The “Technological Age” from the perspective of the historical expansion of cultural capacities

Man’s relation to the world, to nature and to the human being itself is currently undergoing a tremendous change. Technology and scientific progress open a new realm of human influence. What was considered as stable and unchangeable over millennia now is falling into human technological accessibility. At the same this process puts old concepts of mind, nature and life into question. These changes are forcing sociology to develop a position of observation that goes beyond its defining task of accompanying processes of modernization within the frame of modernity. It raises the question of whether the current changes are more than just an epiphenomenon of the classically modern progress in science and culture, and should rather be considered as a whole new stage of civilization itself, a new axis age comparable to sedentariness, the introduction of writing and money or the establishment of modern sciences.

In order to show that we are facing a civilizational step, a method is required which allows a formal definition of independent stages of cultural historical world relations that are based on forms of technology, media, cooperation and social organization. This method can be derived from the model of the expansion of “cultural capacities” from the branch of cognitive paleoanthropology as it is currently developed by ROCEEH. The social and cognitive conditions in which tools and artefacts were used in early human development are making up a laboratory situation that is lower in complexity than later states of culture and therefore allows the examination of basic principles of cultural evolutionary processes. The thesis is that the principles of early human cultural expansion in technology, as for example from the use of the biface axe to the introduction of the bow and arrow, can be used as a blueprint for the understanding of later expansions up to today. A formalization of early cultural capacities on one hand can expose basic principles of cultural development that are to date only roughly represented in the term ratchet-effect, and on the other hand it also allows to see what is missing between early human group organisation for the transition to fully developed civilizational technology and complexity. The adoption of the concept of cultural capacities by sociology and its enrichment with sociological and anthropological knowledge makes up a powerful new tool for methodological descriptions of processes of cultural development and social change, and allows embedding of the upcoming “Technological Age” in a wider frame of human history.      

Scope of the study

The study has two focuses. The first one lies in the formalization of the concept of “cultural capacities”. The second one is to illustrate the principle of cultural capacity expansion on historical examples of technological, media and socio-organizational developments.

Paleoanthropological findings clearly indicate an increase of the “Problem-Solution-Distance” in technology during early human development. The operational chains in the production of technology and gathering of resources are increasing, the single steps needed to reach goals like food production or sheltering against the climate with clothes become more complex and the goals themselves more abstract. The increase of the radius of technological accessibility of resources points to changes in cognitive and cooperational capabilities over time. In contrast to animals, where interaction with the environment is closely bound to their phenotype  – although often capable of using proto-technology – human technology expands the interactional surfaces with the environment beyond the immediate reach of the body. Objects and objectives become more abstract, they are only to be reached by technologically or symbolically mediated steps. The linchpin of this increasing abstraction of the environment lies in the human flexibility in bodily operations, as for example the operational flexibility of the hand shows. Actions are more and more oriented by symbols, by language and thus dependent on social learning. According to newer research on early childhood joint action and attention social learning seems to be genetically determined. This is considered to be a strong indicator towards the idea that the needs of the collective form a second nature which provides certain selectional pressures. Culture is therefore understood as the solution of an adaptional process that mediates between nature and the human flexibility of bodily operations. It represents a pool of functional, i.e. meaningful actions in order to reproduce the resource flow matrix established by the coordinated members of the society.

Once a resource matrix based on symbolically learned behaviour is established, it makes up a cultural and technological life world. Through social learning, symbolical-abstract object relations become embodied and as cultural realm they represent the new baseline for developments of the next generation. By the flexibility to project causal relationships between imaginary and symbolical objects, those abstract relationships themselves can become new objects, thus establishing new goals and foci of improvement of existing technologies, i.e. new cultural, embodied actions. By this principle of “representative re-introduction” of existing sets of behaviour into new horizons, the radius of human accessibility increases, as well as natural and social objects become more abstract.

The early increase of cultural capacity thus shows that cultural evolution is based on an increase of differentiation of meaningful actions, building up on the embodied abstractions in socialized minds and the relation to cultural artefacts and affordances to which they are adapted. An earlier stage of cultural sets of behaviour with its abstract object boundaries, cultural affordances and functional relations becomes an element of an emergent level of new problems and relationships. Via the methodological frameworks of enactivism, embodiment-theory, distributed cognition and process philosophy the increase of cultural capacities can be formalized as a correlation between inward differentiation of the human interaction field and emergent classes of objects and events. The first part of the thesis is focused on the development of a formalization of this increase by the introduction of the theoretical tool “representative re-introduction” of whole established cultural sets.

The increase of cultural capacities is related to the possibility of stabilizing cooperative motivation and the transmission of collective action goals and cultural meaning. Media, technology and social organization therefore are core factors of cultural capacities. The second part of the thesis consists of reconstructing cultural capacities in selected examples of technology, media and social organization throughout the history of civilization by applying the principle of “representative re-introduction”. The historical evolution of these factors is correlated to an increase of the complexity of the differentiation and complexity reduction within the set of cultural actions which is based on the emergence of new levels of abstraction, new categories of nature, object and social ontology. This correlation spans over cognitive capabilities and predominant conceptual models, as they are triggered by the problems each complexity level of cultural capacity is facing, to metaphysically grounded abstract object categories (for example the concept “progress” itself) and social roles, culture specific mental figurations and institutions that are build around the organizational needs to provide the reproduction of the resource flow matrix. It can be shown that the principles found in the laboratory situation of early human cultural development can be applied to later processes of civilizational evolution.


The main interest of this work lies in the methodological formalization of the increase of cultural capacities. This formalization allows the deduction of a logic of cultural development by showing the principle of emergence of new levels of abstraction and functional relationships throughout history. The objective is to provide a theoretical framework that allows embedding current social and technological changes within a hierarchy of complexity stages of cultural capacities and by that to examine a new ground for the sociology of the globalized, technological civilization.