to create the systems that technology requires. Technology is the catalyst for cultural change. The process of political, economic, and social adjustment to these technological changes is cultural evolution.
Many animals construct things using parts of their bodies as tools. Beavers cut down trees to make their dams and lodges. Other animals make nests, hives, or warrens. A few animals, like crows and apes, do have the ability to make simple tools but appear anatomically unable to go beyond a rudimentary level.
There is a close relationship between culture and the environment in which it exists. For all but a few isolated hunter-gather groups, technology is the most important shaper of that environment. It often produces unanticipated consequences in parts of our lives seemingly far removed from the original idea. Often the positive aspects of new technology are immediately apparent but the negative consequences are not, thus requiring an adjustment in behavior as the result.
Technological changes can increase our standard of living and our freedom. Other times it places limits on behavior, sometimes by intention or design; sometimes because of negative results. Laws that limit cell phone use while driving are good examples of limiting the behavior of new technology for the common good.
It is easy to think that the most recent technological inventions and discoveries are the most important, and indeed many are, such as the unraveling of the genetic code or the change from analog to digital information. But sometimes some of the simplest technological changes have produced the most dramatic cultural changes.
The use of a vine to tie animal skins around one’s waist to conserve heat, or cooking meat over a fire rather than eating it raw are examples of the ability of technology to extend the habitat range of hominids to most of the globe, to work cooperatively in groups, to learn how to make and to use stone tools, and to discover and make fire. More recent technological innovations have reduced the physical advantages that men have had over women since our origins, accelerating the pace towards true equality of mind and spirit.
Technology accelerated with the agricultural revolution and its sedentary lifestyle. As with stone tools and controlling fire, some certain pivotal inventions and discoveries have had a trigger effect that promoted further technology in a feedback loop that continues to accelerate to this day.
The pace of technological change is exponential. Each new contrivance or system feeds upon itself, creating new fields of technology and decreasing the time between its introduction and its application. Many discoveries and inventions do not address the ethical, legal, and social issues that are created by the onset of the innovations. The consequences have been, and continue to be, immense.
Here is a quick summary of the major technological advancements made in the last five or six thousand years in the following fields: social-economic groups; agriculture; transportation; war; communication and expanding knowledge, power/energy, and the growth of political institutions and the bureaucracy to run them.
Technology and Cultural Change
Humans have always lived in groups to meet their physical, emotional, and social needs based on the methods best able to meet these needs. Each social group developed around a set of technologies and knowledge that this technology allowed. Each was larger, more complex than the previous social/ economic group that they replaced. For approximately one million years that humans lived as small bands of hunters/gatherers, the world's population grew slowly to around six million people. In these societies, children were a liability until they were in their teens when the males could hunt and the women could bear children. In the past, hunter/gather groups would often have ceremonies to celebrate “coming of age” commiserating the transformation from children to productive adults. The few remaining hunting/ gathering groups that still exist today have similar practices
Technology & Agriculture
Only in the last ten millennia have humans lived as farmers/herders and only in the last five or six millennia in civilization. Farming began in five river valleys in Asia and North Africa about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago after the last ice age. By bringing more land under cultivation the size and complexity of societies increased, resulting in a significant spike in the global population. By 8000 BCE the world population had increased to about 85 million.
Improvements were made in the materials used for tools such as copper replacing stone, which was then replaced by bronze, then by iron and steel. Each new material and discovery led to greater agricultural productivity. Introduction of new strains and types of grains, such as barley and rye, made possible the extension of agriculture to other geographical areas. Once the Americas were discovered by Europeans, potatoes, corn, beans, squash, yams, and other food plants more than doubled the world population’s food options. A new strain of rice from Vietnam allowed for two crops per year when introduced in southern China. Employing this new strain required inventing piping and developing terracing to utilize the steep mountains found there. The wheel was first used to make pots and urns for grain storage, which increased the ability to store food, and only later was it applied vertically for wheels for vehicles.
Usually, in farming societies, the bulk of the food would be harvested annually. With the concentration of population, new systems had to be devised to record and distribute surplus grains. The reason writing and arithmetic were developed was for the recording of the storage and distribution of food. This knowledge was vital for the evolution of civilization to continue. The storage of food and the domestication of animals, genetic tailoring of food crops and animals by selective breeding created ever more surplus of food, which, in turn, allowed for people to specialize in other fields, thus beginning the division of labor.
In our lifetime we are witnessing an agricultural revolution as significant as that which took place 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Humans have acquired the ability to create artificial life by manipulating the DNA of several, often diverse, life forms to form new ones. Scientific literature shows that key data on both the environmental risks and benefits are lacking. The potential for both enormous positive results and negative consequences are there. There is the possibility of vastly increasing food supply by reducing the dependency on artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and creating plants that can grow in areas that they were previously unable to. The other side of the coin is the enormous and potentially cataclysmic potential of the unintended consequences of GMOs or facsimile animals on their impact on food security, bio-safety, and sustainable agriculture. Anyone who has seen, Jurassic Park, or read the short story, No Blades of Grass, is familiar with the unintended consequences of this type of manipulation.
Technology & Transportation
For most of human existence, walking was the major means of transportation. Rafts, canoes, and simple sailboats existed only since Neolithic times. The development of outrigger canoes with sails allowed settling in the far-flung islands of the Pacific Ocean. Other water transportation inventions included the movable sail developed in India, and the development of pulleys, blocks-and-tackle from Greece, the rudder and compass from China, and the triangular sale from India. All these improvements transformed sea travel which extended the range and volume of trade.
Improvements in roads and bridges facilitated travel over greater distances. By the time of the early Roman Empire, there was a trade network that extended over much of Eurasia. Beginning with farming and herding, draft animals were harnessed for pulling.
In the Americas, there were no animals that were more powerful than humans. All societies in Eurasia developed the wheel for pottery and easier transportation. Except in a few cases such as the Incas where wheels were used as toys, wheels were not factors in developing civilization there. This lack of this specific technology combined with the use of steel, guns, and horses were significant factors in their destruction when Europeans began arriving at the end of the 15th century.
The application of new military technologies combined with mass production created the circumstances for the dominance of Great Britain and then the United States in the 18th through 20th century. The invention of the airplane, motor vehicles increased the speed of transportation. The same technologies and transportation led to two world wars and tens of millions of people dying. By the 21st century, we have developed rockets that have propelled robots to outer space and humans to the moon.
Since early civilization societies that controlled trade routes became economic and political powers. The advent of the Industrial Revolution that started in England and spread to North America and a few other countries in Western Europe by the end of the 19th century created the conditions for these societies to dominate the planet. The main reason that the United States expanded over the most productive area of North America in a little over a century was that it possessed superior technology that the indigenous people did not have. At the same time, Great Britain controlled one-quarter of the globe because their technology created the most powerful navy in the world. With the advent of steel ships and steam power, the nations of Western Europe and the United States created a global society of a few haves and a lot of have-nots. By the 20th century, the internal combustion engine-powered ships and vehicles including airplanes. World War I started off using animal power and ended with mechanical power. In the second half of the 20th century, nuclear power also was used to propel ships.
War is a significant driver of technology. The chief factor in major conquests is usually due to a technological edge held by one side over the other. An early example of this was the Indo-Europeans, a small, nomadic tribe from the steppes of Central Asia. The Indo-Europeans were the first to domesticate the horse 5,500 to 6,000 years ago. They developed technology to maximize that advantage with the invention of the bit and bridle combined with the short laminated bow. A sub-set of Indo-Europeans, the Hittites, developed a process to smelt iron and create a light horse-drawn chariot. They were able to easily conquer the original Bronze Age civilizations that were in their paths. They migrated out of the Caucasus region in three directions, west to Europe, southeast to India, and east to China as far as the Gobi desert. The result is over half the peoples of the world today speak variations of their language, including English. It was a similar technological dominance that allowed European and American global conquest from the 15th through 19th centuries.
Communication & Knowledge
Speech evolved some 100,000 years ago where humans used it to coordinate activities of the group, particularly hunting. Writing, which began as symbols developed some 30,000 years ago. They are the basis of human understanding and the vehicle for human knowledge. The use of symbols facilitates human understanding of the world in which we live and serves as the basis upon we which we make judgments. It is through symbols that people make sense of the world around them, and identify with particular groups. Our use of symbols permeates every aspect of our culture from our street signs, religions, and ideologies.
For most of human existence, communication was done by word-of-mouth. Writing and arithmetic started with civilization. They provided for increased participation of larger groups of people. Writing evolved from the pictorial representation of an object to ideograms, where ideas can be expressed by a combination of pictures of physical objects. Today there are many ideographic bumper stickers and emojis. In the first millennium, a syllabic alphabet was developed in the Middle East by the Phoneticians to facilitate commerce between diverse cultures. Semitic languages today still use this system. The Greeks added symbols for vowel sounds, creating our current alphabet vowels, which resulted in still more precise communication. (The world alphabet is, after all, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet; alpha and beta.)
A similar evolutionary process has taken place with mathematics which also went through various cultures, i.e. the Chinese, Greeks, Roman, and Arabic. The concept of zero was conceived about 2,400 years ago in three known cultures, including the Mayans in Central America. Counting evolved from a set of lines into systems represented by numerals. The current system of mathematics was developed by the Gupta civilization is in India and transmitted by the Arabs to Europe. The development of the zero in the Americas was the only known one that was known to develop independently. Working with zero is the basis of the modern world. Without it would not be possible to have calculus, accounting, the ability to make arithmetic computations quickly, computers, and other digital devices.
Democracy is not possible unless society's members are educated and have the time for civic participation. Writing was one of the qualifications for most civilizations and has been around for a little over 5,000 years. It was followed by printing, in the last 1500 years, then electronic communication beginning with photography, the telegraph and telephone in the early 19th century, motion pictures and radio, followed by computers and digital recording in the late 19th century. Today it is possible to access unlimited information at the tip of our fingers on our cell phones via connection to geo-positioning communication satellites hundreds of miles above the earth.
The evolution of technology is responsible for expanding human understanding of how the world works. The same evolutionary processes mentioned above are true in the development of engineering, architecture, the sciences, and other areas of intellectual endeavor.
For most of human existence, humans and other animals provided the source of power. Slave power was used by most societies until the collapse of the Roman Empire less than 1,600 years ago. New sources of power require new means to harness that power. Wind and water were beginning to be used for power during ancient and classical history, but it was nearly two millennia more before there were more significant changes. The Industrial Revolution that began in England in the late 18th century started with the harnessing of falling water. Labor went from cottages to factories. James Watts improved the steam engine, one of the most important technologies of the Industrial Revolution, by creating an energy source much more powerful than any that went before it. It also had a wide application in a variety of inventions such as railroads, boats, and machines to run factories. Within the hundred years, the majority of people in industrial societies moved from the country to the cities. Before the Industrial Revolution, cities spread out horizontally over the land. With the invention of the elevator toward the end of the 19th-century cities developed vertically.
Political Institutions & Bureaucracy
Changes in transportation systems were also responsible for the creation of larger cultural, economic, and political units. The size and organization of a governmental unit are dependent on the technology available for control of a given area. The size of the geographic area that can effectively be controlled is an area where an army can be moved and supplied in a two-week period of time. The Egyptians developed the first nation-state because they could move goods and armies down the Nile River by using the water current going down the river and then sailing upriver. Better roads and canals improved internal control as well as facilitated greater trade. Today it is possible to move an army anywhere in the world in less than three days.
As more intensified farming systems evolved the development of bureaucracies was necessary for the logistics of bookkeeping. As the population grew, the state became more complex with increasingly complex political and social structures. These required more sophisticated financial systems. The barter system changed to a moneyed economy. Beginning in the second half of the 20th-century electronic money transfer has become the most used form of exchange of goods, services, and properties.
Technological change is exponential. Australopithecus afarensis used stones for tools for around a million years before they started to make stone tools. Compare that technological gap to when your computer was last updated!
This technological pace of change is accelerating, and so are the cultural changes it brings. In the last 200,000 years, humans have been hunters/gathers, and perhaps a million years before that Homo Erectus lived in social groups and hunted cooperatively.
Only in the last 5,000 years have humans been able to communicate with written symbols. The printed word was made possible in the last 500 years. Only in the last 260 years has it been possible to measure time accurately. With the invention of the telegraph 170 years ago began the transmitting and receiving information at the speed of light. This is all quite slow compared to the rate of change today. For example, your cell phone has more computing power than was used to put astronauts on the moon. Another example is the mapping of the human genome project (HGP) the agent GP was launched in 1998 and completed in 2003 for a cost of $3 billion. Twenty universities and research centers from North America, Europe, and Asia participated. Today it is possible to evaluate a single person's genome in hours.
The rate of technological change will continue to increase. There are three stages of technological innovation, linked together into a self-reinforcing cycle. First, there is the creation of the new idea; second, its practical application; and third, its spread throughout society. The gap between the first and third steps is increasingly being reduced. This spread of new technology stimulates new creative ideas and makes it easier to apply and spread them once conceived. Examining each step of the cycle shows why we will have more and faster change. This will be a topic for later discussion.
New ideas usually come from a building on previous knowledge. The rate at which humanity has been storing up useful knowledge about the universe and us has been spiraling upward for 10,000 years. The rate leaped with the invention of writing, but even so, it remained painfully slow for a long time. With the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century, a sharp increase took place. Even so, before 1,500 Europe was producing no more than 1000 books a year. By 1950, Europe was producing 120,000 new books per year. By 1965, new titles were being printed at the rate of 1000 per day. Today, the number of scientific journals and articles is doubling about every seven years. The U.S. government alone generates 100,000 reports each year, plus 450,000 articles, books, and research papers. Worldwide, scientific and technical literature mounts at a yearly rate of some 60,000,000 pages. Every year there are over two zettabytes of stored information, ninety-eight percent electronically. This is the equivalent of a stack of books covering the entire earth fifty-four feet tall. How fast data is collected is mind-boggling, and it doubles every three years. Another measure of knowledge is that over 95% of all scientists who ever lived are alive today. And that percentage continually increases.
Not only is there an explosion of the knowledge that fuels new ideas, but there is also a more rapid transfer of those ideas into practical application. The first English patent for a typewriter was issued in 1714, but it took another 150 years before they were made commercially. The typewriter, the machine I learned to “type” on, is as obsolete for this generation as the buggy of my grandparent’s day for mine. A full century passed between the discovery of how to can food and when canning became important to the food industry. It takes less time to bring a new idea to the general population. Here are some examples from a study done at Stanford University. For electrical appliances introduced into the U.S. before 1820, including the vacuum cleaner, the electric range, and the refrigerator, the average time span between introduction and peak production was thirty-four years. But for applications introduced in the 1939-59 period, including the electric frying pan, television, and washer-dryers, the time span from introduction to full production was only eight years. Today, the time span is on average, six months. And the gap is shrinking. The diffusion of these new products will stimulate producing even newer ones.
Not all new technology has a cultural impact, but often the impact is profound. We are often unsure what new devices will produce dramatic change. Some authorities consider the changes we are now experiencing to be so profound that the only historical comparison is the change from hunting to farming begun by humans 15,000 years ago. People have undergone more change in our lifetime than all the four million preceding years combined.
Many technological changes appear positive when introduced, as they make our lives easier, improve our health, or entertain us. Later we find them to have adverse effects. In a personal sense, people are increasingly finding it difficult to adjust to the rapidity of change, which causes increased stress and a sense of helplessness. We are at a point where the consequences of unregulated technology could be fatal. One of the most important questions for our consideration is the role of government in the regulation of new technology. Big data is very powerful. In my opinion, it needs to be regulated to create an even playing field and to protect privacy.
Technology has provided humans with a type of existence that no other species even approaches on this planet. But this very technological propensity is a double-edged sword that can destroy us. On a global scale, the consequences of technology are beginning to have a severe impact on the environmental systems necessary for the maintenance of life itself. The process of political and social adjustment to these technological changes will determine the next steps in the evolution of human society. We will either adjust or self-destruct.
Life is all about various possibilities. We see events in terms of cause and effect. How we think individually and collectively will determine the path we choose. To understand the world around us we create hypotheses and then test those hypotheses based on the technology available to us. There are risks and opportunities in most situations. It is important to understand causality to do something about it effectively and then work on structural changes to create the necessary reforms needed to go from here.