Technological Change and Cultural Evolution

Adapted from Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Today we see technologies that are increasingly dynamic, complex, and richly networked. Are such new technologies producing today’s new ways of thinking or does the causality go the other way around.  The answer is both/and.

History teaches us that while invention drives understanding, the opposite is also true: What we can invent follows from how we are capable of understanding. The Industrial Revolution could not have happened without the Enlightenment’s newly rationalistic and mechanistic picture of truth’s workings, and a look through history reveals similarly interlinked causality every step of way.  We can legitimately debate why we witness the advances we see today. But certainly we see much that is consistent with complexity’s new, more systemic picture: the Internet’s ever expanding, intricately interlinked, and dynamically interactive presense; discoveries that tap the multi-leveled, everevolving structures of the human genome; nanotechnologies that engage Lilliputian-scale complexities that forever surprise us in their implications. Whether such defining inventions prove to be “advances” will depend on the wisdom we bring to their use. But it is highly unlikely that we could have invented them before now. And if somehow we did, we very well might not have recognized them as having great significance.

Given our fondness for 20-20 hindsight, this statement might seem an exaggeration. But history teaches that it is not, even very recent history. I think of how Xerox passed on developing the personal computer even though they had done much of the early innovation that made it possible. Executives couldn’t grasp that it might have useful application.