What drives technology?


“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.”
— Plato

Technology is an instrument for achieving human goals. No doubt the creation of the earliest documented stone tools were driven by the need for survival and better living conditions. Egyptian pyramids and great cathedrals showcase the ingenuity of humanity under the dominating influence of religion on society. Wars fuel continuous military innovations. And perhaps, early American settlers were working to transform wilderness into a new Eden [1].

Anyone familiar with technology development knows the process is full of choices and tradeoffs. These decision points are shaped within the context and circumstances present, from the individuals involved to relationships, culture, existing knowledge and technologies. In other words, from design, development, production and diffusion, our values, biases, constraints and belief systems affect our creations and the environments where they are adopted and embedded. And, as we coevolve with technology (just watch a 2 year-old interact with an iPad), our context and circumstances are in continuous flux.

The industrial age and our current capitalistic society are often credited for the invention of the mechanical clock [Lewis Mumford]. Though credit for the first mechanical clock dates back to the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth century, humanity has been keeping time since the Neolithic age with calendars to manage the planting of crops. And, actually, the first mechanical clock was made in 723 AD by a Chinese Buddhist monk and mathematician I-Hsing, called the “Water Driven Spherical Birds-Eye-View Map of The Heavens”, which was also an astronomical clock.

With the rise of Islam in the 7th century, astronomy and time keeping became especially important: Islamic prayers should be directed towards Mecca, and the Islamic calendar is lunar. It is based on a twelve-month calendar with the beginning of each month is synchronized to the first sight of the new moon crescent, and is used for marking the dates of the religious holidays, such as Ramadan when fasting is required during the day. Although this need is a great motivation, I believe it was the Islamic teachings that were being practiced at the time, highlighted by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, which paved the path for the rise of Islamic Science [2]. And, with Baghdad as the capital and cultural center, the Islamic world became the bridge between Europe and Far East, fostering ideas and knowledge exchange.

In his paper, Imad-ad-Dean Amad identified seven factors as the driving force for the rise of Islamic science:

  • Respect for observation — encouraged to “see”, to “think” and to “contemplate”;
  • Universality — open-minded embrace of knowledge from any source;
  • Absence of a priesthood — knowledge was available to everyone, rather than just the elite;
  • Material success — conquest brought prosperity and support for science;
  • Academic freedom — the Islamic idea of individual responsibility brought academic freedom to openly share ideas;
  • Development of principals of proper citation — Muslim historians set the stage for scientific study by standardizing the process of citation;
  • Emphasis on learning and study — learning and study is central to the teachings of the Qur’an.

During the golden age of Islamic Science, Islamic scholars further refined and extended on the ideas and techniques from the Far East as well as other civilizations. Baghdad’s House of Wisdom Library became the research center translating the written works of great classical civilizations (Greek, Persian, Jews, Indian and Chinese) to Arabic. It also produced original works, such as al-Khwarizmi and his contributions to algebra, the first algorithms in history and also the process of describing geometric problems in terms of equations. This work sparked the interest of Omar Khayyam, who developed a more accurate Julian calendar, with length of the day calculations to the sixth decimal place. The Arabic number system, originally invented in India then adopted and modified by the Muslims, became widely accepted by Italian merchants as it was superior to Roman numerals, particularly in commerce, arithmetic and algebra.

It is very likely that Copernicus used the work of Arabic astronomers and theories that were established in Islamic astronomy nearly 300 years earier. Though Islamic astronomers did not invent the telescope, they developed observational aids to accurately measure the angular positions of the planets, the moon and the sun. These tools later became available in Europe, enabled the European astronomers, like Kepler, to determine the laws of planetary motion. The knowledge and discoveries of  Islamic scientists diffused throughout Europe, initially via Baghdad, later through Spain[3]. In the Middle Ages, due to trade and historical connections, Spain became the center for accessing Islamic science. After the Muslim city of Toledo, which housed the world’s largest libraries, fell to Christians in 1085, Europeans started the translation of Arabic works into Latin. By 1200, Europe not only recovered lost knowledge, but appropriated advancements made by  Muslim scholars. In short, Europe was ready for the Renaissance.

By the end of the sixteenth century, European knowledge surpassed that of the Islamic world, and a great divide occurred between the West and Islam. Authors of the article, “Factors Behind the Decline of Islamic Science After the Sixteenth Century” highlight potential causes for this decline [4]:

  • Prosperity and stability of the Islamic nations were decreasing. As the state declined, the demand for professions and perfection declined.
  • As scientific knowledge became stagnant, major breakthrough, or revolution, was necessary to continue for progress. However, throwing the old dominant systems out required wealth and support for a large community of scientists. Neither was the case for the Islamic world.
  • Observatories, medical schools and other centers for the study of sciences depended on the strength and prosperity of the state, and deteriorated with  economic decline and loss of political power. As such, there were no Islamic scientific bodies available for exchange of ideas during the Scientific Revolution.

In addition, Imad-ad-Dean Amad discusses the changes in attitudes that occurred in Muslim states regarding the seven factors highlighted earlier, and the resulting impact to scientific and technological pursuits [2].

This was a very brief introduction to the study of the rise and the decline of science and technology in the Islamic world, all started from the need to accurately observe celestial objects. Even though today it is seen as an ordinary item, the clock has also influenced the start of the Industrial Revolution in the United States: the first mass produced, complicated mechanical product made in America with interchangeable components.

“Everything flows and nothing abides,
everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.”
— Heraclitus

Technology development and adoption is a complex process. Not every idea makes it off the bench. Cultural and economic ideals and social necessities drive science and technology advances. Otherwise, we could have been further along with developing alternative energy sources and systems needed to support them. Awareness of our complex relationship with technology and its development, its support infrastructure, and the challenges of analyzing choices, alternatives and risks is the key to becoming mindful in our creative decisions.

* The Islamic World to 1600: The Arts, Learning and Knowledge
[1] Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture by Thomas P. Hughes
[2] “The Rise and Fall of Islamic Science: The Calendar as a Case Study” by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad
[3] Islam Spain and the History of Technology
[4] History of Science and Technology in Islam — “Factors Behind the Decline of Islamic Science After the Sixteenth Century”


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