Welcome to episode 280 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me, is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Our special guest this week is, Dr. Carie Little Hersh, an American cultural anthropologist, teaching professor in anthropology at Northeastern University, and producer and host of the podcast, Anthropologist on the Street. Carie, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
Today, we’ll be discussing human creativity, and technology through time, from an anthropological perspective. Dirk, why don’t you kick us off with some questions that we have for Carie today?
So Carie, which came first, humans, or technology?
Definitely the technology, by a few million years. Stone tools, if you want to think about those as one of the original forms of technology, of which we have an archeological record, date back at least to 3.3 million years. To put that into perspective, modern homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years.
So, that goes well beyond even homo erectus, and the earlier species under the genus homo, back to Australopithecus, which was a very ape-like human ancestor. It’s not surprising, because other apes use technology as well. You can watch chimpanzees using sticks, to dig down into any hills, to gather food.
There’s probably an enormous amount of technology that just didn’t survive the years, so it’s very challenging for example, to find nets, and traps that were made out of vines, and ropes, and soft materials, because they would have decayed.
Yeah, yeah. That makes sense. So, you mentioned a lot of different species in there that, as a layman, I’m just nodding, but I can’t keep track of them all. So, what is the relationship between homo sapiens, and the species who came before us, or those such as neanderthals, with whom we competed? Considering this more multi-faceted world about and around us, what is the larger anthropological context for humanity?
So, it’s such an important question, and it’s a really interesting one right now, because just about every other month, something new has been discovered in the last 10 or 15 years.
What we thought, when I was back in college, 20, 25 years ago, what I learned is completely out of date. So, with every new discovery, we have to sometimes even create new species, or sub-species, or families, slot them in different places.
Australopithecus overall, was the genus that was the half way point between our ape ancestor, and modern humans, and some of the distinguishing features with Australopithecus is, that they were upright. So, they walked upright, as opposed to being the kind of gorilla, knuckle dragging posture that we associate with great apes.
Are they the first species to be walking upright, the Australopithecus? Is that right?
Yes, it’s a genus that includes a lot of species underneath it, but it is one of the features of it rather early on was, this transition from a more ape-like posture, to what we would associate with modern upright humans.
I see, so are we too Australopithecus, do we fall under that?
So, we are part of the genus homo, which began about two million years ago, and you can … And again, it’s a little bit hard to find these explicit transitions. We have spotty archeological records. We find bones, and skulls, and femurs here and there, spread across Africa, and parts of Asia.
One of the interesting things is, you see this development a little bit after two million years ago, maybe 1.8 million years ago, a new advancement in the type of stone technology that you find. It somewhat corresponds to the development of bigger brains.
The homo genus, which includes homo habilis, and homo erectus, and now homo sapien, and neanderthal is actually even more closely related to us than homo erectus, and homo habilis, because it’s a sort of sub-species. So, we are homo sapiens sapiens. They’re homo sapien neanderthal.
But those, the homo genus is where you start seeing the development of much larger brains, and much more advanced, and complex stone tool technology.
And what is the evolution, when you say stone tool technology? What were the earliest stone tools, as far as our awareness goes, and what would represent a more advanced stone tool, and why?
So, this is definitely not my area of study. There are physical anthropologists who could report on this so much better, but I can do my best.
Which is, just that when you look at the Oldowan stone tool technology, which started more than three million years ago, and stretched for more than eight million years-
Stretched for how many years?
About maybe 1.5 million that we’ve found so far.
The stone is chipped away in a more rudimentary fashion. When you get to the Acheulean, I believe is how you pronounce it, which is about 1.8 million years ago, that’s where you might see more deliberately flaked, double edged hatchets, and arrowheads, and things along those lines. Again, this isn’t … I am a cultural anthropologist.
I understand, I understand. So, with that caveat, and I don’t mean to push you too far out of your comfort level-
… but, is it almost more design sophistication is what is marking the more advanced tools? As I’m trying to interpret the specifics of what you said, it sounds like it’s refinements, as opposed to entirely new tool sets, for it.
Yes, it is refinements, but it also shows a different approach to the development of technology, and I think that’s what’s really fascinating to biological, and physical anthropologists is, it’s associated with higher level motor planning, and holding in mind, multisensory information, like working memory. So, you have to do many more steps, to get to the stone tool, than you would the more rudimentary design.
There’s a great article if you’re interested in anthropology, the Sapiens Magazine is something that covers all the sub-fields of anthropology. They do culture, linguistic, biological, and archeological, and they’ve got a couple great articles in there about stone tools, that talk about this history.
So, what I think I’m hearing then is, that it’s as our brains got bigger, as our mental potential increased correspondingly, the sophistication of the tools increased. Is that fair?
Yes, yes, I think that, that is what … That’s the link that physical anthropologists are making there, with that development, that there is something in the structure of the brain, that allowed for higher level thinking, and strategizing, and that becomes reflected in the types of technology that you begin seeing.
Technology since let’s say … Again somebody who is an expert would probably have better chalk lines to draw, but from my perspective, since the 1950s, we’ve seen an explosion in technology, and in scientific research, and discovery. Our brains, as far as I know, have not evolved, and changed that much in the last 70 years. So, if in the early periods of technology, there was a clear relationship between brain evolution, and more sophisticated technological development, is there a prevailing theory, or notion why over the last 70 years, there’s been an explosion of technology? More has been done in that period, than in millions of years beforehand. Are there reasons why, from an anthropologist’s perspective, that you would …?
Well, it’s an interesting question, because I think that one thing that has driven human technology is, situation, and need. There is an incredible sophistication of technology around the world, depending on the ecosystem in which you live, but there are a few factors that anthropologists might zoom out, to assess to answer this question.
So one is that, when you think about the enormous plasticity of human culture, and human design, you see it in art, you see it in language, but you also see it in family structures, and you see it in the way that we keep ourselves alive. We gather food. We store food.
For most of our human development, we were hunters and gatherers.
There was pastoralism developed at some point as well, and in the recent few, 10000 years ago, or tens of thousands of years ago, but it wasn’t until 10000 years ago, that you see large scale agriculture.
It wasn’t until less than 200 years ago, that you begin seeing a transition to industrial agriculture.
So, if you have ecological systems shifting, that does a lot of different things. One thing it does is, it changes what you need to stay alive. We find that there’s quite a bit of commonality, depending on the adaptive strategy. There’s only so many ways you can fish, for example.
So, you can look at fishing communities around the world, and there’s a handful of types of technologies that they might implement, to address that. But, if you have fishing in the arctic circle, there might be modifications that need to be made. The thing with transitioning from hunting and gathering, to agriculture, and particularly complex agriculture, is not only did you have to have new tools for gathering food, you also had to have new architectural tools, because suddenly, you weren’t moving around, constantly following your prey.
You needed to have long-term technologies like clay, brick making, wood structures, things that would last through time, because you had to store your grain, you had to live for long periods of time in one place, and weather the weather, as it were.
But, it also had a huge impact socially. So, moving from hunting and gathering, and pastoralism, where you have small groups of community members, who work in relatively egalitarian ways, to stay alive, everyone is involved in food production, in some way or another.
Then, you shift to agriculture, and suddenly, you find people who have nothing to do with food production, like leaders.
Like priests, scribes, full-time artists, educators, and all of these podcasters, right? All of these different people, who don’t find their own food.
They just go to the farmers, and they pay for it, or they trade for it in some way or another.
So, with the industrial revolution, you go from what was previously simple, or even large scale agriculture, which its own large scale groups, and … Oh, and I forgot to mention also that, with that trade specialization, you get incredible social stratification. So, if you can control the food, then you can control the people.
So, you have some people who might have an enormous amount of free time, an enormous amount of wealth, and then everybody else is just working like a dog, to keep the society alive.
Yeah, welcome to capitalism, right?
Well, and that’s the economic system that isn’t the necessary default, but it happens to be the one that we’re partnered with today, which one might argue exacerbates social stratification.
Whereas, you find socialism balances it out. Capitalism exacerbates the divides in the society.
So, with the industrial revolution, you do have this burst of technology, and perhaps, some of that is related to these larger politics, politics of enclosing the land, and creating cities.
There was a great urbanization several hundred years ago. The way that the land is being used shifts, the way that people start relating to each other shifts. With capitalism, you now have people not laboring to eat, or laboring for their king, but rather laboring for cash.
So, all of these different things shifted, to provide this context, which set the stage for new technologies to develop, new ways of life to manifest.
What are the best theories on technologies that develop independently in different parts of the world, around the same time? So, if I think of something like paper, there’s paper-like things that developed in ish the same time in the Americas, in China, in Europe. Is it aliens? Right? It’s not aliens, but its weird.
It’s never aliens, but it’s strange, isn’t it? To me as a layman, it’s odd.
It’s like wow. How …? They’re not trading. They’re not communicating, and yet, and yet.
Yeah, well you know, that question I think, is fascinating to me as well.
I’m not sure we have a clear answer that would be satisfying scientifically.
Just satisfy me, not the scientists. My burden of proof is lower, you know?
I think that as we’re mapping people’s genetic profiles, and the profiles of skeletons, people show up in the weirdest places, and archeologically too, you find references to Allah on viking belts. So, there’s ways in which news is traveling, and we can’t … because it is happening orally, or it’s happening in ways that we’re not able to find easily, we might be missing how that trade is happening. We can’t document every movement.
That’s fair. I can buy that. How about the Americas, right? The Americas seem geographically isolated, right?
Yeah, but they weren’t, because you had lots of interaction in the northeast with the Norse, and with Viking travelers. We have the famous story of Leif Erikson, right?
But, you also have lots of interaction from the South Pacific, coming to South America. You have the Ainu people-
Oh, interesting, interesting.
… descendants coming up and around what was probably the kelp highway, before the Bering Strait even existed. There is a way you can travel in very small boats, and live off of fish and kelp.
I had no idea. This is very interesting. Yeah, yeah.
So, you can trace up the line of the Asian coast around, down through what is now the Pacific Northwest. So, the entire story of how the Americas was populated has changed again, since I was a kid, right? I learned the traditional Bering Strait story, where it opened up 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, and people came in, and they slowly moved across the land. But then, you find 30,000 year old skeletons in parts of South America, and you can’t explain that through any other way, except exceptional sailing, or flying, which I don’t think we have any evidence of whatsoever, so it has to be the boats.
There’s so much you’re talking about that’s just new to me, and cool. I love to learn, so I’m actually really … I’m losing my thread on the questions a little bit, in my just excitement and exuberance over the information.
You know, you put your finger on the notion of food and agriculture, and the chalk line of 8,000 BC, the agricultural revolution. I think of the industrial revolution as the industrial revolution. Your framing of it in agriculture is very interesting to me as a nuance that I’m gonna do something with, but beyond that, are there other anthropological patterns for the progression of technology?
That is a really tough question. I think there were always those who look for universal mental approaches to things. That might be one of the things I was reflecting on, when I said that if you have a similar adaptive strategy. So, if you’re focused on hunting and gathering as your form of keeping yourself alive, the human brain has some core structures were we tackle problems similarly.
So, it’s not surprising that we have javelins and spears and things, popping up in various places around the world.
Because, how many ways are there to kill large mammals?
There are lot of different strategies, but we tend to approach problems somewhat similarly. So, that’s another aspect to the development of something like paper, where if you have complex cultures, and you have a lot of time to kill, and a lot of wealth, and you want to record your power, and your prowess, you can carve it in stone, but maybe there’s another way we can get this, so that we can transport it outside of the city.
So, that kind of strategizing, there might be some cognitive elements that are structurally similar, but the plasticity of human choice, and behavior, and creativity over that, is pretty remarkable. That’s why you find paper made out of hundreds of different things, and that’s why you find technologies in thousands of different forms, you know?
But, why was creation and technology seen as the work of the gods? Its a pretty modern notion that, humans claim technology as their own. Humans were just revealing what on high, had already been done. What’s the reason for that transference?
Well, what’s funny is, my research was done with religious communities, so I would flip it around, and say, “At what point did we get so cocky, we thought we were the ones who were coming up with this stuff?” So, if you think about the human ego, there have always been these leveling mechanisms in societies that had to work very closely together, to prevent people from getting too egotistical.
There’s a great article that was used in intro anthropology classes everywhere, by Richard Lee, anthropology Richard Lee, who wrote “Christmas in the Kalahari” He talks about going to live in the Kalahari, with the !Kung San, and he’s in his own little hut, with his store of canned foods, and he’s studying this hunter gatherer community, and essentially is there by their whim, by their grace, and they have …
He decides at the end of the year, to throw this big Christmas feast as a thank you to them, and he has a big ox slaughtered, and distributed to everybody. They give him so much trouble, it’s like a string of yo mama jokes, about how skinny this ox is, and how horrible it tastes, and he gets so upset. Then, he realizes that for the first time, they’re treating him like an insider.
Because the whole time, he kept himself outside of the community, and he goes inside-
Yeah, but the emic versus the etic.
So, he’s for the first time, he’s being treated like an insider, and if somebody gets too cocky about their kill, they instantly get shot down, because you can’t have big egos in small groups.
So, there’s that aspect of it that, taking credit for our own creativity might be a relatively new phenomenon. Certainly, when you get complex agriculture, and you get kings, and they’re claiming that they are the gods, and that they are the embodiment of this creativity, perhaps that’s the beginning of claiming that you’re not just a divine vessel.
Clearly pharaohs thought that they were gods themselves, and wanted to be treated as such, so it’s a short step perhaps, from claiming to be a god, to just cutting out the middle man, and …
Yeah, there was an evolution where in the classical world, only poetry was imbued to human spark, right? To our own creation, and it was in the renaissance that, that … It was poetry in the classical period. In the Middle Ages, it became nobody again. It was back to God. Then in the renaissance of course, it exploded, and it became ours in a very broad way, which has only in 19th century, expanded to science, and onward. It’s interesting to hear you flip it back on its head.
Well, the enlightenment … many things came out of the enlightenment, but it’s also important to recognize that, that’s a very particular cultural, and historical phenomenon that wasn’t a universal one.
It just seems universal because, they then became the colonizers of the rest of the world, and the globalizers of the rest of the world.
So, the ideas of independence, and free will, and free thought, and equality, all of that came from a particular group of people that, that also corresponded I think, with the rise of skepticism, challenging that not just the power of the church, but the teachings of the church as well.
Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. What is the relationship between technology, and creativity, from your perspective?
I think it’s just one of many ways, in which humans are unbelievably creative. I tend to see humans as these giant venn diagram.
Where, you have all of these different aspects of society and culture, impacting who you are, and how you’re behaving. So, there’s your economic system, as we’ve talked about, your ecological system. There’s your family, your kinship system, and whatever you’re talking about, gender, or the way ethnicity, or religion, or politics, how those things are structured for you, you go some place else, or you go to a different period of time, and they’re entirely different.
The range of what it means to be a human is near infinite. It’s phenomenal as an anthropologist, to be able to look around the world, and it just explodes your categories of how you think humans are, and should be.
So, creativity in technology is in some ways, not surprising. Just look at the way we are with the way we organize families. We have patrilineages, matrilineages, we have people living with multiple husbands, and people living with multiple wives. We have polyamory.
We have multiple partners, so there’s so many ways in which we organization ourselves, it’s not surprising that technology is just one more way of being creative.
Social scientists, such as Steven Pinker, write about the living conditions for the average human being, being better than ever before in human history, and still continuing to get better. What’s your take on this, and/or, how can this be explained from an anthropological perspective?
So, I think my first response to that is, that the view looks excellent from the top. I think that, that is a statement that can only be made by somebody who is sitting in the wealthiest, safest, longest living part of a wealthy society. Because, anthropologists do tend to look around the world, and to look carefully at systems of power, I would say that it is a wonderful eutopic vision, to say that we live in this amazing time, with all this amazing technology. But, in practicality, the benefits of that aren’t trickling down. The benefits of that type of success are being captured at the top, and they are being preserved at the top, so it’s …
To put it into perspective, I think to be in the top 1% globally, you have to make $35000 a year. So, even lower middle class families in the United States are upper class.
So, being surrounded as we are in the US, we see the potential for this technology, but there’s so much that’s hidden from us through globalization, whether it’s economic disparities, or what we might call human rights violations, ways in which certain groups are being systemically kept down, in order to maintain our systems of wealth.
That means that those technologies that … Because, I’m a huge Star Trek fan, right?
The idea of technology saving us really warms the cockles of my heart.
But, in real life, we are gonna have to address the wealth disparities, and the ways in which power is not dispersed at the bottom, or even the middle, in order for people to access it.
Those are all true and good points. Acknowledging all of that, are things better for people …
I don’t think you can say that they … Well, how should I put this? They are really, really good for some. They are worse for others.
Worse than they were in the past?
And you can look at that … I mentioned for most of our evolutionary heritage, we were hunters and gatherers, and our biology still reflects that. So, if you think about the people who are the wealthiest, they generally have the best diet. They can eat anything from all over the world, because it’s just shipped to their grocery store. They can buy it, and prepare it, and not even think about it.
But, for people in areas where their culture has been destroyed through colonialism, or is being pulled apart through the forces of globalization, the ways in which they fed themselves traditionally, are gone, and the foods that are replacing that incredibly varied diet of wild food, are really incomplete, nutritionally.
So, a lot of places in Africa for example, or what come to mind as I hear you …
Not exclusively that, but that’s what I’m thinking about, as I-
Yeah, Africa, but also Native American reservations, Latin American areas, Southeast Asia, wherever you had people who were subsisting on wild roots, and berries, and fish, and caribou, or whatever, elk, then you switch that to a diet that’s mostly wheat, or mostly corn, then you have that problem.
But, it’s much more of just a problem of diet, because you also have people who through the forces of colonialism, and globalization, their autonomy has been stripped. Their ability to make decisions about what’s best for their communities was actively taken away, and as part of colonialism, it wasn’t enough just to say, “Okay, now you do what we tell you.” It’s now, you dress the way we tell you, now you worship the gods we tell you to worship, now you speak the languages that we speak, now we’re gonna take your children away from you, and we’re gonna educate them in our style, and then just set them free in the cities, to try to survive.
So, if you think about hunters and gatherers, it seems very primitive. Life is very short. Things are very hard, but at the same time, even modern day hunter gatherers have an exceptional diet. They get tons of exercise. They don’t have the problems that modern Americans have. They don’t have obesity, and diabetes and heart disease in the same numbers, and maybe they don’t live as long, but if they can make it to 15 or 20 years of age, they have an excellent change of making it past 40. Compare that with peasant farmers in simple agricultural states, or in impoverished areas, and their health, and their life, and their mental health is gonna be a lot better.
So, what’s the net out? Is the world better, or worse?
Yes. Again, I think we always go to the local. We always go to it depends on where you’re asking.
Okay, okay, it depends on where you’re asking.
Yeah, it depends on what you’re looking at.
And if you were averaging it, is there …?
You know, for every gain we’ve made, we’ve created a new problem. Global warming clearly wasn’t an issue when we were hunter gatherers, and pastoralists.
But, we’ve cured smallpox, so we’ve annihilated smallpox, so that’s a win.
And one thing required the other, right? We don’t eliminate smallpox without many of the underlying things that have resulted in global warming, right?
There’s this weird relationship between the gains and the losses.
It is, and smallpox may not have been the plague it would have been, if we hadn’t developed cities, and that had poor sanitation.
As opposed to constantly moving in small groups. So, I think that there’s … I always want to be careful of the hubris that it gets embedded in the statements, like we have it so good now.
Because, we do, without question, we have some remarkable elements to our society, but we’ve caused so many problems for ourselves, that we’re constantly trying to fix, whether with new medications, or people eating Paleo diets, right? Talk about going back to your roots.
So, we have a lot of environmental, and health consequences that come from our choices, or not choices, but the way that our societies have developed, and not all societies have the same problems, and they don’t have all the same gains. So, it would be really useful to look around, and see where these problems come from, and what other solutions might be.
You know, from your anthropological perspective, what is your take on the future, where we’re headed, just as the way we’re going, and additionally, how would you change things, to put us on what you would consider an ideal trajectory for humanity?
Well, we tend to as anthropologists, be a little bit allergic to grand sweeping narratives. We mostly like taking pot shots at those, so it’s hard to have a strong sense of what the future holds. I think we can see trends, and we can see not just how things are moving, but what kinds of resistances are growing, and what kinds of creative ways people are taking technologies, and running with them.
So, I don’t really have an answer for where we’re going, but I would hope that we could take more of an anthropological perspective, because I think when we get too insular in our own lives, we tend to extrapolate from there, and think that our problems are universal problems, our ways of thinking about things, and doing things are universal ways, and they’re simply not. There’s nothing acultural about us. There’s nothing acultural about science.
So, I would love to see more anthropology at every level, in terms of learning from one another, and really, one of the best quotes I heard about understanding what anthropology does is, it’s like trying to make the fish see the water. So, you’re trying to see all of these institutions, and values, and ideational systems, and all of these meanings that we swim around in, but we don’t perceive.
So, if you can stop and do that, not only would you maybe come up with some really interesting solutions to problems, but you might find that the way that other people do things has value too.
Yeah, that’s cool. Are there any technologies or advances, that are here, or are coming that you’re aware of, that you’re excited about, as an anthropologist, to make people’s lives better?
There are a lot, in a lot of different realms. I’m pretty keen on the internet. I think that’s a neat thing. It has, like every technology, it has the ability to destroy and create, right?
So, you have hate groups, and all sorts of horrible things happening on the internet, but it also can connect people in new ways. It allows us to communicate with each other, and learn across vast distances, talk to people we would never otherwise interact with. I think that’s pretty phenomenal. That’s the ultimate anthropology, is being able to increase communication around the world.
Now, getting people to understand one another, is an entirely different ball of wax.
So, we have the technology but again, it’s not in a vacuum, so we need to follow up with some interest, some curiosity, and some empathy, and understanding, but I think with every … with internet, with faster communication, we also have the ability to share problems, and potential technologies.
We talked very briefly in my intro anthropology class, about where we’re gonna go next, in terms of our human ecology. We’ve gotten industrialism, and that’s been messy, right?
And problematic, in terms of eating too many processed foods, and destroying our ecosystem to some extent. And yet, now you have IKEA offering open sourced plans, to make this garden that’s basically a sphere, that’s like a hydroponic garden. You can download these plans, and make it in your village, and you can feed your entire village using this one little technological plan.
I’m just fascinated by that. The keys to our destruction, and our salvation are in the same place.
Yeah. That’s a great insight. Carie, this has been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for being on.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a great conversation.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we are mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one ‘L’ in thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We have included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter, @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare, and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk …
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, and thanks so much for listening. Carie, how about you?
You can find me on anthropologistonthestreet.com, or through my blog relevanth.com. I’m also on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Find me, and follow along.
Excellent. We’ll be sure to do that. So, that’s it for episode 280 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.