Eli5: what causes different societies to advance technologically?


Whenever a modern uncontacted tribe is found, it seems curiously consistent that they are barely even agricultural at best-much less even up to pace with most of the world’s society. What makes it so we never seem to discover unheard of industrial societies? They had as much time as anyone else to have come to the same conclusions. What causes one group to be splitting atoms while the other is still using bows and arrows?

In: Other

There are a bunch of factors that determine a culture’s rate of technological development, to the point that whole books are needed to cover all of them. But as I see it, the biggest factor in your example of remote tribes is how globally-connected the society is.

First, there are “network” effects – the idea that if you double a population, you actually quadruple the number of possible relationships between members of that population. If technological advancement is determined by the size of a “network” (the ability to share ideas and technologies), then a country that’s 1% as populated will progress 0.01% as fast. This expands massively if the culture participates in the international community (e.g. has internet access).

Second, there’s the existence of international trade. A small tribe need not invent computers if they can buy them from a nation that already makes them. This also means that they don’t have to spend time reinventing the wheel, and can reach the cutting edge of technology far faster than if they had to redevelop everything from scratch.

The third effect globalization has is from wars being fought. As much as I hate war, most of our modern high-tech luxuries come from one country trying to stay technologically ahead of another country that they’re actively fighting. Occasionally small tribes do go to war with one another, and you’ll see the development of better forms of armor/weaponry during those periods, but it isn’t to the point of “we need to figure out how to shoot down a nuclear ICBM or we’re all dead” unless the wars are being fought on a global level.

Globalization and technology, after WW2 many allied nations shared technologies and designs that had previously been state secrets one good example is radar, the UK showed America this technology after they agreed to help the allies in WW2, after the coldwar the world was more connected than it had ever been, countries were trading across oceans and with countries they had never been able to contact before. countries that had been isolated from different parts of the world were suddenly affected by global powers, China moving Into Africa, US installing military bases worldwide, Russia bolstering satellite states ect.. Thus it was much harder to hide technology, if US soldiers showed up in turkey with M16s while they were still using WW2 weapons suddenly turkey would want to get its hands on M16 types of tech. Another big factor is the internet, with the ability to send information almost anywhere in the world the internet has been invaluable in helping researchers across the world

One thing that keeps “undiscovered” tribes in near stone age type of societies is the lack of external presences, for example a small tribe on a remote island in the pacific, may never be able to forge steel, or use coal, simply because there is just none there, globalization allowed for materials that were only located in certain spots of the world to be spread across the world so more people could use them

And the last thing is innovation, many technological breakthroughs were discover out of trying to beat others, nuclear power came from the desire to weild a weapon to end wars, many advancements were made just trying to find things out before someone else did, or trying to prove something/one else wrong, a tribe that’s never known war would never need to find better ways to kill things, if they already have an effective way of killing things

The world has been largely explored at least by remote sensing. An industrial society would not be able to hide from that all of this time to just now be discovered.
A small tribe in the middle of nowhere and isolated doesn’t have the population and ability to exploit their resources to have an industrial revolution. Everyone is busy farming and or hunting/gathering, there’s no division of labor, no real markets large enough to create enough demand for a factory to be needed. Just not enough people. Basically they are still caught in the cycle of just being able to produce enough to support their society and no expansion is possible.

In general a connection to the wider world is what leads to advancement through spread of ideas. Uncontacted tribes by definition don’t have that connection so they live in isolated places content with basic human life, because they don’t know anything outside of it. Technology can still advance but extremely slowly due to their low population and general perceived lack of need for innovation

You can write many books on answering this question and people have. Look up Guns,Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

However one of the larger ones in this case is contact with other civilizations. These people being uncontacted means they have had nearly no contact.

Contact with other civilizations often means you get to copy their inventions, and they get to copy yours. And once you copied their invention, someone in your civilization might be able to improve it or find another use for it.

Even if you can’t copy them, knowing that something is possible means you might find your own way of doing the thing, though your implementation.

The premise you’ve created here isn’t quite right. There’s no such thing as an uncontacted industrialized society…because one of the key elements of technological advancement is travel and trade. And you can’t do that if you’re isolated in jungles.

But to explain technology a little, one of the major factors is a consistent and versatile spoken language, as well as a standardized written language. Those allow for the transfer of knowledge. No one man figured out how to land on the moon. The Apollo space program I think had something like 400,000 engineers, who documented their designs by writing them down (granted this was largely wiring diagrams, machined part drawings, analyses, etc., but none of it is possible without written symbols). And that was after spending years in college learning complex mathematics, physics, chemistry, from reading about it in books.

Then you need to meet the bare minimum threshold of human survival across wide swaths of society. There is no time for innovation when every able-bodied human is either hunting, scavenging berries, or hauling water just to live. You have to meet some minimum standards and the best way to do that is through specialization. Have the best fishermen fish for the whole village. Have the best weaver make baskets for the whole village. Have the best builders craft the shelters for the whole village, and so on. This creates an economy of labored goods and services. Currency isn’t necessary but it facilitates the exchange and allows for larger sums of transfer as the currency is symbolic of value, containing little value intrinsically.

Then you need modest challenges, and lots of time. Innovation comes from uncomfortable pressure. Humans solve problems. We don’t often create technologies without first determining there’s a problem out there that we need to solve. There’s some neat reading about a language called [Pirahã](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirah%C3%A3_language) in the Amazon where it’s postulated that because they lived in such abundant forests, their society could meet much of their needs by hunting and gathering. They never faced a need to manage large data sets by farming or ranching for sustenance because their needs were met in much shorter time scales. Lacking the need to count large quantities, their language never developed terms for numbers. Linguists and
scientists worked for months and couldn’t teach a single member of the tribe to count to 10. The concept of numbers and counting was completely foreign to them. You can’t develop any appreciable technology if you are incapable of counting or arithmetic.

That doesn’t mean you’re incapable of craftsmanship. I’m certain they produced high quality crafted items. But those items aren’t *designed* if it’s merely spoken training from craftsman to apprentice. Technology requires written language.

The really simple answer is one of scale. Most major technological innovations are solving problems created by large scale societies using the resources of large scale societies.

You don’t need to build machines to mass produce thousands of identical products if the total number of people in your society numbers in the hundreds. There are machines and tools that we create, and that were created in the build up to our modern society that require parts and resources sourced from around the globe. Some of them you would not be able to create using only local resources, even if needed them.

One factor I’m not seeing mentioned by the other posts is the influence of Religion and other factors that limit cultural change and the acceptance of new ideas.

The more influence religion has on day to day life and government the more the stagnation. Having a strong Conservative voice running the government and influencing culture results in less technological and cultural advancement in a nation.

Religions and despotic rulers like Kings like to maintain the status quo because it helps maintain their power.

Throughout the middle ages in Europe Christianity was the dominant force in the culture and day to day life, and technological advancement was at a snails pace.

By the time of the renaissance the hold of religion was waning, mostly as a result of new ideas coming in from the outside. Increased trade and foreign influence led to new ideas and technological development. Peoples lives were changing, learning institutions like universities were founded.

Ironically new technologies like the printing press were first used to print Bibles to extend the influence of religion, but when the common person could read the religious text it led to the reformation where Catholicism was split into various sects because people realized how corrupt the church had become.

A similar thing is happening in the Middle East right now. Iraq and Iran became the dominant centers for science and learning after the fall of the Roman Empire, and are now in the grip of their own Religious Dark Ages due to the rise of Islam

Uncontacted tribes are just that, uncontacted. We’re aware of them, we’re just respecting their decision not to be in touch with us. Vice versa, most uncontacted tribes are aware of us and choose to have nothing to do with us.

It’s really hard to hide an industrial society. They’re not exactly well hidden. And they require a certain population size before they can become industrial. You can’t really have miners, factory workers, and the like until you have sufficient food production to support people who do nothing but study, invent, mine, work in a factory, and so on.

Industrial societies also don’t want to be isolated. Once you industrialize a production process, you can produce a lot of the things you industrialized. So many that you want to open up trade relations with other nations.

All of which takes invention. And necessity is the mother of all invention. The most advanced nations tend to be the ones with the greatest need for progress. Because their climate made it hard to feed the population. Because strife with their neighbours promoted research. For a lot of reasons really.

Most uncontacted tribes live in tropical regions where food can be grown year long, the climates are warm and soft, nature provides plenty of meat, fish, fruit, nuts and so on. Or places so harsh that there was little opportunity to develop beyond wringing a living out of the land.

Progress is a snowball effect. If you never have a need or an opportunity to get the ball rolling, nothing much changes.

First of all they needed to discover agriculture so they can have towns and cities. That means that there must be a crop present that they can cultivate and grow to feed themselves off. Otherwise they are forced to hunt for food that means that you cant really build a town as what is the point of it? You are moving around all the time anyway hunting animals.

That is step one, secondly in a society you need to have incentives for things to be done. That comes with private property which is a fairly new idea even in the modern countries. We didnt get private property until Mercantilism which began around 1600s, this slowly compounded over the years letter people and families save up resources by spending less then they earned.

This later exploded in the industrial revolution which was the first step towards a better life for everyone, as food began to be able to be mass produced.

So far we have only talked about one aspect really, the other aspect is in philosophy actually, it was the rise of the enlightenment where we managed to figure out logic in a formalized way so we could actively find faults in the reasoning behind things. This gave us science that works, that has to be able to be reproduced where everyone can criticize it.

Science doesnt prove things, it disproves things, it tells us what is wrong with different ideas so we can discard ideas that doesnt work with the evidence we have.