The Poison of Empires
Lately I’ve been reading about technology in the ancient world, and just how close Greece and Rome came to kicking off the industrial revolution 1500 years early.
Why didn’t it happen?
Nobody knows the answer for sure. But there are some likely culprits, some noticeable social and economic factors that appear to have prevented the development of modern technology. To me, two of these issues seem the most prominent.
The first is the ability to collect and spread in-depth information. Science is not so much the process of discovery as it is the process of accruing and combining various discoveries. The scientific method is important because it establishes a basis on which this sort of information can be collected and processed systematically and universally.
In order for this to happen, there had to be sufficient philosophical groundwork, but there also had to be a way to share discoveries. In our history, science really took off after the invention of the printing press — once scientific research could be distributed and verified widely, science as we know it could begin. In contrast, the ancient world saw the discovery and subsequent loss of all sorts of valuable information and research. Discoveries did not “stick”.
So that’s the first issue. The second issue is that Rome did not see an economic interest in developing technology. They controlled the world — they had the manpower to do anything, and as many slaves as they could ever need. Rather than build a device to signal over long distances, it was better to just use messengers, which were in ample supply. Rather than build devices for farming, better to just enlist more slaves. In fact, to the extent that technology was developed into labor-saving devices, slaves would be out of work - leading to idle time, which in turn would lead to revolts. Better to avoid the technology, and just enlist more slaves.
Because of this disincentive, obvious areas of research were abandoned, useful tools were never built, long distance communications networks (signaling towers, etc) were not constructed. And so the industrial revolution was delayed for millennia.
It may be that the core problem traces to the very strength of the empire. Empire can be looked at as a technology for controlling human resources. Before the agricultural revolution, a person could only produce approximately enough food to feed themselves. There was little in the way of food surplus, and so slavery made little economic sense. But after the agricultural revolution, a human being could produce enough to feed themselves and several more people, which meant that there was suddenly an economic incentive to building slave empires. And that is indeed what happened. Tribal leaders became warlords, became kings, became emperors. The scale of people enslaved and controlled grew dramatically, each iteration of world power expanding that control. And with Rome, this system reached its peak.
But Rome was a dead-end. If slavery provided a deep incentive to avoid science and technology, then Rome would insure that science and technology never got started. They would have to insure this, in fact, if they were to survive.
It is only after the empire crumbled, and then the remnants of the empire crumbled after that, that science really began. Once there was a large society of free people all looking after their own economic interests (rather than being enslaved or enslaving others), then human interests and scientific and technological interests became aligned.
If this is so, then it is no wonder that technological advance has corresponded with the decline of empires, slavery, and social control. As technology has risen, so has human freedom. Where freedom was absent, technological progress slowed.
It would seem that on a large enough scale, empire is poison to technology, and technology is poison to empire.