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.


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