Friday, August 21, 2009

Technology: Linear Advance

Nowhere are the urban roots of the word ‘civilization’ more evident than in the neglect which historians have lavished upon the rustic and his works and days. While the peasant has normally been a lively and enterprising fellow, quite unlike the tragic caricature of combined brutishness and abused virtue presented in Millet’s and Markham’s ‘Man with the Hoe’, he has seldom been literate. Not only histories but documents in general were produced by social groups which took the peasant and his labours largely for granted. Therefore while our libraries groan with data on the ownership of land, there is an astonishing dearth of information about various, and often changing, methods of cultivation
which made the land worth owning.
Lynn White, Jr., Medieval Technology and Social Change, Oxford University Press, 1962

The quote comes from one of the most useful and enlightening books of history I’ve ever picked up. I read it in the late 1960s, a period in which I was myself deeply involved in studies of modern technology. The book provided an angle of vision of the past one rarely encounters, from the ground up, but from a higher ground than the immediate view of daily life—another neglected region of history. Much as perusing Brigitte’s college textbook on biology opened my eyes to the continuity between human societies and what, since then, I’ve called “chemical civilization,” so Lynn White’s book, bringing to view the work of really obscure specialists, made me aware of the fact that a generally cyclic model of history must be balanced, for completeness, with a linear view of technology. Technology gradually advances; the gains made are never entirely lost—although they may lie dormant when circumstances don’t favor development. The book is still available at reasonable cost here.

What White’s book illustrates is that waves of technological change have always stimulated and also shaped social development, but the processes have been slower and less noticeable in a single life time. His focus is on military developments arising from the invention of the stirrup—a mind-blowingly interesting story with surprisingly large radiations—on through developments in agriculture, including the development of the “modern” plow and three-crop rotation systems, both acting to transform agricultural society and enabling population increase. He ends with the development of inorganic sources of power—water, wind, and chemical. The books also happens to be written by someone with a feel for language. Unfortunately Latin quotes are left in Latin. White evidently saw his audience as other scholars, not as the illiterati of the next generation over; such quotes, alas, are not too many.

I would say more, but a fall from a ladder has produced two badly cut and richly stitched fingers. I am owed kudos for posting anything at all. What I would write about is the ultimate technological development of our times, energy, and how we may adapt to its inevitable disappearance… The less said, perhaps, the better.


  1. I would say more, but a fall from a ladder has produced two badly cut and richly stitched fingers. I am owed kudos for posting anything at all.

    Indeed -- But be more careful!

  2. I put it too gently. I'm owed berating for colossal stupidity! But thanks for the thought.