Was our technological evolution just random?

Despite long debates among sci­en­tists in the past, gen­er­al con­sen­sus has emerged among the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty that our tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion is actu­al­ly a lit­tle bit ran­dom. How­ev­er, many peo­ple don’t know what the real caus­es are of the dis­or­der in tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion. When it comes down to it, a lot of sci­en­tists believe that we are sim­ply lucky or unlucky, rather than intel­li­gent or unin­tel­li­gent in regards to our tech­no­log­i­cal advancements. 

If we look into the his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy, it seems that the cen­turies before and after the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion have been chaot­ic. In the 17th to 19th cen­tu­ry, the rate of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment was slow and had a wide vari­a­tion. In the 20th cen­tu­ry, rapid devel­op­ment of tech­nol­o­gy start­ed from World War I and this rate decreased again due to wars. The pur­pose of this arti­cle is to exam­ine the evi­dence for both opin­ions and see which one is more convincing.

The history of our technological evolution

For thou­sands of years, humans used horse as a means of trans­porta­tion. Ear­li­er, it took hun­dreds of years for humans to fig­ure out that horse was not very good for trans­porta­tion in open ter­rain because it can­not run very fast and it needs to be fed. Even after we dis­cov­ered wheels and fig­ured out how to ride hors­es, we still had to feed them and clean up the manure. All in all, it seems like a lot of trou­ble when we could have just used a wheeled cart from the start, right?

Using this exam­ple, what can sci­ence con­clude about the evo­lu­tion of tech­nol­o­gy? First off, with­out study­ing all tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ments and dis­cov­er­ies through­out his­to­ry which would be too time-con­sum­ing and impos­si­ble, what we can con­clude is that humans came up with a lot of inno­v­a­tive ways to trav­el despite our seem­ing­ly ran­dom actions. This is a hint that there must be some kind of order as to why humans came up with all these innovations.

At a first glance, you might con­clude that this is a pret­ty con­vinc­ing exam­ple, but what if our human ances­tors had ran­dom­ly cho­sen to use a wheeled cart rather than hors­es? Would the his­to­ry of trans­porta­tion have played out dif­fer­ent­ly and per­haps cre­at­ed a new tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment that we would nev­er have dis­cov­ered? In oth­er words, if our ances­tors used hors­es rather than carts and then ran­dom­ly jumped around to using bicy­cles for trans­porta­tion, what would hap­pen then?

Is there any way to knowing all about the ways of technological evolution?

Against the back­drop of sev­er­al bil­lion years of his­to­ry, the last few cen­turies of human his­to­ry are impres­sive. Our species has not only reshaped its plan­et’s bios­phere. But, ter­rain, oceans, and cli­mate of Earth are under­go­ing change to a mag­ni­tude not expe­ri­enced since aster­oid impacts or cen­turies of apoc­a­lyp­tic vol­canic erup­tions. These changes also cause enor­mous impacts on tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion as they will have a long-term impact. 

In today’s world, we some­times think about tech­nol­o­gy as just the lat­est inno­va­tion: smart­phones, 3D print­ers, and VR head­sets. By tak­ing a longer view, how­ev­er, we can see how it is so deeply tied to how we live.

We are unsure of the first human tool, but we can say that, around 2.5 mil­lion years ago, our dis­tant ances­tors began to use found objects in a delib­er­ate man­ner: hard or sharp stones for break­ing open shells or pro­tec­tion; sticks for reach­ing dis­tant food and plants or ani­mal parts for shel­ter or cam­ou­flage. In this regard, as well as in the cre­ation and improve­ment of these objects, our ances­tors were not so dif­fer­ent from many oth­er groups of animals.

Of course, there is no way of know­ing whether or not our tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion is actu­al­ly ran­dom or not because it’s impos­si­ble to go back in time. But in the­o­ry, if our tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment was com­plete­ly ran­dom, his­to­ry would be com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent. Mean­ing that if our tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment was com­plete­ly ran­dom, we would have cho­sen dif­fer­ent things to invent and we might pos­si­bly not be as advanced as we are now. 

What did Engels and Marx think about technological evolution?

One exam­ple to sup­port that tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion does not take place in order, we can go back to Enges. Over 100 years ago, Engels had point­ed out that sci­ence was not an inde­pen­dent phe­nom­e­non but it was deeply con­nect­ed to cap­i­tal­ism. Today, there has been anoth­er indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion with deep con­nec­tions between sci­ence and econ­o­my. This shows that tech­nol­o­gy is dri­ven by social fac­tors; it has no inde­pen­dent char­ac­ter­is­tics, which makes it chaot­ic and unpredictable.

Sim­i­lar­ly, as ear­ly as 150 years ago, Marx point­ed out that indus­tri­al evo­lu­tion would lead to rev­o­lu­tion as well as the devel­op­ment of tech­nol­o­gy. Start­ing from World War II, rev­o­lu­tion began to break out in many coun­tries in Africa and Asia; this was trig­gered by over­pop­u­la­tion and nat­ur­al dis­as­ters which gave rise to sharp class con­flicts. Not long ago, anoth­er cri­sis of cap­i­tal­ism occurred which led to the great­est finan­cial cri­sis in his­to­ry. The 2008 cri­sis also caused envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems such as glob­al warm­ing and pollution.

How­ev­er, social­ists and com­mu­nists argue that these crises did not devel­op ran­dom­ly. On the con­trary, they were main­ly the result of a cer­tain sys­tem; the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion was respon­si­ble for bring­ing chaos and insta­bil­i­ty to human soci­ety. Many polit­i­cal econ­o­mists have defined cap­i­tal­ism as an eco­nom­ic sys­tem based on pri­vate own­er­ship of cap­i­tal rather than com­mon own­er­ship by all people.

Then, was our technological evolution just random?

One may think that sci­en­tif­ic research can­not be pure­ly ran­dom, because it draws its inspi­ra­tion from cer­tain con­di­tions such as sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ries or soci­ety. This is true, but the devel­op­ment of sci­ence does not occur through some planned order. 

For exam­ple, every time a new piece of tech­nol­o­gy is invent­ed, it has influ­enced many sci­en­tif­ic fields and then sci­en­tists have devel­oped relat­ed the­o­ries such as quan­tum mechan­ics or chaos the­o­ry accord­ing­ly. There­fore, tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion not only adds new devices to help peo­ple work more con­ve­nient­ly; instead, it also brings uncer­tain­ty to the world of sci­ence and society.

Relat­ed Sto­ry:

There­fore, we can say that our tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion was not com­plete­ly ran­dom as many peo­ple think. How­ev­er, it is also impor­tant to remem­ber that there are many oth­er fac­tors in our evo­lu­tion beyond just being lucky or unlucky. For exam­ple, humans ever had an impulse to invent things because of our cre­ativ­i­ty and the fact that we had a desire to improve our lives.

Although it might not have been com­plete­ly ran­dom, tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion has no under­ly­ing order either. In my opin­ion, I believe that tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped because humans want­ed to be more effi­cient and live bet­ter. With bet­ter tech­nol­o­gy, humans would be able to do more things and have a high­er qual­i­ty of life.

To sum every­thing up, this arti­cle giv­en evi­dence on both sides whether our tech­no­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion is com­plete­ly ran­dom or not. For exam­ple, the fact that we ‘dis­cov­ered things in a seem­ing­ly ran­dom order’ is the proof that there is no under­ly­ing order in our tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment. How­ev­er, the fact that we came up with such incred­i­ble inven­tions despite being ran­dom may be the proof that there is some kind of order after all.

In conclusion,

I believe that humans are not as unin­tel­li­gent and lucky as some sci­en­tists claim but we are more intel­li­gent than most peo­ple real­ize. I believe that we are not com­plete­ly ran­dom in our tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment. How­ev­er, there is no under­ly­ing order that explains why we came up with tech­nol­o­gy the way we did.

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In oth­er words, tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped as humans want­ed to make their lives bet­ter with things like wheels, cars, air­planes and rock­ets. Tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped because of human cre­ativ­i­ty and desire to improve our qual­i­ty of life. From this, we can con­clude that we were nei­ther lucky and nor pre­des­tined, but instead were a com­plex result of ran­dom evo­lu­tion­ary process­es. In addi­tion, we have found that ran­dom tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion not only adds new devices to help peo­ple work more con­ve­nient­ly; it also brings uncer­tain­ty to the world of sci­ence and society.

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