The Inventions and Technologies That Changed History (Part 2)

What Innovations had a Make or Break Impact on the Nations and Societies

Interviewer: Aco Momčilović, psychologist, EMBA, Owner of FutureHR, Ph.D. Student @ University of Dubrovnik

Interview with Mirko Sardelić, Ph.D., Research Associate at the Department of Historical Studies HAZU, Honorary Research Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe 1100–1800) at The University of Western Australia; formerly a visiting scholar at the universities of Cambridge, Paris (Sorbonne), Columbia, and Harvard

Part 1 is available here!

Q6. It is expected that much of future warfare will be cyberwar. Many countries are developing their cybersecurity as a response. Has something similar to that process happened in history?

Technology made everything more accessible, which means not only physical protection is needed, but virtual protection has increasingly gained importance. One can use your credit card from another continent, skillful hackers can turn off the electricity to a block or even part of some remote town. It is a perennial question of access to information and those skillful enough to (ab)use it.

One of my main interests are nomadic empires, so I will draw two examples from the rise of the Mongols. Once they had established the empire, they realized that they should use all the skilled workers they encountered and captured in their campaigns. The Chinese had very capable engineers who could build impressive structures or produce war-machines, the Persians had experienced administrators (…) — all those were used to do the things nomadic peoples were inexperienced in. I believe this is a great example of being aware of one’s own limitations and knowing exactly who is the aptest to compensate for those.

Also, one of the most reliable allies of the Mongol army commanders was intelligence. During the Black Sea campaigns, the Mongols gained precious information from traders (mostly Venetian) on European geography, armies, castles, population, the relations between rulers, supplies, and everything else useful on a campaign. Therefore, when they invaded Eastern and Central Europe in 1241/42, they knew exactly where to go, what to do, whom to attack or avoid, what the most vulnerable points were. The result was that they crushed several very strong European armies, pillaged several countries, and made them pay tribute.

Q7. What were, in general, the most fruitful areas of influence, where we can observe overwhelming changes? Was it in transportation, in weapons, communication, knowledge management, construction, energy, medicine, economy? And can we single out one or two dominant areas?

The Romans had exquisite mastery of construction: just take a look at their buildings all around the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It was as late as the early 20th century when the construction improved significantly. For example, the formula for Roman concrete is still sought for: its durability, resilience to salt water, and longevity have not been surpassed to this day. All major civilizations were aware of the importance of roads and communication. On the other hand, the concept of economy is quite complex: even the best experts have trouble predicting many aspects of its development.

I could single out the change that happened to humankind with the invention of electricity. Also, the Internet contributed to unimaginable access to all sorts of information and the dissemination of knowledge. Last, but certainly not least, medical advancements need to be mentioned. Ancient civilizations had quite capable physicians. I remember a note from the Greek historian Herodotus (5th ct. BC) in which he gives an account, and was quite surprised, that the Egyptians had doctors who were specialized for eyes, internal organs, etc. — just as we have today. The Chinese have had quite a rich tradition in medicine as well. But what the field has achieved so far, with personalized medicine and with all the technology at our disposal, is just to become even more impressive. After all, the fear of non-existing (even of just being ill) is one of the most potent incentives known to humankind.

Q8. Today we have polarization between the USA and China, and the EU in some segments regarding technology innovations. Was there a country that was famous as a technology leader or an expert in one field?

Throughout its rich history, China was well-known for its innovations. The compass (12th ct.) made the oceans a less hostile environment, the paper money (11th ct.) made the trade and financial transactions easier, while the invention of gunpowder (11 ct.) changed the warfare of the second millennium AD. Of course, it is only through the transfer of knowledge in the late Middle Ages that most of these inventions got improved — e.g. the Venetian and Genoese merchants made significant strides to advance the financial instruments invented either by the Chinese or by the merchants in the Islamic world; gunpowder-based weaponry, such as cannons and rifles, were also improved across the Eurasian continent.

In ancient times the civilization that lived in Mesopotamia was famous for its inventions. We have mentioned some: the wheel, cities, writing. However, there were dozens more, such as administration, accounting, mathematics, astronomy, sailing, production of bricks, cartography, and maybe the most interesting one: the concept of time. Based on their sexagesimal system, our hours have 60 minutes which are subdivided into 60-second intervals.

Q9. Most importantly, what can we learn from those who missed opportunities and didn’t advance on time? Which civilizations collapsed or became irrelevant? What can we advise modern states, and warn them if they miss current opportunities in AI development, genetics, or any new technology that will emerge soon? Our time to react is getting shorter, and the consequences are getting bigger.

The rise and fall of civilizations were in the focus of historians for many centuries. They happened mostly as a combination of several factors: ecological, economic, social, technological, richness, or depletion of crucial resources such as timber, oil, or ore deposits. The system of nation-states is arguably the invention of the 19th century, and it is the best humankind has available for the moment.

One can conquer the land with the military machine, but one of the things that might have changed the world, even more, is a relatively simple invention: private property. Indigenous peoples of Australia, the Americas, or Africa, who considered themselves guardians of the land they lived on, were deprived of the space they took care of. It certainly was one of the game-changers in the evolution of humankind. History gives many examples of those who were not resilient enough, not sufficiently developed, or just different in terms of economy, social organization, or technology; in the end, they no longer exist. Or at least, their way of life no longer exists. Does that mean we need to be constantly alert and improve so we do not get surpassed by rivals, or should we redefine our existence altogether? This is our dilemma. (Certainly, for a long period of history we needed the former.)

The proper globalization that started in the 20th century has demonstrated how entangled all the aforementioned factors can be. We have all witnessed what small yet provident nations such as Singapore or Norway are capable of. We are all witnessing how China has managed to multiply its industrial and financial output although it seemed that technologically it was quite behind some superpowers in the domain, only a few decades ago.

In the 21st century, technological advancements in biomedicine, nanotechnology, rocketry, the AI (…) will enable people to create fabulous things. Already now pretty much anything can be produced; it is just a matter of how much money and effort is invested. There are two key questions: ‘What are we interested in?’ and ‘Who are we?’ And here I refer to a nation-state, a multinational corporation, an elite of some kind, a group of conscious individuals. As ever, it will be a combination of factors, but it seems that the least problem will be inventions of new technologies. There will be new battlegrounds of the political, social, and ethical challenges trying to answer the questions of how to use the technology, and how accessible it will be.

Finally, I believe you are painfully right about the reaction time, the pressures, and the consequences. Most of us receive in one day the amount of information a single person in the Renaissance (just 15 generations ago) received during their lifetime. Shall we succumb to all sorts of internal and environmental pressures? The paradox is that humans can be very fragile, yet highly resilient. With everything happening so fast and with so much at stake, we all need to learn new things, learn more, and, as ever, adapt to crucial changes in our environment.

Ph.D. Student. National AI Capital Researcher. Human Resoucres, Psychology, Entrepreneurship, MBA…