culture over technology

Illustration of a puppet

There’s a great scene — one of the most iconic moments in film history — in one of my favorite movies, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

In the opening section of the film, a prehistoric ape plays with a pile of bones out of simple curiosity. He realizes a large bone can be used as a club, which extends his reach and power. It’s no longer simply a bone, but a tool that amplifies his capabilities. The scene imagines the moment when prehistoric man discovered how to modify nature for his own benefit.

Then, a group of apes uses bones as weapons in a battle against a rival group of unarmed apes. You don’t have to guess who wins.

In the last part of the scene, the ape leader throws the bone triumphantly toward the blue sky, where it morphs into a space station surrounded by blackness and stars. This highlights the massive jump from the pre-human era to the technology-driven world we live in today.

It also hints at how societies evolve. How we evolved.

There are two fundamental themes at play here: technology and culture. Technology means the tools, inventions, and physical artifacts we create. Culture is what we do with our creations: our practices, skills, or methodologies. A club is a tool. How we use it — to wage war, to hunt animals, to collaborate — is culture.

Technology and culture shape how humans evolve. We discover a new tool, machine, or device, and then we shape new paradigms, methodologies, and procedures to make effective use of that tool. Then, with all our newly-gained knowledge and experience, we try to improve the tool or create new tools.

This is the co-evolution of culture and technology. In other words, co-evolution has brought us from prehistoric apes to civilized societies. I believe the relationship and co-dependence of cultural and technological aspects has been a driving force bringing us to this point.

What if we suddenly lose interest in the co-evolution of culture and technology, and only focus on one?

This is happening right now.

It’s easy to think the world of computers is the climax of human progress. At any tech conference you will find innovations that solve problems, or do things easier, faster, or more efficiently than ever before. We celebrate technology for freeing us from our work, giving us more time with our families, making us more creative, getting us from point A to B faster, and making the world a better place.

With so much tech development and innovation, shouldn’t we be living in a better world? We’re automating more and more of our work and becoming wealthier and more connected. And we try to make life ever more connected, smooth, and compelling — even addictive.

But is it really a better world we are creating now? A world in which we always feel short on time, overwhelmed, and overworked? One where people are so connected, yet so isolated and lonely? One where we are enclosed in filtered news bubbles and social media feeds attuned to our ideological affinities, and lose the ability to have our own opinions? One where many people worry about losing their jobs? One where education is in deep confusion about how to educate our children? One where we are spied upon by governments, big corporations, employers, and schools?

We are stuck in a rushing standstill. We think we’re innovating through technology, or that technology will always be the solution. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Look around and you will find many examples of technology-centered thinking, from technology-based solutions aiming at global crises, to Silicon Valley startups claiming their product will solve everything.

But we’re not solving anything.

Technology is growing at unparalleled speed, but our culture is lagging far behind. And this is why we can’t make any real progress. A solution means long-lasting, sustainable change that fundamentally amplifies our human capabilities and raises our collective intelligence through generations.

Culture and technology co-evolve. We need both, and they need to support each other. If technology advances, culture has to catch up. If culture advances, technology has to catch up. If we fail to recognize this simple and important truth, we face a serious disconnect that is detrimental to our development.

We can do better than thinking the new iPhone is real innovation.


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