Part I--Laying the Groundwork


History and Technology

The journey to enlightenment begins on the ivy covered campus of the Memorial University of the Sciences, the Humanities, Education, Arts, and Technology (MUSHEAT), a private West Coast Liberal Arts University whose lacrosse teams once terrified the league with their battle-cry of "Eat Mush."

In a curiously self-referential twist, the MUSHEAT computing science department offers a course based on this very text. The time is, perhaps, a year or two in the future (to allow for publication). As the first session opens, the Professor, Nellie Hacker and Ellen Westlake are sitting at a table in a small seminar room. Nellie is a senior student in computer science, and Ellen is finishing law school part-time while working as an organizer for HUBRIS (the Hoteliers' Union, Bouncers and Roustabouts Industrial Society). A third student, Alicia Copland, is not present in the room but communicates with the other participants by microphone and speaker. There are several empty seats. Before each class, the students in the seminar have been required to read the appropriate material in the text.

Professor: Well, what did you think of the chapter on history and technology?

Nellie: I'm still not sure why we ought to be concerned with history at all. I thought this was a course on technology and related ethical and social issues.

Ellen: History is meaningless except as a record of the struggle of workers to master their destinies in the face of oppression.

Nellie: It seems to me that people are a lot better off under good old Western style materialism than they ever were under Marxist dictatorships.

Professor: Alicia, how about something from you to keep us on track?

Alicia: (from the speaker) Good afternoon, Professor. Thank you for allowing me to participate in the discussions. Could I suggest that advances in technology are the driving force behind historical events?

Ellen: That's true, but eventually the workers will control the technology and create history themselves.

Nellie: Haven't you heard, Ellen? Marxism is dead; we're at the end of history, and liberal democracy has triumphed. There are no Soviets anymore.

Ellen: We will not be at the end of history until the mass of workers control the means of production.

Alicia: In the past, most technology-driven historical watersheds centred on just a few individuals, or even a single person, rather than on the actions of a large number of people.

(At this point the door opens, and another participant enters, taking one of the empty seats.)

Professor: Let me introduce a new member of our group. I have borrowed Dorcas, also known as Tabitha, from the first century A.D.--specifically from the book of Acts Chapter 9.

Ellen: (startled) How did you do that?

Nellie: (chuckling) Better not to ask, Ellen. Anything can (and usually does) happen at the Professor's seminars. Hello, Dorcas.

(General introductions follow, in which it is revealed that Dorcas' speciality is the study of history.)

Professor: You were talking about technology and historical events, I believe, Alicia.

Alicia: Yes, and I was about to illustrate. Tell me, Nellie, why did David defeat Goliath?

Nellie: (hesitantly) Because David trusted in God?

Dorcas: You sound like you're only saying that because you think it's what the Professor would like to hear.

Nellie: (sharply) Well, you surely agree.

Dorcas: Of course. But David also used a higher technology than Goliath. A spear carrier like the Philistine had no chance against a high-speed projectile. David knew that, and used it to his advantage. Why do you think the bow and arrow were invented?

Alicia: Quite so. Now Ellen, why did the Germans lose the Battle of Britain? They were numerically superior in the air.

Ellen: Fascists always lose, eventually.

Nellie: You've missed the point. The British had radar and the Nazis didn't; right, Alicia?

Alicia: Close enough. The Germans had the technology but failed to deploy it. Further illustrations, please.

Nellie: English longbowmen in the day of King Richard made armour obsolete by being able to penetrate it from a distance.

Dorcas: Alexander took Tyre because he had better siege equipment than the Babylonians who had tried and failed before him. He could not have carried on his campaign against Egypt and Persia with a hostile city at his back. His success at Tyre encouraged him to go on as far as India.

Nellie: Enough on war, already. What of the plough, the steam engine, internal combustion, the vacuum tube and transistor, and the computer? In their own way, each of these have altered subsequent history. All were initially the work of one or a very small number of people.

Professor: Shall we regard Alicia's proposition as proven, and consider the converse?

Ellen: When society is ready for a technology, it gets invented. History drives technology at least as much as the other way around. We get the inventions people need and deserve.

Nellie: You're right about that. There are numerous examples of the simultaneous independent discovery of ideas in mathematics when the time was appropriate. Calculus and non-Euclidean geometry are two examples.

Dorcas: The system of Roman roads and aqueducts was as much a response to the need for better services to growing cities and the requirement for better communications as these things were a driving force behind the spread of the Roman version of civilization.

Nellie: Edison set out quite deliberately to invent the light bulb. He was meeting a need.

Alicia: Who is to say that the automobile so much shaped modern society as its invention was necessitated by the direction society was already taking? Better transportation was necessary to hold more spread-out cultures together.

Dorcas: Which came first, the worm, or the dirt?

Alicia: I think that lost something in the translation, Dorcas. Now, identify the critical technological advances that have most influenced the course of civilization.

Nellie: The gathering and storing of seed.

Dorcas: The domestication of animals. The plough. The idea that people could gather in one place and make the land give them what they want rather than having to go out and find their food. Agriculture made communities and towns possible and efficiencies on the farm allowed some community members to be released from food gathering to become scholars, and teachers...

Ellen: (interrupting) ...and oppressors such as kings...

Nellie: (cutting her off) ...not to mention economists, lawyers and union leaders.

Professor: Order please. Next stage?

Ellen: Easy enough. You liberate the animals by building machines to do the work. Massive population shifts take place. Capitalists take advantage of the naivete of the migrating farm workers to enslave them to the new machines and a new round of...

Nellie: ... oppression begins. Yes we know. And, what about modern sanitation, medicine, and all the consumer goodies that became available to the "masses" during the industrial age? Face it, Ellen. People are better off now than they were before it began. Besides, those oppressed industrial workers were starving in squalor in the countryside--as bad as those urban conditions were, the cities were an improvement.

Professor: I'm going to have to wear a striped shirt to class to keep the two of you under control.

Alicia: If I may finish, the high technology of automated machinery, computers, video, communications, transportation and medicine is creating a new revolution with as profound a set of changes as any time in the past.

Professor: If society and technology drive each other, what are the catalysts?

Dorcas: People.

Nellie: Do you mean society as a whole?

Dorcas: No, but particular individuals with a great vision who almost single-handedly change the course of history.

Professor: Examples, please.

Dorcas: Alexander, Julius Caesar, Plato...

Nellie: Galileo, Newton, Einstein...

Ellen: Marx, Lenin, Stalin...

Nellie: (clasping her head in her hands in exasperation) Oh, my God.

Dorcas: (matter-of-factly) Jesus Christ was the greatest revolutionary of them all.

Ellen: There's no evidence he even existed. If you ask me...

Nellie: What rot; we didn't. Do you believe Tiberius Caesar existed?

Ellen: Of course.

Nellie: Why?

Ellen: (hesitantly) Well, the testimony of historians, of course.

Nellie: But the testimony of contemporary historians for the life of Christ is much more consistent, was written at a date closer to the events, and therefore is much more accurate than that for Tiberius.

Professor: You have a point, but I think a little research might soften that view somewhat, Nellie. Actually, this is a good place to intervene and ask how a historian "knows" anything. Dorcas is the expert here.

Dorcas: A good historian gathers many accounts of events, sifts and compares them and publishes what seems to be a factual account based on the weight of evidence.

Nellie: But, what about the inaccuracies and deceptions?

Dorcas: Some do embellish and deceive, but a good historian tells it as it was, and attempts to provide reasons why people behaved as they did, keeping the personal ideology at a minimum.

Professor: (looking at the wall clock) Good definition, but I'm afraid our time has elapsed for this week. I'll have a little thousand word essay from each of you on this topic.

(He gathers his books and leaves. As he does so, Nellie and Ellen begin a new discussion that the closing door cuts off.)

Nellie: You see, Ellen--history is facts--just the facts.

Ellen: No, that's not true; the winners get to write history. Interpretations are the facts. If one generation sees things with a different perspective, history itself changes, because we create our own worlds, and this is certainly true of the historical ones. In the long run, it is not facts that matter at all, but how the masses are taught to interpret...

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