Technology, Society, and Civilization

In today’s modern industrial states, most people tend to accept the proposition that the degree of “civilization” is fairly directly related to the level of technology employed by a society.  Either as a result or as a belief, then, each new technological gadget or invention is hailed as an advance. But… how valid is that correlation?

In my very first blog [no longer available in the archives, for reasons we won’t discuss], I made a number of observations about the Antikythera Device, essentially a clock-work- like mechanical computer dating to 100 B.C. that tracked and predicted the movement of the five known planets, lunar and solar eclipses, the movement of the moon, as well as the future dates for the Greek Olympics. Nothing this sophisticated was ever developed by the Roman Empire, or anywhere else in the world until more than 1500 years later.  Other extremely technological devices were developed in Ptolemaic Egypt, including remote-controlled steam engines that opened temple doors and magnetically levitated statues in those temples.  Yet both Greece and Egypt fell to the more “practical” Roman Empire, whose most “advanced” technologies were likely the invention of concrete, particularly concrete that hardened under water, and military organization.

The Chinese had ceramics, the iron blast furnace, gunpowder, and rockets a millennium before Europe, yet they failed to combine their metal-working skill with gunpowder to develop and continue developing firearms and cannon.  They had the largest and most advanced naval technology in the world at one point… and burned their fleet.  Effectively, they turned their backs on developing and implementing higher technology, but for centuries, without doubt, they were the most “civilized” society on earth.

Hindsight is always so much more accurate than foresight, but often it can reveal and illuminate the possible paths to the future, particularly the ones best avoided. The highest level of technology used in Ptolemaic Egypt was employed in support of religion, most likely to reinforce the existing social structure, and was never developed in ways that could be used by any sizable fraction of the society for societally productive goals.  The highest levels of Greek technology and thought were occasionally used in warfare, but were generally reserved for the use of a comparatively small elite.  For example, records suggest that only a handful of Antikythera devices were ever created.  The widest-scale use of gunpowder by the early Chinese was for fireworks – not weapons or blasting powder.

Today, particularly in western industrial cultures, more and more technology is concentrated on entertainment, often marketed as communications, but when one considers the time and number of applications on such devices, the majority are effectively entertainment-related.  In real terms, the amount spent on basic research and immediate follow-up in the United States has declined gradually, but significantly, over the past 30 years.  As an example, NASA’s budget is less than half of what it was in 1965, and in 2010, its expenditures will constitute the smallest fraction of the U.S. budget in more than 50 years.  For the past few years, the annual budget of NASA has been running around $20 billion annually.  By comparison, sales of Apple’s I-phone over 9 months exceeded the annual NASA budget, and Apple is just one producer of such devices.  U.S. video game software sales alone exceed $10 billion annually.

By comparison, the early Roman Empire concentrated on using less “advanced” technology for economic and military purposes.  Interesting enough, when technology began to be employed primarily for such purposes as building the coliseum and flooding it with water and staging naval battles with gladiators, subsidized by the government, Roman power, culture, and civilization began to decline.

More high-tech entertainment, anyone?

3 thoughts on “Technology, Society, and Civilization”

  1. I ranted at length about the decline in NASA funding and our lack of national interest in space exploration as a whole. (Click here for the article.)

    I think a big part of the probleme is that our federal government is notorious for wasting time and money. That, and taxpayers have largely tuned out when it comes to demanding that the feds focus on non-profit oriented advancement. Commercial companies are accutely tuned to consumer demand, so they go where the money is: mobile phones and iPad type devices, personal computing, software, and entertainment-related tech.

    The feds could focus on more mundane but necessary technological advancement, but the taxpayers don’t watchdog the feds on this, and so the feds just kind of throw money all over the place, countless billions of which vanishes into employee and project pockets with no observable dividend.

    If American voters cared more about making the U.S. back into a technological leader, they’d use their ballots to make it known. Alas, Americans for the most part just want the feds to leave them alone and not tax them too much, or they want the feds to pony up jobs or national healthcare.

    Maybe if China begins landing men on the moon, American voters will wake up and begin to demand priority shift. Until then, I think we’re stuck in entertainment mode.

  2. Brian says:

    It seems that your basic premise is that the West has decreased investments into useful technologies which sustain their societies.

    You also seem to imply that useful technologies are those which propagate their society: imperialism. Societies are like sharks? Move forward or die?

    I happen to agree with that thought (in a way), but the term imperialism has tremendously negative connotations nowadays. Those feelings are understandable but I believe that they come from misguided logic, similar to blaming guns for murder or vaccines for autism (logic failing in different ways).

    Am I misunderstanding or extending your thought beyond its intent?

  3. Tim says:

    The more we use technology to support our habits and luxuries, the less willing we become to do without them under any circumstances… and thus they evolve into rights or entitlements.

    Do we NEED cellular networks all across the US when we have serious problems just moving ELECTRICITY? No, but people won’t do without their conveniences, no matter how inefficient they are.

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