East Triumphs, West Wins, & West-East War

The History of Technology over the past three million years, along with the regional ups and downs, and triumphs and travails

By Alam Srinivas
  • There is a tussle, rather a war, between the West and East to emerge as the leader in the intelligence race
  • Cultural complacency, or sociology, can be the second reason for a region’s inability to remain on top of the tech heap
  • A recent global assessment reveals that the US is the “primary hub for artificial intelligence development, with tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft
  • In areas such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence (AI) China and the US are at a manufacturing warpath to emerge leader

IT is true that millions of years ago, before the advent of Homo sapiens, i.e., species like you and I, technology was geographically neutral. It is logical too. Since our species’ ancestors, Australopithecus at first, followed by Homo Erectus, originated in Africa and travelled both towards the East and West, they carried their innovations with them. Thus, the use of stone tools and fire, as well as large settlements, are found in different parts of the globe. There is some evidence to suggest that even farming and domestication of animals are not the exclusive preserve of the communities in specific areas.

Only 6,000 years ago, or more, did the East (including the Middle East) become dominant in the use of technology. The great ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, apart from others, revolutionised agriculture, metallurgy, communications, and the use of alternative power (wind power rather than human one). Less than a 1,000 years ago did the West triumph. Since then, most discoveries and inventions were made in Europe and the US. For example, the transition from steam to fossil fuels, from electric to electronic, and from audio to visual, was dictated by the West.

Now is the time when the East and West will clash with each other in a bid to dictate the future history of technology. If there’s little development, India with its demographic dividend, China with its economic clout, and Japan with its resurgence will aim to clobber down Europe and the US

Now, the tech pendulum, which swung from the middle to the right (East), and then to the left (West), is back at the centre. There is a tussle, rather a war, between the West and East to emerge as the leader in the intelligence race, the ongoing age of artificial intelligence, big data, genetics, and robotics. A future, where there may be one machine, a robot possibly, for every human being alive. It is also an age, which is self-destructive. For the first time, humans can destroy this planet. For the first time, machines may outlive Man.

This grand narrative of the history of technology is neither linear nor such a straightforward one. Before the so-called rise of the West, especially during the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, we had the Greek and Roman societies in Europe, and the Aztec and Mayan ones in South America. Interspersed elsewhere, apart from the East and Middle East were the smaller ones. Some of the cultures, even if they were minor ones, grew independently. However, ideas and their practical applications generally flowed from the East to West. In fact, the Renaissance was hugely influenced by the East.

David Graeber, a renowned anthropologist, feels that human culture over the past few thousands of years was an era of great experiments. We tried different forms of living together in larger groups, or staying separate in smaller ones, and relied on different kinds of technologies. There were also sects and bands that came together at certain times of the year, and went their own ways during the rest. The linear progression, he maintains, from hunter-gatherers to foragers to farmers is a historical myth. The so-called hunters were also foragers who, in turn, adopted agriculture during seasons.

PROGRESS OF TECHNOLOGY

Essentially, there are three ways to gauge the march of technology. The first is a chronological order, as Britannica does. It can be in the form of ages – the Seven Technological Ages of Man, as the Encyclopedia of History of Technology (Routledge) does. Or, like the Atlantic magazine, we can pinpoint issue- and idea-based “Greatest Breakthroughs”. In each case, the overpowering question is the pace of the progress. The accepted consensus is that it was slow during the first few millions of years. It gathered pace over the next few thousand years, and grew exponentially in the past few hundred ones.

However, one can nuance this accepted norm. For example, the common perception is that the period when humans used stone tools lasted tens of thousands of years. However, within this period, as the Routledge’s encyclopaedia reveals, they graduated from ordinary pebble tools to bi-faced hand axes that were “sharpened by flaking all round the periphery”. This led to the blade tools with “long parallel-sided flakes” usually produced from flints. Such knives evolved into saw blades and drills. Finally, the “techniques of grinding and polishing” were used for the “surfacing of stone tools”.

The process is like industrialization during the 18th and 19th centuries. James Watt’s steam engine and water wheels energised factories and the first wave of mass production through new machines such as “Kay’s flying shuttle, Arkwright’s water frame, Hargreave’s spinning jenny, Crompton’s mule, and Robert’s power loom. Workers had to travel daily to a central place, and stay nearby. Steam engines allowed factories to shift from river banks (water wheels). This led to the birth of Britain’s industrial cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds, Nottingham, and Birmingham.

The great ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, apart from others, revolutionised agriculture, metallurgy, communications, and the use of alternative power (wind power rather than human one). Less than a 1,000 years ago did the West triumph

No one can deny that the latter event, Industrial Revolution (Third Age: The First Machine Age), was way faster than what happened during the stone tools period (First Age). In fact, during the last few decades, such automation growth has become exponential. Take Moore’s Law. “In 1965, Gordon Moore posited that roughly every two years, the number of transistors on microchips will double.” This predicted that the computational power of computers and laptops would be faster and efficient with time, even as their sizes became smaller. This has indeed turned out to be true until now.

Experts contend that Moore’s Law will lose steam during this decade. There will be a point when miniaturisation will reach a breaking point. This is because of the threshold limit when the energy needed to cool down the transistors will be higher than what passes through them. In such a case, adding more transistors will be energy negative, and futile. Like in the case of chips, experts question whether the advancement of western technology witnessed over the past hundreds of years can be sustained. Are we at the end of the ongoing Golden Age – the Seventh Electrical and Electronic Age?

SUN SETS IN EAST AND WEST

The above question is pertinent because the East (and Middle East) lost its technology edge after a long and enduring Second Age of the Farmer, Smith, and Wheel. Agriculture enabled the setting up of civilizations. The use of copper, bronze (copper mixed with tin), and iron led to a metallic democratisation, as the cheaper iron became the “metal of the people”, and resulted in specialisation and division of labour due to the skills required. The wheel changed the way people moved. The combination enhanced the economic and political (war) advantages. Writing helped ideas to travel across the globe.

From the Third Age (The First Machine Age), or the beginning of the fourteenth century, the West took over. With the invention of mechanical clocks (Giovanni di Dondi built one of the most remarkable clocks in 1364 after 16 years’ work), followed by printing (Gutenberg’s press in the 1440s), it dominated in technology. This continued over the next four ages (Mass Production, Steam, Internal Combustion, and Electrical & Electronic). Such technologies spread faster due to printing, one of the greatest inventions in the Middle Ages, followed by telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and Internet.

If the pace of the West slows down, as some experts claim, it could be due to the same reasons responsible for the earlier decline of the East. The first involves politics, or wars, which can lead to lesser inclination, time, and effort to innovate freely. It can fragment nations, for whom survival remains crucial. At the same time, rulers of expansive territories can curb advances in technology. On the flip side, as the two world wars proved, battles can result in original thinking to solve immediate problems, and defeat enemies. One can make the case that wars do shift tech power centres regionally.

After World War II, the US clearly emerged as the global tech leader, and left Europe in the lurch. The smaller wars that America fought later in Vietnam and other parts of Asia, and the Middle East, helped Japan to eclipse the traditional West. This was evident in areas such as automobiles and electronics. Japan’s military involvement with the US and NATO allowed the Asian Tigers to climb up the tech ladder. They, along with China, became the global manufacturing hubs and exporters to the rest of the world. Now that China shows aggressive exuberance, will it follow the same regressive path?

This grand narrative of the history of technology is neither linear nor such a straightforward one. Before the so-called rise of the West, especially during the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution, we had the Greek and Roman societies in Europe, and the Aztec and Mayan ones in South America

Cultural complacency, or sociology, can be the second reason for a region’s inability to remain on top of the tech heap. When certain societies reach the perceived pinnacle of innovation, they become closed, and turn inwards. This was the case, as the Atlantic piece suggests, with “China after its preeminence in the Ming era, and much of the Arab Islamic world starting just before the European Renaissance”. It adds, “By failing to move forward, they inevitably moved backward relative to their rivals….” Ultimately, the unbroken progress depends on the “social and intellectual climate”; rather, it hinges on the lack of hubris and arrogance.

Underlying limits, and diminishing marginal returns are the economic reasons to explain the rise and fall vis-à-vis technology. The pace of solutions slows down. While initial improvements are remarkable, the next ones are “slower and harder”. The Atlantic article cites a few examples – life expectancy doubled in the US between 1850 and 1950, and crept afterwards; between 1920 and 1970, transportation (road, rail, and air) was “faster, cheaper, safer, and more comfortable”, but the race petered out, and; crop yields doubled within a generation during the Green Revolution, “but have not doubled again”.

EAST VERSUS WEST

But there is a debate whether the West-led technology will stall, or newer technologies will rise, and push progress forward. Either way, now is the time when the East and West will clash with each other in a bid to dictate the future history of technology. If there’s little development, India with its demographic dividend, China with its economic clout, and Japan with its resurgence will aim to clobber down Europe and the US. The latter two will hope to retain their edge, at least in patents and intellectual property. The same will happen if new technologies emerge in the near future.

This is evident in areas such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence (AI). China and the US are at a manufacturing warpath to emerge as the semiconductor leaders. More importantly, both wish to dictate the upcoming protocols – whoever controls them will conquer the global markets. In AI and robotics, China and Japan wish to zoom ahead of Europe and America, as the future belongs in this area. Several nations have dedicated trillions of dollars to win these crucial races that will define regional economic hegemonies. Of course, the conflicts have engulfed global manufacturing and supply chains.

A recent global assessment reveals that the US is the “primary hub for artificial intelligence development, with tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft at the forefront of AI-driven research”. However, “China is close second” with companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu. Another research shows that China is ahead of the US in terms of research papers. A third predicts that if China’s future plans related to investments fructify, it can overtake the US by 2030. Guess the other leaders, which are behind the US and China, but wish to march ahead – Japan and South Korea, along with Canada.

Experts are terrified that this economic-technology rivalries do not transform into political and military ones. For tech, which can benefit the world, can destroy it too. Right from the beginning, at least for thousands of years, mankind has battled against the urge to use tech for the destruction of enemies, real and imaginary. Most times, the attempts are unsuccessful. This is crucial because, as mentioned earlier, for the first time, Homo sapiens find themselves at a crossroad. For the first time in the planet’s history, a species, not nature, has the ability to destroy it. This time completely.

If the pace of the West slows down, as some experts claim, it could be due to the same reasons responsible for the earlier decline of the East. The first involves politics, or wars, which can lead to lesser inclination, time, and effort to innovate freely

Alam Srinivas

Alam Srinivas is a business journalist with almost four decades of experience and has written for the Times of India, bbc.com, India Today, Outlook, and San Jose Mercury News. He is working on a new book on the benefits and pitfalls of the Indian Bankruptcy Code.

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