Apropos of a few email threads lately, here’s a passage from Charles Mann (who wrote the book “1491”) quoted by Matt Yglesias (emphasis mine):
David Aviles, Ian Ebert and Lauren Tombari all ask (to quote Mr Aviles), “If [Indians] had such a large population, why hadn’t they developed as much as other countries?” The answer to this very important question is complicated, but part of it surely is that evaluating relative levels of technological development is not so easy, and that it isn’t at all clear that native peoples were less developed in this area than Europeans or Asians. As the historian Alfred Crosby has repeatedly observed, societies tend to measure “progress” in terms of things that they are good at. Europeans were good at making metal tools and devices, so we tend to look for them — Indians didn’t have steel axes and geared machines, so they must be inferior. But many Indian societies were extremely deft about agriculture. Looking at a Europe afflicted by recurrent famine, one can imagine them viewing these societies as so undeveloped that they were unable to feed themselves. It’s hard to say which view is correct.
This is a really good point, and I am guilty as charged re: judging development in terms of the things we’re good at.
But seriously, I am really guilty, and I can’t even think of kinds of technology other than ours (computers, hybrid cars, plasma TVs, DNA sequencers, etc.) worth having or developing in the world today. The best I can muster is something about the ingenuity of the billion-or-so slum dwellers the world over — e.g. they can make water purification systems out of rusty buckets and plastic tarps! — but I don’t really believe it deeply. Or rather, that stuff is cool, but I think they ought to (and do) ultimately aspire to computers and DNA sequencers too!
So whatcha got for me, Snarkmatrix?