30 November 2005

Technology and History

It's interesting to observe why people study history. Usually we insist that we study history to understand the future; there's merit to that. But we also study history for polemical reasons. Civil and criminal proceedings in law, for example, use history on a micro scale to establish guilt or entitlement. And of course, these two motives are intertwined: a society metes out punishment or restitution based on anticipated future benefits an individual brings to society (i.e., polemics serves to anticipate the future), while studies of case histories are used to establish the merit of a particular ideology (i.e., political campaigns sometimes avail themselves of historical references).

With the introduction of technology to history, we link motive to possibility. For example, was the use of nuclear bombs in WW2 justified by military necessity? This actually is a technological question, since available technology imposed limits on the alternative courses of action open to policymakers in Washington. Additionally, development of technology applied to processes and to human capital usually requires a case study. Technology, likewise, is held culpable in historical research (as, for example, by Rachel Carson). The analytical discipline of technology allows a more rigorous examination of history as an organic force rather than a "Black Legend" versus a "White" or "Rosy Legend."

However, technology also is like a whip applied to civil society. Ahead, on the other side of the whip, is progressive social change; behind are the consequences of those who fall behind in technological accomplishment. Ahead lies the conquest of souls for a genuinely good life; behind, the loss of souls to penury. Social injustice is not an especially glaring issue for hunter-gatherer tribes; for pastoral communities of sheepherders, society can be cruel (with captives serving as slaves until they are of no use, when they are abandoned without resources); but the potential for massacres and empires is slight. The first societies to master the technology of agricultural surpluses probably were the ones that launched wars of conquest against thoses that had not. Today, the relationship of the developed world towards the mostly-agrarian economies of the south is well-called Silent Violence by Mr. Watts. The desertification of the Sahel, Central China, and Pakistan, is a calamity that occurs in an absence of mind.

Technology's whip likewise falls on the developed world; the USA, and even the member states of the EU, are desperate to assure their labor force adequate job opportunities. But technological innovations are, here, the enemy. Job creation is uneven and unsuited to the demographics. The developed economies of the West must struggle heroically to educate their populations not only in how to produce, but the consequences of production: ecological ignorance is dangerous to the human species, if not to individuals. And it is here, in the "developed world," that the problem of production is actually the most urgent: here, in the West, dependence on fossile fuels for agriculture and industry is dire. This must be overcome swiftly; the technological vulnerablity of the 3rd world, while more important, is less urgent.

As a historical force, then, technology has been decisive. It is the crucible of free will, and hence, of responsiblity.



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