Which Came First: Technology or Society?

By on October 2nd, 2017 in Societal Impact, Topics

I just got back from my first visit to Africa (lions and elephants and giraffes, oh my!). My trip has triggered many ideas for our Technology and Society dialog. One line of thinking has to do with how technology and society interacted in the cradle of mankind — some 200,000 years ago. Tied to this, which came first: technology or society? Did the formation of social collaboration among early humanoids precede the first “technological” advances (fire, stone tools, etc.), or did these technologies form the catalyst for building more complex social structures?

In his books, (Homo Deus, Sapiens)¬†Yuval Noah Harari suggests that the differential advantage for Homo Sapiens over other humanoids might be our ability to collaborate with other humans without knowing them.¬† His simple example is that by putting 50,000 chimps in a football stadium, chaos would breakout … but that for the most part, 50,000 humans in a football stadium can enjoy the game without the need to know the 49,999 other folks in the stadium. And generally speaking, he is right … we are amazingly cooperative. Harari also suggests that the human ability to specialize — you make arrow heads, I will make arrow shafts — independent of “return on investment” (i.e., arrowheads are worth two shafts so that maker gets a profit) … may also be a key factor in human productivity. This appeared be part of the way villages in Africa operate in my (very) limited exposure to them.

These might even be a good reference point for defining “society” as opposed to our family or village/clan connections — collaboration and specialization.

The collaboration beyond the troop/pride/clan/family/village … seems to be a biological/evolutionary aspect of humanity. But the specialization is a technology factor. Now there there are biological roots here as well (literally). As I understand it, aspen groves are often connected clone colonies with trees that have access to water sharing, and those with their roots in key minerals sharing the water and minerals. In some odd meta-collaboration, even the cells in our bodies (and they symbiotic bacteria that out-number these cells and are essential to our survival) also represent both specialization and collaboration.

So … looking back, way back … the question arising in my mind is, which came first: technology or society? In reality I will let the wizards of anthropology and such fight over the real answers here. But I think those of us that are professionals in related fields, looking back this far may help us recognize that these topics have been intertwined for hundreds of thousands of years — and likely precede homo-sapiens as we understand them (us).