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Is Technological Progress Inevitable?

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Recently, a friend asked me if I thought technological progress was linear. Was it inevitable that the technology of the present would be invented and discovered, by someone, somewhere, inevitably? In other words, is technological progress inevitable? Or to put it another way, if Newton did not discover the laws of gravity, would someone else have? If Edison didn’t invent the light bulb, would someone else have done so?

This question merits a serious discussion on the idea of progress. I can discuss this idea as it applies to the social and political realms in another post, but a society’s social, political, economic, and philosophical setup are connected to its attitude towards knowledge and technology. In the past 200 years, it has become fashionable, especially among Western intellectuals, to propound the idea of progress in all areas, including technology. For most of this period (1750-1950), the West was the only area of the world that seemed to be progressing while other societies appeared to be languishing. As the relative power of the West declines and that of other societies, especially Asian and Islamic ones increases, it is beginning to become fairly obvious to everyone that there is no one, inevitable path of social and political development. Indeed, societies can enhance themselves economically and scientifically without conforming to a singular path. Visually, the uni-linear and multi-linear models of progress appear like this:

Cultural_Evolution_Models

The question is, what is technological progress like? A lot is written about how other societies, for example, China, “fell behind” Europe. The assumption is that on the path of progress, everyone did something wrong except the Europeans, who did something right. However, I will make the argument that rather than view the issue through the prism of “wrong” and “right,” it is fair to say that most societies proceeded at a “normal” pace while in the 15th century, European society started to behave in a unique way.  The Chinese didn’t stumble upon technological progress because they weren’t really trying to, nor were the Indians or the Persians, or anyone else. Maybe certain individuals at times were trying to, but society as a whole wasn’t trying to innovate.

We live in a time in which there has been rapid technological progress and change. This can lead to the fallacy that this is normal. Rather, it is important to understand that human technological development is characterized by long periods of staticity punctured by short periods of change. For example, humans used stone tools and lived by hunting and gathering for up to 100,000 years before suddenly (in the big picture of time) transitioning to farming in some parts of the world. The agricultural life went with more advanced technology and administration than before, but this mode of life persisted, without great changes until another sudden change around the time of the Industrial Revolution. What can we conclude from this short history?

1. The sudden nature of technological change seems to indicate that these changes were largely accidental from society’s point of view (though individuals might have planned to create certain things). Societies were not geared towards technological advancement due to various cultural and economic reasons. Major changes in human existence are relatively rare. Humans are innovative in the sense that they’ll improvise to survive in various circumstances but are not necessarily innovative in the sense of always inventing new devices. In fact, one of the characteristic and defining features of modern society, especially in the West, is the love and belief in technological progress, bordering in some circles, on worship. This is a unique feature of Western civilization and as such, is not inevitable.

2. Secondly, just because a technology is available to a people, it does not mean they will adapt it and then advance forwards from it. Throughout most of history, nomadic tribes lived in close contact with agricultural societies. Some of these tribes deliberately chose not to adopt an agricultural way of life; the same thing is true of several hunter-gatherers in Africa and the Americas. In fact, many of the nomadic tribes of Eurasia actually settled down initially and then reverted to a nomadic lifestyle. These people thus willingly renounced a certain path of technological development and social organization. On a more advanced level, Japan during the Tokugawa period decided to reject guns after their initial introduction and use. Guns virtually vanished and swords began to predominate again. This goes to show that cultural, political, and philosophical factors impact a society’s usage of technology. There is no reason to assume that these factors will inevitably change to favor advancement of technology. 

The Greeks were excellent at describing the world as they saw it and explaining the causes of things naturally, rather than metaphysically. However, they never took the leap towards technological advancement. The Greek mode of science was influenced by the way Greeks thought about the world, and the purpose of Greek philosophy was to understand the world and develop abstract ideas rather than significantly change material conditions. Economically, there was an abundant supply of slaves that negated any incentive towards the development of industry.

We see now that usually most societies make do and don’t try to innovate. Modern technology and science emerged in Europe in the last 500 years. The set of circumstances that led to the emergence of technological progress are unique. After all, cultures in general are not specifically geared towards technological development and advancement, so it is not surprising that technological development in the modern sense required a set of circumstances that was fairly coincidental.

1.  The first one is fairly obvious and is the least unique to Europe. Technological development at the industrial level could only occur in fairly stable, settled, and moneyed societies. If this were solely the case then, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia should also have stumbled upon the path of technological progress.

2. Europe had many states and political entities that constantly sought to gain an edge against each other. Cultural and political ambivalence towards technology, as seen in other societies, was not as widespread in Europe. In fact, there was much encouragement by political authorities for better technology, especially military and navigational technology.

3. European states provided the legal framework for the development and spread of inventions. Patents, property rights, predictability of commercial laws, etc. all developed from this. Rule of Law is an extremely unique European invention. This is not to say that most other states didn’t have laws, but their application was arbitrary and it was not rare for judicial, executive, and legislative authority to be combined in one person, from the monarch down to the magistrates. Arbitrary justice and decisions were common, whereas in even the most powerful European states, such as Bourbon France, some element of an appearance of legality had to be followed. (This has nothing to do with centralization. Centralization varied in non-European states from the highly centralized Qing Empire to the loosely connected Persian state). Rule of Law also allowed for the emergence of modern capitalism, which is a driver of technological growth. Modern capitalism differs from pre-modern capitalism in that pre-modern capitalism mostly involved the production of goods by various artisans and their sale by various merchants. It rarely developed beyond the individual or family level. Modern capitalism involves the development of huge amounts of capital and investment that cannot function without a predictable legal environment. Rule of Law had its origins in several features unique to Europe: Roman law, a balance between two sets of laws (secular and clerical), the relatively strong power of European nobles relative to their monarchs, and so on.

4. Europe possessed a common written culture, as did many other civilizations. However, the spread of printing presses and the emergence of a class of intellectuals that did not have religious connections (men of letters) made it easier for information to be shared and disseminated among many people. Europe’s geography as a densely settled landmass with contiguous settled states, without harsh terrain made it easier for travel and information to spread. Compare this to the Middle East, where strips of settled and cultured land alternated with barren deserts populated by nomads. Cultural centers in the Middle East were not as compact or well-connected with each other as European ones were.

5. Most importantly, Europeans developed the scientific method around this time. The scientific method seems so simple today that it is difficult to forget that this way of experimentation was a fluke of history that seems to have never been a staple of any other society. Quite possibly, numerous individuals discovered it individually on their own in many other societies in the past, but only in Europe did it become an inherent feature of a culture. This was undoubtedly because once discovered and applied, the competitive environment in Europe ensured its spread an use elsewhere, a task made easier by an intellectual class (Republic of Letters).

Scientific_Method

A society with many individuals familiar with the Scientific Method and an attitude open to scientific discovery will progress technologically. However, the low probability and rarity by which the factors listed above converged in a society at the same time means that the development of a culture receptive to technological development is fairly low and is, in the history of humanity, a fluke. It is completely conceivable that humanity might have stayed at the technological level of the ancient Romans for eons.

Of course, once a technological society is developed, industrialization seems like a small step. Industrial societies have strong advantages over other societies. As mentioned earlier, some societies decided not to adopt agriculture. However, many more societies did adopt agriculture to maintain an edge against ones that had already adopted it. Advantageous technological changes that develop in small areas rapidly spread if they significantly change the power balance between societies. On the other hand, the change was not so great that nomadic societies had to completely vanish. On the other hand, industrial societies are so strong that no society could hope to stay non-industrial and compete with industrial societies. Thus, while the modern technological revolution and industrialization were not inevitable, it seems difficult to conceive of societies remaining free of technology and industry once it spread to enough of the world. Such societies would be completely non-competitive. However, it might be the case that the natural staticity of technological growth will kick in again and the  rate of change will slow down again this century. Already, it seems that humanity is reaching the limits of technological growth; rapid change may have to wait another major spurt, which may be centuries away.

Additionally, once the scientific method becomes part of a culture, it seems likely that if one person doesn’t discover something, another person will. This is because of the nature of the scientific method, which if applied by different people to the same phenomenon, ought  to yield the same answer independently. In a pre-technological society, there is no guarantee that if someone didn’t invent concrete, someone else would have. But in a technological society, if Newton didn’t discover gravity, then probably someone else in the same culture would have, assuming that both people had access to the same intellectual methods and basic literature to begin with. The inevitability of discoveries increases one this method is applied, though as noted before, it is slowing down lately since science explored most fields that seem intuitive and is now entering more counter-intuitive fields or hard-to-study fields such as Quantum Physics.

However, the scientific method does not guarantee that the knowledge gained through it will be put to use in an inevitable technological manner. For example, knowledge of electricity was necessary for creating a light bulb. But instead of a light bulb, that knowledge could have been used to produce a different sort of lighting device, in which case, the light bulb may have never been invented in the form we have it today.Information can be transmitted in various ways, and if inventors decided to convey this information through, say, x-ray waves or gamma ray waves instead of radio waves, then perhaps the radio would not have been invented or would have taken a different form. So the creation of particular inventions is still not inevitable, though the propensity of a technological society to create a lot of gadgets means that a large variety of inventions will be created, thus meaning that a large percentage of possibilities will be actualized.

To conclude, technological progress is not inevitable and probably emerged as a coincidence. The prerequisites for it required a rare convergence of various factors. Yet the development of a certain mode of thought regarding technology in one civilization makes future progress much more likely. Scientific progress is especially likely since the scientific method allows for the clear determination of scientific facts, facts which can be shared all over the world now and hardly refuted (as an aside, there are theories that postulate the unreliability of facts because of the belief that the individual’s mind inevitably impacts the exceptions of the experiment). Technological progress, however, is still, to an extent determined by the decisions individuals as well as societies and governments make, though modern trends make it hard to insulate cultures from technology, especially if the technology is extremely useful or desirable. Nonetheless, there is already talk of preemptively banning certain technologies such as human cloning and genetic enhancement. Social and philosophical attitudes are still relevant to the progress of technology. I am sure there are many aspects of this post that can be elaborated on in the future.

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Written by Akhipill

December 30, 2012 at 2:16 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

10 Responses

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  8. […] is a controversial theory shared by scholars which suggests that technological progress is inevitable. Had Steve Jobs and Apple not created the iPhone, the theory suggests, then someone else would have […]

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  10. […] is a controversial theory shared by scholars which suggests that technological progress is inevitable. Had Steve Jobs and Apple not created the iPhone, the theory suggests, then someone else would have […]


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