Cell Phones and Longbows: Watershed Moments In History And The Technologies That Facilitate Them

In a recent NY Times editorial, historian Paul Kennedy drew our attention away from developments in consumer technology and toward what he called “the hard worlds of economics and politics.” Kennedy believes that we may be passing through a watershed moment in human history largely unawares because we are distracted by less important facets of present circumstances.

Rather than obsess about the latest gadgets that come on the market, we should be paying attention to at least four developments that are, according to Kennedy, of momentous import. They are, in his words:

a. “the waning of the dollar’s heft”

b. “the unwinding of European dreams” of political union

c. “the arms race in Asia”

d. “the paralysis of the U.N. Security Council”

These are indeed significant developments and one should hope that they are not being ignored, by either the voting public, or those voted into office to steer the ship of state through these turbulent waters (although on the latter see the last post.) But it is unfortunate that Kennedy opposes attention to these economic and political developments and attention given to technological developments.

It is unfortunate, and also curious given some of what Kennedy himself alludes to in his essay.

Describing two previous watershed moments in the history of the West he writes,

“No one alive in 1480 would recognize the world of 1530 — a world of new nation-states, Christendom splintered, European expansion into Asia and the Americas, the Gutenberg communications revolution. Perhaps this was the greatest historical watershed of all time, at least in the West.

There are other examples, of course. Someone living in England in 1750, before the widespread use of the steam engine, would have been staggered at its application 50 years later: The Industrial Revolution had arrived!”

Well, as I think about these moments of great historical change, it seems to me that technology was inextricably implicated in each. Technology, or better, technologies were not the sole factor driving historical change in these instances, but it would be hard to imagine the change taking place without the technologies.

Notably, Kennedy later refers to the critical role of the printing press in a rather odd paragraph:

“So what about today? Many newspaper correspondents and technology pundits point excitedly to our ongoing communications revolution (cell phone, iPad and other gadgetry), and to its impact upon states and peoples, upon traditional authorities and new liberation movements. The evidence for this view is clear across the entire Middle East, and even in the very tame “Occupy Wall Street” movement, although one wonders if any of the high-tech prophets proclaiming that a new era in world affairs has arrived have ever bothered to study the impact of the Gutenberg printing press, or of F.D.R.’s radio chats to tens of millions of Americans in the 1930s and early 1940s.”

This is an odd paragraph because the events it cites seem to undermine the gist of his argument, and because of the closing line. I’m not sure which “hight-tech prophets” Kennedy has in mind, but, in fact, the printing press is often enough cited as a precedent of note when exploring the social transformations wrought by technological change. While I doubt her work informs much of the popular level discourse, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial two-volume, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change certainly explores the consequences of the printing press in fine-grain detail.

I suspect that Kennedy may be mostly distraught by the attention given to something like the release of the latest iPhone and the ensuing consumerist frenzy/orgy. Fair enough. But when we consider the larger “communications revolution,” to use Kennedy’s own formulation, of which the latest iPhone is but a bit part, then the focus on technology is not at all misplaced.

In fact, I wonder whether technology could not be implicated in the four developments that Kennedy himself lists from the hard world of economics and politics. I suspect so. For example, I would think it impossible to discuss the current monetary situation and fluctuations in currency values from the interconnected world of electronic, computerized buying, selling, and trading.

Finally, it was Kennedy’s conclusion that led to the train of thought developed in this post. Kennedy wrapped with the following:

“It is as if one were back in 1500, emerging from the Middle Ages to the early-modern world. The crowds at that time were marveling at a new and more powerful longbow. Surely we can take our world a bit more seriously than that?”

The irony here is that if you consider Lynn White’s work on medieval society, then you might conclude the attention to the longbow was not at all misplaced. White’s thesis taken by itself is probably reductionistic, but it does point to important factors. He argued that the feudal system and the consequent social order was premised on the invention of the stirrup which led to the appearance of mounted, armored soldiers and the rise of wealthy, landed aristocrats  who could afford to maintain mounted knights in their service. This social order was itself challenged by the invention of the longbow which, given its long range and armor piercing capability, drastically undermined the combat effectiveness of mounted knights. Historian Theodore Rabb, in The Last Days of the Renaissance, has likewise argued for the analogous role played by gunpowder in the evolution of the modern nation state.

Looking only at technology, especially if by that we mean consumer electronics in suburban context, is certainly too narrow a frame by which to understand our times. But the reverse is also true: trying to understand political and economic realities while ignoring the underlying technologies that shape those realities is likewise ill advised.

Technology, politics, and economics — not to mention all of the other complex social realities we too neatly compartmentalize by the very act of naming them — these are all recursively interrelated and entangled in fascinating ways and we do well resist the temptation to take refuge in explanations and understandings that refuse the complexity by unduly privileging one dimension of social reality over all others.

Froissart’s “Battle of Crecy”