Here’s an interesting thing. Many professors despise the idea that technology drives history. “Technological determinism,” they say, is a cardinal intellectual mistake like belief in the tooth fairy. No right-thinking member of Club Academe would or should embrace it. In contrast, most regular folks intuitively believe that technology drives history. They see it driving history insofar as they see machines changing the way they live. There are still old-timers alive today who knew the world before cars, planes, radios, TVs, space travel, computers, and garbage disposals were common. They know things are different now, and they know the reason is technology.
So who’s right? I’ve just spend the better part of a decade studying the history of a particular kind of technology, media, and I can tell you without a moment’s hesitation that the professors are wrong and the old-timers are right. New tools cause social and intellectual change. Full stop. If it were not for new tools—things like writing, printing, A/V devices, and the Internet—we would live much like we did when we first evolved some 180,000 years ago. This is easily demonstrated. Over the past, say, 100,000 years Homo sapiens has invented and deployed a host of new tools. In that time, the human way of life has changed appreciably. Over the same period, our close genetic relative Pan troglodytes (the common chimp) has invented and deployed virtually no new tools. It’s way of life has not changed. Now correlation is not always causation, but here we have every reason to believe that it is. For we can see—and here’s where the old-timers have the edge on the professors—the mechanism linking cause to effect at work. And it’s technology or the lack of it. New tools enable us to do things in a new way and those new ways make us think different thoughts. No new tools, no new ways; no new ways, no (or at least very few) new thoughts.
This is sad news for the foes of “technological determinism.” But before we dismiss them entirely, we should point out that in a strange way—a way most of them do not intend, I fear—they have a point. For while technology does drive history, it really doesn’t drive it very far, or at least as far as the old-timers think. It’s pretty common to read that this or that new tool will “change everything.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve bought a number of “change everything” gadgets and noted with disappointment that nothing changed.
Why is that? The reason, I think, is human nature (another idea that many professors don’t favor). Like all evolved creatures, humans have a set of things they are driven to do. Most of these we share with other higher mammals (eating, sleeping, mating); others seem to be unique to us (conscious calculation, talking). All, however, were hard-wired by natural selection eons ago. They are with us in every age, every place, and every technological context we have yet devised. These in-born impulses, then, give structure to human history writ large. And because they are unchanging (in sub-evolutionary time), so too are the basic outlines of our past. We are born into families. We love. We learn to talk. We play. We make friends. We mate. We cooperate. We think. We invent. We improve. We work. We fight. We die in families. All this was so when we walked the African savannah, and so it is as we surf the Internet. The things we must do have not changed, but the way we do them has—thanks largely to technology.
It may be, however, that technology will drive history a lot farther than it has in the past. Two “break-out” scenarios seem possible, both involving fundamental changes to human nature. On the one hand, we might invent technologies that enable us to create new kinds of humans, ones that don’t have to do the things that natural selection designed us to do. Geneticists are already working on Homo sapiens 2.0. New humans would produce truly new historical patterns. That might not be so bad, given that the old patterns leave something to be desired. On the other hand, we might develop technologies that enables us to extinguish human life on earth. Of course we already have such tools (nuclear weapons, automobiles). If we use them (or continue to use them), then human history would cease as there would be no humans. That, I think we can all agree, would be bad—for us at least, though perhaps not for the planet.
Marshall Poe is the author of the recently published A History of Communications. Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa, he is the co-founder and editor of Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History and founder and host of New Books in History, as well as a former writer and editor for The Atlantic Monthly. Professor Poe has been a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton University), the Harriman Institute (Columbia University), and the Kennan Institute (Washington, DC).