Study Questions for Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Chapter 13

Remember, this is the second "proximate" factor that we are considering.  Remember to consider carefully how 1) the agricultural revolutions (the power of farming, surpluses, and population increase) fit into this story about technology and 2) how the axes relate.

1)  What is the "heroic theory" of technological innovation?
"Technological advances seem to come disproportionately from a very few rare geniuses."
2) Diamond spends some time deconstructing the myth that necessity is the mother of invention.  What does he replace it with?
"[I]nvention is often the mother of necessity."

3)  So what are the two main conclusions about technology mentioned on pg. 245.
"[T]echnology develops cumulatively, rather than in isolated heroic acts." Technology "finds most of its uses after it has been invented."
Technological inventions did not depend on heroes who created independently.  "All recognized famous inventors had capable predecessors and successors and made their improvements at a a time when society was capable of using their product."

4) Diamond notes that not only does new technology need to prove its usefulness, but it also needs to be accepted by society.  Explain why the QWERTY typewriter was not replaced with a more useful technology.
The QWERTY typewriter was not replaced with a more useful technology because the vested interests (typists, typing teachers, typwriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers) did not want it replaced.  These interests would have lost their economic value with the switch.

5) Diamond moves on and briefly discusses 14 factors that govern a society's receptivity to new technology.  Briefly summarize one from each category:  economic, ideological, other.
Economic: Availability of cheap labor discourages innovation.  The laborers have no incentive to innovate, neither do managers and owners.  Patents and property laws encourage technological innovation by protecting ownership of innovation. Industrial societies train their people. Capitalism rewards innovation. Individualism is an incentive too.

Ideological: Tolerance of diverse views encourages innovation.

Other: War can both encourage and discourage innovation.

6) What does Diamond mean when he says that most technology is "borrowed"?  Can you figure out what connection he is about to make (think in terms of axes)?
Diamond means that a society does not invent all of its innovations.  That would take too long, especially for complex inventions like writing.  Instead, societies borrow technology and innovations invented elsewhere.   Diamond is getting ready to make the case that the diffusion of innovations was most rapid along Eurasia's E-W axis, and slowest along the New World's and Africa's N-S axis.

7) What are the two reasons why a society may or may not adopt a "borrowed" technology?
1. A society sees an invention's value and adopts it.
2. A society is overrun by a society that already has the invention (Ex: Muskets in New Zealand.)

8)  How does geographic isolation fit into the discussion of a society's receptivity to technology?
Geographic isolation limits technological diffusion, and associated technological innovation.  It also allows a society to eventually reject technological innovations (Ex: Guns in Japan and numerous other examples cited on p. 258.) "Without diffusion, fewer technologies are acquired, and more existing technologies are lost." Conversely, continental societies with networks of regular exchange (diffusion) borrow and innovate.  "Because technology begets more technology, the importance of an invention's diffusion potentially exceeds the importance of the original invention."

9) Define technology as an autocatalytic process.  Give an example from our times.
[A]utocatalytic process: that is, one that speeds up at a rate that increases with time, because the process catalyzes itself." 
Two reasons: 1) technological development is cumulative it "depends on previous mastery of simpler problems."  Ex: iron ore metallurgy resulted from innovations in iron ore extraction, and innovtion in furnaces for firing pottery; 2) "new technologies and materials make it possible to generate still other new technologies by recombination ."   Ex: printing press recombined earlier inventions of  paper, movable type, metallurgy, presses, inks, scripts.  Growing literacy was also important.

Current example: Hip-hop music uses old technology of phonograph for scratching, and samples songs that had been invented in the 70s.

10)  Technological sophistication is much greater in Eurasia than it was in sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific Islands.  Explain why, in Diamond's terms.
Technological sophistication resulted from the onset of agriculture which allowed societies to become sedentary, made it practical to accumulate non-portable possessions, and led to economic specialization.  Thus, technology is a function of the time of the onset of food production, the lack of barriers to diffusion, and human populaton size.  As we have seen, Eurasia was the continent most favored in these regards.