John Berger’s book, ‘The Success and Failure of Picasso’ which I mentioned (and quoted) in my previous post – ‘The Future – Part 13’, brought me another significant ‘aha’ moment while I was on my run this morning.
I was thinking about technological progress and change; and why some cultures succeed and some don’t.
I sited a couple of references to theories on that subject like ‘Jared Diamond’s, ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’. And I also brought up Octavio Paz’s musing on the extreme cultural differences between the North American Great Plains Indians and the much more sophisticated indigenous cultures that developed in the south.
The subject of that last post was mostly predicated on the future where and how the big four tech companies: Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook are presently locked in a life and death match over who will win global dominance.
After my run, I kicked back and reread a passage of Berger’s book to make sure I understood him right, in what I had previously read and thought I finally understood.
The following is a rather lengthy quotation from that book but I want to highlight one very important observation that he made about the condition of the Spanish nation during Picasso’s time and how that particular observation seems entirely relevant in not just viewing the present future but also answering the question on why some cultures succeed technologically and why some didn’t.
Note: All cultures and their relative successes are and have been a direct result of their technological prowess. I give you the advent of fired brick, the improvement of mortar, and the Roman discovery of modern concrete. Without none of which there would have been no great western cities built nor cultures created.
So Berger said, ” What I want to establish is that the Spanish middle class, among whom Picasso was brought up, had – even if they wore the same clothes and read some of the same books – very little in common with their French or English or German contemporaries. Such middle-class virtues as there were in Spain were not created of necessity: if they existed, they were cultivated theoretically. There had been no successful bourgeois revolution. In an absolutist state the middle class had no independent power and so the virtues of initiative, industriousness, non-conformism, thrift, scientific curiosity, had no reason to exist. On the contrary the history of the Spanish middle class had encouraged the very opposite traits. The Inquisition had insisted upon the most rigid orthodoxy, both religious and racial: Jews and Moors were considered inferior races: a violent and hieratic snobbery had been developed. Equally, the state bureaucracy had discouraged initiative and put a premium on safe laziness.”
‘Had no reason to exist’ – for the reasons listed – I thought was a fascinating observation. For instance could it be that The Great Plain Indians had no scientific curiosity like their southern neighbors (Maya, Aztec, Inca) because they had no compelling competitive reason to develop technologies?
Could it also have been the religiously antithetical nature of technology itself that stopped those cultures that embraced Islam lack of progress back in the 13th century?
Could it have been China’s grand all encompassing politically inward facing policies that halted its technological progress for so many centuries?
Could it simply be put that no one in Africa, once Rome faded and Islam dominated the continent, simply didn’t give a shit beyond merely exploiting its native abundance of natural resources?
Could it be that the present day Middle East for the most part given its oil has had no real incentive to invest in forward facing technologies which includes educating its own people to prepare them for a world that lies beyond oil?
In other words, it appears that competition – both inward and outward – has been what has driven all successful cultures since the advent of brick.
The little voice whispering in my ear while I was on my run this morning suggested this was so. Why else did the European nations continually thrive and create beginning with the Roman Empire lasting all the way through the Industrial Revolution?
It was create or be overrun. There were the constant internal conflicts. I mean just how many wars were fought on the European continent from the 5th century to the 20th? How many empires rose and fell? Then there were the serious external threats of the Norseman, the Mongols, and Islam. It was develop or die.
And why has the US ascended to such technical dominance if it weren’t for the open society that has always encouraged such a ferociously competitive environment?
The present struggle for technological dominance goes much deeper than the rivalries between corporate entities like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook.
At the core lies those future changing technologies of nanotechnology, Artificial Intelligence, (building entire) Systems on a Chip, quantum computing, and biotechnology.
I see nations and regions like the EU, Singapore, S. Korea, China, Russia, and the US duking it out for world supremacy. Invest in research or fall behind. It’s as simple as that.
In today’s highly competitive world there is no second place.
You compete to win or die.
PS – Mexico is another interesting example. It’s culture does not promote investing in technology or research. Its culture is for the most part about respecting the traditions of the past. It has come to rely on its relationship with the United States from which it purchases its technology. Example. From what I understand, Mexico does not refine but a fraction of its own oil. It exports most of it to the US where it is then refined into diesel and gasoline then imported back into Mexico at a considerable expense. Go figure.