Culture first

Technological development in a society cannot be divorced from said society’s culture. When it comes to behaviour, You get what you incentivise for (and don’t). This has an interesting consequence, revealed by the following passage from Joel Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches. It talks about “one of the greatest macroinventions of all times [which] occurred during the heyday of the Industrial Revolution”. Can you guess what it is? Correct. The hot-air balloon!

“What made the Montgolfier balloon rise was not a gas lighter than air but air itself, which heated, expanded and thus reduced its specific weight. Success was immediate. Half a year after the emergence of the idea, the famous demonstration in Annonay took place. On November 21, 1783, the first two humans being lifted off, travelling through the air and living to tell about it. Except for a few military applications, ballooning was, of course, of limited direct economic effect. But there can be little doubt that the consequences of the invention of ballooning were far-reaching. Few inventions were more powerful in accustoming people to the idea of technological progress and alerting them to the ability of human ingenuity and creativity to control the forces of nature and do things never done before.”

Consider culture and technological development as the two components of a positive feedback loop, and ask yourself, “Which has the biggest effect on the other?” The above passage indicates, to me, that minor technological feats can have a massive impact on a society’s culture, and so inspire other, more magnificent developments. TLDR; Culture comes first.

It also indicates that a little bit of whimsy is a rational thing. Developments with invisible or non-existent economic impact, due to the higher-order effects and interdependencies of complex systems, can be better for the system-at-large than deliberate and targeted research and exploration.

Perhaps another arrow in the quiver for tarpits and antiflocks?