In Technology and World Civilization Pacey begins in AD 700 with Chinese iron working and ends in 1970 with African agriculture. His focus is as much Eastern as Western, and as he follows the rise of technologies such as navigation, paper- and cloth- making, timekeeping, weapon-making, mining, power-production and precision machining, he is at pains to correct the view that the West had everything to offer and nothing to gain from the rest of the world. A key concept for Pacey is the "technical dialogue," and the central contention of his work was that technology was rarely if ever simply transferred without change. Rather, the knowledge of what could be done and was being done in another place spurred local artisans to create new methods and new technologies according to local needs. "The reality is that transfers of technology nearly always involve modifications to suit new conditions, and often stimulate fresh innovations." (51) Technology is borrowed, adapted, and reinvented. A second central contention is that similar economic and environmental pressures applied even to widely diverse parts of the world might inspire the same set of technological solutions.
Chinese luxury goods began the technical dialogue. Silk and paper entered the long East-West exchange; windmills from Iran influenced Chinese design. Pacey argues that Chinese iron working stimulated the economy within China so that trade in iron weapons was carried via improved waterways. At the same time Arab trading linked agriculture in India, Ethiopia and Spain. Waterwheels, weapons and agriculture flowed east to west. Islam and Africa became the focus of 1150-1490. Guns and gunpowder were developed and spread through Mongol depredations, and cotton and cloth weaving also became an industry, stimulated by the Islamic religious requirement for flowing and modest garments. (Including plague, Mongols, and war, and surveying mankind from China to Peru, Pacey notes that the 1400s were depressingly bad for everyone.)
"The reality of America dawned on Europeans only slowly." American silver in metal-poor Europe stimulated mining in Europe itself, and helped Europeans to buy Asian goods which could only be exchanged for money, as few European goods were attractive to Eastern markets. America also contributed significantly to world staple crops, and added stability to regions previously plagued by bad harvests (62). Naturally in the 1550s and beyond, printng and books became a significant method for technological exchange. Pacey focuses not on the scientific revolution but on the habit of thinking about processes, and about actions as they could be divided into separate motions and imitated by machines. This was the heart of the technological revolution. Interestingly, such a view can be limiting as well as liberating: the Chinese saw clocks in the 16th century not as symbols of cosmological significance, but simply as attractive but useless mechanical toys (96).
From 1700-1815 Pacey relates the history of three industrial movements and one influential country: the British development of steam engines, iron and coal, cloth and textiles, and the exchange of ideas between Britain and India in shipbuilding. As Britain grew, it began to tighten its hold on its colonies and pursue a policy of deindustrialization as a way of consolidating power. Railroads were developed in all areas of the world, and simultaneously identified and collapsed the distinction between the markets of the world. The world, which had been linked since the start of Pacey's narrative, was more firmly drawn together. Having brought the reader to the brink of the 20th century, and to the computer and laser, Pacey chooses to tell the story of African agriculture.
What conclusions might the
reader draw from Pacey's brief but informative overview? The disastrous introduction
of Western plowing and planting to African agriculture indicated that sound local
agricultural technologies were likely to be discovered early on, and heedless
"improvements" to local methods of dealing with soil and soil architecture were
at best perilous; however this concluding story may be contrasted earlier accounts
of how crops were routinely bred for better yields and, when introduced, brought
substantial possibilities for improvement into the living standards of entire
regions (e.g. bringing the sweet potato in China) Pacey is telling
two stories -- one is of the technical dialog that goes on whenever two distinct
but open cultures meet and see the skills and work being done in each other's
domains (as in exchanges between British and Indian shipyards) ; the second is
the story of what happens when an advanced culture with strong views of
its own self-sufficiency shares or does not share its technical superiority.
In this vein, while rejecting the notion of technological blocked systems, Pacey
asks some interesting counterfactual questions: what if Zheng He's successors
were still sailing the Indian Ocean when the Portuguese arrived? What if
the Americans had paid attention to African expertise instead of encouraging techniques
that made African farm soil barren and worthless? Pacey is not chronicling is
the "rise" of technology. Rather, his view of technology is linked to a proverb
in his opening dedication: "tian xia yi jia" (one family under heaven):
the endless dialog that runs from one end of the earth to the other.