The Technium

Ethnic Technology

[Translations: Japanese]

It is puzzling why a particular technology does not spread everywhere throughout the world once invented. Why didn’t the plow, for instance, or backstrap looms, or the buttress arch, or any number of thousands of ancient inventions spread to all parts of the world once they had been refined? If they were truly advantageous, why would not their benefits ripple through a culture at the speed of news? After a century or two, any worthwhile invention should be able to cross a mountain or valley. We know from archeological remains that trade moved steadily, while innovations did not. Instead the spread of technology has always been uneven, even among places with similar resources, geography, climate and culture. It is very common for an innovation to be held up in one place and not cross into another region even as other innovations overtake it on the same route. It is almost as if technology had an ethnic dimension.

Anthropologist Pierre Petrequin once noted that the Meervlakte Dubele and Iau tribes in Papau New Guinea had been using steel axes and beads for many decades but their use had not been adopted by the Wanos tribe a “mere day’s walk away.”

This is true today still. Cell phone use is significantly broader, deeper, faster in Japan, say, then in the US. Yet the same factories make the gear for both countries. Similarly automobile use is broader, deeper, faster in the US than say, in Japan. This bifurcation is again not obvious in the similar state of technological infrastructure between both countries. Another example: the adoption of credit cards is wildly uneven among the developed world. But that unevenness is not for a lack of plastic, or electricity, or banks.

This pattern is not new. From the birth of tools, humans have preferred some forms of technology over another. They may avoid one version or one invention – even when it appears to be more efficient or productive — simply as an act of identity: “Our clan does not do it that way,” or “our tradition does it this way.” People may skip an obvious technical improvement because the new way does not feel right or comfortable, even though it is more utilitarian. Anthropologist of technology Pierre Lemonnier has reviewed the patchy interruptions in history and says, “Time and again, people exhibit technical behaviors that do not correspond with any logic of material efficiency or progress.”

The Anga tribesmen of Papua New Guinea have hunted wild pigs for thousands of years. To kill a wild pig, which may weigh as much as a man, the Anga construct a trap using little more than sticks, vines, rocks and gravity. Over time the Anga have refined and modified trap technology to fit their terrain. They have devised three general styles. One is a trench lined with sharp stakes camouflaged under leaves and branches; one is row of sharpened stakes hidden behind a low barrier protecting bait, and one is a dead-fall – a heavy weight suspended above a path which is tripped and released by a passing pig. 

Technical know-how of this sort passes easily from village to village in the West Papua highlands. What one community knows, all know (at least over decades, if not centuries). You have to travel many days before variation in knowledge is felt. Most groups of Anga can set any of the three varieties of traps as needed. However a one particular group, the Langimar, ignore the common knowledge of the deadfall trap. According to Lemonnier “members of this group can name without difficulty the ten pieces that make up the dead-fall trap, they can describe its functioning, and they can even make a rough sketch; but they do not use the device.” Right across the river the houses of the neighboring Menye tribe can be seen; they use this type of trap – which is a very good technology. Two hours walk away, the Kapau tribe uses the dead-fall, yet the Langimar choose not to. As Lemonnier notes, sometimes “a perfectly understood technology is voluntarily ignored.”

It’s not as if the Langimar is backward. Further north of the Langimar, some Anga tribes make their wooden arrow tips barbless, selectively ignoring the critical technology of injurious barbs that the Langimar use, despite the fact that the Anga “have had many occasions to note the superiority of the barbed arrows shot at them by their enemies.” Neither the availability of wood type, nor available type of game hunted explains this ethnic dismissal.

Technologies have a social dimension beyond their mere mechanical performance.  We adopt new technologies largely because of what they do for us, but also in part because of what they mean to us. Often we refuse to adopt technology for the same reason: because of how the avoidance reinforces, or crafts our identity.

Clip 178 Web

Not a Moroccan waterwheel

Whenever researchers look closely at the dispersal patterns of technology, both modern and ancient, they see patterns of ethic adoption. Sociologists have noticed that one group of Saami rejected one of the two known types of reindeer lassos, while other Lapplanders used both forms. A peculiarly inefficient type of horizontal waterwheel spread all over Morocco, but no where else in the world, even though the physics of waterwheels are constant. And in France farmers in one region (Hautes-Corbieres) continue to plow their vineyards while using herbicides while the rest of the country only used herbicides.  As Frenchman Lemonnier (1) notes: “These technically arbitrary [variations] appear to be largely produced with respect to factors whose logic is not orientated towards an action on matter.” In other words, technology is more than it seems.

In the modernized west, our decisions about technology are not made by the group, but by individuals. We choose what we want to adopt, and what we don’t. So on top of the ethnic choice of technologies a community endorses, we must add the individual layer of preference. We announce our identity by what stuff we use or refuse. Do you twitter? Have a big car? Own a motorcycle? Use GPS? Take supplements? Listen to vinyl? By means of these tiny technological choices we signal our identity. Since our identities are often unconscious we are not aware of exactly why we choose or dismiss otherwise equivalent technology. It is clear that many, if not all, technological choices are made not on the technological benefits alone. Rather technological options have unconscious meaning created by social use and social and personal associations that we are not fully aware of.

We should expect technology to continue to exhibit ethnic and social preferences. Groups or individuals will reject all kinds of technologically advanced innovations simply because. Because everyone else accepts them. Or because they clash with their self-conception. Because they don’t mind doing things with more effort. I know an author who writes science fiction books today in long hand. At least the first draft. Efficiency and productivity may, in the future, be seen as something to avoid.

  • Dan G

    Some interesting thoughts here – made me think about the various social networks and how some are disproportionately popular in certain countries.

    I think part of it may just be a manifestation of the network effect though. Once you establish a small close knit group of people using a technology (even if they start using it independently and randomly), it will spread throughout the community.

  • Zac

    Looking back upon martial weaponry it seems that cultures certainly and visibly identified with certain technologies over others. It is perhaps more interesting to see what ethnic factors will favor contemporary information sharing technology over others in the near term.

    The author you mentioned, was it David Marusek? He was quoted saying “Since I write the first few drafts of my work in longhand, none of this is in a word processor.” just four days ago on io9. hmm.

  • Warren Senders

    This reminds me of Herbert Kohl’s essay “I Won’t Learn From You,” which is found in his book of the same title.


  • forrest Cate

    I’ve always wondered about forks vs. chopsticks. Surely forks are a better technology?

    • @ Forrest Cate: You are kidding right? Chopsticks are much superior. Much easier to pick food up (I use them everyday) and much much easier to make. A few hundred years ago, most peasants in Europe were still using their hands to eat (forks were expensive), while peasants in Asia used easy to make chopsticks. The question might be, why didn’t chopsticks take over Europe?

  • Mary E. Ulrich

    This article reminded me of the current battle over e-books and e-readers vs. print books.
    It is difficult to learn new things but I don’t want to be like the wild pig hunters. I’m off to find an e-reader.

  • Tim

    It seems to me like the modernized west isn’t as different from Maori New Zealand as you let on — all of the technological “choices” you list (Twittering, owning a big car, etc.) are still mediated by the choices our friends, families, coworkers, and neighbors make. And because we twitter, listen to vinyl, ride motorcycles, etc. we become part of different groups. Social identity for us isn’t quite as continuous with ethnic identity, but it still plays a major role in our adoption of technologies.

  • Lisandro Gaertner

    In the HISTORY OF WARFARE by John Keegan, we have a very deep analysis of how the adoption of a certain kind of technology, even in the face of death, depends on the social use and view of the roles people play in the society and in the world.

  • Kate

    Well, occasionally technology doesn’t spread because one culture lacks the resources to implement something another culture has perfected. Mesopotamian cultures had no better building material than mudbrick, most typically unfired, since there wasn’t much wood for burning. Not likely they’d adopt the stone-based architectural methods of Egypt then.

    You might also want to consider the gender issue. I remember reading that primatologists had observed that one female from a group of Japanese macaques, which was totally dependent upon humans for their food, began dropping handfuls of the provided grain into water, in order to remove the sand that got mixed into the grain. The sand sank, and the grain floated, so it was easy to scoop off the surface of the water. Her offspring were very quick to pick up this handy trick. The next group to adopt the trick were the age-mates of her offspring. Then the mothers of those young macaques got in on the act. But several of the oldest males of the troop NEVER adopted the practice. Were they too dim to learn? Too set in their ways? Was there perhaps a social hierarchy which prevented them from deigning to learn a useful skill from their subordinates? Who knows? But since male humans have dominated most cultures through history the world over, it seems like it might be a question to ask.

    • @Kate: Yes, of course different resources lead to different forms. The cases I am concerned here, though, are with technologies that have access to identical resources, yet are ignored.

  • John (Jshot)


    You touched on a main point why I think the very independent spirit among American citizens will make them (myself included) slow to adopt cloud computing if not rejecting it altogether.

    I believe that most Americans prefer to own or at least have the perception of owning. The American dream is rooted in an ownership society, even if they have to be loaded with unsustainable amounts of debt in the process.

    So while Americans might be slow to adopt cloud computing, Americans are quit quick to adopt any technology that can give them incredibly complex and high degrees of leveraging that can increase the amount of money they can borrow (to be able to buy things).

    If the future belongs to those who live in the cloud, I’m afraid that a large portion of America will have their two feet (and piles of accumulated debt) firmly planted on the ground.

  • yas

    As sort of a tangent re: chopsticks and forks, I have to wonder what sort of assumptions are behind these technologies about what and how we eat. Chopsticks seems to assume that someone else has cut the food into pieces small or light enough to be graspable with the chopsticks; the assumption behind forks is generally that they hold and pierce a larger piece of food that needs to be cut into a manageable piece. I imagine that both of these methods of eating are the visible tip of different systems of food preparation and distribution, each with its own assumptions about who eats what and how. I guess that’s a no-brainer in this context, but it’s fun to think about.

  • Aaron Davies

    neal stephenson famously wrote the baroque cycle using a fountain pen, and mentioned that he would have really preferred a quill. of course, this shows one of the reasons for choosing to stick with “obsolete” tech–superiority is not always binary. writers often report that the process of handwriting a piece does significantly different things to the creative process than composing it in a word processor.

  • Michael L. Van Cise

    As others have stated, I don’t think Neal Stephenson’s use of longhand to write is necessarily a rejection of technology. I always wrote my law school exams out in longhand because it helped me slow my “output” down more to the speed of my brain processing things. (obviously, a timed test is different than writing a novel) Writing in longhand also allowed me to diagram on scratch paper and move directly to production with the same tool – i.e. my pen – rather than switching from keyboard to pen and back. So, I don’t see this example as a rejection of technology – perhaps just Stephenson doing what is most efficient for the way his/her brain works.
    I think you’re probably right on that some reject technology for reasons of identity and culture. Think of the lumberjack competition on TV or the guy who still splits wood with an adze or chops down trees with an axe instead of a chainsaw.

  • simon phoenix

    you must also look at how technology arrives. if it comes with conquerers or corporations, it can be seen as a tool of opression, even if that is not the case.

    for instance, there are people who dont have a cell phone specifically because they dont want to feel that they are being tracked by their govt. same with email, credit cards, fastpass toll thingies, etc. the way religion was once the leading edge of a invasion and assimilation, now technology, and cultural artifacts such as music, movies, and literature serve those purposes, and there are those that are aware of such clandestine uses.

    technology may or may not have an agenda, but the people who wield it might. and some cultures simply, miguided or no, want to have no part of it if it simply a trojan horse for something else.

    just discovered and am enjoying the blog by the way.


  • Jonops

    I think there is a problem with linking technology to ethic preference… even if you take ‘ethnic’ to just mean the social environment.

    A lot of the social groups you reference (eg in PNG) would probably not approach technology as an external system that could be seen as less or more ‘good’ than another. It would be closer to talk about it as just part of the way they interact with the environment (a relationship, not a seperable system called ‘technology’). It would therefore be a stretch to say that these groups have a preference for a certain type of technology.

    These social-technological relationships will persist where they continue to work – that is really all that is needed for a group to ignore what we might see as a ‘better’ technology.

    This is changing of course. Western/Euro-American/Whatever outlook sees technology as a seperate system to relate TO rather than THROUGH, allowing all kinds of prestige and value judgements. It is only when you see tech as seperate to social relationships that you can judge it better or worse however. Until then, ‘if it aint broke dont fix it’ might better sum things up… (although again, many social groups probably wouldnt see it in those terms).

    V interesting post, and lots of ethnographic/arch evidence for rejection, just dont think it is a ‘choice’ in the terms that you have approached it.

  • Mike Milley

    One issue that I had in mind while reading your fascinating piece was “adoption fatigue.” While it happens on a much smaller time-scale than the adoption curves you discuss, it is an issue that contemporary consumer electronics designers/manufacturers are currently struggling with.

    We have found that consumers have limited bandwidth for learning new user interfaces, and will tend to stick to the familiar as the “path of least resistance.” This can be seen when owners of advanced mobile phones or digital cameras don’t take advantage of much of the products’ capabilities. They have figured out how to do the basic tasks that they require, but resist exploring the more advanced capabilities they have at hand.

    With each new piece of technology we bring into our lives, we are required to learn how to use it. In some cases, this is quite simply done. However, as features convergence escalates, each user experience becomes increasingly complex. It seems that there is a limited amount of willingness among users to devote precious mental bandwidth to figuring out a UX that will most likely obsolete in a few years anyway.


    An interesting social dimension to technology adoption can be seen in the proliferation of social network services like Facebook and Twitter. A big part of the success of these platforms (and the reason that they have been able to successfully overcome adoption fatigue) is the peer-pressure enhanced adoption encouragement. As many of us have experienced first hand, SNS users can be quite evangelical. (“What do you mean you’re not on Facebook?”) This is obviously because the more that an individual’s peer group participates in his/her chosen SNS, the richer that experience is for the original user. So it pays to recruit non-users. This kind of viral, peer-to-peer encouragement will be a key factor for successful tech launches in the future.

  • Mara Kurtz

    Cool story Mike. Please get in touch with me, have more questions about this.
    Parsons School of Design
    New York

  • Nomaps

    The reason for the uneven diffusion or transmission of technology is probably down to the epigenetic rules governing the acquisition of memes. This is the explanation at its most basic.

    Technology is an expression of culture, and must therefore fit within the overall framework of the culture in question. There will be a set of epigenetic rules responsible for generating the mechanism by which a new meme is examined, evaluated, and either incorporated or discarded.

    The example of cellphone use can be easily ascribed to the different cultural practices, telecom regulatory environment and even the point in time in which the cellphone entered the Japanese market.

  • Tom Guarriello

    Yes, we see this daily in the reactions companies have to the dramatic disruptions inherent in social media tools. Many find themselves in a very uncomfortable position: knowing that these tools are a path to the future but experiencing the deep hesitancy to embrace them born of personal identity and/or organizational cultural dissonance. Most common reaction in this ego dystonic circumstance? Agitation, vaguely irrational explanations and half-hearted acceptance. Very nicely presented, Kevin.

  • Marco

    Now I know why I refuse to buy an Iphone…

  • Thomas Bailey

    I think the USA is lagging behind is because it is a very large country with old communication standards. The cell phone was originally intended for business, therefore limited to big cities and major highways. I have read that GPS coordinates are popular in Japan due to their illogical street addresses, which even locals have difficulty. Addresses in the USA are fairly straightforeward, although sometimes difficult to locate. In the UAE, landmarks are used for addresses. Another reason for the USA to lag behind is because its people are comfortable using old methods, using paper currency and coins, traffic signals from the 1920’s and 1930’s, air traffic control from the 1940’s and 1950’s, cars that meet 1910’s requirements (transporting entire families), and work schedules from the Indistrial Revolution.

  • thx for …