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Knowledge is the central characteristic of the mental attribute of human consciousness which has assumed an increasingly dominant role during the last few hundreds years. Although we speak of the mental phase as being of very recent origin, it is evident that the mental component has been an active contributor to development since primitive societies developed agriculture and invented the wheel. What has changed very markedly is the relative contribution of this mental attribute, which is made visibly evident by the increasing speed of development in modern times. The knowledge that the mental component acquires and applies to further human progress has had a profound effect on all aspects of social life ranging from pure mental concepts to practical physical applications. The action of mind in four specific fields has had an especially powerful influence on the course of global development -- political thought, social organization, education, science and technology.
The development of philosophical thought and values expresses in social life as changing concepts about the purpose of life, the role and nature of human beings, and the relationship between the individual and the collective. This abstract and exalted field of mental speculation appears far removed from practical considerations. Yet it has been the source of the revolutionary thoughts and values that have radically transformed the political and social structure of civilization over the past five centuries, leading to the establishment of democratic principles and forms of governance as a global standard, if not quite yet a global practice. This movement can be traced back to the revival of humanistic thought, spread of education and secular values that arose during the Renaissance. It gained momentum with the spiritual empowerment of the individual by the Reformation, the birth of modern science, the affirmation of rationalistic ideals during the Enlightenment, and the declaration of human values by the American and French Revolutions. These movements have culminated during this century in the collapse of colonial empires following World War II and the rapid spread of democratic forms of government in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa over the past two decades. The tremendous release of individual energy and collective dynamism that accompanied the practical acceptance of these ideals has provided the impetus for momentous social accomplishments that until recently seemed inconceivable.
This transformation of the political organization of societies which has extended basic human rights at first to the middle class and eventually to the common man was mirrored by a parallel development of the social organization for education that was equally far-reaching and powerful in its impact. Education is the systematic organization of the cumulative knowledge and experience of humanity and the transmission of that knowledge to the next generation in a concentrated and abridged form. It is the central instrument for making the past discoveries and experience of humanity more and more conscious and accessible for application by society to meet the opportunities and challenges of the future. If the distribution of political power to the entire population was inconceivable to the pre-revolutionary aristocracy and common people of Europe, then the concept and practice of universal education prevalent today would have been absolutely unthinkable. The Renaissance and Reformation led to a revival of interest in education that, like science and philosophy, had been eclipsed in Europe during the Middle Ages. Prior to 1600, education was confined to a small population consisting mostly of Christian scholars and the nobility. Both Luther and Calvin believed that every individual should read the Bible and urged establishment of state educational systems. In the 17th Century education spread gradually but maintained a strong religious orientation. Leading thinkers of the Enlightenment stressed the importance of intellectual knowledge to the practical advancement of society and the importance of secular education. During the next century secularism and social progress began to prevail and for the first time advanced scientific and mathematical knowledge became a part of the school and university curriculum in Europe and North America. The growing recognition of the importance of education for social progress led to the extension of elementary education to the middle classes and prompted more states to assume responsibility for establishing and maintaining national school systems.
Over the last two hundred years, education has become one of the principle organizations in modern society. Since the end of World War II, it has come to be universally recognized as a principle instrument for national development, leading to a worldwide expansion of primary and secondary education along with a multiplication of colleges, universities and professional schools. At the same time, the breadth of the educational curriculum has been expanded and significantly reoriented to cover a great many areas of applied knowledge such as specialized fields in engineering, physical and biological sciences, business management, economics and most recently computer sciences. Education has awakened the mind of humanity to its innate potentials and to the enormous untapped opportunities in its external environment. This growing awareness has released infinite energy for mental creativity, social innovation and practical invention. It has raised the aspirations and expectations of people everywhere for the fruits of progress. It has equipped individuals with the mental knowledge and skills to fashion and manage more and more powerful and complex forms of social systems, and to design, manufacture and operate more and more powerful and complex forms of technology. It has created an unprecedented openness and tolerance, which are an essential basis for global development in the coming years.
Mind applying itself to the field of thought creates new concepts and more powerful ideals. Applying itself to the field of society, it creates new and improved social organizations. Applying itself to the field of matter, it discovers the physical laws of nature and creates new technologies and inventions. The application of mind’s creative powers to the field of science, technology and practical invention has had an enormous impact on social progress during the last two centuries. History reveals a slow and uneven advance in applied scientific knowledge and technology. There have been periods of great inventiveness and great discoveries in the distant past, followed by periods of stagnation. But nothing can equal in sheer numbers and significance the explosion of human invention that has occurred since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. A classic study by Lilly found that the relative rate of inventiveness rose seven-fold between 1700 and 1900 to reach a level at least ten times higher than had been achieved during earlier millennia.
A number of specific factors have contributed to this accelerating rate of inventiveness, but the essential cause has been the emergence of the mental principle as the spearhead of social development. Its energies released by politically awakening and social freedoms, its thought liberated from blind submission to tradition and refined by education, the power of mind has applied itself to transform the social and material life of humanity. Superstitious beliefs and religious dogma characteristic of the physical stage have been powerful deterrents to fresh thinking and innovation during much of human history. In the Middle Ages in Europe, inventions that seemed a little too clever or unusual were frequently condemned as satanic and their inventors persecuted. Thus, Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was rejected as inconsistent with the scriptures and remained unpublished during his lifetime. Churchmen condemned Galileo’s refracting telescope as an instrument of the devil. After he openly endorsed Copernicanism, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for ‘vehement suspicion of heresy’. The movement of rationalist thought ushered in by the Enlightenment reduced the inhibiting influence of superstition and religious dogma and cleared the way for the emergence of the experimental sciences.
There is a common tendency to view technology as a thing apart and to explain the developmental achievements of the last 200 years exclusively or primarily in technological terms. This view is inadequate because it attempts to isolate advances in technology from the general advance of knowledge and social organization characteristic of the mental stage of development. In earlier periods, scientific investigation and technological innovation were carried out as isolated activities without the support of the social organization. Prior to the 15th Century, there were no reliable mechanisms for the recording, preservation and dissemination of inventions, so most discoveries were applied only locally and a great many were lost altogether. Individual inventors adapted and improved mechanisms for specific applications, but in most cases their innovations were never transmitted to others or standardized for widespread use. The technological developments of the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without the organization of scientific knowledge and the establishment of scientific associations throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th Century. The publication of scientific journals aided the conservation and organization of society’s technical knowledge. Until legal protection for patents was introduced at the end of the 18th Century, inventors had no way of knowing about similar inventions and no way to stake an economic right to their discoveries, except by keeping them secret. In France exclusive rights to an invention were protected by letters of patent granted only by royal authority and records were kept in a single central location inaccessible to all but a few.
Technology is knowledge of matter organized and applied through a practical organization. The widespread application of technology during and after the Industrial Revolution depended on the development of several other types of social organization. The organization of agriculture by enclosure of common lands in England generated surplus farm incomes, freed people to migrate to the towns, and fueled rapid population growth, which resulted in an increased market for manufactured goods and made mechanization feasible. The organization of urban commercial centers, transport and foreign trade created demand for larger volumes of production than could be readily produced by human labor. Poor roads in 17th Century Europe retarded industrial invention. There was little incentive to increase production so long as expansion of the market was severely hindered by poor transportation. The development of sea trade routes during the 18th Century opened a much wider market for manufactured products, stimulating a new outburst of invention. The organization of mass production according to the principles of division and specialization of labor made the adaptation of mechanized technology practical. The organization of education equipped the society with the skills necessary to design, manufacture and utilize an endless stream of more complex and sophisticated inventions. Technology developed as an integrated part of the evolving fabric of the social organization.
The tendency to attribute invention to independent individual creativity ignores the cumulative process of discovery and innovation that builds incrementally on past accomplishments as well as the vast system of social organization that actively supports, propagates and applies the discoveries and innovations of the individual over a wide territory. Individual invention depends on and is an expression of the society’s unconscious preparedness and collective aspiration for higher accomplishment. At each stage it has to confront and overcome social resistance to further advancement. In medieval Europe the guilds imposed severe limits on new invention. The advance of medical technologies was very slow in Europe until new scientific associations persuaded physicians to disclose their successful remedies, which were previously kept secret. When Denis Papin demonstrated the first steam driven water pump and paddle wheel ship at the beginning of the 18th Century, German authorities fearing the spread of unemployment discouraged the application of mechanized power. When John Kay developed a flying shuttle textile loom, he was denounced and physically threatened by English weavers fearing loss of their jobs and forced to flee to France where his invention was adopted by the government. When the first Jacquard loom was installed in Lyons, French silk weavers smashed it to pieces. The mechanization of agriculture in the 1890s provoked similar fears throughout rural America. The application of biotechnology for genetic engineering and the rapid spread of computers today raise widespread anxiety. However justified or fanciful the social resistance to invention may appear at the time or in retrospect, these instances underline the obvious fact that technological advancement occurs as an integral and inseparable part of the wider process of social development described in this paper. The more receptive and supportive the social organization is to technical innovation, the more of it occurs and is applied practically.
- ↑ This view is supported by the work of the Chicago school of sociology which early in this century propounded a social interpretation of invention, in which inventions are socially-determined processes whose content, timing and direction are to explained by the same sort of widespread and slow-changing influences which determine, say, population trends. This view draws support from evidence that many inventions have been made independently and simultaneously as reported by W. F. Ogburn and D. S. Thomas in ‘Are Inventions Inevitable?’, Political Science Quarterly, XXXVII (March 1922). See discussion in Economic Growth in History by J. D. Gould, published in the 1970s by Methuen & Co, London, p.