Technology’s Evolution Was Messy

Photo by Himanshu Yadav on Unsplash

We like to think there’s been one nice, continuous, linear direction in the development of technologies. We turned silica stone into an axe and then it was all one long train of events to when we turned silica stone into microchips. It wasn’t at all that way.

It was in fact, quite messy, with lots of fits and starts. Sometimes technologies would just be lost. Whoever invented it had a heart attack before it was finished and no one else came along and re-invented whatever that idea was.

We’ve just discovered technology made by our non Homo sapiens ancestors that are little balls. Unless we invent a time machine, we will never know why or what they were used for. The tool exists, the context is gone.

We like to think agriculture and all its related tools happened one day when we got tired of bashing around the woods fighting the bears for berries.

It took several thousands of years and some cultures decided they rather enjoyed fighting the bears rather than growing the berries and abandoned the use of agriculture. They didn’t have social media to entertain them back then.

Prior to now, because we were widely geographically separated, with different languages, traditions and all the elements that make up culture and our societies, we rejected technology from another culture as often as we accepted it.

When we do accept a technology innovation from another culture the accepting culture more than likely made innovations on that technology that suited their cultural norms. Then, perhaps decades, centuries, or thousands of years later, they passed that technology on to another culture as a gift or because they lost the war or underwent cultural convergence.

And so on it went this way and that, meandering around the world, sometimes reinvented and other times a few humans had the same idea at the same time. There’s even some suggestion that us Homo sapiens may have adopted fire and other technologies from non human ancestors like Neanderthals or Denisovans. We can be a sneaky bunch at times.

We know now as well, that the traditional depiction of how we evolved from apes is largely wrong as well. That there are far more missing links than we thought and the tree of our evolution is probably more like a river delta.

If we know that our ancestors such as Neanderthals, Denisovans and perhaps others, also invented and used technology, then it only stands that the evolution of technologies was just as messy.

This is Changing

We are likely entering a phase, for the first time in human history of technocultural convergence unlike ever before. As the barriers to communication, transportation and geography slide away, so too can we begin to invent, evolve and co-create technologies in almost real-time, across multiple cultures.

This is quite profound. Perhaps even more profound. Technologies themselves are neutral and have no inherent purpose. The come into being because of our imagination. They evolve because of how we collaborate through socializing, story telling and organising.

Technologists suggest that it’s the combining effects of technology that is driving the rapid innovations in technologies today. But only in part. What’s truly driving such rapid innovations is that the walls, sociocultural systems, time and space, are collapsing. We can collaborate at scale, unlike ever before. This is the real paradigm shift.

Technology is fundamental to the survival of our species, when we can evolve them together, much more becomes possible. It may also mean that we can understand the risks and dangers faster and perhaps, figure out how to avoid them. That too, is up to culture.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital Anthropologist | Chief Innovation Officer | I'm in WIRED, Forbes & National Geographic etc.