The Most Basic Technology?

Most people, when they think of technology, immediately think of advanced forms of tools, and certainly the Greek roots of the word “technology” mean “systematic treatment of art or craft,” which tends to suggest tools or some sort.

But those tools and that systematic system would never have occurred without another innovation, one that we don’t think of in terms of technology, but one that’s absolutely vital – and that innovation is simple and obvious… and invariably overlooked. It’s called the group, or group cooperation, and it’s far more important than most people want to believe.

From what remains and skeletons that archaeologists have so far discovered, it appears that not only were Neanderthals stronger than homo sapiens, but they also had larger brains, yet they died out, and we didn’t. One very likely reason for this is grouping patterns. From all the evidence we have, it appears that Neanderthals never formed large groups. Humans did. Recent evidence also suggests that Neanderthals had most of the same tools as did humans at the time Neanderthals died out. So… if they were as smart and stronger, why didn’t they make it? There’s a strong indication that their small groups couldn’t compete with the larger human groups.

Despite the myth of the “lone genius,” that doesn’t happen often, and even when a lone genius does discover something, it takes a group to implement it and make it work. As I’ve noted before, technology is a multiplier, and because groups multiply individual achievements and discoveries, the society/culture with the most effective groups tends to be the most successful.

Unhappily, like technology, group dynamics can multiply not only the good, but the bad, and there’s one area where groups are especially effective at multiplying evil – by “demonizing the other.” Social scientists have known for a long time that one of the most effective ways of unifying a social group is to identify a common simple belief and a common enemy that opposes that belief and then to blame all the evils facing the group on that enemy. Demagogues have done this successfully throughout history, and it’s continuing today.

Like at least some of the Founding Fathers, I’m tired of groups with absolutist agendas, whether the group is a political party, a religion, a gender, a lack of gender, the in-boys, the in-girls, a culture, an ethnic group… I’m sick and tired of all of them, because all of the absolutist groups, for all of their protests to the contrary, attempt ostracize and marginalize “the other” with simplistic charges.

The environmentalists/liberals are destroying the coal industry. Civil rights for minorities is reverse discrimination. Any form of gun control will lead to taking away your guns. Balancing the budget will destroy social programs. Immigrants take away your jobs. The list of these sorts of simplistic and hate-mongering slogans is seemingly endless.

We live in a complex world, one that’s not amenable to simple solutions, but the problem is that simple solutions have great appeal, and that great appeal makes them ideal for demagogues to use the technology of group dynamics to demonize those who either oppose them or can’t accept simplistic solutions, and, currently, the only technology seemingly able to fight back is the other side using the same techniques… and people wonder why we’re getting more and more polarized?

6 thoughts on “The Most Basic Technology?”

  1. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Appreciate the thoughtful piece as always. Two minor nits:

    First, Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived gives a strong argument that Neanderthals did not die out, but interbreeding with Homo sapiens sapiens crowded out in-breeding with other Neanderthals. There is apparently some case to be made that a fair amount of rape was probably involved.

    Second, I think an alternative view of what makes some societies better off than others is wider access to better information, where information is defined in the computer-science sense as useable, accurate data. (I have sometimes fantasized about writing a “capsule history of the effect of information on history”). My point, I think, is that maybe what makes some groups and societies better over the long run is wider dissemination of better information in general (not just technological information, but also info about science, culture, resources, and the world in general).

    1. Two comments on your nits. First, while DNA evidence confirms Neanderthal/homo sapiens cross-breeding, the percentage of that DNA in non-African derived humans is quite low, suggesting that it didn’t happen often, and possibly when most Neanderthals were already being forced out. Second, wider access to better information, by definition, just can’t have much effect if it’s limited to small groups.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I’d like to offer not quite a counterexample (since the creation of an essential resource still required community), but a different application at least.

    Plenty of near-pioneers – farming families living perhaps half a days ride from even a modest general store – in the late 1800’s had a copy of A. E. Youman’s “A dictionary of every-day wants : containing twenty thousand receipts in nearly every department of human effort”. It was comprehensive enough to address a wide range of subjects needed to survive under those circumstances, basic health and emergency care, farming, animal husbandry, food preservation, assorted household skills, even some arts and hobbies, perhaps for the long winters. Copies were passed down in families for a couple of generations.

    With such information available (Internet access being perhaps the modern analog), even nuclear-family sized groups can do quite well; certainly not without the existence of a society including larger groups at some distance, but without daily interaction with them. And if they’re literate enough to read that information, they could send a letter (email now) to the author pointing out corrections, providing additional articles, or making requests, thereby contributing to the improvement of a hypothetical subsequent edition. Thus, their limited involvement with larger communities would not preclude adding to the common knowledge pool, providing a return for the support in the same form they received it: practical information. And they’d probably talk two or three times a week with their nearest neighbors, so there’d be someone to check on them and vice versa.

    Reminds me of the Amish a bit, who mostly keep to themselves except for business, but are quick to help non-Amish nearby in the event of e.g. severe storm damage or the like.

    It’s another model to contrast with city dwellers and those indoctrinated to a measure of conformity and groupthink via public education (which is not to imply that public education is without value).

    1. You make a good point, but… it still is a group, albeit electronic. Also, the question, so far unresolved, is whether a geographically separated, but electronically connected group, can make societal and technological advances.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        I guess I’m wondering if the “most basic technology” isn’t just the group cooperating in chasing a mammoth over a cliff to feed the entire village (or some other activity requiring physical presence regardless of subsequent technology), but the communication and retention of useful information beyond the individual, whether by teaching and oral tradition, or by the development of writing.

        The group and communication presumably had to co-develop; and obstacles to communication would limit the capability of larger or more dispersed groups even more than that of smaller ones. The concept of the messenger, whether remembering a short message or carrying more by means of written messages, must have been important to letting small groups aggregate without crowding one small area to the point of exhausting the food supply. Interconnected small groups can be more scalable than monolithic large groups, as long as the communication is adequate.

        Since your field is essentially in communication, you could’ve written this post to pat yourself and those like you on the back. As you were more modest than that, accept it if someone else does.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    As to what collaboration can be done over the Internet: CERN, realtime musical interaction (latency is a problem, but for small groups, it’s workable), surgery via telepresence, and of course military drones operated from vast distances. Just a few examples, really.

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