In r/badhistory, the view that technology is linear gets poked fun of every once in a while. Why is the view wrong? Isn’t technology linear? Also, why is the west so dominant when compared to other once great civilizations?
Are you familar with the idea of local maximums? Imagine in a low spot between two hills. You can climb either hill. Regardless off what hill to climb, you are increasing your elevation. But one of the hills will not reach as high as the other.
In evolution, its called a fitness landscape. Paths of technological development can be similar.
A recent question on ask historians involved the development of iron weapons. The answer involved metallurgy – iron is frequently inferior to bronze, and it was only the development of consistant alloys and better techniques that gave iron an edge (a better edge in this case). Focusing on bronze is advantageous – until another civilization manages to be able to alloy a superior form of iron. Local maximums.
What I think is interesting is that once people discover that a new technique for metallurgy creates iron that is better than bronze, everyone starts to adopt it. This is some sort of direction to technology, is it not? One society goes in one direction and discovers a local maximum and another society goes in another direction and discovers a different local maximum. But if these two societies intermingle (whether it’s a peaceful or violent intermingling, take your pick), if the people in the two societies discover that one of the local maxima is higher than the other, then they’ve discovered a local maximum of a larger region and have made a step in the direction of the global maximum. Keep repeating this and as your map gets larger and more societies intermingle, your greatest local maximum gets higher and higher.
At the danger of summoning the hatred of Jared Diamond-critics, I think he mentioned in one of his works that one way he “measures” a civilization is its ability to dominate another civilization and avoid being dominated by other civilizations (whether it’s violent, peaceful, economic, diplomatic, or cultural domination). What I’m saying is, when two societies – each having discovered a different local maximum – intermingle, if one dominates another, they will have succeeded in that domination for some reason. That “some reason” is their local maximum. Once news of this knowledge spreads (if that “reason” can be identified and is made into knowledge), other societies will pursue that local maximum as well. As long as societies have enough knowledge of the past to pursue higher and higher maxima, they will be acquiring more and more things that enable them to “dominate other civilizations or avoid being dominated by other civilizations.” Could this suffice as a kind of definition for “technological progress?” If there is a “linear” component to it, it’s that as our “map” expands, our local maximum of that map increases or at least doesn’t decrease.
Of course, this assumes that knowledge of the past remains and there are no catastrophes that set back civilizations in general. But I think catastrophes setting back technologies isn’t something that goes against the belief of “linear technological progress.” I think even staunch “linear progress” believers allow for the fact that unseen catastrophes can cause set backs, or even that scientific knowledge is not a smooth process. I think the key question that both sides wrestle with is how progress seems to happen over generations, even if key inventions seem to happen by chance (like fermented foods or penicillin being discovered fortuitously by leaving things too long or less hygienic than intended). So could “societal domination leads to the adoption of more ‘dominating’ technologies” be a satisfactory explanation? This does mean that if societies that get dominated had wonderful, advanced technologies that get lost to time, it may be a long time until those technologies are rediscovered again, if at all. That’s just a matter of us not finding those directions in the map that could lead to undiscovered local maxima. The key is that as more people interact and more societies intermingle, as long as we would rather dominate than be dominated, “dominating” technologies are going to be adopted more and more. We could try to describe what exactly are more “dominating” technologies (e.g. faster, cheaper mobility for people, more crops per area of land produced that is sustainable, etc.), but I think it’s easier to fall into incorrect claims with details like that. The key is “What technologies help you dominate other societies (or people) or avoid being dominated by other societies (or people)?”