The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
We live in a technological age; we have a vague sense that that means our world is in some sense different from that of our ancestors. But in what sense?
Technology is a slightly tricky word: on paper, it would seem to be a rough synonym for tools,* those human artifacts which we make in order to accomplish some purpose with them. Things like computers or satellites are obviously “technology,” and while they may not spring as readily to mind, simpler objects like stoves or faucets are clearly technology as well. The word is redolent of science, machinery, and even specifically of metal; but this doesn’t mean that rope is not a form of technology, merely because it is made from plant fibers. For that matter, the definition “an artifact made to serve a purpose” doesn’t even specify that technology has to be tangible: arguably, language is the oldest, most powerful, and most exquisite technology in the human arsenal.
It was assumed by some early anthropologists that using tools was distinctively human. It has since been shown that many animals use tools—for instance, chimpanzees, otters, ravens, and elephants—so the usefulness of technology as a marker of human presence is less significant than was once thought. Nonetheless, the human story is still measured largely in terms of technological developments. Three substances used by prehistoric peoples to create tools lent their names to ages through which civilization was held to naturally pass: namely the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages.** A fourth technology, writing, indicates the next age, though this is not the end of the Iron Age per se but the end of prehistory and the beginning of history proper. On both sides of the prehistory-history line, we find many technologies that turn out to be surprisingly ancient: huts, boats, clothing, and the wheel may not surprise us so much, but ingenious and delicate inventions like the sewing needle, the fishhook, and the flute date back to scores of thousands of years before the birth of Christ.
Speaking of the bronze age, bronze itself is, in a sense, a technology: it is an alloy of copper and tin, and allows those who create it to devise objects that are far sturdier, and blades that are far sharper, than any ordinary stone tool could achieve. However, we more naturally grant the name of technology to machines, and especially to the six simple machines, all of which were discovered in classical antiquity: the lever, the pulley, the screw, the wedge, the wheel and axle, and the inclined plane (which, though in use since prehistory, was not recognized as a machine until the Renaissance); most more complex machines are combinations or elaborations of these six. The trait they share in common is that they change the direction or magnitude of a force exerted on them—for instance, tugging downwards on one side of a pulley causes the other side of the machine to move upwards. The first three were mathematically explained by Archimedes, and his admiring description of the incredible power of the lever is a commonplace to this day: Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world.
Another dimension of technology, whose importance we are increasingly faced with today, is the question of where it gets its energy—in a word, fuel. The simplest means is of course human exertion: when using a screwdriver, exceedingly few people begin by erecting solar panels. Yet this runs into problems when the force required to use a tool as we desire exceeds our own strength, or even the combined strength of the people we can personally cajole, persuade, pay, or threaten to assist us.
From such a simple, seemingly harmless beginning, one of the major rationales for slavery emerged. This is quite the paradox: the whole point of technology is to save human time and labor (indeed, one of the recurring motifs in futuristic fantasies is that human beings no longer need to do any kind of work, as it is all discharged by machines). But the paradox is quite a logical one, for two major reasons. The first is design. Technologies need to be invented—often a lengthy process in its own right, involving quite a lot of human effort—and thereafter, most need to be operated and all need to be maintained.
The second reason is the very work that technologies do for us, especially in economies based principally on trade, like that of the contemporary world. If the output of a system goes up, all the work involved in handling that output goes up proportionately; the upshot can sometimes be a higher demand for human labor. US history furnishes us with an example: in the lead-up to the Civil War, the number of slaves in the country expanded significantly—despite the facts that importing slaves from Africa was banned throughout the country by 1808, that all states north of the Mason-Dixon line had abolished the institution entirely, and that increasingly heavy restrictions were being placed on new slave states being admitted to the Union. Why the increase? It was driven, ironically enough, by the invention of the cotton gin. This machine, which spared humans the nasty work of de-seeding cotton, made cotton cheaper and easier to produce, vastly improving profits on a popular commodity. That meant plantation owners needed more people to pick the cotton in the first place. And they were hardly going to let a little thing like human dignity prompt them to hire free men who would demand wages for their work. Why bother, when they could multiply their slaves instead? Their wages could be zero if the master so chose; they were people who could, with legal impunity, be treated like technology.
This is not to say that the development of technology is a straightforwardly bad thing, of course! Obviously this would be too dismissive of its benefits: nearly all of us have directly benefited from the technological improvements of modern medicine, for instance. But beyond that, such a view would be too simplistic even about technology’s drawbacks. Surveillance cameras perhaps bear some remote kinship with the slave trade, in that they pose a threat to a basic human rights. But remember the issue of fuel. Machines like the steam, gasoline, or nuclear engine seem to involve little or no morally unacceptable human cost; what could be the matter with them? The answer, unfortunately, is their waste products. The first two (steam and gasoline) create water vapor and carbon dioxide as waste products: both of these are greenhouse gases that contribute to an increasingly unstable, and generally hotter, climate worldwide, which in the long run is bad news for everyone. And of course nuclear reactors produce nuclear waste, which (unlike most forms of waste) is toxic to all forms of life; most forms of nuclear waste do not decay enough to become safe for several centuries. Under those conditions, it may be reasonable to pose the question of whether it is even intrinsically licit to use nuclear power at all—and this is without even entering in on the question of high-tech weapons like nuclear bombs.
The cotton gin is not the only tool to have had a sweeping and unforeseen impact upon human history. One of the weightiest inventions in human history is the printing press. Woodblock printing (an artistic technique) has existed for about eighteen hundred years at least, but the printing of scripts, or movable type, first began to appear in China in the eleventh century. This allowed things like books and paper money (another Chinese innovation) to be produced far more cheaply and rapidly, which in turn meant they could spread far wider in much less time. By the middle of the fifteenth century in the Holy Roman Empire, Johannes Gutenberg had invented a printing press suitable for the Latin alphabet—and all Europe was transfigured before him. There could be (and soon were) many more books to read, and many more people with the power to read them; and it was less than a century before the continent was being turned upside down by inexpensively printed, easy-to-follow pamphlets being distributed everywhere by a firebrand named Martin Luther.
Time would fail if we tried here and now to do justice to the many technologies that have proven as important to the human story as the printing press and the cotton gin. Millennia ago, devices like the sail and the rudder fundamentally altered the relationship of human civilization to the sea; in the nineteenth century, refrigeration did the same for food, drastically reducing the spread of spoilage and disease, thus (in tandem with several other novelties like modern medicine) allowing the human population to grow from a little over one billion to a whopping eight billion today. But before we close this first half of the discussion, it is worth highlighting the changing fortunes of one form of technology: plumbing.
Human beings need water to live. We have therefore tended to either settle or wander in areas where fresh water is plentiful, rivers being a popular choice. It may have been this which prompted quite a number of different people to come up with plumbing, a system of pipes constructed as part of a building to circulate liquid through it. The best word here is “liquid,” not “water,” because some of the earliest plumbing systems (hailing from ancient Sumer and, like their bricks, ceramic) were for disposing of sewage, not bringing in water to drink or wash with. But the pleasanter alternatives caught on quickly, from Egypt to India—the palace complex of Knossos on Crete, representing a civilization even older than that of the Greeks, had a plumbing system more sophisticated than any seen thereafter until the nineteenth century. And it is this which illustrates a crucial feature of technology that we sometimes get terribly wrong: its progress is not inevitable. Knossos had that magnificent plumbing system; and it was lost. True, inventors can build on the accomplishments of their predecessors—if, and only if, they have access to those accomplishments, or at least to records of them.
But if the chain of knowledge is somehow broken, if the past somehow becomes inaccessible? Then we are in for something we have seen before in history: we have seen it, but we do not remember much about it, because that is how dark ages work. Astronomer and popular author Carl Sagan wrote in his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World:
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which the most crucial elements—transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting, profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”
Which is just the thing to lead us into …
Diogenes Laërtius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers
Abu ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī, The Mas’ūdi Law
John Tzetzes, Book of Histories
E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful
James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed
Andre Frank and William R. Thompson, “Early Iron Age Economic Expansion and Retraction Revisited”
*Thus, the word technology is related to (a) tool and (b) hammer as the word livestock is related to (a) animal and (b) cow: it indicates a collective noun or class of things, under which the other terms fall as (a) generic names for any specific instance of the class, and (b) particular names for one kind of thing that may be part of the class.
**The stone ⇒ bronze ⇒ iron progression (which took place at varying times in different regions) is normally understood as advancement, and on some levels—that of blade-craft, for instance—it clearly is; but we should beware of hasty generalizations. The assumption that human civilizations have a predictable life cycle (e.g., passing from a nomadic phase into an agricultural one), long universal among anthropologists, has begun to be challenged. David Graeber and David Wengrow set forth evidence in their 2021 book The Dawn of Everything suggesting that civilizations often self-consciously, deliberately differ from each other, rather than following an inherent and, as it were, vegetative pattern.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor-at-large. He has a degree in Classics, the opposite of STEM, and lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like our series on the great writers of our Author Bank, from ancients like Hesiod and St. Athanasius, through medievals like St. Catherine of Siena and John Wycliffe, down to moderns like Herman Melville and Ida B. Wells. Thank you for reading the Journal.
Published on 20th April, 2023.