Technology is the devices and machines that are used in society as well as the practical knowledge a society has about its material existence and methodologies for applying technical knowledge. Technology has a number of important impacts of the cycle of prosperity.
As Thomas Malthus correctly concluded, food production is critical to achieving prosperity. Domestication of crops and animals is widely credited as the impetus for human civilization. Excess crop production led freed some from food production for other pursuits. Somewhere between the sixth and ninth century (CE) in Europe a three crop rotation system was discovered that enriched the soil and significantly improved outputs. Knowledge of crop production, including issues like irrigation, fertilization, and soil management, is one form of technology. The Green Revolution in crop breeding as well as more recent efforts at genetic crop modifications are more recent examples.
Technology as it relates to tools has also had significant impacts. The creation of durable metal tools used in farming was an important factor. Changes as seemingly innocuous as the teardrop shaped harness for horses (circa 10th Century), dramatically increasing the power efficiency of horses. Waterwheel technology used in grain milling was studied, perfected, and promoted by economic development minded Benedictine monks in the early part of the second millennium. Then, in the past two centuries, we’ve seen the rise of machines with magnitudes more power than a team of horses.
There are more indirect improvements in food supply from technology. Transportation technology has played a critical role in improving the distribution of food from grower to consumer. Development of waterway and overland trade routes, as well as the transportation devices that used them, led to improved food supply. Seaworthy ships that could carry large cargos were among the first major advances. More recently, refrigeration and packaging technology has substantially extended the useful live of foods all the way from the grower through the supply chain to the consumer, radically reducing spoilage of harvested food. Routing technology for vehicles and instantaneous knowledge of changes in food demands through communication technologies has radically increased the efficiency in food distribution.
The impact of technology on human life is the subject matter of entire books. Here are some quick observations.
Medical – Medical knowledge and techniques, particularly in the last couple of centuries, has had an astonishing impact on the treatment and even elimination of diseases. Medical equipment accomplishes tasks that were unimaginable a generation ago. This both extends the length and quality of lives to unprecedented levels. People with deformities and injuries that would be been utterly debilitating are often now able to lead satisfying productive lives.
Shelter – Advances in construction of human dwellings and communities has created the possibility of people living without worry from natural threats that have plagued humanity throughout the ages. Medical knowledge gained over the past century has radically improved the sanitation of our dwellings. Technology has also played a key role in recent decades in reducing several varieties of pollution brought on by dense urbanization.
Communication – Technology has greatly expanded literacy and human learning. In Europe, invention of printing technology greatly expanded literacy and caused an explosion in learning. The early nineteenth century brought the invention of the telegraph, making possible instantaneous communication between distant locations for the first time. Iterations of change would put us on the path to today where we can communicate with every major populated area on the earth through wireless handheld devices, making incomprehensibly large volumes of information available to billions of people.
Transportation – Until the nineteenth century, land travel was limited to the fastest horse and sea travel to the fastest wind powered ship. The world has been shrunk by advances in travel, allowing people to learn in distant lands and to experience other regions and cultures in unprecedented ways. Transportation also has made the delivery of goods, from the essential to the frivolous, to one’s doorstep an unremarkable reality. It has expanded the range of work opportunities for people by making it possible for a person’s home and work to be miles apart.
Labor Saving and Entertainment Enhancing Devices – Our technology has been so effective at creating consumer goods that people now feel overwhelmed with the choices and want to simplify. Technology has driven the price of such options to levels that even some people we would today classify as poor are able to live more comfortable luxurious lives than reasonably wealthy people did a century ago. This has enabled people to indulge personal interests and passions in ways that are historically unprecedented.
This is just a sampling. The list goes on. It is not my intention to suggest that these changes are all unmitigated positive developments, yet it is worth noting that very few people would be interested in returning to a world without these developments. More on these issues later.
If we move in the counterclockwise direction in the diagram we see the impact of technology on economic growth and wealth. Advances in technology lead to decreased quantities of time, labor, materials and errors in the production and delivery of goods and services. Purchasers reward producers with sales. That generates profits which are either plowed into more efforts at efficient production or paid out in dividends to stockholders. Profits usually mean appreciation of stock values as well. Meanwhile, consumers experience declining costs, thus freeing up disposable income for savings or other expenditures. Whether by expanding profits through efficiency or by reductions in consumer prices, wealth is created.
Technology facilitates trade through improvement of infrastructure and the development of devices like ships, ground transport, planes, pipelines, and fiber optic cables, to name but a few. Ability to transport large quantities of goods both improves the distribution of the food supply and brings larger numbers of people into market exchange networks. Communication technology synchronizes worldwide market functions.
These arrows have all dealt with outputs from technology. Two deal with inputs.
Technology is driven by human capital. Each new technology builds on and combines previous technologies so that there is an increasingly complex cumulative effect. At the core of technological innovation are well disciplined and educated minds of well feed and physically sound individuals devoted to systematic experimentation and innovation. Each technological advance usually necessitates an upgrade in society-wide competencies in order to effectively take advantage of the technology.
Also essential to technological change is wealth. Society must have sufficient wealth to support significant numbers of its populous devoted to such specialized learning and work. Technological change often requires accessing and experimenting with raw materials. This too requires financial resources.
We have only skimmed the surface of technology’s impact but hopefully this gives us enough to get a sense of technologies role. Next up is the food supply.