At big family gatherings Aunt Sally always prepared a ham. As her older sisters watched, she would carefully cut a large chunk off the end of the ham before placing it in her over-sized roasting pan. Being gracious house guests, none of her sisters said a word, deferring to their host’s culinary wisdom. After many years the oldest sister Martha finally spoke up.
“Why do you always cut off the end of the ham before roasting it?” Martha asked.
“Because that’s how mom always did it,” Sally replied. “It makes the ham more delicious.”
Martha went out to the living room to fetch their old mother.
“Mom,” said Martha, “Sally cuts the end off the ham like you always did because you said it tastes better that way. Is it true, does that make it taste better?”
“Oh no dear,” said their old mother as she ambled into the kitchen, “I had to cut the end off the ham so it would fit into my tiny roasting pan.”
As individuals, families and societies, we are often bedeviled by past practices that no longer have meaning and worse — they’ve been clothed in the unassailable garb of tradition and now lie beyond reproach. Cutting off the end of the ham did nothing to improve the flavor. It was just an empty ritual based on a simple misunderstanding.
In his illuminating book Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond recounts the story of how we all got stuck with the QWERTY keyboard on our computers. Named for the first six letters on the left end of the upper row, the QWERTY keyboard was first designed in 1873 with the express purpose of slowing down typists. The levers of these early typewriters were prone to jam, so in order to make typing as difficult and awkward as possible the most commonly used letters were scattered all around the keyboard instead of being placed conveniently in the center. To make matters worse, the most common letters were placed on the left side where most people are weakest. Fifty years later in the 1930s the mechanical issues had been resolved and the hammers no longer jammed. Newly redesigned keyboards increased typing speed by 95 percent. But it was too late. The QWERTY keyboard was deeply entrenched into the culture, and there was no going back. The productivity of typists throughout the twentieth century was sacrificed to the tune of 95 percent on the altar of “but we’ve always done it this way.” Even computer designers utilized the horribly awkward QWERTY configuration for their keyboards. Introducing a new keyboard at this point would be commercial suicide. No one would buy it. We like our absurdly designed and maddeningly difficult keyboards just the way they are.
The larger question Jared Diamond raises in Guns, Germs and Steel is this: in the evolution of human societies, why do some cultures embrace technological innovation while others remain entrenched in old ways of thinking and deeply committed to outmoded and inefficient behaviors? The same question could apply to each one of us individually. Why do we mindlessly cut off the ends off the ham even though our pan is plenty big enough to hold the whole thing?
The answer is right in front of us. We are habitual creatures and do not embrace change, no matter how beneficial. We don’t like learning new things because we don’t like feeling incompetent and awkward. Both as individuals and societies we’ve become attached to our thought-systems and past practices.
Another dynamic that impacts technological progress is the fact that new inventions are sometimes ignored because they simply do not align with current cultural values or needs. Gun powder and guns were invented in Asia long before they were ever seen in the west. But as tools of warfare guns never caught on in medieval Japan. Guns were seen as crude and dishonorable under Samurai code, an ethos that celebrated the elegant choreography of swordsmanship and the rare courage of elite warriors. Killing your enemy from a distance by blasting lead balls through steel tubes dehumanized the ancient art of honorable combat. Technology must always serve the deepest needs of a people, not the other way around.
It is also the case that invention is rarely born from necessity. When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 no one “needed” a phonograph. He was just messing around. He certainly was not trying to invent the music industry (although that’s what he did) — recording music was the last thing on his mind. As inventors often do, Edison completely misunderstood the wider applications of his own invention. He simply wanted to record the last words of dying people, record books for the blind, announce time and teach spelling. Edison was convinced the phonograph would have no lasting commercial value. It was only later that some ingenious entrepreneurs used Edison’s technology to invent the jukebox. Soon there were jukeboxes all across America in bars and restaurants, swallowing the coins of patrons thirsty to hear the latest popular song. The record industry was born and music would never be the same.
But it is never simple. Technological innovation does not drive culture as is often assumed. We embrace or reject new gadgets based on their affinity with our current value system. Sometimes rock throwing tribes do not adopt bow and arrow technology even though they’re surrounded by enemy tribes that do, simply because they prefer the old way of doing things. There’s no judgment here. Technological progress is not an unmitigated good. The Samurai settled regional conflicts by sending one warrior from each of the warring states to engage in a battle to the death with each side accepting the outcome. That would be like locking Rambo and Osama bin Laden in a room and whoever walked out would be the winner and no one else would have to die. Does anyone really think we do it better now?
The lessons from these stories seem clear. But that doesn’t make them easy to learn. On one hand, we sometimes embrace changes that erode our most cherished values, allowing technology to shape humanity instead of the other way around. In that case, change is bad. But most of the time, like Aunt Sally, our unwillingness to innovate, improve and change is rooted in a deeply irrational and unconscious attachment to ways of thinking that no longer serve our highest good. We simply do not have the eyes to see all the myriad ways we are caught in a web of ignorance, tradition and conformity. For some reason we do not have the wisdom to see when change is good. Maybe the Buddha was right when he characterized our attachment to old ways of thinking, being and doing as a disease of the ego. Along the way we came to believe that our current patterns of thought and behavior defined and embodied our identity, and to alter or abandon these patterns would be to alter or abandon ourselves. This was a fracture our ego simply could not endure. But down deep we know that we are not bound by our thoughts or our patterned behaviors. Beneath the layers of social conditioning and fear-based attachment we are infinitely free. Sometimes change is good.Sometimes change is bad. Wisdom is the capacity to discern which is which. Let’s hope we stop cutting off the end of the ham for no reason. Let’s hope we finally grow out of this simple misunderstanding.
Peter Bolland is a professor at Southwestern College where he teaches eastern and western philosophy, ethics, world religions, and mythology. You can find him at firstname.lastname@example.org