Technology Grows On Trees

The question should not be, “Had Edison never lived, would we have had an incandescent light bulb?” but rather, “Had the Western world never discovered electricity, would non-Western cultures eventually have developed the incandescent light bulb?” My answer to this question is basically negative. Western knowledge of nature was neither “better” nor “deeper” than the beliefs of the Chinese, Africans, or Aztecs. It just happened to be the kind of knowledge that led to the emergence of light bulbs.
–Joel Mokyr, “King Kong and Cold Fusion: Counterfactual Analysis & the History of Technology”

Like just about everybody else in the humanities wing of the ivory tower, I’m grading papers this month and not exactly loving it. You’d think somebody who can go on at such length about writing pedagogy wouldn’t find the actual doing it such a drag. I did have one assignment this term that was a pleasure to grade: in our course on Science, Technology, and Global History, Bill Turkel and I had the students critique, and suggest alternatives to, the Civilization technology tree.

In Sid Meier’s Civilization and many other simulation games, “tech trees” are used to represent possible pathways of technological change. You may start the game with no knowledge of writing, but once you “invent” writing you can then work towards inventing map-making, or literacy, or a code of laws. The game uses the term technology pretty loosely–communism, meditation, and literature are all “technologies” in the most recent edition–but then so do historians of technology. The branching paths of technological possibility are all represented as a tree. CHNM’s Trevor Owens had a nice post last month, from which I stole this post’s title, about how historians and sociologists of science might profit by playing with these models.

Civ has been a motif in our course: we used images from the game in our posters advertising the class, screen-shots have turned up in our lecture slides, and I’ve turned to the game from time to time in order to abstract examples about the interaction of science, technology, and history. (Here are my thoughts on teaching with Civ from a year or two ago, and on a course about gaming and simulation.) In my first lecture this term, we talked explicitly about the tech tree and its underlying assumptions about determinism, contingency, and technological change. Here are the slides for them that care, with the caveat that they are designed not to substitute for attendance at the lecture. (Keen-eyed geeks: yes, that is Ming-3 from GURPS Alternate Earths, and yes, that is Fu Manchu’s awesome kite-borne army from the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

The Civ tech tree offered a nice way to talk about the “Needham Question“–crudely put, why didn’t China beat England to the industrial revolution? (I thank Jon Dresner for berating Bill & I about the low China content in an early draft of the syllabus. The course is still not quite as global as we want it to be, but the Needham Question and its shortcomings became a really key theme of the modern half.) It’s easy to play a game of Civilization in which China industrializes first. It’s much harder to play a game in which nobody industrializes on the European model, and it’s impossible to play a game in which technological progress veers onto an altogether different path. The Civ tech tree offers a range of choices but is basically linear in the end, and the fact that you really need certain technologies to win the game makes it more linear still.

So after that lecture, we asked the students to come up with alternatives to the tech tree and to explain what their alternate models suggest about history and the process of scientific or technological change. The point wasn’t to come up with the “right” model, as if there is such a thing, but to imagine and explore different ways of thinking about determinism and contingency. Are future scientific discoveries lying around “out there” waiting to be invented, or do we create them only in the process of discovery?

I was happy with the assignments we got back. The students really went to town with multicolored diagrams and the like, and they had some great ideas: tech wheels, tech matrices, tech gumbo, and more. One of my favorite ideas was a riff on Katamari Damancy, that surreal “could it be any more Japanese?” game where you roll around a highly adhesive ball that grows as it picks up the things you roll over. The student’s idea was a rolling tech wheel. The spokes of the wheel represented paths of technological development you could pursue–navigation, metalworking, what have you–but you also had to adapt to technological contingencies in the form of the various things you rolled over. I’m not sure how this would actually work as a game, but as a crazy Katamari bricolage view of human history, it’s fun to wrap your head around.

Another great idea, perhaps more workable, gave players the ability to discover not only technologies but also the connections between technologies or areas of knowledge. So instead of the game presuming that electricity always leads to radio or steam power to the railroad, the player could choose what to link electricity too. Maybe electricity is connected to flight: presto, electric airships. Maybe electricity is connected to medicine: build enough links and electrical medicine becomes a physical fact of your alternate game world. Hold on, you might be saying. Is that how scientific progress really works? Well, I don’t know. But you can see how that’s a rich question for a course like ours to tackle.

If the tech tree assignment didn’t grab our students, they also had the option of suggesting an alternative to the current disciplinary structure of the university, and explaining what that model said about the underlying organization of human knowledge. Those were interesting too, but I didn’t do as good a job of setting up expectations, and so I got a lot of suggestions along the lines of “professors should answer student emails more promptly.” True enough, probably, but not quite so much food for thought.


  1. Considering to choose what to link electricity to[o], that is scientific progress. China probably has had a guy fly a key up a kite, but he was either driven out of the village for being a witch doctor or demon, or everyone was too zoned out on opium to care to listen to his discovery. Think how many Mozarts, Edisons, Sterlings, Faradays ‘n’ Rutherfords have been passed over because they lived their whole life on a farm, not being in the right place at the right time. Also, science has been around a long time, but engineering has only been a profession for a little more than a century. The applied scientist needs to be around honing his whole putting stuff together thing when the scientist knocks on his door and seeds the eventual invention with the discovery. And answer your student emails more promptly, what could be more important?

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  6. Hi Professor McDougall,

    I tracked back to your site from the comment you left on the G&M.

    I’m an undergraduate history student at UWO, but I never knew you or your class existed! I really wish I had had the chance to take your class before I graduate in June. I would have really enjoyed redoing the Civ tech-tree.

    Playing Civilization 1, asking questions like “what’s that unit? what’s that city? whats that civilization?” and then researching the answers is what got me hooked on history in the first place.

    Keep up the good work!

  7. Hi Scott: Thanks for the nice words. Sorry we didn’t get a chance to have you in History 1805 – it was a brand new course offered for the first time this year. You must have been pretty young when you were playing Civ 1, but I’m glad it got you hooked on history. Congratulations on your graduation.

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  9. We had a similar discussion about teleology at York University. Some of the best answers to the Civ. tech tree problem I have seen came from an internet discussion forum. They suggested that technologies such as steel refining could be used to give boosts to existing developments, such as wooden sailing ships, by increasing their armour. So, even if you haven’t discovered steam propulsion, discovering steel refining gives your wooden sailing ships +15% armour or something, to reflect steel armour belts. [Or you could have steel sailing vessels.]

    So it’s a more flexible and subtle tech tree. Your military units and civilian technologies benefit from advancements, but you don’t get whole new classes (like steamship / train) until you support research in that direction.

    Also, I figured it could lead to the possibility of space missions with only rocket tech (and no radio/television), since you could launch dangerous space missions in that manner with a higher change of failure.

    Or just skip chemical rockets completely, and launch a nuclear rocket!

    Of course, as your technology base develops, radio and similar technologies become much cheaper to develop anyway, so it becomes sort of redundant. But I suppose that the order of discoveries, and your research priority, could still matter.

    One problem is that Civ military units needs to be more flexible. Instead of a machine gunner equalling 2/6/1, maybe you could have general infantry units that gain defensive bonuses once machine guns are developed.

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