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We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Wagon train painting from Smithsonian Museum of American History

We cannot patent ideas. Patents can protect only the physical manifestations of ideas, not the ideas themselves. This makes sense from a practical legal point of view. But we think of technology too narrowly when we concentrate on equipment and machines that make our world so different from that of our parents. A technology also refers to the human skills, habits and even cultures that help us solve problems and achieve our goals. These broader aspects of technology often explain why physical technologies sometimes fail to transfer or fail to flower outside their places of origin.  When we sell somebody a computer, we just are not transferring the whole technology, even if we have included the latest software. 

Misunderstanding of the breadth of technologies is an important reason why we fail to understand other contemporary cultures or people of other ages.  We tend to think that they are just like us only wearing funny clothes or that they are so different as to be almost a different type of human. Both these formulations are wrong.  Human nature remains similar, but it is amplified, altered or attenuated by technologies available and used. 

Physical technologies are easy to see.  An ordinary person in a culture that has developed automobiles can move many times faster than the fastest runner of one that has not. Intellectual technologies are harder to see, but can convey similar advantages. For example, the greatest mathematician of 1000 years ago could not pass a high school math course. Many of the quantitative techniques we use were just not invented. There was no calculus back then.  Statistics were in the alchemy stage. Even those calculation tables were not around.  Would it be possible to think as clearly about physics or engineering if you just didn’t have those mathematical and calculation tools? 

If I can indulge a little with my own experience (since this is my blog post), I can explain a growth of technologies and how it affects skills. I graduated with my MBA in 1984.  I am certain that I could not have gotten an MBA at all in 1974 and I believe that by 1994 (or today) I would have an easier time in school.  The reason is the presence and removal of limiting factors.  I cannot do arithmetic.  Arithmetic is not the same as math, but until calculators became common nobody could handle higher math unless he was also passably good at the simple skill of “ciphering.”  In 1974 sophisticated calculators were not available or affordable. Ten years later they were. Calculators are good; computers are better. By 1994, computer programs were commonly available that easily could do regression comparisons and multivariate analysis.   

These improvements in technology removed the tedium and routine repetitive work and allowed us to use our brains in more innovative ways. We used to think of intelligence in terms of ability to remember a lot of facts and do quick calculations. (I call it the Spock trap.)  These are things that machines now do for us most of the time.  In humans we now treasure the kind of intelligence that can make intuitive and creative leaps. Technology removes a limiting factor and makes the next step possible.

There are less obvious advances. One of the most important is in the realm of organization.  The Framers of our constitution studied political systems ancient and (to them) modern, but they found no example of a successful large republic or one with consistently peaceful transitions of executive power over long periods. That is because there weren’t any. Humans had not yet created that experience.  Our Constitution is based on Greek and Roman models leavened by the practical experience of British practices supplemented by examples from elsewhere.  (A big failing of the Romans is that they never solved the chief executive succession problem. We were forewarned and did a good job with that.)

James Madison’s or Alexander Hamilton’s reading list was impressive, but all the experience of the 19th and 20th Centuries, when many new forms of governance were tested in real world situations was unavailable to them since it still was in the future. (A good book about the thinking that went into the U.S. Constitution is Novus Ordo Seclorum by Forest MacDonald) Imagine trying to explain political theory w/o being able to reference anything that happened after 1787 and you will begin to understand their handicap.

How about economics?  The guys who wrote the Constitution could have read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but all the economic theory and experience with markets on which we now depend were still in the future.  It is amazing how well Hamilton did w/o those things or examples. In my own lifetime, we have seen a revolution in our understanding of economics, with various intellectual technologies, such as behavior economics and new means of measurement.  It is now much easier to understand what and why people are acting in the economic realm.  

We all stand on the shoulders of giants of the past and it is no disrespect to them or foolish pride on our parts to acknowledge that our position gives us greater vision than they enjoyed.  I am always struck by the incongruous combination of sophistication and short-sightedness among the masters of the past.  Plato and Aristotle struggled with concepts that we can easily address because they and others have shown us the way.  It is churlish of us to look down on their mistakes but silly to ignore them.  No intelligent modern man could base his philosophy on Plato any more than a modern doctor could stop his study with Hippocrates or a physicist could understand the universe by studying Thales. But we owe much of our modern understanding to the starts they gave us.

So,  we can talk about physical, intellectual, scientific, cultural and organizational technologies. But I think there have also been improvements in moral technology. I know this is controversial and I am not saying that most people have become morality better; I am saying that ordinary people have access to a better “moral technology," which give even ordinary people access to moral power that only the most fortunate had in the past.  That is not to say they use the power wisely any more than a driver of a fast car necessarily puts all the horsepower to good use. 

As somebody who loves the classics, I treasure the ancient texts. I know that people will remind me that Aristotle addressed ethics, almost 2400 years ago and we have had access to the Bible for nearly 2000 years.  What has improved?   Most important, IMO, is that more people can think about these issues.  We have greater literacy and much greater access to the great books. We have also expanded our experience to include the wisdom of a greater variety of cultures. We also have the benefit of thousands of years of experience. We could claim that the clash of cultures in the Roman world was every bit as real as we face today, but never before has the contact been so rapid or intimate. In times before significantly before our own, news and people moved only as fast as a horse could walk or at best a ship could sail with a good wind. Most people lived their entire lives within a few miles of the places they were born. People simply did not have the diversity of experiences we do today.  

It is a lot easier to believe a set of morals is THE only truth if you never meet any good or intelligent person with a conflicting or contrary opinion. Moral or ethical awareness improves and develops when challenged to address new experiences, different ideas and diverse people. 

There is also the accumulated effect of experience. The knowledge of the Holocaust and a visit to Auschwitz will certainly affect a moral calculation. Some of the ends justifying the political means or "collective" will so completely overriding the priorities of individuals makes much less moral sense if you know about the Gulags.  

So we have to be realistic. We don’t expect that a man with a hammer and chisel can beat a steam drill (remember the John Henry story). Technology multiplies the power of human muscle. It also can multiply the power of human intelligence and improve human thinking and judgment. This is hard to believe. We like to think that the great thinkers of the past, or of other cultures w/o some of our technologies of thought, would be able to fit right into our intellectual context, but it is unlikely. Besides to obvious historical excitement, I think it an able modern scholar would be disappointed with a technical discussion with Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Pythagoras or Leonardo da Vinci. We have "conversed" with them already through their writings and have developed further their best ideas in light of knowledge and experience they could not have.

I have had this disappointing experience on a smaller and modern scale on several occasions when I have met authors whose work I admire.  Many times, their knowledge of their topic peaked on the day they finished the book I read and loved. It makes sense. They poured themselves into what they wrote and after that forgot some of the details, maybe they moved on to something else.  Of course, it is often very interesting to learn about their subsequent ideas, but that is another story.

Think of it this way. Most of us try to improve ourselves and learn new things. If you take a rigorous course of study, are you better before or after … or are you just the same? If you don’t feel you can improve, you would be foolish to spent the effort. And if you believe you are better after the learning (internalizing the new intellectual technology) you must also understand that someone w/o access to what you learned would be in the same situation you were before you became more enlightened.


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Comments

One of your best essays.


I think the person who would date least is Shakespeare. His understanding of human nature is still current, while the work of scientists and philosophers of his day is mostly superseded.

The founders of the great religions would be particularly disappointing to talk to, I think. (Some of them may be fictitious, anyway.)

One quite recent advance is that people are becoming more aware of the difference between correlation and causation. There are still many news stories say "Scientists discover that X causes Y", when what has actually been discovered is a correlation between X and Y. X may cause Y, Y may cause X, or they may share a common cause. The scientists have not (yet) established which is the case.

News people don't understand this yet, but many scientists do.

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