Technological inventions and human history

Kevin Kelly continues his interesting investigations into the Technium.

True, to some, including me, his approach may appear sometimes as technological determinism.

In this text, Kevin Kelly makes the point that individual changes in consciousness matter little, because they don’t scale up, but that changes in tools and technologies change the brain circuitry of millions of people at the same time.

At the same time, technological invention is not a neutral field, many inventions remain unused and unchosen, and those that are chosen, do so through a social process. In addition, technology is a product of our minds, as Kelly agrees, but this also means that every technology first needs to be conceived and imagined.

This means that seeing technology as a cause of change, will always be a simplification.

An excerpt from Kevin Kelly‘s much longer thoughtpiece:

“Progress, even moral progress, is ultimately a human invention. It is a product of our wills and minds, and thus a technology. We can decide slavery is not a good idea. We can decide that evenly applied laws, rather than nepotic favoritism, is a good idea. We can outlaw certain punishments with treaties. We can encourage accountability with the invention of writing. We can consciously expand our circle of empathy. These are all inventions and as much products of our minds as light bulbs and telegraphs.

The larger point is that this cyclotron of social betterment is not propelled by ethics or religion, but by technology. Society is evolved by injecting it with incremental doses of that most powerful force in the world; each rise in social organization throughout history is driven by an insertion of a new technology. The invention of writing unleashed the leveling fairness of laws. The invention of standard minted coins made trade more universal, encouraged entrepreneurship, and hastened the idea of liberty. Historian Lynn White notes, “Few inventions have been so simple as the stirrup, but few have had so catalytic an influence on history.” In White’s view the adoption of the foot stirrup for horse saddles enabled riders to use weapons on horseback, which gave an advantage to the cavalry over infantry, and to the lords who could afford horses, and so nurtured the rise of aristocratic feudalism in Europe. The stirrup was not the only technological cause blamed for feudalism. As Karl Marx famously claimed, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”

Double-entry bookkeeping, invented in 1494 by a Franciscan monk, enabled companies to monitor their cash flow and for the first time steer complex business. Double-entry accounting unleashed the banking industry in Venice, and launched a global economy. The invention of the contraception pill in 1960 aided the blossoming of feminism. The invention of moveable type printing in Europe encouraged Christians to read their religion’s founding text themselves, make their own interpretations, and launched the very idea of “protest” within and against religion. Way back in 1620 Francis Bacon, the godfather of modern science, realized how powerful technology was becoming. He listed three “practical arts” — the printing press, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass — that had changed the world. He declared that “no empire, no sect, no start seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.” Bacon help launch the scientific method which accelerated the speed of invention; thereafter society was in constant flux as one conceptual seed after another disrupted social equilibrium.

Seemingly simple inventions like the clock had profound social consequences. The clock divvied up an unbroken stream of time into measurable units, and once it had a face, time became a tyrant, ordering our lives. Danny Hillis, computer scientist, believes the gears of the clock spun out science, and all it’s many cultural descendents. He says, “The mechanism of the clock gave us a metaphor for self-governed operation of natural law. (The computer, with its mechanistic playing out of predetermined rules, is the direct descendant of the clock.) Once we were able to imagine the solar system as a clockwork automaton, the generalization to other aspects of nature was almost inevitable, and the process of Science began.”

It’s never a good idea to assign a single cause to any large scale cultural change. The greater the number of people a change effects the more likely numerous factors are behind it. A web of complex conditions must converge to produce the hallmark transitions in a complex society. But when we trace back the origins for each agent in a field of causes, we find that each strand leads to a newly introduced technology, a new idea.”

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