Chapter 6: Technological Progress and Civilization
If the goal of this inquiry is to come up with a decent model of civilization, there’s no way I can avoid explicitly tackling technological progress. If nothing else, the modern world is incomprehensible without it. But the concept’s been with us since the very beginning. Recall that the jumping off point for this whole endeavor began with an investigation of the impact of a radical new technology – agriculture – which served as the foundation for civilized life.
So, what’s meant by the term “technology”? I’d define a technology here as a technique by which people can affect the state of the world around them. Notably, I shy away from the idea that technology is usefully defined as the application of knowledge, because knowledge (in the philosophical sense of a “justified, true belief”) isn’t really terribly relevant to the process. A technique does what it does, regardless of anybody’s explanations about why, and it’s quite often the case that nobody really understands how a given technique achieves its effects.
I also omit the restriction that technology need necessarily be about direct influence over the material world, as the raw material effects aren’t necessarily the interesting thing about any given technology. Often, the thing about the world that an application of a technology is trying to affect is at a higher level of abstraction than raw matter. Insisting on philosophical materialism clouds the issue to no purpose.
Maybe a concrete example would help illustrate what I’m getting at here. For instance, I’d say that it’s fair to call television advertising a technology. When used, it appears to increase brand recognition and (hopefully) sales for the company issuing the advertisements. This is a real effect, but it is largely abstract, since the point is to affect the minds of the people who are exposed to the ads. And it works even though neither the people making the ads nor the academics who study the issue have a very detailed understanding of why a particular campaign worked.
Aggregating all of the various technologies in use by a society gives the technological state of the society. And at this aggregate level, it is possible to apply the black box thermodynamic lens that I used in previous chapters to analyze a society’s energy capture and the amount generated net structural and maintenance expenditures (what I’ve been calling “surplus”). As a first-order approximation, it’s safe to say that if energy capture and surplus are going up because of the techniques that are being exercised to capture and more efficiently use that energy, the society is advancing technologically. In the terms used earlier, intensive growth is technological growth, while extensive growth is not. This correlates pretty well with what people tend to think of when they talk about technological advancement while allowing me to sidestep any judgments about values.
OK, so working from that definition of technology, a couple of interesting corollaries fall out immediately. First, what is possible technologically is defined by the preexisting (to humans) state and rules of the world. And second, the use of a technological technique implies intentionality. Or, in other words, a technique isn’t a technology unless it is used by a person with the intent of accomplishing something.
Usually, when people are looking at the broad sweep of history, they think of technological progress as a given. Technological advance happens whenever the conditions are suitable, and roughly the same path through technological history has to be taken all the way back throughout time, because technology tends to be cumulative. The Bronze Age built on the agricultural technology developed during the Stone Age, the Iron Age built on metallurgical techniques pioneered in the Bronze Age, and so on and so forth.
This isn’t an unreasonable view on the surface. The history of technology shows that innovations often lead to other innovations, because the new technique opens up new possibilities when it’s applied. Accordingly, independent, simultaneous inventions are pretty common. That’s what you’d expect if the underlying “technology tree” were largely fixed and people had to follow roughly the same path through it.
But what I think is missing from this viewpoint is the social aspect of technological change. As a technologist myself by trade, I’ve discovered the hard way that it’s not enough to produce a solid artifact. The world isn’t changed by merely creating a new thing, no matter how neat it might be. A particular technology has to be used by people to solve problems in order for it to matter. And there’s no guarantee that any particular technology will be adopted, even if it is developed. Similarly, there’s not even a guarantee that the effort will be spent to develop it to fruition, even if it is possible.
Groups like the Amish and the Hutterites serve as interesting existence proofs here. Their communities have chosen to reject or significantly delay the use of many technologies that are common in the larger societies that surround them, on the basis that they lead to social or spiritual effects that they consider harmful. But, interestingly, this doesn’t necessarily (or even often) lead to a blanket rejection of advanced technology. For example, these groups generally allow the use of tractors in farming, even as many Amish refuse to allow automobiles for personal transportation.
The other thing that’s often missing from the model, I think, is the degree to which technological capability is built into the existing network of use. Put another way, the sum total of what everybody in a society has learned on the job by doing it, plus the understanding that’s embedded in the physical capital in place, is pretty much the entirety of what is meant by the technological level of the society. No one person needs to know how the whole fits together in order for it to function. And, in fact, it would probably be impossible to piece together the sum total from merely what is written down or otherwise documented. It might even be impossible to piece it all together from the sum total of what is consciously understood by everybody, although that would come a lot closer to replicating it.
A better model, I think, is one that sees technological progress as the result of a civilization-scale search algorithm. The abstract space being searched through is defined by the objective world, but the subset of the space that is accessible at any given moment is determined by the existing state of the society. Notably, once a technological solution is found by one society (or subsection of a given society), it is portable. But its portability is limited: artifacts are more readily transmitted than the techniques used to create the final artifacts, which in turn are more readily transmitted than the network of practices that are necessary to have invented the technique in the first place.
So we have a feedback loop here, where the influence goes both ways. The structure of a society determines in some ways what technologies it can develop or make use of, the use of which can feedback into changing the structure of that society, making a different set of technologies possible, and so on and so forth. Importantly, there’s no real guarantee here, in theory, that technology will advance. It’s logically possible that a given technological change, discovered by (or ported to) a society will cause a feedback shift in that society’s structure that leads to reduced energy capture or increased net costs, leading to regression in the objective, thermodynamic metrics I’ve been using.
I postulate that this is the mechanism by which civilization has proven itself superior to non-civilized society, hearkening back to the previous discussion of the merits of civilization. Civilized societies have proven better able to search the technology possibility space and change themselves to occupy progressively more optimal locations, yielding exponential growth in energy capture, as compared to the much lower growth rates posted by uncivilized competitors.
And this is really important. History has all sorts of examples of societies coming up with key innovations and then using them to outcompete their rivals. When the competition and the innovations are military, this ends up with the conquest or domination of the laggards, until the new military technology becomes the norm. But, as David Landes pointed out in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, once military technology began to change rapidly enough, it became impossible for less innovative countries to keep up by purchasing foreign armaments and expertise. This was because they weren’t able to implement the necessary reforms quickly and thoroughly enough. By the time they had, the leading nations were already on to the next revolution and all the arduous effort to reform proved fruitless.
In the terms I’ve been using, the guns themselves (the artifacts) were the most easily transferred. But they weren’t nearly as useful without up-to-date drill techniques and military organization (the practices). And once the organization was finally in place, it turned out that it was problematic to support without broader societal reforms (the ability to have come up with the technology in the first place) which were wrenchingly painful to adopt.
The competition doesn’t necessarily require fighting. The Cold War was won by the West in large part because the United States was able to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that they would be unable to match the military research and development expenditures the US was able to bring to bear without significant structural changes. The fallout from the attempted reform effort – glasnost and perestroika – ended up undermining the basis for the Soviet Union as a political entity.
However, although technological discoveries are portable to some degree, they’re tied in large part to the continued existence and flourishing of societies that implement them. History shows that when advanced societies do collapse, technological achievements can be entirely lost. For example, nobody has yet been able to replicate the Greek Fire used by ancient navies to burn their opponents, and modern scientists reported just last year how to create the superior concrete that matched the ancient Roman formula.
Technological regression accompanies collapse in aggregate as well as in anecdote. According to Ian Morris’s numbers, there have been three massive technological regressions by the thermodynamic definition; all of which are associated with major failures of civilization. The first was the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean, after which energy capture numbers did not recover in the region for roughly 700 years. The second was the failure of the Roman Empire, which peaked at roughly 100 AD. This peak was not reached again until the beginning of the modern era, about 1600 years later. And the third was the collapse of the Song Dynasty in China, which took about 200 years to recover from and several hundred more to exceed.
So the upshot is that stakes are almost unimaginably high. When civilization falters, it takes generations to put back together the whole set of technical techniques that go into maintaining the system at that advanced level. And after the rebuild, much like after an inquisitive child disassembles and reassembles a toaster, there are usually some pieces left over.