Diamond describes the Phaistos disk, an ancient clay disc decorated with signs that date back to ancient Minoan times. The signs on the disc appear to be words, but historians have been unable to understand the Minoan language. It’s not clear if the language was an indigenous Minoan invention or a transplant from a neighboring region. One of the most amazing things about the disk is that the words aren’t written or carved; they’re stamped with what appear to be blocks coated with ink. Printing is one of the key human inventions: it allows for quick, efficient communication. The Phaistos disk seems to represent the difficult of “proving” why certain technologies appeared in certain places at certain times. Inventions are unpredictable and idiosyncratic—so why was the printing press first invented by the Minoans, not the Egyptians or the Mayans?
The Phaistos disc is, above all, idiosyncratic—it’s striking and surprising that the ancient Minoans would have developed a technology that wouldn’t get a foothold in Europe for the next two thousand years. As such, it’s a good lead-in for Diamond’s discussion of why certain civilizations develop certain technologies, and why certain technologies do and don’t catch on and spread.
There are a few different theories about the history of technology. One theory is that technological breakthroughs are unpredictable because they always come from single, “heroic” figures, like Archimedes or the Wright Brothers. But the idea that heroic figures invent important things neglects the fact many different people are involved in inventing any one object (for example, there were at least a dozen figures who partially invented the steam engine). Technology develops cumulatively.
The idea that heroic individuals dictate the course of technological history is, we know by now, questionable for Diamond, because he generally favors geographical and social explanations of why civilizations flourish—explanations that don’t deal in individual human talent. Even when an invention can be traced to specific people, it’s usually the case than many different people were involved in the invention (or its popularity and cultural impact), weakening the claims of the “heroic school” of technological history.
Another theory of the history of technology is the old saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention”—in other words, if a society needs something, somebody will find a way to build it. The problem with this idea is that often, inventors don’t realize how their own inventions will be used. The car engine, the phonograph, and hundreds of other important inventions were developed for purposes entirely different from the purposes with which we now associate them. So in a way, invention is the mother of necessity; technology “finds” a use after it’s invented, instead of being invented for a specific purpose.
In the previous chapter, Diamond had suggested that the need for agricultural record-keeping caused the development of writing in Sumer. While there may be some truth to such an idea, it’s untrue that necessity always dictates which inventions emerge. Successful inventors often have little to no idea how their inventions will ultimately be used. An invention like the laser, to name one example, could be said to “create” its own uses, rather than being created to solve specific problems.
The real driving force behind discovering a new technology, Diamond posits, is trial and error. There were certain raw materials available to ancient peoples—stone, wood, bone, clay, etc. People experimented with such materials, developing technologies like glass. Gunpowder was first discovered through experimental mixings of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter.
Diamond’s theory of technology focuses on the importance of trial and error—a much more abstract stimulus for creativity than either individual heroism or even social necessity. Diamond’s point seems to be that, given enough time and resources, a group of people—it doesn’t matter which individuals—will use their resources to create certain inventions. Diamond has met with some criticism for his theory of technology. As he admits in his Epilogue, such an idea needs some qualification—Diamond can’t entirely account for the genius of individual, far-thinking scientists and inventors.
The next step, after discovering a new technology, is to popularize it. There are four major factors that influence the popularization and acceptance of a new technology: 1) the technology’s economic benefits, 2) its social prestige, 3) the ease with which people can grasp the technology’s advantages, and 4) the technology’s compatibility with vested interests. With regard to 4: there are many cases of superior technologies being suppressed because they clash with a society’s vested interests. For example, British cities still used gaslights in the 1920s because the British municipal government had already invested heavily in gas lighting, and would have been bankrupted by electrical lighting.
Once a technology or invention has been created, it needs to be popularized and replicated (in a process that’s somewhat analogous to the process of natural selection, as the scientist Richard Dawkins has argued). The demands of society don’t necessarily stimulate invention (as the saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention” would suggest)—on the contrary, social demands can often inhibit the spread of an invention, like the light bulb in Britain (or the Phaistos disk in Minoa).
Historians of technology long before Diamond have listed some of the social factors that encourage the reception of new technologies. Societies that protect patent rights and intellectual property are supposedly more receptive to new technologies. Also, there are cultural factors like risk-taking and religious tolerance that supposedly encourage civilizations to accept new technologies. The problem with such a list of factors is that they don’t get to the heart of the matter: it might be true that societies that protect intellectual property or tolerate many different religions are better at receiving new technologies—but why? Diamond will try to get to the underlying cause of such cultural differences in the reception of technology.
Diamond doesn't go into great detail about the lists of social factors that encourage technological reception—more important to this chapter are the underlying causes of technological diffusion. Furthermore, a list of cultural factors that encourage or inhibit invention runs the risk of cultural bias—precisely what Diamond is trying to avoid with his study of why certain societies do and don’t succeed.
In general, technology arises from “the handling of natural raw materials.” The problem with such an idea is that there are many technologies and inventions, like writing, that don’t seem to arise from interaction with any raw materials at all. And there are many inventions that arose in certain civilizations but not other civilizations with the same resources (such as the compass or the windmill).
Writing represents a further caveat to Diamond’s stated theory of how technology arises from the availability of raw materials. Furthermore, inventions like the windmill would seem to suggest that there are some factors leading to the emergence of technology that cannot be explained by the presence of raw materials or by fundamentally geographic causes.
How do societies exchange technologies? As with language, technological diffusion can involve a specific blueprint, or a general idea. Diamond argues, “Depending on their geographic location, societies differ in how readily they can receive technology by diffusion from other societies.” On one hand, medieval Islam, positioned in the middle of Eurasia, acquired many technologies from Asia and spread them to Europe. The aborigines in Australia, however, were isolated from Asia by geographic barriers like the ocean.
While there are some factors, such as culture and individual human talent, that can seemingly cause the emergence and reception of technology, the primary differences between societies’ receptions of technology are geographical (Diamond argues). Geographic barriers prevent certain civilizations from receiving technologies from neighboring areas.
Also, geographically isolated societies are more likely to permanently abandon technologies after receiving them. For example, Japan abandoned foreign imports like guns after the 1600s due to the government’s strong xenophobia (fear or hatred of foreign cultures). Many civilizations abandon certain technologies for cultural reasons. The difference is that a geographically connected region like the Middle East could reacquire the technology later on, while a more geographically isolated country like Japan did not have the option to reacquire guns for many years after the 1600s.
Japan represents a good example of how geography and culture together can be more important determinants of technological reception than culture by itself. Japan’s decision to reject gun technology—a decision that seems to reflect a distinctly Japanese culture—was “magnified” by the fact that Japan is geographically isolated from neighboring parts of Asia. One cultural decision barred guns from entering Japan in the 1600s, and geography then prevented them from reentering for centuries afterwards.
Another important point about technology: it is self-catalyzing. That is, the discovery of one technology encourages the discovery of other technologies. For example, the discovery of pottery made possible the manipulation of copper and iron ore, leading to the development of metallurgy. One technology led to another.
The self-catalyzing nature of technology helps us understand how seemingly minor differences between the technological potentials of hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural societies can magnify over time. Often, the existence of one technology in a society enables the emergence another, which enables another. If a second society lacks that first technology, then, it won’t stumble upon the others.
Diamond returns to the Phaistos disk. Now that he’s looked at the reasons for technological diffusion, it’s possible to understand why the Minoans didn’t succeed in popularizing the printing press in Europe, while medieval Germans like Johannes Gutenberg (often credited with “discovering” the printing press) did. The Phaistos disk was made from clay and had to be punched by hand instead of with a metal press—therefore, the printing technology was slow and clumsy, and its marginal superiority to writing by hand was small. Furthermore, the Phaistos disk was developed at a time when writing was used only by a small number of temple scribes, where the Gutenberg printing press arose when there were many more people in Europe who could read.
The Phaistos Disc is an example of an extremely important invention that didn’t catch on in its own time. As such, it’s a good example of the importance of environment, diffusion, and practicality in the history of human creativity. In history, humans have ideas that don’t catch on in their own time, but would have been important in another time; in other words, geography and time often trump individual human creativity. So perhaps the question of why individual human beings discover specific inventions at a given time is ultimately less important than the question of why individual inventions and ideas do and don’t survive over time—a question that can, in large part, be answered by studying a society’s environment and geographic position.
There are two major “jumps” in the history of technology. One occurred about 100,00 years ago: the development of bone and stone tools. The second occurred about 13,000 years ago: the adoption of agriculture and crop production. The agricultural revolution required a sedentary lifestyle, at least compared to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It also produced centralized societies with large populations.
The idea that the history of technology can be organized around two major “jumps” reinforces the self-catalyzing nature of technology—for example, a small handful of agricultural innovations catalyzed the discovery of further agricultural innovations.
Three major factors, “time of onset of food production, barriers to diffusion, and human population size,” have led to the differences in the development of technology. Eurasia contains more people than any other landmass, includes two important centers of food production (China and the Fertile Crescent), has relatively few geographic barriers to diffusion, and is longest from east to west, not north to south. As a result of all these important environmental advantages, technology arose earlier in Eurasia than it did in other continents, and spread fastest. Because technology is self-catalyzing, Eurasia’s early technological advantages help to explain how it maintained technological supremacy over other continents even centuries later.
Diamond argues that ultimately, the history of technology can be analyzed in geographic terms. Societies that develop agriculture have denser populations, and those that enjoy easy travel with neighboring regions are most likely to develop and—crucially—preserve useful technologies. Societies with these three material features will be most likely to 1) have citizens with the free time to experiment with raw materials and stumble upon new technology, 2) preserve new technology once it appears, and 3) acquire important new technology from neighbors. While, as we’ve seen, it would be difficult for a historian to explain the history of technology purely in terms of the features listed above, Diamond argues that societies with those features are at least most likely to develop technologies.