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Technology: Humanity’s Engine


A man using VR glasses. VR is one of the popular “high-tech gadgets” that society associates with technology. Source: mali maeder via Pexels.

Technology, or simply, tech. A poorly treated word, that has received unfair media coverage. As a result, we often associate tech with super advanced innovations, such as VR glasses, self-driving cars and robotic doctors. Sure, these technologies have been revolutionary, with robotic doctors saving lives and robots making work efficient. Yet self-driving cars were not feasible until 2009, when Google started its now infamous Waymo project. Cars, driven by humans, were not feasible until Karl Benz built his in 1885.

A steam powered train. The steam engine was one of the landmark innovations of the Industrial Revolution. Source: Pixabay.

Technology is much older than the twenty-first century, but our society doesn’t treat it as such. Students often learn of the Industrial Revolution as having the first large technological innovations. Joseph A. Montagna of Yale University’s Teachers Institute, when writing about the Industrial Revolution, details that the, “new technology resulted in increased production, efficiency and profits, and the increase in commerce, foreign and domestic”. Martin Kelly, who currently creates online IB American History courses for Pamoja Education, claims that the, “new technology” include innovations like the steam engine, communication innovations like the telegraph, and later the car and plane, and manufacturing innovations like the cotton gin and sewing machine. Kelly summarizes these innovations as having, “harnessed the power of water, steam, and coal”. For most people, the idea of technology stops here, at the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution. Our continued relationship to these technology in the modern world explains this. We still use engines for our cars, an integral part of our daily lives. We still use phones, a highly improved version of the early telegraphs. Yet, despite our society’s very personal relationship to post-Industrial technologies, these technologies simply do not represent our use of technologies.

Us, as in humans. Experts disagree on the exact dates of the first Homo sapiens, with the Palomar College and Smithsonian Institution putting it at 200,000 years ago, and research from the State University of New York putting it at 300,00 years ago. But there is a consensus among researchers that Homo sapiens first appeared between 250,000 and 200,000 years ago. Early human species have also been found around 7.2 million years ago by researchers from the University of Toronto. The numbers will vary, but the post-Industrial age of humanity is approximately 0.01% of the time that Homo sapiens have existed, and 0.003% of the time that our early ancestors have existed. We cannot judge technology’s impact on humanity based on a sample that is extremely small, yet nevertheless important, just like we cannot judge American politics on the views of the KKK (who number to 0.002% of the American population).

Homo erectus was one of our early ancestors that lived from 1.9 million years ago to 143,000 years ago. Among its many achievements was the use of fire to cook. Source: Smithsonian Institution.

Technology was a savior to early humans. Technology is best described as an innovation or advancement. Humans before the Agricultural Revolution are known as being from the Paleolithic (literally Old Stone) Age. The Paleolithic Era ended around 12,000 years ago; thus Paleolithic people account for 95% of the time that humans have been alive, making them an group to survey. Stone tools, like hammer stones, helped humans dissect large pieces of meat into smaller ones. Later tools, called handaxes, helped hunt large animals. Fires scared away predators, who used to attack humans. Homo erectus started to use fire to cook food, which thrusted humans into a more diverse diet. Early clothes protected humans from hostile environments. Spears and boomerangs helped our Australian ancestors attack prey. Fishing helped coastal communities establish another reliable food supply. Weaving and other materials were used for artistic purposes. Pots helped us store food and other materials. This non-exhaustive list attempts to picture the importance of innovation in the survival of humanity, yet all the advancements cannot be listed. Humans are the only animal in which cultural learning outweighs biology in evolution. Our ability to think, and thus innovate, sets us apart. It makes us the only large animal to populate the entirety of Earth, and all of this happened before 10,000 BCE, before the Agricultural Revolution.

A handaxe from Bose, China, dated to about 803,000 years old. The handaxe was among the second wave of stone tools used by early humans. Source: Smithsonian Institution.

The Agricultural Revolution, itself a technological advancement, spurred many more innovations. Our domestication of plants and animals helped create agriculture. As we looked for more efficient agriculture, we selectively-bred our crops. We later created irrigation systems, which included canals, dams, and reservoirs. Efficient agriculture meant that only a part of the community needed to do agriculture to generate a viable food supply. The other part of society now engaged in job specialization. As economy and trade intensified, as well as the complexities of society and infrastructure, a government was established. In the midst of this, we created sailboats, written language, metal tools, and much more.

Figure 1: A cuneiform clay tablet. Cuneiform is the first written language, found in present-day Iraq in the city-states of Sumer around 3000 B.C.E. Source: The British Museum.

Technology is our X factor. Technology is the reason behind our ability to adapt to changing environments. Technology set humans apart. Technology is not simply high-tech gadgets, it is the backbone of humanity. We, as a society, must accept a broader, more objective, definition of technology, that includes the 99% of our time. We must accept that technology was humanity’s engine, and throughout our toughest times, including near-extinction, climate change, and more, technology and adaptation made us survive and thrive. Technology, ancient and modern, has its cons, but humanity is nothing without it.

 

Sources:

“Tools and Food.” Human Origins. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Web. 14th April 2018.

Kelly, Martin. “The Most Important Inventions of the Industrial Revolution.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo, 6 March 2018. Web. 14 April 2018.

Montagna, Joseph A. “The Industrial Revolution.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Yale University, Web. 14th April 2018.

Gibbons, Ann. “World’s oldest Homo sapiens fossils found in Morocco.” Science. Science Magazine, 7 July 2017. Web. 14th April 2018.

“Early Modern Homo sapiens.” EVOLUTION OF MODERN HUMANS: A Survey of the Biological and Cultural Evolution of Archaic and Modern Homo sapiens, Palomar College, Web. 14th April 2018.

 

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