Aware that we are living in the midst of a technological revolution, we are becoming increasingly concerned with its meaning for the individual and its impact on freedom, on society, and on our political institutions.
Side by side with messianic promises of utopia to be ushered in by technology, there are the most dire warnings of man’s enslavement by technology, his alienation from himself and from society, and the destruction of all human and political values.
Dense reading and Dense listening and Thinking broad and Thinking detailed
Tremendous though today’s technological explosion is, it is hardly greater than the first great revolution technology wrought in human life seven thousand years ago when the first great civilization of man, the irrigation civilization, established itself.
First in Mesopotamia, and then in Egypt and in the Indus Valley, and finally in China, there appeared a new society and a new polity: the irrigation city, which then rapidly became the irrigation empire.
No other change in man’s way of life and in his making a living, not even the changes under way today, so completely revolutionized human society and community.
In fact, the irrigation civilizations were the beginning of history, if only because they brought writing.
The age of the irrigation civilization was pre-eminently an age of technological innovation.
Please note that he is using technological as a qualifying modifier — a subset of innovation in general.
Not until a historical yesterday, the eighteenth century, did technological innovations emerge which were comparable in their scope and impact to those early changes in technology, tools, and processes.
Indeed, the technology of man remained essentially unchanged until the eighteenth century insofar as its impact on human life and human society is concerned.
But the irrigation civilizations were not only one of the great ages of technology.
They represent also mankind’s greatest and most productive age of social and political innovation.
The historian of ideas is prone to go back to ancient Greece, to the Old Testament prophets, or to the China of the early dynasties for the sources of the beliefs that still move men to action.
But our fundamental social and political institutions antedate political philosophy by several thousand years.
They all were conceived and established in the early dawn of the irrigation civilizations.
Any one interested in social and governmental institutions and in social and political processes will increasingly have to go back to those early irrigation cities.
And, thanks to the work of archeologists and linguists during the last fifty years, we increasingly have the information, we increasingly know what the irrigation civilizations looked like, we increasingly can go back to them for our understanding both of antiquity and of modern society.
For essentially our present-day social and political institutions, practically without exception, were then created and established.
Here are a few examples.
(1) The irrigation city first established government as a distinct and permanent institution.
It established an impersonal government with a clear hierarchical structure in which very soon there arose a genuine bureaucracy—which is, of course, what enabled the irrigation cities to become irrigation empires.
Even more basic: the irrigation city first conceived of man as a citizen.
It had to go beyond the narrow bounds of tribe and clan and had to weld people of very different origins and blood into one community.
This required the first supra-tribal deity, the god of the city.
It also required the first clear distinction between custom and law and the development of an impersonal, abstract, codified legal system.
Indeed, practically all legal concepts, whether of criminal or of civil law, go back to the irrigation city.
The first great code of law, that of Hammurabi, almost four thousand years ago, would still be applicable to a good deal of legal business in today’s highly developed, industrial society.
The irrigation city also first developed a standing army—it had to.
For the farmer was defenseless and vulnerable and, above all, immobile.
The irrigation city which, thanks to its technology, produced a surplus, for the first time in human affairs, was a most attractive target for the barbarian outside the gates, the tribal nomads of steppe and desert.
And with the army came specific fighting technology and fighting equipment: the war horse and the chariot, the lance and the shield, armor and the catapult.
(2) It was in the irrigation city that social classes first developed.
It needed people permanently engaged in producing the farm products on which all the city lived; it needed farmers.
It needed soldiers to defend them.
And it needed a governing class with knowledge, that is, originally a priestly class.
Down to the end of the nineteenth century these three “estates” were still considered basic in society.*
But at the same time the irrigation city went in for specialization of labor resulting in the emergence of artisans and craftsmen: potters, weavers, metalworkers, and so on; and of professional people: scribes, lawyers, judges, physicians.
And because it produced a surplus, it first engaged in organized trade which brought with it not only the merchant but money, credit, and a law that extended beyond the city to give protection, predictability, and justice to the stranger, the trader from far away.
This, by the way, also made necessary international relations and international law.
In fact, there is not very much difference between a nineteenth-century trade treaty and the trade treaties of the irrigation empires of antiquity.
(3) The irrigation city first had knowledge, organized it, and institutionalized it.
Both because it required considerable knowledge to construct and maintain the complex engineering works that regulated the vital water supply and because it had to manage complex economic transactions stretching over many years and over hundreds of miles, the irrigation city needed records, and this, of course, meant writing.
It needed astronomical data, as it depended on a calendar.
It needed means of navigating across sea or desert.
It, therefore, had to organize both the supply of the needed information and its processing into learnable and teachable knowledge.
As a result, the irrigation city developed the first schools and the first teachers.
It developed the first systematic observation of natural phenomena, indeed, the first approach to nature as something outside of and different from man and governed by its own rational and independent laws.
(4) Finally, the irrigation city created the individual.
Outside the city, as we can still see from those tribal communities that have survived to our days, only the tribe had existence.
The individual as such was neither seen nor paid attention to.
In the irrigation city of antiquity, however, the individual became, of necessity, the focal point.
And with this emerged not only compassion and the concept of justice; with it emerged the arts as we know them, the poets, and eventually the world religions and the philosophers.
This is, of course, not even the barest sketch.
All I wanted to suggest is the scope and magnitude of social and political innovation that underlay the rise of the irrigation civilizations.
All I wanted to stress is that the irrigation city was essentially “modern,” as we have understood the term, and that, until today, history largely consisted in building on the foundations laid five thousand or more years ago.
In fact, one can argue that human history, in the last five thousand years, has largely been an extension of the social and political institutions of the irrigation city to larger and larger areas, that is, to all areas on the globe where water supply is adequate for the systematic tilling of the soil.
In its beginnings, the irrigation city was the oasis in a tribal, nomadic world.
By 1900 it was the tribal, nomadic world that had become the exception.
The irrigation civilization was based squarely upon a technological revolution.
It can with justice be called a “technological polity.”
All its institutions were responses to opportunities and challenges that new technology offered.
All its institutions were essentially aimed at making the new technology most productive.
I hope you will allow me one diversion.
The history of the irrigation civilizations has yet to be written.
There is a tremendous amount of material available now, where fifty years ago we had, at best, fragments.
There are splendid discussions available of this or that irrigation civilization, for instance of Sumer.
But the very big job of recreating this great achievement of man and of telling the story of his first great civilization is yet ahead of us.
This should be pre-eminently a job for historians of technology such as we profess to be.
At the very least the job calls for a historian with high interest in, and genuine understanding of, technology.
The essential theme around which this history will have to be written must be the impacts and capacities of the new technology and the opportunities and challenges which this, the first great technological revolution, presented.
The social, political, cultural institutions, familiar though they are to us today—for they are in large measure the institutions we have been living with for five thousand years—were all brand-new then, and were all the outgrowth of new technology and of attempts to solve the problems the new technology posed.
It is our contention in the Society for the History of Technology that the history of technology is a major, distinct strand in the web of human history.
We believe that the history of mankind cannot be properly understood without relating to it the history of man’s work and man’s tools, that is, the history of technology.
Some of our colleagues and friends—let me mention only such familiar names as Lewis Mumford, Fairfield Osborn, Joseph Needham, R. J. Forbes, Cyril Stanley Smith, and Lynn White—have in their own works brilliantly demonstrated the profound impact of technology on political, social, economic, and cultural history.
But while technological change has always had impact on the way men live and work, surely at no other time has technology so literally shaped civilization and culture as during the first technological revolution, that is, during the rise of the irrigation civilizations of antiquity.
Only now, however, is it possible to tell the story.
No longer can its neglect be justified.
For the facts are available, as I stated before.
And we now, because we live in a technological revolution ourselves, are capable of understanding what happened then—at the very dawn of history.
There is a big job to be done: to show that the traditional approach to our history—the approach taught in our schools—in which “relevant” history really begins with the Greeks (or with the Chinese dynasties), is shortsighted and distorts the real “ancient civilization.”
I have, however, strayed off my topic: the question I posed at the beginning, what we can learn from the first technological revolution regarding the impacts likely to result on man, his society, and his government from the new industrial revolution, the one we are living in.
Does the story of the irrigation civilization show man to be determined by his technical achievements, in thrall to them, coerced by them?
Or does it show him capable of using technology to his own, to human ends, and of being the master of the tools of his own devising?
The answer which the irrigation civilizations give us to this question is threefold.
(1) Without a shadow of doubt, major technological change creates the need for social and political innovation.
It does make obsolete existing institutional arrangements.
It does require new and very different institutions of community, society, and government.
To this extent there can be no doubt: technological change of a revolutionary character coerces; it demands innovation.
(2) The second answer also implies a strong necessity.
There is little doubt, one would conclude from looking at the irrigation civilizations, that specific technological changes demand equally specific social and political innovations.
That the basic institutions of the irrigation cities of the Old World, despite great cultural difference, all exhibited striking similarity may not prove much.
After all, there probably was a great deal of cultural diffusion (though I refuse to get into the quicksand of debating whether Mesopotamia or China was the original innovator).
But the fact that the irrigation civilizations of the New World around the Lake of Mexico and in Maya Yucatan, though culturally completely independent, millennia later evolved institutions which, in fundamentals, closely resemble those of the Old World (e. g., an organized government with social classes and a permanent military, and writing) would argue strongly that the solutions to specific conditions created by new technology have to be specific and are, therefore, limited in number and scope.
In other words, one lesson to be learned from the first technological revolution is that new technology creates what a philosopher of history might call “objective reality.”
And objective reality has to be dealt with on its terms.
Such a reality would, for instance, be the conversion, in the course of the first technological revolution, of human space from “habitat” into “settlement,” that is, into a permanent territorial unit always to be found in the same place—unlike the migrating herds of pastoral people or the hunting grounds of primitive tribes.
This alone made obsolete the tribe and demanded a permanent, impersonal, and rather powerful government.
(3) But the irrigation civilizations can teach us also that the new objective reality determines only the gross parameters of the solutions.
It determines where, and in respect to what, new institutions are needed.
It does not make anything “inevitable.”
It leaves wide open how the new problems are to be tackled, what the purposes and values of the new institutions are to be.
In the irrigation civilizations of the New World the individual, for instance, failed to make his appearance.
Never, as far as we know, did these civilizations get around to separating law from custom nor, despite a highly developed trade, did they invent money.
Even within the Old World, where one irrigation civilization could learn from the others, there were very great differences.
They were far from homogeneous even though all had similar tasks to accomplish and developed similar institutions for these tasks.
The different specific answers expressed above all different views regarding man, his position in the universe, and his society—different purposes and greatly differing values.
Impersonal bureaucratic government had to arise in all these civilizations; without it they could not have functioned.
But in the Near East it was seen at a very early stage that such a government could serve equally to exploit and hold down the common man and to establish justice for all and protection for the weak.
From the beginning the Near East saw an ethical decision as crucial to government.
In Egypt, however, this decision was never seen.
The question of the purpose of government was never asked.
And the central quest of government in China was not justice but harmony.
It was in Egypt that the individual first emerged, as witness the many statues, portraits, and writings of professional men, such as scribes and administrators, that have come down to us—most of them superbly aware of the uniqueness of the individual and clearly asserting his primacy.
It is early Egypt, for instance, which records the names of architects who built the great pyramids.
We have no names for the equally great architects of the castles and palaces of Assur or Babylon, let alone for the early architects of China.
But Egypt suppressed the individual after a fairly short period during which he flowered (perhaps as part of the reaction against the dangerous heresies of Ikhnaton).
There is no individual left in the records of the Middle and New Kingdoms, which perhaps explains their relative sterility.
In the other areas two entirely different basic approaches emerged.
One, that of Mesopotamia and of the Taoists, we might call “personalism,” the approach that found its greatest expression later in the Hebrew prophets and in the Greek dramatists.
Here the stress is on developing to the fullest the capacities of the person.
In the other approach—we might call it “rationalism,” taught and exemplified above all by Confucius—the aim is the moulding and shaping of the individual according to pre-established ideals of rightness and perfection.
I need not tell you that both these approaches still permeate our thinking about education.
Or take the military.
Organized defense was a necessity for the irrigation civilization.
But three different approaches emerged: a separate military class supported through tribute by the producing class, the farmers; the citizen-army drafted from the peasantry itself; and mercenaries.
There is very little doubt that from the beginning it was clearly understood that each of these three approaches had very real political consequences.
It is hardly coincidence, I believe, that Egypt, originally unified by overthrowing local, petty chieftains, never developed afterward a professional, permanent military class.
Even the class structure, though it characterizes all irrigation civilizations, showed great differences from culture to culture and within the same culture at different times.
It was being used to create permanent castes and complete social immobility, but it was also used with great skill to create a very high degree of social mobility and a substantial measure of opportunities for the gifted and ambitious.
Or take science.
We now know that no early civilization excelled China in the quality and quantity of scientific observations.
And yet we also know that early Chinese culture did not point toward anything we would call science.
Perhaps because of their rationalism the Chinese refrained from generalization.
And though fanciful and speculative, it is the generalizations of the Near East and the mathematics of Egypt which point the way toward systematic science.
The Chinese, with their superb gift for accurate observation, could obtain an enormous amount of information about nature.
But their view of the universe remained totally unaffected thereby—in sharp contrast to what we know about the Middle Eastern developments out of which Europe arose.
In brief, the history of man’s first technological revolution indicates the following:
(1) Technological revolutions create an objective need for social and political innovations.
They create a need also for identifying the areas in which new institutions are needed and old ones are becoming obsolete.
(2) The new institutions have to be appropriate to specific new needs.
There are right social and political responses to technology and wrong social and political responses.
To the extent that only a right institutional response will do, society and government are largely circumscribed by new technology.
(3) But the values these institutions attempt to realize, the human and social purposes to which they are applied, and, perhaps most important, the emphasis and stress laid on one purpose as against another, are largely within human control.
The bony structure, the hard stuff of a society, is prescribed by the tasks it has to accomplish.
But the ethos of the society is in man’s hands and is largely a matter of the “how” rather than of the “what.”
For the first time in thousands of years, we face again a situation that can be compared with what our remote ancestors faced at the time of the irrigation civilization.
It is not only the speed of technological change that creates a revolution, it is its scope as well.
Above all, today, as seven thousand years ago, technological developments from a great many areas are growing together to create a new human environment.
This has not been true of any period between the first technological revolution and the technological revolution that got under way two hundred years ago and has still clearly not run its course.
We, therefore, face a big task of identifying the areas in which social and political innovations are needed.
We face a big task in developing the institutions for the new tasks, institutions adequate to the new needs and to the new capacities which technological change is casting up.
And, finally, we face the biggest task of them all, the task of insuring that the new institutions embody the values we believe in, aspire to the purposes we consider right, and serve human freedom, human dignity, and human ends.
If an educated man of those days of the first technological revolution—an educated Sumerian perhaps or an educated ancient Chinese—looked at us today, he would certainly be totally stumped by our technology.
But he would, I am sure, find our existing social and political institutions reasonably familiar—they are after all, by and large, not fundamentally different from the institutions he and his contemporaries first fashioned.
And, I am quite certain, he would have nothing but a wry smile for both those among us who predict a technological heaven and those who predict a technological hell of “alienation,” of “technological unemployment,” and so on.
He might well mutter to himself, “This is where I came in.”
But to us he might well say, “A time such as was mine and such as is yours, a time of true technological revolution, is not a time for exultation.
It is not a time for despair either.
It is a time for work and for responsibility.”