Responsibility in proportion to power

The most recent presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney was chocked full of zingers and snappy comebacks. Perhaps the most humorous of them was Obama’s retort to Romney asserted that “our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” because it has fewer ships. Fact-checkers have since determined that Romney was in error on that point, but Obama played along.

“I think Gov. Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works,” Obama replied. “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.”

Setting aside the political ballyhoo, Obama’s remark speaks to a very important facet of global history. It sounds trite to say it so flatly, but simply put: Technological advances change things.

We see this nowhere more clearly than in our efforts to feed ourselves. Researcher Yehudi Cohen used the term “adaptive strategy” to describe a society’s system of economic production. Cohen developed a typology of societies based on correlations between their economies and their social forms. This typology includes five adaptive strategies: foraging, horticulture, agriculture, pastoralism and industrialism.

If you were to roam around (i.e. forage) with Cro-Magnon Man, you would burn almost a calorie for every calorie you took in as food. Whereas, if you’re alive today in a modern industrialized society, you can take in over 5,000 calories for every one it takes to obtain them.

Primitive man probably didn’t have a term like “cave potato” to describe people who sat around all day — namely because those people would have starved to death.

The history of technological development is the history of human society. You cannot have large permanent settlements without agriculture. Of course agriculture was only made possible through the evolution of grasses into simple edible grains and rice.

The assent of human technology has not always been an even linear enterprise. If one were to draw a chart of technology through time, it would start out as an almost flat line. That line would rise ever so slightly from the dawn of man until the advent of the modern printing press, around 1440. From there it would rise a bit more sharply, but not much. In the late part of the 18th century (i.e. during the industrial revolution), it would make a steep skyward turn. Thence forward, it has done nothing but climb.

Closer to the president’s point, technology also changes warfare. The Romans transformed battlefield tactics when they developed the phalanx formation. The same idea can be seen today in some types of body armor. The need to preserve food for the Napoleonic Wars gave us vacuum canning of vegetables — a technology that would later inform things like the development of air conditioning.

The combined forces of the military and the space program have yielded thousands of innovations, improvements and inventions. It has also unleashed Napalm, atomic warfare and cybercrime. Many different cultures have developed folktales that help contextualize the ardor and impatience “magical” appliances and technologies seem to foster. Pandora, Aladdin, Rumpelstiltskin… all tales where avarice and indolence unfettered by miraculous solutions teach hard lessons. Some things never change, temperance for example. The 18th century French thinker Voltaire said it best: “Un gran pouvoir impose un lorde responsibilité — A great power imposes great responsibility.”

What he failed to say is that responsibility grows in proportion to the power.