Work in Progress: From Luxury Technologies to Historical Horizons

In a PS to last week’s newsletter I mentioned that I have been reading up on stellar evolution, with the ulterior motive being to understand the energy flows in the universe necessary to the origins and evolution of life. The deep history of life in the universe will be tied to the deep histories of stars, clusters, and galactic ecology. The biospheres of very old inhabited planets would be the biological equivalent of the thought experiment I have suggested of a planet with civilizations that rise and fall over hundreds of thousands of years, or over millions of years. I proposed this idea without developing it in any depth in Another Counterfactual Civilization with Science as its Central Project.

In this deep time context there is the possibility of what I have called “retained complexity,” which would mean that later iterations (of species or of civilizations) would exceed the complexity of what came before them. There is a kind of dialectic between retained complexity and what (for lack of a better term) could be called “streamlining,” which together improve organisms over iterations of mass extinction events. Retained complexity means that later evolved features are not entirely lost, while streamlining means that needless complexity falls away. (Perhaps I need a better term than “streamlining” to express this; that which is lost in streamlining is all that is “selected against” in natural selection, but being “selected against” is about as awkward as “streamlining.”) Birds are the result of the retained complexity of feathers. If dinosaurs had completely died out, feathers might have been completely lost to evolutionary history, and then this retained complexity that went on to make new forms of flight possible would not have happened (or would have happened in a different way).

It is not clear if the same can be said of societies. There are retained social complexities, especially when it comes to technology, but new pathologies are often introduced along with new social institutions (and new ideas of social organization which are the basis of these new institutions), so it is not clear if the gain over time (if any) represents retained complexity. Ideally, we could point to an example of the American Founding Fathers having widely studied histories and past constitutions, making an effort to learn from past mistakes, etc., as a paradigm case of retained social complexity along with the streamlining that occurs when only the best parts are retained and the unnecessary accretions are eliminated.

Within the context of agricultural civilizations, incremental technological development can accrue over the longue durée, because successive generations are doing essentially the same thing. Horse collars and plows can be improved over hundreds of years — but could they be improved over thousands of years if a civilization is caught in a high level equilibrium trap? What might a horse-drawn plow look like today, in 2022, if the industrial revolution had never occurred? With the transition to an industrialized civilization using fossil fuels and internal combustion engines, the retained complexity of incremental technological improvement of horse collars was suddenly lost as most farmers got rid of their horse teams and bought tractors, although the complexity of the actual farming implements was retained and improved upon. Already in the late nineteenth century there were large combines being pulled by a 40 mule team, and these combines could then be pulled by a tractor and be continually improved from that point. It is an interesting thought experiment to speculate on the development of agriculture from that point without the advent of mechanization.

However, these large and complex combines were built because of the technologies made possible by the industrial revolution, even if they were still being pulled by muscle power. Thus in order to do the thought experiment right one would need to look at agricultural technology prior to the steam engine (about 1775) to get a sense of the point at which the industrialized inflection point began to influence agricultural technology. Certainly improved seed drills could come into use without powered machinery, and even harvesting equipment could be developed that could be pulled by a team, as we have seen above in regard to combines.

Large parts of the world still rely on muscle power for subsistence agriculture, though the tools are imported from the parts of the world that can mass produce simple agricultural implements like the hoe. Is it arbitrary to draw the distinction at the transition from muscle power to powered machinery? The question at the back of my mind is something like this: how complex can machinery get without passing the threshold from muscle power to machine power?

One of the distinctive things about agricultural technology and fishing technology (boats) is that both are mobile so that a water wheel or windmill (pre-internal combustion engine sources of power) can’t realistically power it, but, of course, sails are another kind of “windmill” so this is an example of that technology being used in fishing fleets. Could one build a wind-powered combine? Maybe, but it probably wouldn’t be sufficiently efficient to bother doing. One is probably better off with a large team of draft animals than a contraption like a wind-powered combine. At what point of social development is it worth it to replace human labor or animal labor with machinery if you don’t have a fossil fuel engine? This has been discussed both in relationship to Roman slavery and to the failure to industrialize in China (i.e., the high level equilibrium hypothesis). The development of a non-slave-holding society in medieval Europe may have been one of the keys to the industrial revolution, as everyone had an incentive to save on their labor.

We can reach into the past in an attempt to imagine an alternative technological pathway to that which we did experience. Famous examples like the Antikythera mechanisms show that a pre-mechanically powered artifact can be reasonably intricate, and this technology, instead of being the exception, could be adopted as the rule and then be expressed as an archaeological (or, in this case, historical) horizon. Another technological direction this could go in would be better alloys (like Damascus steel) for agricultural implements. Could a non-industrialized people make a plow out of very light alloys, allowing it to be more easily pulled by a team? On the other hand, a lot of agricultural implements have to be weighted down so that they penetrate into the soil. However, if you’ve ever seen a late nineteenth century plow, like the ones used to break the American plains, it is a pretty sophisticated mechanism, with a little wheel out front to cut the ground in a straight line and a moldboard that neatly flips over the soil. It’s impressive to watch these in operation.

Social collapses may be compared to mass extinctions. In mass extinctions, there are retained complexities in surviving species, but much is lost, and life goes in a new direction. The experience of the collapse of Roman civilization and the subsequent dark ages in Europe demonstrates that retained technologies can survive social collapse and transformation; perhaps the collapse of industrialized civilization will prove that retained knowledge can survive social collapse and transformation. Both retained technology and retained knowledge are instances of retained complexity: in a sense, they are a particular embodiment of a given society’s activities.

Much Roman technology did not survive, but much did. Those technologies connected with large public works projects, which required large-scale social organization, like aqueducts, did not survive. But technologies related to agriculture not only survived, but continued to develop and improve even in the midst of social collapse. Weapons technology changed significantly, with some losses but also some new technological developments, often closely connected to social developments. However, the most interesting developments tended to be luxury items, e.g., special swords, such as Ulfberht swords, which did not reach any “horizon” in contemporaneous societies.

About 170 Ulfberht swords have been found. One wonders how many in total were once produced, and what fraction of total swords produced during the 9th to the 11th centuries were Ulfberht swords. It is worth pointing out that Ulfberht swords were produced prior to the revival of cities and trade in the 10th century, thus during the depths of the Dark Ages, during a time when few records were kept, and those records that were kept in Western Europe were primarily monastic chronicles, not likely to take notice of new military technologies.

The Ulfberht sword was a technology that had its origins in the “dark ages” (I continue to use this term though most historians reject the label today) and subsequently fell out of use. I would be interested to see an explanation of how and why the technology fell out of use during a period of time when populations and economies were expanding. There are a few papers on Ulfberht swords, but they seem to be focused on the swords’ composition and manufacture, without any larger consideration of the social context in which they were produced. Another interesting metallurgical technology was Damascus steel. We know a little more about the production processes of Damascus steel than we do about the steel used in Ulfberht swords, but Damascus steel also was a luxury commodity that never passed into general use and never achieved an historical horizon.

It is unsurprising that so little is known of the Ulfberht swords, since they were produced in a time of low literacy, and were only in production for 200–300 years. Damascus steel lasted into a time of widely dispersed literacy. According to Wikipedia, Damascus steel is almost as early as Ulfberht swords, and it lasted in production up through the 19th century, although the original understanding of its manufacture has been lost, and attempts have been made to reconstruct the production process of Damascus steel and produce the steel in contemporary times. It is remarkable that no one made a written account of the production of Damascus steel when it was in production for a thousand years. (The question implicit here can be turned around, in a sense, and we can ask, of a valuable product that commanded high prices in the pre-modern world, how many have precise written accounts of their production.)

On second thought, given the deep division between the scholarly world and the world of technology, it isn’t too surprising that no one gave a detailed account of the production of many important products. James K. Fiebelman in his book Technology and Reality makes much of the theme of technology being sidelined by high literate culture, and so it developed “in the shadows,” as it were. One of the things that makes the Antikythera mechanism so intriguing is that there are no descriptions of it from classical antiquity. The Antikythera mechanism may be the result of a robust culture of technology that existed in antiquity, of which there is no literary record, because technology was seen as beneath the notice of the literate. So that is a loss of knowledge, an ellipsis, revealed by material culture but invisible to literate culture. And this is the relatively cosmopolitan culture of antiquity. In the middle ages, when the literate class was almost entirely composed of clerics, this further distorts the historical record. However, in the book The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries, the author argues that the medieval educational system was reasonably good because it was able to disperse and sustain the knowledge of the technologies and crafts that went into the production of cathedrals, such as the architecture and stained glass windows.

Compare this to descriptions of “high culture” artifacts from classical antiquity: there are many descriptions of famous statues from classical antiquity, many of which were subsequently lost and then re-discovered a thousand years later. So this was thought to be important enough to write about, but no one thought to write about the Antikythera mechanisms or its kin. I wrote above about retained complexity in agricultural technology, and this was not the sort of thing that high culture authors recorded. Virgil of course wrote the Georgics about farm life, but it is about as reliable as the Eclogues is a reliable guide to being a shepherd.

There are detailed books on medicine and surgery from Islamic authors of the middle ages, and medical texts from the Egyptians and the Greeks (primarily Galen), and some ancient works on siege engines and architecture (Vitruvius, obviously), but nothing on what we would take simply call technology. De re metallica was published in 1556. Prior to this, I know of no detailed account of metallurgy. De re metallica is one of the early fruits of the mass printing of books (moveable type printing being itself a relatively sophisticated technology). A quarter of a millennium later, the French encyclopedia would act upon this imperative systematically, showing all kinds of industrial processes and describing them in detail. All of this is very historically recent; it belongs to the modern era, and is not to be found earlier. One lesson here is that, even after a society becomes literate, literacy tends to be tightly confined to a few tasks and a few interests. While written language is about 5,000 years old, it is only in the past 500 years, since printing became common, that literacy begins to reveal its possibilities for society on the whole.

With pre-modern literacy reserved for those cultivating what Robert Redfield called the Great Tradition, literacy has a certain authority and sanctity that is never tarnished by association with the less elevated aspects of life. Society is formally focused on the central project of the civilization, because the extant records are almost singularly related to the central project. All of the means to the end of grand strategy are cultivated as specialist subcultures, but unlike today, the subcultures cannot break off and detach from the central project, because they have no central organizing principle. There is a sense in which widely distributed literacy represents the first and earliest stages of detachment from the central project and the beginning of the end for tightly-coupled societies that acted and functioned as organic wholes. With literate subcultures, individuals can entirely immerse themselves in the world of their subculture, and this distances them from the central project, making defection from the central project possible, whereas previously it was inconceivable.

Since I expect literacy to be among the retained complexities even if our civilization fails, then there is no going back, and civilization takes a different form from the advent of printing up until civilization is no more. In the event of the collapse of our civilization, I would expect that, once again, knowledge related to large scale public works projects would be lost, but a lot of the naturalistic insights of the scientific revolution would be retained, and would probably then take a different direction, developing in ways that we cannot today imagine.

It is generally recognized that social collapses send the surviving society in a very different direction, as mass extinctions send surviving ecosystems in a different directions. But the recognition of retained complexity is more in the background and I don’t know of any explicit discussions of it other than my own. In a mass extinction when entire clades are wiped out, but there are individual species that survive, the surviving species have to adopt new survival strategies as the ecosystem rebuilds (constituting a distinctive disaster taxa). This is analogous to large-scale infrastructure projects and their technologies being lost. In other words, ecosystems are the large-scale infrastructure of the biological world.

If humanity makes no spacefaring breakout, then spacefaring technologies will some day be another example of technologies that there essentially luxuries and never passed over into general use, never having achieved a horizon in history; spacecraft will then be like the Antikythera mechanism — sophisticated, somewhat mysterious, and seeming to stand in need of an exceptional explanation. Just as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, so too extraordinary artifacts require extraordinary explanations.

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