Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Separate Mindset

"The first prehistoric farmers of central Europe, the so-called Linearbandkeramik culture that arose slightly before 5000 B.C., were initially confined to soils light enough to be tilled by means of hand-held digging sticks.  Only over a thousand years later, with the introduction of the ox-drawn plow, were those farmers able to extend their cultivation to a much wider range of heavy soils and tough sods.  Similarly, Native American farmers of the North American Great Plains grew crops in the river valleys, but farming of the tough sods on the extensive uplands had to await 19th century Europeans and their animal-drawn plows."

- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies


If the reader has spent any time reading material regarding the rise of civilization and the development of human technology and culture, the above quote will not stick out.  The sentiments expressed by Diamond are those that can be read in hundreds upon hundreds of other sources.  They are not wrong.  That is precisely the change that increased the food supplies of both Europe and North America, as well as many other familiar cultures that can be found around the world.

The paragraph jumped out at me last week, however, in light of the continuing controversy I seem to be having about the explanation of my tech level proposal.  If I may express the argument some have made, it would seem obvious that, once the technique could be intellectually shared, the food supply of every region would be increased as the ox-drawn plough was introduced.  Why would anyone continue to plough with hand-digging sticks once the ox had been domesticated?

Diamond is making an assumption in the above; he knows he's making the assumption and it is no problem for him, because the argument he makes is not challenged by the assumption.  That assumption is that heavy soils and tough sods exist in the area where ox-drawn ploughs are introduced.

That is by no means a guarantee.  There are many places around the world where such soils don't exist, where hand-digging sticks are sufficient.  It is true that oxen will till much more soil than hand-digging sticks, but many places in the world do not have enough tillable soil to make the introduction of oxen an efficient addition.  Oxen eat.  Some parts of the world can't produce enough food for both the humans in the region and oxen, so if cows exist at all they are not the sort that are made into working animals.  A working cow gives less milk and far less meat, and because it must be fed in and around the place where it works, it must be fed with food that is produced on the local soils.  On the other hand, cows that are not used as working animals can be taken far afield, to eat natural grass on lands that cannot be tilled at all, since they are composed of too much stone.

If the habit of using a cow to till isn't pursued, then the region will possess no residents who know how to employ a cow as a working animal.  Do you know? You don't, because you don't need to know.  An impoverished, agriculturally-stunted environment doesn't have that knowledge either, not because it doesn't exist, or because it isn't known about, but because it isn't needed.  There are no parents to teach the technology to their children, so for all intents and purposes, the region continues to exist in a technologically backward state.  It is irrelevant what technology exists elsewhere.

Far too often, we presume that different parts of the world advanced at different rates because the knowledge was lacking.  To some degree, this works for parts of the New World prior to the 16th century . . . but how does it explain the continued backward cultures of Persia, North Africa, even Lapland and Pictish Scotland up until the 1400s?  People elsewhere in the world knew how to read ~ why didn't a typical Icelandic herdsman?

Well, what good would it have done him?  It required all of his daily labor, in those hours when light was available, to accomplish the tasks that would keep him and his community alive.  When he was done, it was dark.  He could not afford candles ~ what a waste that would have been.  It requires a tremendously intricate commercial and civilized culture to enable a very small number of persons to possess the capital to waste on candles for no other purpose than to read or otherwise occupy themselves at night.  The typical resident of Iceland did not have access to that culture until the early 20th century.  No resident of Iceland possessed it in the 15th.  That is why Iceland had an oral storytelling tradition.

This notion that knowledge overwrites everything about an existing culture's technology and status is a 20th century one.  We cannot free ourselves consciously from it because it represents so much of our personal identity and cognitive experience.  We see something new and we have adapted to immediately embrace it ~ because everything that we see can be embraced, implemented into our lives and made useful.  This has not been true through the majority of human history; something demonstrably true from the accounts written by hundreds of travellers into foreign places: Conti, Przhevalsky, Leo Africanus, Marco Polo, even Lewis & Clark, if an American example is needed.  In a world without mass communication or easy travel, a distance of a hundred miles must be, for most people, as far as a trip to the moon.  Most people did not possess enough food at any given time in their lives that would enable them to walk that far and back again.

That is hard to get our heads around, when we get on a flight in the morning to attend a funeral 500 miles away, then to get on another flight afterwards to be home in time for dinner.  To us, every farmer's field is the same, every collection of livestock is the same, every weapon is the same ~ and if there isn't iron to be mined in the area where swords might be made, obviously it would be imported, right?

But am I right?  What would Ooredoo, my most recent tech-6 contribution, do with a lot of swords?  To be used against who?  Invaders who would come to seize . . . what, exactly?  And if the invaders took over, and demanded taxes from the residents, how would that actually change anything?  They pay taxes already.  If they spend their hard-earned food on swords, the swords would just be sitting in rooms, where they could not be eaten.  What good would that be?

We simply can't imagine a world without nationalism, without identifying ourselves according to our traditional belief systems, without getting angry because an outside country has done something inside our country.  But no one from before the 15th century would have cared about that. Nationalism is a very late cultural development.

I urge the reader to try to think as a medieval or renaissance individual would have felt, when faced with technologies that did not substantially improve their lives, or were impractical for reasons such as available resources or social interest.  Things were not always the way they are today.

9 comments:

Drain said...

Riveting stuff, Alexis.

Nowadays, it is understood as a given that change blankets the whole world ranging from a matter of months (for dematerialized fads) to short years for the more concrete cases.

It so happens that such a modern push for global change usually has an enormous comercial impetus behind it. By now, we want others to change because there's money in it.

To the point that, today, change can be more or less forced upon us, not always limited to a strict matter of market acceptance, it conquers instead a restricted group of experts and decision-makers, usually (hopefully) through demonstrable superiority, sometimes through lobbying/deceit and is then pushed through law and economic incentive unto the shoulders of the lot of us. The alternate vs. continuous electrical current battles come to mind.

Ideally in today's world we'll want our trading partners lagging ever so slightly behind us that they'll come to us hat-in-hand for innovation but not so much that they won't have a use for all the consumer goods that we're pumping out. Facebook's (or was it Google's?) efforts to "bring the internet to remote areas of the world" by way of balloon-borne signal stations are a good representative of this askance generosity.

What is backward we exploit for resources, what is developed we engage in commercial terms. Occupying is yesterday's wastrel gameplan, the grand difference is we just learned to utter a polite "please".

Alexis Smolensk said...

All of which reminds me of this post, Drain.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Well said, Alexis.

And I don't think the modern reader need even imagine themselves in a different age.

There's any number of technical marvels available today that people don't own and will probably never encounter simply because they're useless in their life. You can buy a pretty dangerous laser for a few hundred bucks. That's pretty amazing technology, but how many people own one? Nobody, because, as you say, it does nothing to improve their life. It's just going to sit on a shelf, like that stack of swords.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Good point, Charles.

Matthias said...

This is a fascinating post. Thanks Alexis!

One thing I believe is generally absent in discussions on world-building and technology is the inherent 'embeddedness' of technological progress in particular social and political structures.

A whole field of research in economic history tries to explain why the industrial revolution occurred in Europe in the XVIII and XIX centuries, rather than, say, in China. Periods of tremendous technical innovation did not always produce socially useful technology, and often some forms of technical solutions were simply inferior -- in a political or social sense -- to traditional patterns of production. Sure, perhaps a machine or tool can make an individual laborer more productive, but it might be that there is no interest in increasing the individual laborer's productivity beyond a specific point; it might be that to introduce such an innovation would disrupt other social practices, or hierarchies. It is enough just to consider what the entry of women into the modern labor force unleashed in terms of social and cultural transformation, to drive the point home. If large-scale agricultural slave labor is doing the trick, perhaps you don't need to be particularly innovative. Perhaps there is no competition for that model of agriculture given that we cannot really transport foodstuff in bulk over long distances in a way that would put different agricultural production models in meaningful competition.

So yes, not only must the individual have an interest in employing a technical innovation, as well as the means to procure whatever tools are necessary for the use of said innovation, but in world-building one needs to also look at what the introduction of this innovation does to social and political structures, and how the powerful in society might react to the introduction of such changes. We presume that 'market-driven exchange' has always been the predominant means of exchange in all fields of activity when, in reality, it is a very recent mode of exchange, that gradually generalized from an originally very narrow set of economic practices.

Archon said...

The optimiser in my brain responds to this with a simple question:

How do we fix that?

Or, to be more specific, how would we, with all our modern tech, drag that Icelandic farmer kicking and screaming into the best approximation of the modern age that our characters can get away with. Its a hard question - if we knew the answer, and it was easy, the third world would not be half so bad. But I don't think its intractable. Its an interesting thought.

Cause he wouldn't want to read - that serves no use. What would he want? Better tools or cultivars or something, maybe, maybe not. Depends very much what the tools do, and how much work they take to learn and use. You would definitely need a in, either way, some reason he would listen to you.

I wonder if the peasants of a fiefdom would agree to those experiments if you payed for the food for them(I think it would be feasible to buy the food for a few hundred, if not more). Not feasible on a large scale, but a adventurer with money to throw at the problem might be able to create a island of higher tech, in his personal domain. I'm not sure if it would be worth it. But we sure love to try and change the world.

I suppose this is all quite bad role playing of my character. But quite frankly, adventuring is about asymmetric advantage, about getting every edge of money, goodwill, magic, manpower that you can, to try and come out of your ambitions alive and whole. Its okay to look to the future sometimes. If you didn't have dreams, you wouldn't be out here, fighting and nearly dying with the rest of us.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Archon:

This was tried in late 19th and early 20th century Russia. Landowners wanted peasants to use new, improved farming methods from Europe, and the peasants were having none of it. If the landlord wasn't right there watching them, they'd just do it the old way. "Why change what works?"

Alexis Smolensk said...

True enough, Charles. But I'd let the player try, if they wanted.

So long as we're getting the idea that there is a dividing line between one tech and another that isn't just geographical or the context of whimsy.

Archon said...

Charles: Glad to see that I am not the only one who had that thought. And that is basically what I though would happen.

I still would like to see a solution, but I don't think I am going to come up with one around a D&D table.