Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Evolution of Technology

Humans are the most sophisticated toolmakers in the family of life.  We’ve gone from stone hammers to hydrogen bombs.  We’ve become so addicted to our technology that we can no longer survive without it.  If we eliminated electricity, this way of life would disintegrate before our eyes, causing many to perish.

Humans no longer sit in the pilot seat of our global civilization.  The autopilot runs the show.  Our complex labyrinth of technology herds us through a chute.  It’s no longer possible to make sharp (intelligent) turns, because the system has immense momentum and no brakes.  We can’t banish cars, plows, or electricity today.  We’re trapped on a runaway train.

How and why did we get into this mess?  That’s the subject of George Basalla’s book, The Evolution of Technology.  Scholars were debating this issue, and Basalla had an urge to jump into the ring, molest the illusions of his inferiors, and set the record straight.

His first task was to demonstrate that innovation did, in fact, evolve — by synthesizing or altering existing innovations.  Famous inventions were never original, unique, unprecedented acts of pure magic that fell out of the sky, like acts of God.  The myth of the heroic inventor is just 300 years old.  Henry Ford referred to his monster child as a quadracycle.  “The first automobiles were little more than four-wheeled bicycles,” said Basalla.  The mother of invention was evolution, not revolution.  A stick on the ground evolved into a throwing stick, then a spear, then a missile.

His second task was to explain the various ways in which our dance with artifacts has evolved, and this consumed most of the book.  Readers are taken on an illuminating journey to realms that our industrial society has erased from the maps and forgotten.

We’ve all seen the graph of population growth over the last 10,000 years.  Technological evolution follows a similar curve.  For most of the hominid journey, our artifacts were little more than sticks and stones, and their evolution happened very slowly.  A state of the art stone hammer might be no different from a hammer used 500,000 years earlier.

It is important to understand that for almost the entire hominid journey, our ancestors enjoyed a relatively sustainable way of life, and that this era corresponds exactly with the long, long era when technological evolution was essentially in a coma.  This is not a coincidence.

Unfortunately, our system of education is writhing in a bad trip after inhaling the loony fumes of the myth of progress.  This intoxicant was conjured by notorious buffoons 200 years ago, and its side effects include disorientation, anxiety, and uncontrollable self-destructive impulses.  We continue to hallucinate that the zenith of the human journey is today, and that the Golden Age is yet to come.  We have a remarkable ability to completely tune out what is perfectly obvious, and vitally important.

The Tikopians and Sentineli are island societies that keep their numbers in check, and live very lightly, using simple artifacts.  These communities stay in balance with their land, and are content.  They do not suffer from a persistent itch for more and more.  Technological innovation is entirely off their radar.  They have no need for it, and experimenting with it could permanently destroy them.

Native American potters and basket weavers created artifacts that were careful, error-free reproductions of traditional designs.  Apprentices worked hard to imitate the work of their elders, and their success earned respect.  Their culture had a healthy resistance to change, because their time-proven traditions kept them on a good path.

 “In the Muslim tradition, innovation or novelty is automatically assumed to be evil until it can be proved otherwise,” said Basalla.  “The Arabic word bid’a has the double meaning of novelty and heresy.”  The Prophet warned that those who imitate infidels turn into infidels.  Indeed!

China invented the compass, gunpowder, and printing, and put them to practical use.  When Europeans brought this knowledge home, it sparked immense innovation that led to major changes in their way of life.  The vast Chinese civilization was stable and conservative.  It was not nimble, fast-paced, and highly competitive, like Europe.  Europe was a chaotic and unstable collection of competing nations.  Society had far less resistance to new artifacts.

The wheel was first used in Mesopotamia, about 5,000 years ago.  In many societies, it became a popular artifact, used for commerce and warfare.  “A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them.”  (Proverbs 20:26)

The native civilizations of North and South America were able to grow and die without using wheeled transport.  Many groups in the Near East eventually abandoned the use of wagons, because camels were a faster and easier way of moving stuff.  Wild tribes often just carried stuff home on their backs via footpaths, or paddled canoes — wheels required far more effort: cleared roads, bridges, and wagons.

The industrial civilizations of Europe and America have extensively used wheels in their artifacts.  Our cultural myths celebrate the wheel as a super-sacred icon.  Basalla concluded, “the wheel is not a unique mechanical contrivance necessary, or useful, to all people at all times.”  The ability to whoosh across the landscape on a bicycle is not required to meet our biological needs.  No sustainable society used wheels, because they had no need for them.

Basalla’s book contained zero evidence that he was an eco-terrorist determined to smash civilization, or even a mild-mannered tree-hugger.  The book just seemed to be unusually objective, as if it had a good cleansing soak in a potent mythocide.  It felt like he was a shaman conveying vital messages from the realm of the ancestors, whilst being cleverly disguised as a history professor.  To the mainstream mind, these messages constitute shocking, obscene heresies.  But the messages contain the medicine we need to blow the locks off our minds, so we can escape, go home, and heal.

Agriculture and architecture are new novelties, not necessities.  “No technology whatsoever is required to meet animal needs.”  Yes, other animals use tools but, “There are no fire-using animals nor are there animals that routinely fashion new tools, improve upon old tool designs, use tools to make other tools, or pass on accumulated technical knowledge to offspring.” 

Obviously, we could not live like hurricanes without artifacts, and we could not survive in many regions where humans are an invasive exotic species, but we could enjoy a tool-free future in tropical regions, like our ancient African motherland (or a future Siberian jungle?).

There is no evidence that “a causal connection exists between advances in technology and the overall betterment of the human race.  Therefore, the popular but illusory concept of technological progress should be discarded.”

Agriculture and cooking are “unnecessary because plants and animals are able to grow and even thrive without human intervention, and because food need not be processed by fire before it is fit for human consumption.”

“Artifacts are uniquely identified with humanity — indeed they are a distinguishing characteristic of human life; nevertheless, we can survive without them.”

“Fire, the stone axe, or the wheel are no more items of absolute necessity than are the trivial gadgets that gain popularity for a season and quickly disappear.”

Basalla’s insights bounce off the frozen minds of the mainstream world, automatically rejected by bulletproof denial.  But these fresh notions are a sure sign that clear thinking is beginning to seep into the stagnant halls of history departments, those dusty story museums where the dying Cult of Progress will make its last stand.

The path to sustainability is blocked by ideas — toxic illusions, metabolized into highly contagious beliefs, resulting in mass insanity.  At the gate of the path to healing, rubbish ideas must be left in the recycle bin.  There is no shortage of better ideas.  Help yourself, and share.

Basalla, George, The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1988.


Michael Sosebee said...

"It felt like he was a shaman conveying vital messages from the realm of the ancestors, whilst being cleverly disguised as a history professor. To the mainstream mind, these messages constitute shocking, obscene heresies. But the messages contain the medicine we need to blow the locks off our minds, so we can escape, go home, and heal."

I have reached a stage in my life where I can recognize the dire nature of our current predicament. But I am astonished at the "mainstream mind" and an outright disconnect. They don't care if the government records every conversation they ever made. They're OK with corporate slavery and the wholesale destruction of the planet. Their requirements are simple: Feed me and entertain me and let me have all of these "conveniences" that are perceived as life-saving necessities. 1/2 the people in America are prescribed "medications". If you're depressed they prescribe dopamine inhibitors. We're clearly coming into a bottleneck but the folks who are "mainstream" are walking into the abyss without it even rippling their consciousness.

What Is Sustainable said...

Michael, we evolved to live in a wild paleolithic world, and so did our mental faculties. The wild was our home, and the many beings in our home were extended family.

Life in the modern world has almost nothing in common with our traditional life as wild humans. It has severed almost all connections to our roots and identity.

Given the world that we were born into, it would be amazing NOT to have scrambled minds and shattered emotions. Our elders do not strive to inspire clear thinking.

Anyway, yes, we certainly live in a spooky era. Sad & fascinating.

Australian internet service provider said...

Evolution has really formed into something that can bring a lot of benefits to individuals and businesses.

What Is Sustainable said...

...Not to mention a lot of COSTS to individuals and businesses. It's not a free lunch.