Technology and Culture: A Circle of Influence

GLS 499
November 20, 2010

          There has always been a connection between technology and culture.  From the first use of stone tools to the development of handheld Personal Digital Assistants (PDA), technology has influenced human culture just as much as culture has sparked advancements in technology.  It is a complex relationship that forms a figurative circle of influence.  There is no real starting or end points within the circle – both technology and culture continue to influence each other as they develop and change over time.  In the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, technology and culture have significantly influenced one another.  As cultures change so does the technology they develop.  With developments in manufacturing, communications and engineering, cultures have been re-shaped around the world by freeing people from small family farms by choice or by force, dispersing information and changing the landscape.  These technological developments have changed the cultures positively but negatively as well.  Cultures in turn drive technological development.   While it is difficult to explain all of the examples of how technology has influenced culture and vice versa, reviewing a few examples from the last few centuries it is clear the technology developed during and after the Industrial Revolution has changed cultures from simple farming villages to modern bustling cities and sprawling suburbs.
          The American Industrial Revolution of the 19th century drastically influenced American culture.  Corporations began to manufacture goods that had previously been made in the home.  Goods were mass produced using machinery instead of people.  The advances in manufacturing had four major effects on American culture. 
The first major influence of manufacturing allowed people to purchase goods in a store instead of having to make everything from scratch.  This freed up a lot of time for people because they no longer had to spend all of their time producing food, clothing and other goods for their families.  Kevin Reilly (2004) discusses how industrialization allowed machines to mass produce interchangeable parts.  This meant that a machine could be built to make one particular item much faster than any skilled artisan could.  Machinery eliminated the need for skilled workers.  “Interchangeable parts were first invented for muskets to meet the needs of war or expected war” (Reilly, 2004).  This technology also translated into farming and household goods.  Consumers could go to a store and purchase a replacement part instead of having to make one from scratch.  No longer was a taylor needed to make a suit; a seamstress on an industrial sewing machine could be trained to sew one portion of the suit very quickly.  With an increase in production speed without skilled labor, companies were able to mass produce goods much cheaper than a skilled artisan could and exact copies of replacement parts could be easily obtained.  Industrialization freed up individuals’ time that had previously been spent making goods by hand. 
          As people began to buy more goods than they made by hand, they were able to devote time to their personal interests – this lead to the development of leisure activities.  American culture blossomed with theaters, social clubs and sports.  People had to keep track of how much time was spent on work and leisure or when they needed to be at the factory.
          Industrialization changed cultures of the industrialized nations on a grand scale.  Reilly (2004) points out “that the first requirement for the creation of a machine age was the invention of mechanical time to take the place of organic or natural time.”  On the surface, the invention of the clock allowed people to schedule their lives by standardized time.  This meant that work didn’t start at sun up but at a designated time regardless of the position of the sun.  The standardization of “seconds, minutes, and hours” made it possible for employers to make sure employees arrived on time and stayed until their shift was over.  Manufactures could time how long it took to make an individual part.  The mechanical clock even allowed for trains to run on a schedule with made shipping of goods more predictable.
          Americans saw a change in consumption.  As manufactured goods became cheaper to produce, people bought more and more things.  One can argue that the mass production of goods beginning in the American Industrial Revolution has given Americans the idea that they are entitled to consume large amounts of goods at a relatively low price.  This can be clearly seen in the 21st century with the popularity of big box super stores that offer extremely low prices on a wide variety of goods.  The increased rate of consumption of goods began with departments stores like Sears in 1886 (Sears Archives, 2010).  They offered mass produced produces to consumers in their store and through a mail order catalogue.  People could order everything from clothing to a horse drawn buggy to a small house.  Reilly (2004) argues “manufactures would always be forced to give society exactly what it wanted at the price it was willing to pay.”  So, as more people wanted to purchase goods, the need for more wage labors increased to fill the gap.
          People moved from rural areas into the cities in search of wage labor.  As farming became commercialized and industrialized, factories were able to produce more goods, while small farms and businesses could no longer compete with the technology used to by larger companies.  People were often forced into the cities in search of wage earning jobs.  This had an enormous affect on American culture – communities changed.  Many people had to adapt from a slow rural life to a faster, more congested city life.  Advancements in manufacturing technology changed the way Americans lived.  It made goods easily accessible to a large population which led to more time to pursue leisure activities.  As goods became cheaper and could be obtained easily from a store or mail order catalogue, Americans began their love affair with consumption.  Companies began to develop more and more new products to sell to the public and boost their profits.
          The machines used in the manufacturing of goods made production cheaper and faster than ever before.  People like Henry Ford who used the assembly line to manufacture automobiles used technology to improve his production time and turn a profit.  Henry Ford’s Model T changed not only manufacturing in the United States, but it also changed the make-up of American cities.  As automobiles became more affordable to the middle class, America saw the development of suburbs.  With an affordable automobile, people could live further away for their jobs in the cities.  This meant that no longer were people forced to live within walking distance of their job or public transportation.  The suburbs of the early 20th century moved people out of the congested cities and into the clean countryside.  “Suburbia” is a popular nickname given to the residential communities surrounding city downtowns.  Americans saw the cookie-cutter track home as a step up.  Levittown is probably the most famous of these suburban tracks.  Opened in 1947, Levittown was advertised as being part of the American dream (Murren et al., 2007).  It offered 40,000 middle class families a “five-room bungalow” at an affordable price (Murren et al., 2007).  According to Murren et al. (2007), Levitt & Sons, a former military barrack producer, was able to complete a home in Levittown every 15 minutes.  Middle class families could move outside the dirty city apartments and own a little piece of land with a brand new home.  It is argued that the automobile gave birth to the American Dream of having a small family, home ownership and a shiny new car in the driveway.  Suburban homes most noticeably have a different architectural style from earlier styles found in American neighborhoods.  With the integration of automobiles into American culture, the suburban home evolved to include a garage.  The first garages allowed for storage of one vehicle, and then they expanded to accommodate two, then three or more.  Driving through suburbs in Southern California, the major focal point on the exterior is the garage door.  Clearly, the style of suburban homes has been influenced by automobiles.  “Architectural critics sneered at these ‘little boxes,’” writes Murren et al. (2007) about the style of these American suburban track homes.  On a side note, the suburban track home does not even appear in Janice Anderson’s (2006) book, The Encyclopedia of North American Architecture.  Critics of this architectural style reference the lack of design.  Perhaps it’s because they are built quickly with little to no distinguishing characteristics.  The large imposing garage door that has replaced the focal point of front porches on older architectural styles may be the reason for the critical opinions of these types of homes.
          The suburb reinforced America’s infatuation with the automobile.  Not only did the automobile move people out into the suburbs but it also kept them there.  It became a necessity for most of the country’s population who did not live in the cities.  Only in heavily populated urban cities are automobiles not a necessity, like in New York City which has an extensive public transportation system.   In the suburbs, people had to commute to the city using a car or a light-rail line like a streetcar.  The automotive technology changed the way communities were developed in America.  The car became the machine that changed how Americans get from one place to another. 
In addition to the practical uses of the automobile, people have found ways to incorporate into their leisure activities with the creation of car clubs, restoration projects and the custom modification industry.  There was also a change in the American landscape with the building of highways and interstates connecting the East coast to the West coast.  People could easily drive across the country.  Vacations soon included the automobile as a viable transportation option.  Americans were then free to explore their country and visit new places. 
          The automobile is not the only product Americans have embraced to excess.  Advances in manufacturing technology changed American culture by allowing people to become accustomed to the large consumption of goods.  The demand for new products encouraged advances in technology.  The boom of handheld devices like iPods, cell phones and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in the 21st century is just an extension of the changes American culture encountered in the American Industrial Revolution.  Once Americans became hooked on consumption after the Industrial Revolution, it has been a slippery slope to the high consumption American lifestyle prevalent today.   With marketing on television, radio, billboards, and even in some schools, people are bombarded with images telling them to buy and consume more.  This need to consume is often associated with spending more than one can afford.  Robbins (2008) notes “there is nothing natural about this behavior.  People are not naturally driven to accumulate wealth” or possessions for that matter.
          The relationship between technology and culture is not just an American phenomenon.  It can also be seen throughout the world.  In the 19th century, European countries like Great Britain collected and catalogued exotic plants and seeds from around the world.  The study of plants for commercial use and profit made it clear that those who controlled the natural resources, like plants, had the most global power.  Even in the 19th century, scientists were using bio-technology.  Foster (1999) describes an incident in 1876 where a British planter secretly took Hevea brasiliensis seeds, better known as the rubber plant, from the Amazon region back to Great Britain:
          Henry Wickham, smuggled 70,000 Hevea seeds out of the Amazon.  These seeds made their way to Kew, 
          where they were germinated.  The seedlings were then sent to locations throughout the British empire.  For 
          three years a large part of the British imperial botanical establishment was mobilized to ensure the success of 
          these rubber transfers.  The most important occurred when twenty-two seedlings were sent from Ceylon to 
          Singapore in 1877.  From these arose almost all of the rubber trees now to be found in Southeast Asia.
The discovery of rubber and its potential uses by Europeans ultimately changed the cultures of the Amazon people and Singapore.  No longer was rubber considered rare; it could be grown in areas under the control of the British.  Any time a foreign plant is made non-exclusive by introducing it into a new region, it will affect cultures.  Before the introduction of rubber to the people of Singapore, communities were used to farming subsistence crops, not cash crops.  One can argue that when a native plant is transplanted to other regions, it can affect the diets of the local people, their rituals and their economy – all of which affect the culture of the people.  It also affects the people of the plant’s native land.  Since the valuable plants are no longer exclusively found in the region, trade diminishes and people may have to change their way of life in order to survive.  Not only has agricultural technology caused the distribution of valuable exotic plants, but it has also cause many farmers off their land altogether. 
          In the 20th century, agricultural technology pushed small farms out of business in favor of larger industrialized corporate farms.  Advances like genetically modified seeds initially appeared to be the final step towards solving the World’s food shortages, especially in Third World nations.  Seeds designed to thrive in foreign climates or repel pests sounded like a positive advancement in agriculture.  However, many farming communities were destroyed as a result of forcing people to move or gain new employment.  Foster (1999) discusses how genetically modified seeds also create a dependence between the Third World (periphery) and First World nations (center).  Corporations develop genetically modified seeds for staple crops like rice, corn and wheat designed to combat disease, pests or other natural threats.  The seeds are then sold to farmers in areas where the nutrients in the land have been depleted through over planting or in regions with food shortages do to economic and other reasons.  The farmers then plant their crops and yield a higher return because the seeds are now designed to be super seeds.  The problem is that the modified seeds require additional fertilizer than natural seeds, plus the modified seeds are not capable of generating viable seeds for future crops.  Another issue is that the over use of one type of genetically modified seed eventually will cause a reduction in biodiversity among plants because only a relatively small group of plant species are being cultivated.  This means that the farmers in the periphery are now dependent upon the countries in the center for seeds to which they used to have full access and the fertilizer and other chemicals needed to grow the modified plant seeds.  This has changed the dynamic of the cultures outside the First World.  The Third World must adapt their way of life in order to conform to new farming technology.  In addition to changing their farming techniques, the addition of fertilizer can run off into streams and ground water thus affecting where people can get their water.  What seems to be advancement in agriculture may actually be the thing that destroys farming villages around the world.  Whether it’s a small town in America’s Mid-West or a farming village in Singapore, genetically modified seeds change the people who farm using this new technology.  Small farming villages who have developed farming techniques over hundreds of generations that work with nature in order to feed their families have now been replaced by those techniques for genetically modified seeds, manufactured fertilizers and chemicals.  After only a few generations, the knowledge acquired over many years may be lost.
          While technology changes agricultural techniques, it also changes the environment and thus the cultures of the people affected.  When governments build sophisticated dams in order to produce hydro-electricity and provide water for irrigation, the people further down the river suffer.  The Zapatistas of Mexico fought the Mexican government over developments in technology and trade.  Essentially, the Mexican government joined the North America Free Trade Agreement in 1994 which threatened the livelihood of the local small farmers (Robbins, 2008).  They were concerned that large corporations who were controlling the land in Mexico were pushing small farmers out of jobs.  Large companies with more advanced equipment could produce more agricultural products than the small farmers, thus changing the cultural dynamic of the Zapatistas who trace their ancestry to the Mayas (Robbins, 2008).  Allowing the Zapatistas to continue to grow subsistence crops like corn or beans, the Mexican government could not include those crops in their Gross National Product (GNP) calculations.  By ensuring land was used for cash crops allowed Mexico to grow financially.  These companies can work with the local governments for larger portions of the water supply and cut the small farmer’s access.  Technology in regions with a long history of successful agriculture can devastate a people.  When a community has to change their traditions because of advances in technology, their culture is influenced; more importantly, it may be threatened entirely. When traditional ways of farming is no longer an option, people must find other ways to support themselves.  They may have to leave the community in search of wages or other opportunities.  Thus, when the community is dispersed, the culture is weakened and may not survive.
          When communities like Zapatistas make the news, it brings their issues to the masses around the world.  When farmers no longer have access to water for their crops and nations are unable to feed themselves, people begin to take notice.  Environmental issues like global warming have launched movements that changed many cultures.  In the United States, recycling programs have become more popular, corporations have marketed ‘green’ products to consumers and people are jumping on the environmentalist band wagon.  The fact that a significant portion of our modern technology is polluting our environment and causing destruction of natural resources has brought about a real awareness for how the First World is hurting the planet.  Without the advances in technology that have negatively affected the environment, corporations like Target® wouldn’t provide incentives for using reusable shopping bags.  Of course, this practice ultimately saves the company money, but they probably would not have been able to convince their consumers to participate in the program had they just said they wanted to save money.  American culture has begun to shift towards environmentally conscience which goes against all that began in the American Industrial Revolution.  New industries have sprouted all over the world whose focus is on green energy and products.  Hybrid vehicles have become trendy and Smart® cars have replaced the Hummer® as a status symbol.  It’s created an environmentally conscious population willing to pay for the latest green products and services. The culture has changed, thus influencing the development of new products.  This is not just happening in the North America, Europe or Asia, it is happening everywhere technology and culture interact. 
          Technology and culture are two forces that greatly influence one another.  As new technology is introduced into a society, the culture reacts in a positive or negative way and is thus changed forever.  Consequently, as cultures change so does the technology they develop.  “Anthropologists have noted that culture consists of all learned beliefs and behaviors, the rules by which we order our lives, and the meanings that human beings construct to interpret their universes and their place in them” (Robbins, 2008).  The technology created to make life better often has negative effects on cultures even if it initially appears to provide benefits.  Ultimately, advances in technology directly affect how cultures evolve; thus, when cultures evolve, they tend to create new technology.     

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© Copyright 2010. Alyssa Burley.