Micah Redding — humanity, technology & the future

The Poison of Empires

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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.

Lincoln Cannon:

Interesting. In what ways might modern forms of empire (oppressive governance?) be holding back tech innovation?

micah:

Lincoln, That's a great question, and I don't know the answer to it. Along with my hypothesis here, we might suspect that we would find the stalling of tech innovation precisely where we find violence to be the most lucrative. This doesn't necessarily mean the place where the *amount* of violence is the highest. I would suggest it's more likely to be the places where violence is the core and sustenance of what is going on.

Christopher Walker:

"empire is poison to technology, and technology is poison to empire. Is that statement true? Could not an empire use technology to enslave it's people? Use technology to disseminate falsehoods, and promote certain agendas? What happens when an empire spear heads development, innovation, and scientific research? Political agendas? Conspiracy theories? Technological advances in the hands of a "free people" keep the empire in check, but what happens when the Empire comes to regulate?

micah:

What happens, I would suggest, is that technological progress stalls. The agricultural revolution was a dramatic leap forward technologically. But instead of continuing on with similar leaps, society diverted its attention towards the control of other human beings. This turned out to be a dead end: you can only extract so much work from human beings, and the human population could only get so large. But when society turned its attention back to applying creativity to its physical limits, enough resources were unleashed to enable entirely new endeavors, and to dramatically increase the sustainable population. If society reverts to a focus on controlling human beings (utilizing technology, just as the slave empires utilized the agricultural revolution), then I suspect we will again see technological progress stall, no matter how many research dollars are spent. This will ultimately be a dead end for exactly the same reason it was a dead end the first time: the amount of human resources you can monopolize in this way are limited. But I think there is reason to be optimistic. Most of the technological development of recent years has focused on communication. Communication, by its nature, tends to undermine secrets, and secrets have always been necessary for sustaining long-term control structures.

J H:

Check out voluntaryism. I think you would like it :)

I'm not a fan of empire nor of war. However, at least in recent centuries, war has been a great boon to science, technology and medicine. Its been awhile since I read the statistics on it. I'm thinking that even into the 1970's, the majority of physicists in the world were connected to weapons related activities. Even the internet, which makes possible our conversation here, as is well known was nurtured by DARPA (working with defense contractors, national labs, and universities). It is a wonderful thing that we have transitioned to where technology is supported for other reasons.