Oct 21 2021

Drivers of Military Technology

There are different ways of looking at history. The traditional way, the one most of us were likely taught in school, is mostly as a sequence of events focusing on the state level – world leaders, their political battles, and their wars with each other. This focus, however, can be shifted in many ways. It can be shifted horizontally to focus on different aspects of history, such as cultural or scientific. It can also zoom in or out to different levels of detail. I find especially fascinating those takes on history that zoom all the way out, take the biggest perspective possible and look for general trends.

A recent study does just that, looking at societal factors that drive the development of military technology in pre-industrial societies, covering a span of 10,000 years. They chose military technology for two main reasons. The first is simply convenience – military technology is particularly well preserved in historical records. The second is that military technology is a good marker for overall technology in most societies, and tends to drive other technologies. This remains true today, as cutting edge military technology (think GPS) often trickles down to the civilian world.

As an interesting aside, the researchers relied on Seshat: Global History Databank. This is a massive databank of 200,000 entries on 500 societies over 10,000 years. This kind of data is necessary to do this level of research efficiently, and is a good demonstration of this more general trend in scientific research – in increasing areas of research, it’s all about big data.

The researchers set out to test various hypotheses about what drives military technology, and technology in general, in different societies. They found several main predictors of advancing military technology. The first is global population size, with increasing size predicting greater military advancement. However, overall population size needs to be combined with interconnectedness. Isolated societies are not affected by global population, but those with roads and geographic connections to other states are. Interestingly, the population size of an individual state was not a predictor of military advancement, only global population.

The other main predictor is the availability of key technologies. For example, the development of the bit and bridle enabled greater control of horses. This one advance had tremendous reverberations throughout societies with the technology. It allowed for a host of military advancement, such as mounted knights or archers. This in turn lead to the development of greater fortifications, and then technology to overcome those fortifications. This sequence highlights how the “arms race” factor powerfully drives technology – one change leads to a long sequence of advances and counter-advances, with ripple effects even through non-military technology.

Matallurgy is another key technology. Metals have many non-military technological uses, but significant advances in metallurgy were game-changers for military technology. Military use then lead to further advances in metallurgy, and the development of economic infrastructures to support metal-based industries, again with significant trickle-down effects to all of society.

These key technologies, such as bit and bridle and iron metallurgy, allowed for the rise of mega-empires, which in turn fostered the creation of major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism) as these mega-empires spread their cultures far and wide.

Also interesting are those factors which were not predictive at all. I already mentioned state-level population size, but also territorial size played no role. Perhaps most interesting, the complexity of governance was not a predictive factor either. This last realization, to some extent, puts a very different perspective on the traditional state-level view of history. We tend to think of history as being driven by individual decisions by individual powerful people, or by quirky events (the storm that sunk the Spanish Armada, for example). And of course, this is true to some extent. But the details most just affect the details, meaning that they only affect things like the name of the monarch, and which flag flies over a certain territory. They may not have as much of an effect over the broad trends in history as we assume.

In the end, larger historical factors are going to override these smaller details, and we’re going to end up in the same place, except perhaps with different names and different flags. This is probably true if you take a long enough view of history. Are the decisions we make today really going to have a significant effect on what the world looks like in 1,000 years, or 10,000 years? Probably not, if you don’t care about the small details, like which language people are speaking. Of course, humans are tribal, so we do care about those details.

Perhaps the most challenging time scale is the medium scale. For example, the 20th and probably 21st century feature a clash among fascism, communism, and liberal democracy. It’s hard to imagine that this does not matter (at least in the medium term, such as a century or two), that history would not significantly change if Hitler won the second world war. This is yet another historical perspective – competition among ideas. Right now there is competition among collectivist vs individualist philosophies of societal organization and function. Which system will win out? Is the outcome inevitable on the long term? Or will the more quirky details of history determine the victor, and shape future human history for centuries or even millennia? Perhaps both ends of the spectrum will evolve toward the middle, a balance of individual rights and collective organization.

These are trends we can only really see with the perspective of history. We’ll know once it happens. And we can do this now, for history up to this point, which is what these researchers have done. These perspectives are incredibly useful. For example, in pretty much every society power and wealth tends to accumulate in the hands of fewer and fewer people. This trend is almost inevitable, as is the outcome. This trend will eventually lead to a breaking point where one of two things happen – either there is wealth and power redistribution, or there is revolution. As a nation, we can choose which path to follow.

However, the question remains, will this trend succumb to an even longer scale trend? Perhaps advancing technology will enable those with power and wealth to hang onto their power longer, and eventually indefinitely. Will technology allow for an unbreakable totalitarian state? Again, these trends are hard to see when we are in the middle of them.

In any case, I don’t think this broad historical perspective should lead to complacency, the fatalist notion that nothing we do matters because history is inevitable. Rather I think we should use the wisdom gained from this perspective to make better choices. We can’t really worry about what the world will be like in a thousand years, but we can have a dramatic influence on our world today and the world our children will inherit.


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