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Social and technical change: a revolutionary partnership

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From the simplest stone tools to today’s ubiquitous computing power, human history has seen technology and culture evolving hand-in-hand.

To claim an important part in human history for technology is not controversial. My contention is more radical however – that technology steers the pace and direction of all cultural evolution, guiding the way to the appearance of the modern world. It has done it in dialogue with social forces, through deep movements in opinion and values, through politics and even new faiths. From the start, along with language, technology began patterning the human world. An evolving culture started that we have lived with ever since.

On my desk lies a small stone axe, a hundred thousand years old. Once it had a sharp cutting edge at one end, while the other gave a good hand grip. It cannot be used by left-handers – the finger indentations fit only the right. That was a design decision by its maker. Technology has two parts: technique and design. Techniques are methods by which things are made or done, means and materials to create new products, processes or services. The technique for fabricating hand axes was chipping flints. Design is something else, guiding the application of techniques to outcomes fit for purpose. The two are quite distinct; both went into the technology of my hand axe.

Before our remote ancestors on Earth there were hominids. Here for a long time, they used tools and had fire, but homo sapiens came to dominate the planet. Combining a gift for technology with language, we communicated complex ideas. Poets sang praise songs for kings, and literature was born. Philosophers launched their dialogue with the universe, from which science emerged. Early technologists – architects, smiths and craftsmen – were able to instruct apprentices about both techniques and designs. We used techniques that the tools gave us to create original designs. Technology, ever more accomplished, reshaped the world people lived in, and continues to do so today.

Reshaping is not always gradual and cumulative. Throughout history major changes – social, economic and even political – have related closely to technological developments, often coming suddenly. Revolutions in technology continue, again and again. Stone Age people experienced the first one. They made their tools and weapons from flints chipped to shape, a technique with severe limitations. Their technology revolution came around 5,000 years ago with the introduction of metals. Copper, tried first, proved too soft, but alloy it with 10 per cent tin and it becomes bronze, harder and able to hold a sharp cutting edge. With the Bronze Age everything changed, when suddenly fabricating tools by chipping stone looked unattractive.

Yet this transformation proved not to be in the way artefacts were made alone. Bronze Age social life was very different from what went before. Deploying a bronze sword and armour, men could make and enforce the rules for those who did not. A new aristocratic class was created: Homer recorded tales of Bronze Age leaders and heroes. Revolutions in technology are ever thus. Advances lead to changes in the way societies function, often bringing power and fortune to the pioneers. Needs and wishes in society evoke new technology. It usually has the outcomes sought, but maybe also others not foreseen.

Technology revolutions did not end with bronze, or the iron that followed. Revolutions are often a response to social crisis. In the mediaeval era, great loss of life resulted from the pandemics that swept the world – nearly a third of the population died in the Black Death. People sought substitutes for the missing human labour and the result was radical improvement in critical technologies, notably in horse harness and new wind and water mills. Horses, more powerful by reason of their improved tackle, extended the speed and range of transportation and replaced oxen at the plough. Good farmland lying fallow produced wealth again. New mills were used for drainage, increasing the land under cultivation, also for power saws and for forging ironwork. The falling cost of sawn wood and fabricated metal parts triggered other changes. The perfection of ocean-going sailing ships and their navigation shrank the world.

These revolutions went on and on, irreversible, always a one-way trip. And still they continue. The early 20th century brought vacuum electronics – valves – making possible broadcasting, world-wide telecommunications, radar, scientific instruments and much more. Then came another revolutionary change: everything that vacuum devices did could be surpassed by compact structures in silicon crystals. On 3 April 1973, Martin Cooper made a call from a handheld phone on New York’s Sixth Avenue. Passers-by and reporters watched astonished as he keyed-in a number and put the phone to his ear. Electronics on a silicon chip made it practicable – part of the on-going microelectronics revolution. Soon vacuum electronics was moribund. The universal use of computers is now the foundation of the developed world. Computers are embodied in artefacts everywhere: true general-purpose machines. We soon learned the trick of building them with more than biological complexity at absurdly low cost. The impact has been seismic, changing how we interact with the world and each other at macro and micro levels.

Human minds are culturally embedded. Society changes to adapt to new environments that emerging technology creates. Great movements of opinion do it, often through politics, by changing values, and by war – sometimes even through new faiths. This is how we make sense of our experiences and life events and seek control over them. Creative writing, fine and popular arts, philosophy, science, even theology are immensely precious expressions of the human spirit. But they can be understood only when seen as engendered by the place and time in which they appear, itself the outcome of evolving technology and its social responses.

Sooner or later the transformed culture will inevitably discover new needs and wants. These too are addressed in the domain of technology, seeking to find solutions. And so it goes, social and technical changes, turn and turn about, each leading to the other.

William Gosling is emeritus professor at the University of Bath. His recent book ‘Culture’s Engine: Inside Science and Technology’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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