Sunday, April 17, 2016

Technology in World Civilization by Arnold Pacey

For those looking for a brief survey of technological history around the world, Technology in World Civilization by Arnold Pacey would be a good start. With just a little preface to introduce ideas about how civilizations interact in relation to technology, Pacey dives into a historical narrative of the development of major technologies. He starts in A.D. 700 and continues almost to the time the book was published in 1990.

Throughout the book, Pacey describes the interactions between civilizations as a dialogue. Straightforward, direct transfer of technology from one civilization to another is rare in his view. The success and development of a technology that originated in a foreign culture depends a lot on the customs, organization, government, economy, and technology of the receiving culture. Very often, the adoption of a foreign technology spurs adaptions, improvements and even new inventions among the adopters. Even the rumor of a foreign technology can spur people invent, or independently reinvent, solutions to a problem. Pacey is keen to recognize this stimulus effect in cross-cultural dialogue related to technology.

In addition to recognizing the inventiveness found in many cultures, Pacey is careful not to overemphasize mechanical inventions, which might tend to put the focus on the West. He points out that the development of more efficient and productive crops and agricultural practices in Asia were also important technologies.

Another important technological improvement centered on organization and abstraction. As technologies became larger and more complex, they exhausted what could be experienced directly by craftsmen. Improvement depended on developing new ways of thinking about materials and work. Scale drawing and model-making became a way to deal with complex construction. New principles of organization were applied to work, such as specialization and division of labor, especially as people began to work with powered machinery. Some technological improvements even required a new way of understanding materials, spurring interest in the development of sciences, especially chemistry.

Pacey follows this progression through guns and railroads and into the 20th century with computers, nuclear power, and flights to the moon. He doesn’t stop there. Instead, he takes a look, seemingly “back,” to survival technologies. Technologies related to agriculture, sanitation and environmental health in the 20th century have a huge impact on the way we live today. In the decades since this book was published, the Internet has revolutionized the way we think about computing and communications, but in many ways our health, wellbeing and lifestyles depend on technologies that are centuries old and we cannot neglect them. Perhaps in an ongoing cross-cultural dialogue about technology, new and old, we can find solutions to current and future problems (climate change, water shortages, clean energy, food security and more) that are adaptable to the various needs, scales and organizations of cultures around the world.

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Pacey, Arnold. Technology in World Civilization: A Thousand-Year History. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990.