Throughout human history there have been many technical inventions and there have been many social transformations. How are these two parts of human history linked? Are they inextricably joined in their evolution? Or can they evolve and develop separately from one another? Do, as this question poses, technical inventions ascertain, settle or be the decisive factor in considerable social change? The determinate nature of this question cannot produce a satisfactory answer.
If we were to answer yes to this question it would imply that all technical inventions, no matter where they arise, result in a social transformation. This, I will argue, is clearly not the case. Many inventions, in fact most inventions, never play any significant role in the social structure they are introduced into. If we answer the question with a negative this, again incorrectly, implies that every technical invention has no influence whatsoever on a social transformation it might be part of. We must search for an answer between these two extremes.
There have been some extremely important technical advances in human history – the wheel, firearms, ocean-going ships, steel equipment, printing presses, glass, and steam engines. Those have all contributed to, and been leading players in, human history through the ages. The key statement to add to this is that they have only had an influence on social transformations where and when they have been adopted wholeheartedly by a society displaying the requisite conditions of social transformation. I will demonstrate this by drawing on the first two technical inventions mentioned above.
I will show that where the wheel and firearms have been integrated into society they have, in another society, been rejected or ignored. The reasons for rejecting or ignoring certain technical inventions can be varied and depend on the type of society concerned. When this rejection does occur, the invention clearly does not transform society. Even in the societies where these inventions are adopted it does not necessarily mean that society will be transformed. The invention will simply be adopted by society but have no great effect.
I will begin with the example of the technical invention which we would find hard to imagine society without today – the wheel. We cannot be sure when or where the wheel was first used. Some estimates put this at approximately 10,000 years ago in Asia. The wheel has been used extensively in all societies that have incorporated it. Practically all of Eurasia, over time, has developed the wheel to be used within the various types of social circumstances that have developed, from animal-drawn carts to watermills, to industrial machinery, to steam engines and modern vehicles.
At each of these stages of development the wheel has been used to help increase the production capability of society. Any social transformation arising from this increase in production capability cannot solely be attributed to the wheel. It is a mixture of factors that determine this economic and social change. “While wheels are very useful in modern industrial societies that has not been so in some other societies” (Diamond, 1998:p248). There has been no evidence of the wheel being used at all in advanced societies such as the Aztecs and Incas.
Further north, in Mexico, wheels have only been found to be used in toys, and not for the more useful task of using wheels on animal-drawn carts. How obvious does it seem to use this knowledge and combine wheels with animals to greatly improve the transportation possibilities of these ancient societies? The answer, at first, seems blind to us due to our concentration on the wheel itself. These ancient societies actually lacked the large, domesticated animals that could be used to pull wheel-based transport.
Here we see that the invention of a certain type of technology can easily be discarded as useless if other essential factors are not present to maximise its potential. From this example of a technical invention that, in some societies was used extensively from the day it was introduced, and in others was rejected once it had been introduced, I now turn to the influential, or not as the case may be, invention of firearms. The use of gunpowder in conjunction with various weapons over time has transformed the nature of war as these weapons have become more and more effective and lethal.
Has this transformation in the way war is conducted also transformed the societies involved and affected by war? Or is the simple presence of war, and its various outcomes, the factor which can transform a society? Is not a society that conducts war with spears and fists transformed in the same way as a society that uses guns and cannons? Guns, and their adoption by the countries of Western Europe, have played a major part in the history of those countries. “As early as the first decades of the fourteenth century Europeans began to use cannon in warfare” (Cipolla, 1996:p21).
Over the ensuing centuries, through overseas expansion, the bloody Reformation wars of religion, colonialism and the two world wars, the usage of firearms is a significant factor in the conflicts. European countries’ efforts to constantly improve the effectiveness of their weapons in the face of incessant war with each other, and then the use of these weapons in overseas ventures, greatly changed the tactics of war, the nature of the combat, and, more importantly, the increased advantage of gun wielding societies over those who did not possess them.
But can it be said that it was firearms solely that transformed the social structure of the peoples involved in this warfare? It was also the fact that Western European states possessed “steel weapons, and horses; infectious diseases endemic in Eurasia; European maritime technology; the centralized political organization of European states; and writing. ” (Diamond, 1998:p80). The transformation that swept through these ancient empires was not just down to the Europeans’ weapons but also other, non-technical factors.
Yet again we see that a technological invention is but one factor of any relevant social transformations that are prevalent at the time. This is the case, at least, where firearms have been used from the day they were introduced into a society. But this ‘no looking back’ attitude is not always the case. In Japan, the introduction of guns did not become embedded in the country’s society ‘without looking back’. After an initial period of enthused gun production the Japanese ruling warrior class, the samurai, began measures to resist the use of guns in Japanese society.
The acceptance of them was not as willing as could be seen by Western European societies. Various government measures combatted the use of guns, especially by the peasantry, “and throughout the century [16th] the production of guns (which could only be made under licence) was steadily reduced”, (Parker, 1996:p144). Thus, we can see again, that the structure of society and its receptivity to certain technical inventions are also extremely important in determining whether or not an invention will thrive.
An invention’s potential to be a factor in social transformation will only be felt if the relevant society desires that potential to be realised. There are many other examples of this reversal in the use of technology in society. China, after developing many major technical inventions, went through a seemingly conservative attitude toward new technology. Also, as in the first example, there have been other instances of societies being aware of technical inventions but not using them in a major influencing role.
Aboriginal rejection of European weapons and technologies is an example of a society not harnessing new inventions simply because they do not need them. Another example of a society not undertaking the use of a new invention is shown by the discovery of the Phaistos printing disk in Crete in 1908, (Diamond, 1998:p239). This was not widely reproduced in the society of that time. It took many hundreds of years later before any form of printing become popular. As we can see, a technical invention brought into the wrong place at the wrong time will ensure it has no social transformational effects.
It can take many factors to enable a technology to be adopted by society, but seemingly it need only be one factor that can hinder its acceptance. In conclusion, I suggest that in order for the question to be answered correctly, it should be rephrased. Technological inventions, in their nature and their effect, vary according to the invention in question and the effect they have on society. Social transformations, and their causes, also vary according to the structure of a particular society at a particular time.
Thus, technical inventions and social transformations cannot be exclusively linked in this way. Technical inventions can be a determining factor in a social transformation, but only one factor of many. Technical inventions can also have no effect whatsoever on society if that society does not need nor desire it. Instead of trying to provide a categorical answer to this proposed link between two huge generalisations, it is much wiser to provide an answer to the question ‘Can technical inventions play a determining role in social transformations? ‘ The answer to this question is yes, they can.