1.3 History and Technology

The last section presented an overview of the four main phases of civilization. It is also useful to follow several threads of specific technological development through these phases and to indicate effects they have had upon society. In later chapters attempts will be made to follow some threads forward to determine what their future development will be. These topics have been chosen for discussion because of their universal importance in all cultural change; because they strongly impact behaviour (and thus tend to generate many basic ethical questions), and because they are particularly important in understanding the fourth civilization.

Technology and Food

Increases in food production efficiency have been closely associated with great societal transformations in the past. The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society depends entirely upon the recognition that food can be obtained more efficiently through effective management of limited land areas (farms). Further, rapid improvements in food production must take place simultaneously with a nation's industrial revolution, for while one group of machines lures workers to the city, another must make it possible for the land to allow them to go.

Food production is fundamental to the existence of any organized social group. A nation whose people are starving will play no leading role on the world stage, and its very existence will be threatened if the food shortage is prolonged. When changes occur in soil fertility due to poor land management, climatic alterations, or the devastations of war, a people may find itself on the move in search of new land, or becoming absorbed by another group. They may simply starve to death, or they may go to war against their neighbours in order to take their food.

Particularly fertile land may have so many wars fought because of it that it becomes unusable, for its farmers may abandon it to the ravages of the fighting, and topsoil with no crop to anchor it may blow away. Also, fertile land tends to be concentrated in great river valleys and deltas, so some nations have much more of it than do others. Consequently, in times of peace, food-producing nations will trade in great volume with goods manufacturers from other countries, and the establishment of food trade routes and transportation facilities also becomes important.

Through to the mid- to late-industrial stage, whenever there is an abundance of food, populations increase at an exponential rate. However, the amount of arable land does not often increase; it may decrease with overcropping, poor management, and desertification. Therefore, development of technology allowing more food to be grown on a given piece of land has always been critical both to social stability and to progress to the next phase of civilization.

From stone knives, bone spears, arrows, and cutting and cleaning implements of hunter-gatherers, to the plough, sickle, and horse-drawn combine of the farmer to the modern collection of tractor-powered machinery, there have been steady improvements in techniques of food production. Today there is also a wide variety of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals employed in growing food, and both milk and beef cattle are fed an increasingly artificial diet in an effort to squeeze the last gram of cream or hamburger from each animal.

At one point during a period of slow change in food production techniques, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) became convinced that population would always tend to grow faster than the food supply. He was pessimistic that this could have any other result than mass starvation in the near future. The fact that the world's food supply supports far more people than Malthus thought possible is due to two factors: First, for a considerable time, the more sparsely populated Americas absorbed large numbers of Europeans, and even today their vast cereal-growing lands provide food in great quantity for countries that have not been able to grow their own. Second, technology has provided more and better varieties of food animals and cereal grains, and this has had a particular impact in places like India, which now produces a far larger proportion of its food than previously. Indeed, subsidies to farmers in Europe and the United States had, even by the mid 1980s (and the trend had continued), produced such a food surplus as to suggest modern famines may be more the result of a failure of political will to feed everyone than of any actual food shortage. Today, more people are fed by fewer people working less land than a century ago, and this trend, too, shows no sign of slowing.

These developments do not mean that Malthus was entirely wrong; they just postpone an inevitable shortage of arable land to some time in the future. After all, at any given level of food technology, it seems there ought to be an absolute upper limit to the population the planet can support. Yet, it can never be assumed at a given time that the upper limit of all possible food production technologies has been reached.

Technological optimists are convinced that ability to produce food will continue to keep pace with (or be only just behind) population growth. They also observe that factors like urbanization mean that more people live in a context where having children confers little advantage (unlike on the farm) and assume that reduced birth rates will eventually stabilize total population.

Pessimists are ready to forecast imminent mass starvation. They are sure that the world's population will pass (has passed) the ability to provide food long before it stabilizes. Whatever the case, the transition to and progress of the next civilization will require the food problem be met and resolved on a continuing basis. Because food is a fundamental need, its provision is closely related to a number of other areas, and it will be necessary to return to aspects of this issue at several later points.

Technology and Energy

Primitive societies were little concerned with this class of problems. A warm fire sufficed (where this had been discovered), and people walked unawares over future Middle Eastern oil fields, the Athabaska tar sands, the British coal deposits, and the Texan gas deposits. Later, human labour (including slaves), animals, wind, and water were the power sources of the agricultural age. Additional forms of energy were necessary to provide the enhanced life-style of farmers and seafarers, for their ambitions to tame the environment had grown beyond the ability of mere human strength to fulfil them.

The industrial age required vastly more energy than had ever been consumed before. England became a leader partly because she sat on a mountain of coal, and there was no reluctance to fill the land with soot and smoke in the name of progress. Today, natural gas and oil have proven cleaner and more convenient, but all three continue to be used at an ever-increasing rate. These fuels, plus water power, nuclear fission, and alternative energy sources, are used to generate electricity, which serves industry simultaneously as an energy source and a means of energy transmission. The advent of the information age will not decrease the total need for energy, for there are more people and they have higher expectations for a life-style of abundance than ever. More goods than ever need to be produced, and even if all people were to work in offices while the factories were filled entirely with robots, manufacturing would still require energy.

New sources will eventually be required as old ones are exhausted, and there will be proponents of a variety of replacement energy technologies, including solar, geothermal, tidal, and nuclear fusion. The "high touch" culture--with its concern over the quality of life--demands safe, clean, and renewable energy sources, and therefore some of the old ones may pass out of common use before the resources on which they are based become depleted.

However, cleanliness and safety both carry price tags. No matter how great the desire for both, there is a point beyond which further progress toward such goals is uneconomic. If the perceived cost of a power source--in monetary, energy, or human terms--exceeds the expected return, it will not be used. In North America, this had, for example, happened for nuclear power by the mid-1980s, though subsequent political and economic developments could change this decision

Every civilization requires energy--and the advanced need more than the primitive, witness the rolling blackouts of energy-guzzling California in early 2001. Per capita energy consumption throughout the world is liable to increase for many more years, so technologies that provide it will continue to be critical.

Technology and The Environment

At the hunter-gatherer stage, the environment determines the available technology, and to a great extent, the cultural responses to technology as well. A people with no access to copper will not have a bronze age, and those who live in a favourable climate with plenty of game may never have the motivation to become farmers. If fish are available, people take their food from the water. If neighbours have desirable products, a people may either go to war and take what they want, or develop a trade. Technology used to overcome the environment is limited to clothing, shelter, and simple hunting tools.

To a great extent, environment determines the technology of an agricultural society as well. Soils and climates can support certain crops and cannot support others. Grapes cannot be grown in the far north, nor wheat in a rain forest. However, during this phase, there is a gradual increase in the stock of tools designed to allow the farmer to overcome the limitations of environment.

The industrial age, with its great faith that humankind could master all through machinery, saw an about-face in the relationship between man and the environment. Technology became a tool to overcome and to exploit the Earth, rather than simply a means to better live on it. Pollution was not merely accepted, it was pointed to with pride as a visible sign of great progress--the smell of money. It was only realized very late in this period that no life could survive on a poisoned planet.

Each society has had to live in its environment and to manage it appropriately to ensure survival. The hunter who killed all game within hunting range had to relocate, and so did the farmer who exhausts the soil's nourishment through poor cropping practices. The industrial age has seen the greatest impact on the environment, with dramatic changes to the land, the forest, the air, and even to near space around the planet.

A continuation of these uncontrolled changes to the environment on the scale seen in the industrial age may eventually render the Earth uninhabitable. For example, if the so-called "greenhouse effect" causes the climate to warm enough to melt the polar ice, many large cities would vanish under the oceans, and much of North America would become a desert. If temperatures go the opposite way, others would disappear under sheets of ice. If acids from the burning of coal and oil continue to pour down upon crops and forests all plant life could die. If the rest of the Amazon rain forest is cut and burned for short-term subsistence farming, atmospheric oxygen levels could drop substantially. The enterprising pessimist may choose from these and many other bleak futures. The entire Earth is involved, so it would be difficult for its multiplied billions to secure new living quarters if the current ones become uninhabitable.

In the information age, new possibilities exist to make informed choices with respect to the environment, and to manage the quality of air, water, soil, and climate. The knowledge that a problem exists and the techniques to solve that problem can be communicated and implemented rapidly throughout the world. Of course, the will to make the necessary changes and pay for them is less easily transmitted. This situation also illustrates how use of one technology may eventually require that another be developed to repair side effects of the first--a theme that will be discussed further in Chapter 7. Suffice it to conclude for now that a major task for the citizens of the fourth civilization will be to learn how to live with the environment and manage it well.

Technology and Health

The systematic practice of medicine is a late development in human history. The first physicians had little knowledge of anatomy and none about the causes of disease. They relied on what would today be termed "folk remedies" for their cures. For instance, a common technique for centuries was "bleeding" the patient to let out supposedly diseased blood, a practice now known to be harmful in most circumstances. The Romans maintained a staff of army doctors whose anatomical knowledge and surgical skills became quite advanced, but their work had little effect on the common citizen, who was at constant risk of death from disease and such simple problems as appendicitis. Disease theory developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and such practices as sterilizing surgical instruments, quarantining sick patients, and eliminating unsanitary conditions made an important contribution to increasing life span.

Some of the most important advances of modern medicine were the development of vaccines and antibiotics. Diseases such as smallpox, polio, typhus, yellow fever, diphtheria and tuberculosis that once killed millions of people, have now been eliminated entirely or have had their effects greatly reduced (though TB is on the rise again). Continuing improvements in sanitation, particularly in Western cities where sewage is enclosed instead of running in the streets, have also contributed to an increased chance of surviving childhood and beyond.

The use of antibiotics, coupled with the later development of hormone treatments for birth control (the "pill") had a profound effect on sexual practices, particularly after the mid 1950s. Many people had already abandoned religious notions of eternal consequences for promiscuity. Now, they were also freed from such temporal consequences as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. As a result, the public perception of morality was redefined to fit the new freedoms and sex came to be marketed as recreation instead of being seen as part of the old social, religious, and moral contract of monogamous marriage. Whether the private behaviour of people changed as consistently as the public view of it is more difficult to assess. Both those who were fundamentally committed to the old moral standards and those who had never followed them no doubt acted as they always had. Others followed public opinion, and adopted a new life-style, for the perception of what constituted normal behaviour was now the opposite of what it had been. Of course, the medical story of the early 1990s was the failure of technology to provide fast cures for the new venereal diseases of herpes and AIDS, and the consequent abandonment of some aspects of the sexual revolution, at least for the time being (and at least in public). Moreover, by the end of that decade, a number of strains of bacteria had become resistant to antibacterial drugs, leaving researchers scrambling for replacements as infection rates notched upwards.

One could use the sexual revolution and its effects to argue that modern medicine had a negative impact on both morality and religion. However, one could as easily blame modern communication and transportation technology, claiming that by being in touch with other societies and their values, the people of the West first came to take first a relative view of both, and then simply to discard them altogether.

Paradoxically, medical practice itself has its roots not just in the desire for survival, but also in the ethical impulse. There have always been strong moral (and often religious) convictions associated with the development and provision of medical facilities for the masses of people who have not previously had them. This behaviour--not so much one of self-interest, but of compassion--has been at the heart of medical missions and humanitarian aid to undeveloped nations, disaster relief, and universal medical care in the industrialized world and elsewhere.

The practice of medicine has also meant the average age to which people in all nations may expect to live is higher than it has been in recorded history, and there is a better opportunity than ever for an individual to survive serious disorders such as cancers, brain tumors and heart diseases. However, longer life spans mean more people, exacerbating food and housing supply difficulties. In addition, medical services are still not well distributed, and accessibility remains a problem in many parts of the world. Improvements in medical technology shift the balance of population (to the young at first, and then to the old). They also tie up expenses resources in facilities and trained people, costing more money, and affecting what can be spent on other things.

That is, changes in medical practice have wide repercussions in the entire society in which the new techniques are employed. Such interconnections of medicine with society and public policy are well expressed by an important principle of interdependence that applies to many other situations as well:

It is impossible to do one thing.

The modern challenges to medicine, if met, will cause new and dramatic changes in the ways people live, in how many of them live, and in how long they live. Some of these changes will be examined in a later chapter.

Technology and Warfare

The first stone tool developed for clubbing an animal could also be used for hitting its inventor's neighbours over the head and taking their food. Bow and arrow or spear could hunt both animals and men. Carts could carry produce to market, men to war, or captured enemies back to slavery. Black powder could clear stumps or fire cannonballs. Ships could carry trade goods or an invading army; and simple machines could pump water or become battering rams.

The same technology that produced tractors also builds tanks. That which made airplane passenger and mail service possible also created aerial warfare and firebombing. The telephone lines by which one "reaches out and touches" far-away relatives also carry military orders. Satellites can either transmit communications over previously sealed borders, or spy on the enemy living there. Nuclear energy is used to produce power, radioactive medicines, and unlock the secrets of matter itself, but could destroy the world in a few hours. Chemistry can produce healing medicines or develop the tools for warfare to kill millions.

Every technology has the potential both to improve living conditions of human beings, or to harm them. Some complain bitterly because devices made for peaceful use are twisted into weapons of war. Others point to civilian spin-offs of military technology as sufficient justification to pursue the arts of making war.

Human history presents an unbroken record of nation coveting nation, of peoples hating peoples, and of the endless making of war to realize such destructive ambitions. Whether caused by shortages of food or land, envy over another's prosperity, racial or religious hatreds, or competition over trade routes, there have always been wars. Those involved have always sought out and used the highest available technology for killing the enemy. A nation that lost one war due to inferior technology, if allowed to survive, could always rebuild, create new weapons, and try again. That is:

It is impossible to fight one battle.

More generally, no inventor or technological innovator in any field can ever foresee the consequences for either peace or war of a particular idea or device. All technology has consequences for society and for subsequent development of new technologies. This leads to other statements of the principle of interdependence:

It is impossible to have one idea.
It is impossible to invent one thing.

This version could be made more general than these specific (and useful) statements as follows:

It is impossible to think one thing.

In nuclear weaponry, humankind now has the technology that could not only kill every person in the world, but could also sterilize it of life altogether. Since wars normally result in the highest available technology being used, the task facing humanity today is nothing less than the elimination of war altogether, for the human race cannot survive a new global conflict. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the collapse of its military apparatus, the potential for superpower warfare has been greatly diminished, but the probability remains high that those same weapons will find themselves one day in the hands of others with more hatred and fewer scruples. At the same time, because the war industry is an important factor in the economies of many nations, survival will also mean social, and economic change. The fundamental urge to survive will also mean that the new civilization will be different in its view of humankind and of the appropriate use of technology; the popular ethics of war will change to reflect the price of war.

Profile On ... Decisions and War

A Few fateful decisions affecting World War II

Decision: In the late 1930s, the Nazis, motivated by racial hatreds, decide to persecute the Jews. Scientists and engineers from all over Germany (including Albert Einstein) are forced to resign their positions. Many leave the country.

Consequence: Allied nations receive an influx of highly intelligent and well-trained experts in the very fields critical to development of technologies needed to win the ensuing war. Einstein is influential in the decision to develop the atomic bomb.

Decision: On September 29, 1938, Britain's Neville Chamberlain abandons his promises to Czechoslovakia and agrees to Hitler's demand that he be allowed to annex large portions of the country. Hitler promises that he has no more territorial ambitions.

Consequence: Other parts of Czechoslovakia are annexed by her other neighbours. Germany not only takes over the remainder, but Hitler, emboldened by what he sees as weakness in Britain and France invades Poland as well, the action that triggers war.

Decision: In June of 1940, Nazi Air Marshal Gφring launches the Battle of Britain, bombing major population centres to demoralize the British citizenry.

Consequence: Her industrial capacity all but untouched, Britain continues manufacturing airplanes that prove superior to the German ones, inflicting heavy losses on the Luftwaffe, and eventually forcing the Germans to accept defeat in the air.

Decision: In June of 1941, Hitler decides to break his secret pact with Stalin, and orders his army to invade Russia.

Consequences: (1) Cold winters, long supply lines, and the Russian army bring the Germans to a halt within sight of Moscow. As the Germans are pushed back, the misadventure weakens the German army, forcing Hitler to fight on two fronts.

(2) Blaming his generals for the defeat, Hitler dismisses them and assumes personal command --a task that proves to be beyond his ability.

Decision: Despite steadily worsening relations with the Japanese, the United States military command decides to ignore the early December 1941 warnings of an Imperial fleet mobilization in the Pacific.

Consequence: Japan surprises the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Much of the U.S. Pacific force is destroyed in the sneak attack, and Japan has a free hand to expand her empire throughout the South Pacific for the next two years. To this day, there are some who claim this was a deliberate ploy by high U.S. officials to gain public approval for entering the war.

Decision: In August of 1945, the Japanese government decides to ignore American warnings about their new and destructive weapon.

Consequence: Reasoning that the cost in lives would be much greater if an invasion of Japan were to be launched, the U.S. drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war ends, but at the cost of much of the population of both cities.

Technology, Transportation, and Communication

The ability to maintain a nation of any size is as closely tied to the availability of fast and efficient means of transportation and communication as it is to the provision of sufficient food. Indeed, as previously observed, these two are closely linked, for the food problem is one of transportation as well as one of production.

With every advance in the ability to move goods and people about or to transmit messages over larger distances, the effective size of the world shrinks and the potential size of nations (or empires) grows. The converse is true as well. For example, when the roads deteriorated after the fall of Rome, European peoples retreated into more localized communities. Not until centuries later did the resulting nations build empires again.

In this century, barriers of distance (for developed countries) have for all practical purposes ceased to exist. This does not necessarily mean the world will become a single nation politically, though it is in some senses already one economically. It must be remembered that familiarity breeds contempt, and enhanced communication and transportation facilitate killing one's traditional enemies as much as they foster understanding them.

Standard of Living

There can be little doubt that people are for the most part better off in the material sense today than at any time in human history. Many of the poor are not so poor as they once were, and the world could probably feed all its people (for a while) if the political will existed to do so.

In Western nations, even the lower middle classes are wealthy beyond the dreams of ancient peoples. Typical citizens own or control their living space, can buy any kind of basic food (and many luxuries) and have several modern appliances (stove, refrigerator, washer, dryer, central heating) that do more work than a houseful of slaves or servants. Moreover, their leisure time is abundant, and entertainment industries are big business. There are inequities of course, for even in wealthy nations, the gap between the rich and the poor is great, and there are homeless people even in the most prosperous cities. There is also still a chasm between the rich and poor nations. However, there can be no doubt that technology has improved almost everyone's standard of living, and few would care to return to the days of poor nutrition, no medical care, high infant mortality and a thirty-year average life span.

Where are these trends leading? There are two very different views of the possible future, and the contrast between them illustrates the difficulties involved in attempts to look ahead.

The first is to suppose that if the standard of living continues to rise, there would eventually be no practical difference between the rich and the poor, for beyond a certain point the actual amount of wealth is more a means of keeping score than it is an indication of class differences. This is the most idealistic and optimistic view. It must be tempered by the observation that such progress has not in the past led to classless societies. It is much easier to imagine that there will merely come to be new definitions of class than that there will be no class differences at all.

A second is to suggest that continued growth will inevitably result in collapse. The more emphasis put on material goods, the less regard there would be for people, straining the bonds of society. Such concepts as duty could break down as people isolate themselves, become laws-unto-themselves, and live for their own pleasure without regard for others. Moral consensus could vanish. Having lost the glue that holds it together, society could dissolve into chaos. This is the most pessimistic view.

Those who hold to the cyclical views of history might subscribe to one of the bleaker two scenarios, whereas those who hold to some purposeful view of history may believe that society will remain cohesive even if both material goods and war-making abilities both increased without limit. The true course of future history is likely to contain some elements of both.

In any event, production efficiency for material goods cannot continue to raise the general standard of living without at some point causing profound changes to the way people view and use consumer goods. Just what these changes might be is unknown, though some possibilities will be considered later.

In addition, many now unknowable technologies and events will affect the future. The generation of the 1940s might have forecast changes due to, say, television, for it had been in the making for some time, and the example of radio was available. It would have been impossible to predict the effects of computers, however, for they were due to unforeseeable technical breakthroughs. Each generation of new technology contains such elements--ones that would seem magical to people twenty years earlier. By their very nature, aspects of tomorrow's standard techniques that are magic today are unknowable. What is more, wars, revolutions, stock market crashes, terrorist attacks, other monetary crises, shortages in commodities (such as oil), nuclear disaster, new trade patterns, changes in consumer preferences, political and religious scandals, and other factors also shape the society to come, determining what behaviour and attitudes are acceptable, what technologies will be pursued and used, and what ethical standards will be followed or discarded.

Moreover, one can never underestimate the power of general disappointment with and the desire to distance from the perceived failure or irrelevance of the values and activities of a previous generation. There is every reason to believe that this perception is particularly pronounced today, and that sharp shifts in the dominant world view are in the offing, with even more dramatic consequences for society and the technology it uses.


New technology has always had profound social effects. Moreover, technologies are not only linked to social change, but to each other. The pursuit of a given technological change will necessarily cause changes in society, in other technologies and--in typical feedback fashion--in the seminal technology itself. It would be well to restate the principle of interdependence once again:

It is impossible to change only one thing.

Finally, because of its central importance to the present and the future, it is necessary to consider the specific development of computing technology. For this, a separate section is warranted.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises