Technological escalation

Technological escalation

Technological escalation describes the fact that whenever two parties are in competition, each side tends to employ continuing technological improvements to defeat the other. Technology is defined here as a creative invention, be it an object or a method of using an object. This is a natural result of mankind's use of our brains, and the nature of science and technology that understanding and innovations build on each other.

Escalation is usually a negative term, meaning to make bigger in a bad way. However, if two companies are in an escalating war to produce the best widget, the consumer benefits because they get a choice between better and better widgets. In this interpretation, good modern illustrations are the comics Spy vs. Spy and the vicious circle of email spam filters vs. spams by the email security programmers and the spammers.

Objects and methods

Technology can include methods as well as objects. The ability to produce chlorine gas was prevalent before the first world war, but using it during battle was an (arguably unethical but) superior military tactic, and thus a technological escalation.

Paradigms, or worldviews

There is a philosophical difference of opinion on what constitutes the advancement of civilization, and technological progress lies at the heart of the discussion. One view holds that the most advanced civilization is the one that is the most peaceful, compassionate, tolerant (of non-evil acts), just, and worldly.

The other view holds that the most advanced civilization is the one which has the most advanced technology; that civilization 'deserves' to succeed and defeat others, perhaps subjugating them in the process.

One might fairly question if these are, in fact, really in conflict, or if this is merely a misunderstanding by one or both parties. Such questioning would ask such questions as:
*Is the purpose of technology an indicator of advancement or the cause of advancement?
*What ethical constructs should rule the use of technology (power) to further the desires of a social group?
*How should social groups act towards each other when they come into conflict?
*Is technological escalation akin to 'greed' (one of the '7 deadly sins') in that a controlled or moderate amount is a healthy thing serving to motivate one towards a better life, while an immoderate or unrestrained use leads inevitably to evil acts?

Military technological escalation

Technological escalation has been one of the most often-cited factors for the dominance of one civilization over another: those with flint, "all else being equal", will defeat those with softer or duller stone spear heads, those with the bow defeat those with only the sling, those with the gun defeat those with the bow.

This view was dominant during the Enlightenment where science and technology began to be seen as the only way to approach natural law, subordinating views of mastery by social, moral, spiritual or other means. It was perhaps apparent that due to superior firepower and the ability to support larger numbers of people due to intensive agriculture which in turn relied on technological support (such as the iron plough and horse or ox yoke), the colonists were triumphing over people in many ways morally, socially and spiritually superior. The doctrines of social evolution and scientism became more common at this time, in the form of a belief in the inevitability of the triumph of better arms and better tools - which made "better people" in the self-serving view of those with such views.

Through the 19th century, it was recognized that this put obligations on the conquerors, what Rudyard Kipling called the White Man's Burden. This began to dissolve as the 20th century commenced with the failure of several disarmament conferences, and a series of arms races, beginning with that between naval powers (Britain, United States, Germany, Russia and Japan). When previously minor power Japan destroyed the fleet of Russia in 1905, it acceded to the role of a "major" — clearly it had done this through technological mastery, as it was not even (in the European view) 40 years out of a long isolated period in which its had suppressed all forms of firearms.

This view of technological mastery guaranteeing ascendance continued with very rapid technological advancement during World War I. By this point, the competing polities were only concerned with their own survival and conquering all the others — the notion of coexistence was subordinated in most, but especially in Germany, Russia and the United States, to the idea of technological escalation to the point of triumph of one master race or economic system. Germany and Japan lost World War II despite various ways (Germany in rockets and energy conservation, Japan in aircraft and materials conservation) in which they had clearly superior grasp of civilian technology.

However, the doctrine that technology, rather than say fossil fuel reserves or control of the education of people who ruled the subject peoples, suited the British Empire in its negotiations with the United States to pass off many imperial obligations, where Britain wished to retain such strategic advantages, and also suited the USSR which wished to make no overt point of its massive oil reserves nor its total control of the belief system of great numbers of its own people, and preferred to play the role of victim nation which would "inevitably" win its confrontation with the "decadent" West.

As after the destruction of the Tsar's fleet by Japan in 1905, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Russia, once again, reconsidering what causes empires to rise and fall.

Due to the immense cost of maintaining the mutual assured destruction balance of terror during the Cold War, and the increasing number of so-called dual use technologies after that War, however, it became important to look more deeply at the dynamics of technological conflicts and escalations. Accordingly, the subject of escalation and the dynamics of technology transfer have come under some scrutiny, more in Russia than in the United States. It is from the Russian analysis that the rest of this article is largely drawn.


Motives for technological escalation go far deeper than simple desire to triumph in the " necessary evil" of conflict between states. For one thing the massive military spending of the 20th century led to what many called "war profiteering" — supply of war materiel to nation-states for profit. Although some, like the Krupps of Germany, lost a great deal, others, like the Messerschmitts or Daimlers, did very well — the latter remains a prominent name in automotives today.

Another convergence is the role of media, especially radio and television, not only in propaganda but also directly in warfare: signals warfare in particular has become a major field, and led to the modern specialized study of information warfare and of civilian persuasion technology. It is often observed that this has shaped the modern discourse on advertising, and the invention of technologies (such as video games) for entertainment that are also of use in military training. So another motive of technological escalation is the provision of new toys, and training devices, that can feed a military-industrial complex.

Importantly, a key motive in all competition in all mammal species, especially among males, is simple showing off. Such abstracted arms races as the space race, for instance, show that there need not be any direct gain or material motive involved to cause vast sums of skill and energy to go into goals that are, ultimately, symbolic.

However, some claim that the space race had by far more spin-off value in the commercial sector per dollar than any money ever invested directly in the military in the 20th century — often estimated as much as seven times greater. In part this is due to the increased demand for extreme environment clothing and life support technologies required for investigating hostile environments for science and for oil exploration.

These motives (commercial spin-offs, showing off by wasting resources, control of opinion of an elite class of technologists users and scientists whom one will need in warfare, and simple profit) combine in most cases to render technological escalation all but inevitable once a conflict has begun between two technological and industrial civilizations. For these and other reasons, Marxian economics focuses on the inevitability of wars under capitalism.

By contrast, theorists of green economics tend to subscribe to the view from feminism that it is the "showing off" and the need to waste resources to prove one's competence and sexiness, that dominate the logic of technological escalation of warfare.

One interpretation is that capitalism permits inferior beings qualified only for deception to lay access to media with which they can lay claim to the achievements of the superior beings who actually create the technology and do the science. Another interpretation is that the ability to grab attention being in fact the point of the whole exercise, superiority must itself be measured by ability to control the media and claim credit for things done by others — a form of fraud-based kleptocracy. Thus the issue is a deeper one of sexual cognition — females pay attention to males in proportion to their ability to waste great amounts of resources, and males compete with other males to gain power to do so.

Proponents claim it would be hard to imagine a theory that is more strongly rooted in biology than this, and more difficult to convincingly and fully refute, and that the theory is not much criticized because there is no way to gain status from criticizing something so clearly and obviously true.


Technological escalation has occurred in many wars, and been key to victory in some of their battles — the longbows at the Battle of Agincourt and the chariots of the Hyksos. Clearly other factors exist as in the Vietnam War, the United States utilized a far higher level of technology and production than the Viet Cong, and the technology specific to fighting in Southeast Asia did improve during the war progressed — but other factors overshadowed this technological superiority, and the United States ended up losing.

In the present day, the effects of technological escalation on the largest scales are not disputed: constant threat of terrorism and asymmetric warfare due to, for instance, nuclear proliferation spreading to militant groups and individuals, and a great degree of tension and confrontation between an increasing number of industrial states that have the capacity to wipe out each other's populations — thus, an increasing percentage of the skills and energy and resources of each such power is devoted to anticipating and preventing the conflict arising from the weapons that they, due to whatever motives, feel compelled to produce.

However, these effects are often taken as inevitable or manageable, and much more explicit attention is paid to the commercial effects of technological escalation, which is most usually known by the euphemism innovation.

Examples of commercial technological escalation are often indistinguishable from examples of pro-technology propaganda, of which the 1980s AI boom and much larger and global 1990s dotcom boom are the best known examples. In each case, the applicability of expert systems and e-commerce respectively had yet to be proven, but the same factors as above led to the invented "need" to have the "latest and greatest" technology to brag about in one's advertising, and to have at least some of one's portfolio in the "sexy", "high-tech", "growth" stocks — which of course turned out largely to be incapable of sustaining the required profitability.

The effects of technological escalation are also trivially visible in the computer gaming world — where access to higher Internet bandwidth and faster computers tend to determine success in the popular first person shooter and even, increasingly, the real time strategy computer games. This of course leads to a larger and larger percentage of one's income being "invested" in computer hardware for these purposes, perhaps in pursuit of some prize or recognition for success at a game.

ee also

* Arms race
* Competition
* Conflict
* Industrial revolution
* Technological escalation during World War II
* War

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