Review of Part I

In Part I of this series of posts on technological civilization, it was asked, What is technological civilization? And in the attempt to answer this question, a model of civilization was applied to the problem of technological civilization, it was asked whether technology can function as the central project of a civilization, and an inquiry was made into the idea of technology as an end in itself; from these inquiries preliminary conclusions were drawn, and the significance of these preliminary conclusions for the study of civilization were considered.

It was asserted in Part I that a technological civilization in the narrowest sense (a properly technological civilization) is a civilization that takes technology as its central project, and in a civilization that takes technology as its central project, the economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure cannot remain indifferent to technology, so that technology must be assumed to be pervasively present throughout the institutional structure of a properly technological civilization. However, it was also determined that properly technological civilization are probably rare, and that the common usage of “technological civilizations” covers those cases in which technology is absent in the central project, or only marginally represented in the central project, but is pervasive in the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure.

In this post, Part II of the series, we will further investigate what it means for technology to be pervasively present throughout the institutional structure of civilization, and how this pervasive presence of technology throughout society distinguishes technological civilizations from civilizations that employ technology but which we do not usually call technological.

Australian firehawks intentionally spread fires by carrying and dropping burning sticks.

The prehistory of technological civilization

Technological civilizations do not appear suddenly and without precedent, but have a deep history that long precedes civilization. Thus we must treat technological civilizations developmentally, and, as we shall see, comparatively; technological development and comparative measures are closely linked.

The prehistory of technological civilization is the history of technology prior to civilization, and the history of technology prior to civilization can be pushed back not only into human prehistory, but into pre-human history, and even the use of technology by other species. Whereas it was once a commonplace and human beings were the only tool-using species, we now know that many other species use tools. Perhaps the most famous example of this are the observations of chimpanzees in the wild stripping leaves from a branch, and then using this bare branch to extract termites from a termite mound, which are then consumed. Primate tool use (as well as primate modification of the environment that they inhabit) is now sufficiently recognized that there is a growing discipline of primate archaeology, which employs the methods of archaeology developed for studying the human past in order to study the material culture of non-human primates.

Other species have even been observed using fire, which is another instance of technology previously assumed to be unique to human beings. Australian Firehawks have been observed in the, “transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks,” intentionally spreading fire for purposes of fire foraging (cf. Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia by Mark Bonta, Robert Gosford, Dick Eussen, Nathan Ferguson, Erana Loveless, and Maxwell Witwer). The deep history of technology in the biosphere, then, recognizes that many species have used tools, and have done so for millions of years; the scope of technology is both larger and older than human history. In this context, the human use of technology is a continuous development of earlier tool use, bringing tools to a level of development and sophistication far beyond that of other species.

One of the unique features of human tool use (in so far as our present knowledge extends) is the production of durable tools that are used repeatedly over time, and, in some cases, continuously modified, as when a chipped stone or flint tool is used until it becomes dull, and then the edge is sharpened by additional chipping. Tool use by other species has not involved the production of durable tools used over time. However, if we interpret shelters as tools, then the nest of the weaver bird or the lodge of the beaver are durable constructions used over time and often repeatedly improved. (Shelter can be understood as a form of niche construction, and it would be an interesting inquiry to examine the relationship between niche construction and technology, but we will not explicitly consider this in the present context.)

Another unique feature of human tool use is the use of tools to make other tools. When a flint cutting edge is used to cut strips of bone and tendon that are then layered together to make a compound bow, this is the use of one tool to make another tool. The iteration of this process has led ultimately to the sophisticated tools that we manufacture today, and nothing like this has been seen in other species, even in other hominid species (though future investigations in archaeology may prove otherwise). Human ancestors used durable stone tools for millions of years, often with little or no change in the design and use of these tools, but the use of tools to make other tools seems to be restricted to homo sapiens, and perhaps also to the Neanderthals.

The point of this discussion of prehistoric technology is to emphasize that tools and technology are not only older than civilization, but also older than humanity, although humanity does bring tool development and use to a degree of complexity unparalleled elsewhere in terrestrial history. Given this deep history of tools in the biosphere, the late appearance of civilization in the past ten thousand years emerges in a context in which human technology had already reached a threshold of complexity unequaled prior to human beings. At its origin, civilization already involved durable tools of iterated manufacture. If this is what has been meant when we speak of “technological civilization,” then the very first civilizations were technological from their inception; in other words, technology according to this usage would provide no differentiation among civilizations because all civilizations are technological.

Charles Darwin approached the origin of civilization naturalistically, which was, in his time, the exception rather than the rule.

Darwin’s Thesis on the origin of civilization

Civilization, then, begins in medias res with regard to technology. Technology gets its start at the shallow end of an exponential growth curve, incrementally and with the simplest0 innovations. The emergence of distinctively human technologies represents an inflection point in the development of technology. This inflection point occurs prior to the advent of civilization, but civilization contributes to the acceleration of technological development. With civilization, more time and resources become available for technological development, and, as civilization expands, technology expanded and grew in power and sophistication.

The origins of civilization, like the origins of technology, are similarly simple and incremental. In an earlier post I posited what I called Darwin’s Thesis on the origin of civilization, or, more simply, Darwin’s Thesis, based on this passage from Darwin:

“The arguments recently advanced… in favour of the belief that man came into the world as a civilised being and that all savages have since undergone degradation, seem to me weak in comparison with those advanced on the other side. Many nations, no doubt, have fallen away in civilisation, and some may have lapsed into utter barbarism, though on this latter head I have not met with any evidence… The evidence that all civilised nations are the descendants of barbarians, consists, on the one side, of clear traces of their former low condition in still-existing customs, beliefs, language, &c.; and on the other side, of proofs that savages are independently able to raise themselves a few steps in the scale of civilisation, and have actually thus risen.”

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, Chapter V (I have left Darwin’s spelling in its Anglicized form.)

It may seem pointless to assert something as apparently obvious as Darwin’s thesis, but the state in which the study of civilization finds us (i.e., that it does not yet exist in anything like a scientific form) makes it necessary that we begin with the most rudimentary ideas and state them explicitly so that they can be understood to characterize our theoretical orientation, and can be tested against other similarly rudimentary ideas when we reach the point of being able to perceive that we are assuming these other ideas and that we therefore need to make these other ideas explicit also. Our understanding of civilization — like the origins of technology and civilization themselves — must begin simply and incrementally.

There is a characteristically amusing passage from Bertrand Russell in which Russell mentions beginning with assumptions apparently too obvious to mention:

“My desire and wish is that the things I start with should be so obvious that you wonder why I spend my time stating them. This is what I aim at because the point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”

Bertrand Russell, The Philosophy of Logical Atomism, 2, “Particulars, Predicates, and Relations”

Elsewhere, and in this case specifically in relation to history, Russell mentioned the rudimentary beginnings of scientific thought:

“…comparatively small and humble generalizations such as might form a beginning of a science (as opposed to a philosophy) of history.”

Bertrand Russell, Understanding History, New York: Philosophical Library, 1957, pp. 17-18

Perhaps Russell may have distinguished the scientific from the philosophical understanding of history such that philosophical understanding ends in paradox while scientific understand does not. In any case, whether we take Darwin’s Thesis to be too obvious to state, or to be a small and humble generalization (or both), it is at this level of simplicity that we must begin the scientific study of civilization.

The passage quoted above from Darwin makes reference to “barbarism” and “savagery,” which we today take to be evaluative terms with a strongly condescending connotation, but in Darwin’s time these were technical terms, and, moreover, they were technical terms related to a people’s level of technological development. These terms were very common in the late 19th and early 20th century, and subsequently fell out of use. In falling out of use, we have largely forgotten what these terms meant, and so there has been an prochronic misreading of older texts as though these terms were being used formerly as they are used today.

In my post Savagery, Barbarism, and Civilization I discussed the taxonomy of human development developed by Edward Burnett Tylor and expounded by Lewis Henry Morgan, which distinguished between savagery, barbarism, and civilization. For Tylor and Morgan, savagery extends through pre-pottery developments, barbarism from the invention of pottery to metallurgy, and civilization is reserved for societies that have a written language. This taxonomy is broken down in greater detail into eight stages of technological accomplishment — three stages of savagery, three of barbarism, and one of civilization (cf. Chapter I of Morgan’s Ancient Society).

Thus when Darwin wrote that savages have raised themselves by their own efforts a few degrees in the scale of civilization, what he meant was that hunter-gatherer nomads have, over time, developed technologies such as pottery, agriculture, herding, and metallurgy — something that most today would not dispute, even if they would not use the particular language that Darwin employed. Indeed, if Darwin were writing today he would himself employ different terminology, as the Tylor and Morgan terminology has been completely abandoned by the social sciences.

Edward Gibbon focused on the decline and fall of Rome, but he also noted that some technological achievements survived the process of decline he detailed.

Gibbon on the Continuity of Technology

Societies thus, following Darwin’s Thesis, begin in an uncivilized condition and raise themselves up through stages of technological development, and, following Tylor and Morgan, these stages can be quantified by the presence or absence of particular technologies. One might disagree concerning which particular technologies ought to be taken as markers of civilizational achievement, and yet still agree with the principle that technological development over time can be used to differentiate stages of development. One might, for instance, chose different representative technologies — say, the use of the bone needle to sew form-fitting clothing, the production of textiles, etc. It would be another matter to throw out the underlying principle.

Darwin also mentioned the possibility that, “Many nations… have fallen away in civilisation,” which implies that technological accomplishments can be lost. Implicit in this claim is the familiar idea of a cyclical conception of history. One might maintain that societies rise up in technological accomplishment, only to experience a crisis and to be returned to their original state, starting over from scratch in regard to technological development. We find an explicit argument against this in Edward Gibbon.

Gibbon is remembered as the historian of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and given Gibbon’s focus on declension it is especially interesting that Gibbon argued for the retention of technological achievement notwithstanding the collapse of social, political, and legal institutions. At the end of Volume 3 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gibbon wrote a kind of summary, “General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West,” which includes Gibbon’s thoughts on the technological progress of civilization. Gibbon presents a view that is entirely in accord with common sense, but one that is rarely expressed, though Gibbon has expressed this view in a strong form that probably admits of important qualifications:

“The discoveries of ancient and modern navigators, and the domestic history, or tradition, of the most enlightened nations, represent the human savage, naked both in body and mind and destitute of laws, of arts, of ideas, and almost of language. From this abject condition, perhaps the primitive and universal state of man, he has gradually arisen to command the animals, to fertilize the earth, to traverse the ocean and to measure the heavens. His progress in the improvement and exercise of his mental and corporeal faculties has been irregular and various; infinitely slow in the beginning, and increasing by degrees with redoubled velocity: ages of laborious ascent have been followed by a moment of rapid downfall; and the several climates of the globe have felt the vicissitudes of light and darkness. Yet the experience of four thousand years should enlarge our hopes, and diminish our apprehensions: we cannot determine to what height the human species may aspire in their advances towards perfection; but it may safely be presumed, that no people, unless the face of nature is changed, will relapse into their original barbarism. The improvements of society may be viewed under a threefold aspect. 1. The poet or philosopher illustrates his age and country by the efforts of a single mind; but those superior powers of reason or fancy are rare and spontaneous productions; and the genius of Homer, or Cicero, or Newton, would excite less admiration, if they could be created by the will of a prince, or the lessons of a preceptor. 2. The benefits of law and policy, of trade and manufactures, of arts and sciences, are more solid and permanent: and many individuals may be qualified, by education and discipline, to promote, in their respective stations, the interest of the community. But this general order is the effect of skill and labor; and the complex machinery may be decayed by time, or injured by violence. 3. Fortunately for mankind, the more useful, or, at least, more necessary arts, can be performed without superior talents, or national subordination: without the powers of one, or the union of many. Each village, each family, each individual, must always possess both ability and inclination to perpetuate the use of fire and of metals; the propagation and service of domestic animals; the methods of hunting and fishing; the rudiments of navigation; the imperfect cultivation of corn, or other nutritive grain; and the simple practice of the mechanic trades. Private genius and public industry may be extirpated; but these hardy plants survive the tempest, and strike an everlasting root into the most unfavorable soil. The splendid days of Augustus and Trajan were eclipsed by a cloud of ignorance; and the Barbarians subverted the laws and palaces of Rome. But the scythe, the invention or emblem of Saturn, still continued annually to mow the harvests of Italy; and the human feasts of the Læstrigons have never been renewed on the coast of Campania.”

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “General Observations On The Fall Of The Roman Empire In The West,” end of Chapter XXXVIII: Reign Of Clovis. Part VI.

Gibbon himself had detailed the extirpation of private genius and public industry in the case of the decline and fall of Rome, but he had also observed that, “…the more useful, or, at least, more necessary arts,” can survive on a local level which does not (or perhaps need not) experience dissolution even when larger social and political wholes fail and result in the extirpation of private genius and public industry on a larger scale. Gibbon concluded this summary as follows:

“Since the first discovery of the arts, war, commerce, and religious zeal have diffused, among the savages of the Old and New World, these inestimable gifts: they have been successively propagated; they can never be lost. We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion, that every age of the world has increased, and still increases, the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.”

Edward Gibbon, ibid.

In making the distinctions he did, Gibbon provided a relatively nuanced historical account of technological development, such that certain developments like the scythe would continue to be used even while more sophisticated manufactures fell out of production, and eventually out of use. Certainly this is what appears to have occurred with the decline of the industries of classical antiquity.

At some point in the ancient world, industry advanced to the point that it could produce artifacts like the Antikythera mechanism, and then at some point this industrial capacity was lost. One can speculate that the Antikythera mechanism was probably produced in the workshop of some city in which science, technology, and engineering had come together in a critical mass of knowledge and expertise to allow for the construction of such a device, and when Roman cities failed, this critical mass was scattered and the capacity to build devices like the Antikythera mechanism was lost. However, at the same time, the manorial estates and small villages to which urbanites fled when their cities ceased to function were able to keep lower levels of technology functioning. An estate or a village would have a forge at which iron sufficient for agricultural purposes could be produced, even if the ability to manufacture more sophisticated technologies was lost.

This idea of certain technologies being preserved in broadly-based human knowledge, in contradistinction to the technological accomplishments of gifted individuals or public institutions, I will call Gibbon’s Thesis on the Persistence of Technology, or, more simply, Gibbon’s Thesis. If contemporary civilization were to fail catastrophically, Gibbon’s Thesis would suggest to us that the heights of our technological accomplishments would be lost, but that technologies and techniques that could be locally produced and maintained, even without any particularly gifted individual or a larger socioeconomic structure, would persist — perhaps electric lights and basic telephone service, for example.

The Antikythera Mechanism

Technological Horizons

Darwin’s Thesis and Gibbon’s Thesis are theses on the origins and development of technological civilization, but the examples employed by Darwin and Gibbon do not bring us up to the level of technological accomplishment that we usually associate with the term “technological civilization,” though we could clearly associate their examples with nascent technological civilization, or embryonic technological civilization.

Gibbon’s Thesis can be used to define what I will call a horizon of technological development. I have previously discussed the archaeological use of the term “horizon” in Horizons of Spacefaring Civilizations, in which I quoted three definitions of horizon in archaeology, including David W. Anthony’s definition: “…a single artifact type or cluster of artifact types that spreads suddenly over a very wide geographic area.” While I have taken the term “horizon” from its use in archaeology, I have adapted it a bit (or more than a bit) for my own purposes. An artifact type may be an artistic style or a particular technology; in the present context we will only consider technologies and classes of technology that become common and hence widely represented in material culture.

The archaeological usage distinguishes horizon from tradition, and tends to view horizons as being of short duration (and traditions as being of long duration). I will use “horizon” to mean any relatively rapid expansion of some cluster of technologies, which may be the initial appearance of these artifact types, which may (but may not necessarily) remain common from that time forward, until their terminal horizon, if they disappear rapidly. For example, if human civilization were suddenly destroyed by a nuclear war, the technosignature of our EM spectrum radiation into to space would have a sudden terminal horizon when these EM signals ceased at about the same time.

The commonly used and understood technologies that Gibbon’s Thesis posits will survive the absence of gifted individuals and larger socioeconomic institutions are technological horizons of widely available technology that spread rapidly (though rapidity is relative to historical context) and which, if archaeologists were to excavate the appropriate layer, would be commonly represented in the material culture of a given time. When archaeologists dig up classical sites, they find pottery sherds everywhere; they find oil lamps; they find agricultural implements. To date, only one Antikythera mechanism has been found; it is the exception, and not the rule, so it represents a level of accomplishment, but not a horizon.

If a future archaeologist were to dig up the future remains of the present age, in what were industrialized nation-states there would be a horizon of electronic devices — computers, smart phones, DVD players — although outside the wealthy regions of the contemporary world these devices would be much less in evidence. And perhaps, in some technological enclaves, the ability to produce devices like this might continue even when a wider social order had failed. This is doubtful, however, so it may be necessary to reformulate Gibbon’s Thesis a little. Most of us today use technology that we do not understand, and we do not seem to be converging upon a society of engineers and technologists in which most people would understand (and be able to re-create) most of the technology they employ on a daily basis.

With this reflection, we have one possible way to distinguish proper technological civilizations: they are civilizations in which, because technology is the central project of the civilization, knowledge of technology is so widespread and so enthusiastically received that the technological horizon of the society is maintained at such a high level that even a small, local community could produce and maintain the advanced technologies they use on a daily basis.

If the ancient world had attained this kind of technological horizon, archaeologists would find devices like the Antikythera mechanism in every small town, and this kind of technology would have stayed in use and continued in development, rather than being lost of human memory. Our society today also is not at this technological horizon. Our most advanced technologies would be lost in a great social disruption, rather than continuing in use and development.

Those technologies that do persist in use throughout social disruptions also tend to continue in development, though that development may be very gradual. Gibbon cites the example of the scythe; we might also cite the example of the plow. From the first digging sticks employed at the dawn of agriculture to the mechanized plows of today, the plow has been in continual, gradual development for thousands of years. There is scarcely a period of human history in which plow technology did not experience some slight improvement, because it was a widely used technology, easily understood by those who used the technology, and so subject to continual minor improvement.

The Horizon of Industrialization and Technological Civilization

Agricultural civilization coincides with the horizon of agricultural technology. From a human perspective, the thousands of years of agricultural civilization is in no sense rapid or sudden, but from an archaeological, and even more so from a geological or paleontological perspective, the whole of agricultural civilization would represent a very thin layer in the geological record, a layer that in most cases would be lost due to other geological processes, but which is so widely present in the Earth that it could probably be found (especially if one knew what to look for).

Industrialized civilization coincides with the horizon of industrial technologies, and it is from the industrial technologies that our present advanced technologies are derived. Our present advanced technologies give us a hint of the technologies that might be available to a truly advanced civilization — say, a civilization that experienced the equivalent of our industrial revolution and then continued to develop for thousands of years, i.e., the development of industrial technologies on an historical order of magnitude equivalent to that of our experience of agricultural technologies. And this is probably what we intuitively have in mind when we use a term like “technological civilization.”

When industrialized civilization has endured for thousands of years, possibly with several minor disruptions, but not enough of a disruption to prevent the persistence of basic technologies (as per Gibbon’s Thesis), industrialized civilization, like agricultural civilization, will leave only a very thin and easily expungible layer in the Earth’s geological record. But this thin layer will be the industrial horizon, and, from the point of view of a future archaeologist who is digging up the Anthropocene, there won’t be much differentiation between the earliest part of this layer and the latest part of this layer, which latter is several thousand years beyond us yet. In this compactified history of industrial civilization, we are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from an advanced technological civilization.

Looking Ahead to Part III

Part II has been a bit of a detour into the origins and development of technological civilization, a departure from the more theoretical concerns about the institutional structure of technological civilizations introduced in Part I. However, this detour has allowed us to introduce and discuss Darwin’s Thesis, the Tylor-Morgan taxonomy, Gibbon’s Thesis, and the idea of technological horizons, which can then be employed in future installments for the exposition of further theoretical issues in the definition of technological civilization.

In Part III we will introduce more theoretical concepts to complement those of Part I, but which bear upon the development of technological civilization, unlike the theoretical concepts introduced in Part I which could be taken to characterize the structure of a civilization irrespective of its history or development.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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What is a technological civilization?

For lack of better terminology and classifications, we routinely refer to “technical civilizations” or “technological civilizations” in discussions of SETI and more generally when discussing the place of civilization in the cosmos. One often sees the phrase advanced technological civilizations (sometimes abbreviated “ATC,” as in the paper “Galactic Gradients, Postbiological Evolution and the Apparent Failure of SETI” by Milan M. Ćirković and Robert J. Bradbury). Martyn J. Fogg has used an alternative phrase, “extraterrestrial technical civilizations (ETTCs)” (in his paper “Temporal aspects of the Interaction among the First Galactic Civilizations: The ‘lnterdict Hypothesis’”) that seems to carry a similar meaning to “advanced technological civilizations.” Thus the usage “technological civilization” is fairly well established, but its definition is not. What constitutes a technological civilization?

A model of civilization applied to the problem of technological civilization

In formulating a model of civilization — an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project — I have a schematism by which a given civilization can be analyzed into constituent parts, and this makes it possible to lay out the permutations of the relationship of some human activity to the constituents of civilization, and the role that the human activity in question plays in the constitution of these constituents. Recently I have done this for spacefaring civilization (in Indifferently Spacefaring Civilizations) and for scientific civilization (in Science in a Scientific Civilization). A parallel formulation for technological civilization yields the following:

0. The null case: technology is not present in any of the elements that constitute a given civilization. This is a non-technological civilization. We will leave the question open as to whether a non-technological civilization is possible or not.

1. Economically technological civilization: technology is integral only to the economic infrastructure, and is absent elsewhere in the structures of civilization; also called intellectually indifferent technological civilization.

2. Intellectually technological civilization: technology is integral only to the intellectual superstructure of civilization, and is absent elsewhere in the structures of civilization; also called economically indifferent technological civilization.

3. Economically and intellectually technological civilization: technology is integral to both the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure of a civilization, but is absent in the central project; also known as morally indifferent technological civilization.

4. Properly technological civilization: technology is integral to the central project of a civilization.

There are three additional permutations not mentioned above:

Technology constitutes the central project but is absent in the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure.

Technology is integral with the central project and economic infrastructure, but is absent in the intellectual superstructure.

Technology is integral with the central project and intellectual infrastructure, but is absent in the economic infrastructure.

These latter three permutations are non-viable institutional structures and must be set aside. Because of the role that a central project plays in a civilization, whatever defines the central project is also, of necessity, integral to economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure.

In the case of technology, some of the other permutations I have identified may also be non-viable. As noted above, a non-technological civilization may be impossible, so that the null case would be a non-viable scenario. More troubling (from a technological point of view) is that technology itself may be too limited of an aspect of the human condition to function effectively as a central project. If this were the case, there could still be technological civilizations in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd senses given above, but there would be no properly technological civilization (as I have defined this). Is this the case?

Can technology function as the central project of a civilization?

At first thought technology would seem to be an unlikely candidate for a viable central project, but there are several ways in which technology could be integral in a central project. Spacefaring is a particular technology; virtual reality is also a particular technology. Presumably civilizations that possess these technologies and pursue them as central projects (either or both of them) are properly technological civilizations, even if the two represent vastly different, or in same cases mutually exclusive, forms of social development. Civilizations that take a particular technology as their central project by definition have technology as their central project, and so would be technological civilizations. For that matter, the same can be said of agriculture: agriculture is a particular technology, and so agricultural civilizations are technological civilizations in this sense.

A scientific civilization such as I discussed in Science in a Scientific Civilization would have technology integral with its central project, in so far as contemporary science, especially “big science,” is part of the STEM cycle in which science develops new technologies that are engineered into industries that supply tools for science to further develop new technologies. Technological development is crucial to continuing scientific development, so that a scientific civilization would also be a technological civilization.

In both of these examples — technological civilizations based on a particular technology, and technological civilizations focused on science — technology as an end in itself, technology for technology’s sake, as it were, is not the focus of the central project, even though technology is inseparable from the central project. Within the central project, then, meaningful distinctions can be made in which a particular element that is integral to the central project may or may not be an end in itself.

Technology as an end in itself

For a civilization to be a properly technological civilization in the sense that technology itself was an end in itself — a civilization of the engineers, by the engineers, and for the engineers, you could say — the valuation of technology would have to be something other than the instrumental valuation of technology as integral to the advancement of science or as the conditio sine qua non of some particular human activity that requires some particular technology. Something like this is suggested in Tinkering with Artificial Intelligence: On the Possibility of a Post-Scientific Technology, in which I speculated on technology that works without us having a scientific context for understanding how it works.

If the human interest were there to make a fascination with such post-scientific technologies central to human concerns, then there would be the possibility of a properly technological civilization in the sense of technology as an end in itself. Arguably, we can already see intimations of this in the contemporary fascination with personal electronic devices, which increasingly are the center of attention of human beings, and not only in the most industrialized nation-states. I remember when I was visiting San Salvador de Jujuy (when I traveled to Argentina in 2010), I saw a street sweeper — not a large piece of machinery, but an individual pushing a small garbage can on wheels and sweeping the street with a broom and a dustpan — focused on his mobile phone, and I was struck by the availability of mobile electronic technologies to be in the hands of a worker in a non-prestigious industry in a nation-state not in the top 20 of global GDP. (San Salvador de Jujuy is not known as place for sightseeing, but the city left a real impression on me, and I had some particularly good empanadas there.)

This scenario for a properly technological civilization is possible, but I still do not view it as likely, as most people do not have an engineer’s fascination with technology. However, it would not be difficult to formulate scenarios in which a somewhat richer central project that included technology as an end in itself, along with other elements that would constitute a cluster of related ideas, could function in such a way as to draw in the bulk of a society’s population and so function as a coherent social focus of a civilization.

Preliminary conclusions

Having come thus far in our examination of technological civilizations, we can already draw some preliminary conclusions, and I think that these preliminary conclusions again point to the utility of the model of civilization that I am employing. Because a properly technological civilization seems to be at least somewhat unlikely, but indifferently technological civilizations seem to be the rule, and are perhaps necessarily the rule (because technology precedes civilization and all civilizations make use of some technologies), the force of the ordinary usage of “technological civilization” is not to single out those civilizations that I would say are properly technological civilizations, but rather to identify a class of civilizations in which technology has reached some stage of development (usually an advanced stage) and some degree of penetration into society (usually a pervasive degree).

How this points to the utility of the model of civilization I am employing is, firstly, to distinguish between properly technological civilizations and indifferently technological civilizations, to know the difference between these two classes, and to be able to identify the ordinary usage of “technological civilization” as the intersection of the class of all properly technological civilizations and the class of all indifferently technological civilizations. Secondly, the model of civilization I am employing allows us to identify classes of civilization based not only upon shared properties, but also upon the continuity of shared properties over time, even when this continuity bridges distinct civilizations and may not single out any one civilization.

In the tripartite model of civilization — as above, an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project — technology and technological development may inhere in any one or all three of these elements of civilization. The narrowest and most restrictive definition of civilization is that which follows from the unbroken continuity of all three elements of the tripartite model: a civilization begins when all three identified elements are present, and it ends when one or more elements fail or change. With the understanding that “technological civilization” is not primarily used to identify civilizations that have technology as their central project, but rather is used to identify the scope and scale of technology employed in a given civilization, this usage does not correspond to the narrowest definition of civilization under the tripartite model.

Significance for the study of civilization

We use “technological civilization” much as we may use labels like “western civilization” or “European civilization” or “agricultural civilization,” and these are not narrow definitions that single out particular individual civilizations, but rather broad categories that identify a large number of distinct civilizations, i.e., under the umbrella concept of European civilizations we might include many civilizations in the narrowest sense. For example, Jacob Burckhardt’s famous study The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy identifies a regional civilization specific to a place and a time. This is a civilization defined in the narrowest sense. There are continuities between the renaissance civilization in Italy and our own civilization today, but this is a continuity that falls short of the narrowest definition of civilization. Similarly, the continuity of those civilizations we would call “technological” falls short of the narrowest possible definition of a technological civilization (which would be a properly technological civilization), but it is a category of civilization that may involve the continuity of technology in the economic infrastructure, continuity of technology in the intellectual superstructure, or both.

The lesson here for any study of civilization is that “civilization” means different things even though we do not yet have a vocabulary to distinguish the different senses of civilization as we casually employ the term. We may speak of “the civilization of the renaissance in Italy” (the narrowest conception of civilization) in the same breath that we speak of “technological civilization” (a less narrow conception) though we don’t mean the same thing in each case. To preface “civilization” with some modifier — European, western, technological, renaissance — implies that each singles out a class of civilizations in more-or-less the same way, but now we see that this is not the case. The virtue of the tripartite model is that it gives us a systematic method for differentiating the ways in which classes of civilizations are defined. It only remains to formulate an intuitively accessible terminology in order to convey these different meanings.

Looking ahead to Part II

In the case of SETI and its search for technological civilizations (which is the point at which I started this post), the continuity in question would not be that of historical causality, but rather of the shared properties of a category of civilizations. What are these shared properties? What distinguishes the class of technological civilizations? How are technological civilizations related to each other in space and time? We will consider these and other questions in Part II.

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This is technological civilization after the industrial revolution, though we don’t think of this as “high” technology; this will be discussed in Part II.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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John Stuart Mill, philosopher and economist.

In my previous post, The Illiberal Conception of Freedom, I attempted to describe a conception of human freedom that has become distant and alien to us, but which was familiar to everyone for the greater part of human history. Much more familiar to us, living after the Enlightenment, is the liberal conception of freedom, which had among its greatest exponents John Stuart Mill. Here is one of his classic statements of the liberal conception of freedom:

“…the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, I

We can understand the work of John Stuart Mill as part of the Victorian achievement, embodying some of the most trenchant social and political thought of the 19th century, and doing so in admirable Victorian prose that is difficult to quote because Mill’s sentences are long and his paragraphs very long indeed. The passage above is the shortest quote I could tear from context that still carries what I take to be its essential meaning.

It is in Mill that we find some of the most eloquent expressions of human freedom and of the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual. These are ideals not only of a conception of freedom peculiar to the Enlightenment, but also perennial ideals of the human spirit, and would probably be recognizable in any age. If we could have transported John Stuart Mill back in time and place him in an earlier social milieu, I suspect he would have had much the same to say, even if in a different idiom.

Even though we can recognize the perennial character of the liberal conception of freedom no less than the perennial conception of the illiberal conception of freedom, the former conception, given eloquent expression by Mill, only fully comes into its own in the modern period, in the context of a social and political milieu that is distinctive to the modern period. And this observation points to an inadequacy in my previous exposition of the illiberal conception of freedom: I failed to place this latter conception in the context of the social milieu and political institutions in which it can best be realized.

That the liberal conception of freedom can only be fully realized in the context of liberal democracy is implied by the fact that both liberal freedom and liberal democracy were ideals expressed by Mill. He was the author not only of On Liberty, but also of On Representative Government. These parallel ideas of the liberal freedom of the individual realized within liberal democracy society are part of the core of the Enlightenment ideal, which is the implicit (and imperfectly realized) central project of contemporary civilization, which could be called Enlightenment civilization.

The illiberal conception of freedom is no less perennial, and could well be realized in the milieu of liberal democratic society, but it would be best realized in the context of a society that understands the meaning of and values the ideals that lie at the center of the illiberal conception of freedom; a society in which the spiritual discipline to attain freedom from the flesh and its appetites is valued above other purposes that an individual might pursue. The ideals of feudalism — as imperfectly realized in actual feudal societies as the Enlightenment is imperfectly realized in our society — constitute the optimal context in which the illiberal conception of freedom could be realized. The chivalric ideal of the knight as an individual who has achieved perfect martial and spiritual discipline (as expressed, for example, in In Praise of the New Knighthood by St. Bernard of Clairvaux) exemplifies the illiberal conception of freedom in a Christian social context.

Both traditional feudal societies and modern Enlightenment societies fall short of their ideals, and the individuals who jointly comprise these societies fall short of the ideals of freedom embodied in each respective social order. That both ideals are imperfectly realized means that there are perversions and corruptions of the illiberal conception of freedom no less than perversions and corruptions of the liberal conception of freedom. We need to say this because it is the nature of an ideal to contrast the ideal to its complement, that is to say, to everything that is not the ideal. This idealistic perspective tends to throw together into one basket everything that deviates from the most pure and perfect exemplification of the one or the other. It would be relatively easy, then, to conflate a perversion or a corruption of the liberal conception of freedom with the illiberal conception of freedom itself, or with a perversion or a corruption of the illiberal conception of freedom. Principled distinctions are important, and must be observed if we are not to lose ourselves in confusion.

Minding the distinctions among varieties of freedom and their corruptions is important because there are substantive differences as well as commonalities. As different as the liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom are, both are conceptions of freedom realized within a social and political context that optimally actualizes them. There are other varieties of freedom of which this is not the case.

Both the liberal and the illiberal conception of freedom are equally opposed to the anarchic conception of freedom, which could also be called the Hobbesian conception of freedom, which is the freedom that obtains in the state of nature, which is, “…a perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour…” Or, in more detail:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”


In the state of nature, there is perfect freedom, but this perfect freedom entails the possibility of being deprived of our freedom at any moment by the equally perfect freedom of another, who has the freedom to murder us, as we have the freedom to murder him. This Hobbesian conception of freedom — so terrifying to Hobbes that he thought everyone must give away their rights to a sovereign Leviathan that could enforce limits to this perfect freedom in a state of nature — holds only outside social and political milieux. The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom hold only within social miliuex, and each is best realized in a social milieu that reflects the ideals implicit in the respective conception of freedom.

The liberal and illiberal conceptions of freedom, then, have some properties in common, and so are not entirely disjoint. There remains the possibility that an extraordinary individual might exemplify the ideals both of liberal and illiberal freedom, asserting in action the sovereignty, autonomy, and dignity of the individual in both the liberal and illiberal spheres. Mill wrote that, “…over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” The theorist of illiberal freedom would assert that the individual could never be sovereign over his own body and mind until he had achieved the discipline over body and mind that is the ideal of the illiberal conception of freedom. Realization of the ideal of the liberal conception of freedom, then, may be predicated upon a prior realization of the illiberal conception of freedom.

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On 17 April 2018 French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech to the EU parliament in which he stated, “There is a fascination with the illiberal, that is growing all the time.” Since being elected French president Macron has campaigned passionately and tirelessly for reforms in the EU, and while Macron seems to be pretty “woke” to the actual problems facing the EU, his “solution” to this problem is not anything controversial from an EU standpoint, but rather the familiar EU talking point that, if the EU isn’t working quite as well as way hoped, then the solution is more EU. In other words, Macron is doubling down on the EU. To be fair, Macron is also insisting upon changes in the EU that might make a small difference, but at a time when closer European unity is so controversial that EU leaders don’t dare put it to a popular vote, Macron’s reforms are too little, too late. Nevertheless, he gets a gold star for trying.

Macron’s 17 April 2018 speech wasn’t the only speech in which he cited growing illiberalism as a concern. In his speech to the US Congress on 25 April 2018 he said the following:

“Together with our international allies and partners, we are facing inequalities created by globalization; threats to the planet, our common good; attacks on democracies through the rise of illiberalism; and the destabilization of our international community by new powers and criminal states.”

Last year on Hallowe’en, Macron gave a speech at the European Court of Human Rights which included this:

“We are witnessing a resurgence of authoritarian regimes or a fascination in many parts of Europe for illiberal democracies; in my opinion, it is here that the coherence and strength of the responses to the challenges just mentioned must be built.”

Earlier in the same speech, in speaking of the, “traumatic experience of Europeans” (i.e., the Second World War and its aftermath), Macron said:

“Who could seriously claim that the worst is behind us and that we can afford to dilute the strength of the universal principles which bind us? Who could consider that these risks of illiberal democracy, an inward-looking approach and a surreptitious or assumed undermining of our values and our principles are now far behind us?”

This passage is especially interesting for its explicit contrast of Enlightenment universalism with illiberal democracy, and the connection of illiberal democracy with an “inward-looking approach.”

Macron’s warnings of illiberalism got me to thinking. It would probably be fair to say that I am fascinated with illiberal ideas, so when I heard this coming out of Macron’s mouth it really got my attention. Macron didn’t name names — perhaps he was thinking about Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or perhaps he was thinking about how Hitler came to power democratically — when he warned of “illiberal democracy,” but we can ask ourselves, from a principled standpoint (in contradistinction from particular historical examples), what an illiberal democracy would be. Could we even ask, what an illiberal democracy ought to be? Can we even speak in terms of “ought” when we are talking about something that is being derided as a danger?

Thinking about the possibility of illiberal democracy led me to think about what could be called the illiberal conception of freedom, and with this we find ourselves in the presence of an ancient idea in western thought that has been a touchstone of western civilization — but a touchstone that has been among the traditions that the rise of the Enlightenment has at very least occluded, when it hasn’t actually openly attacked the illiberal conception of freedom. So this is important. This is a crucial point at which the Enlightenment project parts ways with the most ancient sources of the western tradition, and in so far as the Enlightenment project is the central project of contemporary civilization (an argument I intend to make elsewhere, but have not yet formulated in detail), this is one of the points at which the Enlightenment represents a rupture with the past and a new form of civilization derived from this preemption of the previous central project of western civilization.

What is the illiberal conception of freedom? I happened to find a perfect evocation of it in Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Herder, in which Berlin, discussing the Protestant Pietists, writes of, “…above all their preoccupation with the life of the spirit which alone liberated men from the bonds of the flesh and nature.” (Vico & Herder: Two Studies in the History of Ideas, New York: Vintage, 1977, p. 152) There you have it in a nutshell. The traditional conception of human nature is that it is in slavish bondage to the flesh, to nature, to the world, and can only be freed from this bondage through the cultivation of the spirit.

The illiberal conception of freedom is implicit in Plato’s critique of democracy in Book VIII of the Republic. Democracy, according to Plato, in seeking to place personal freedom above and before all else, inevitably degenerates into tyranny because it places demagogues in power who ultimately destroy the institutions that raised them to high office. Freedom thus issues in its opposite. Thucydides’ description of revolution on Corcyra (modern Corfu) in his History of the Peloponnesian War is eerily reminiscent of Plato’s more abstract and theoretical account of the collapse of democracy into tyranny. The Platonic critique of democratic freedom is often formulated as a distinction between true freedom and mere license (which latter is presumably what leads to the ruin of democracies). For a treatment of the positive content of Plato’s conception of freedom cf. Siobhán McLoughlin’s The Freedom of the Good: A Study of Plato’s Ethical Conception of Freedom.

The illiberal conception of freedom is one of the central themes of Spinoza’s Ethics, Part IV of which is “Of Human Bondage,” in which Spinoza seeks to demonstrate (and I do mean demonstrate) that the human will is in bondage to emotion (which in most translations is rendered “affects”). Spinoza opens Part IV with a forthright statement of this thesis:

“Human infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.”

In Part V of the Ethics, Spinoza attains remarkably heights of eloquence and intellectual nobility in praising the life of the man who can overcome the bondage of his emotional life through the exercise of the intellect. While Spinoza’s formulations are thoroughly rationalistic, his message is essentially the same message of his contemporaries the Pietists, about whom Isaiah Berlin was writing in the passage I quoted above, and who expressed these ideas in a spiritual form rather than a rationalistic form.

With the arrival of the Enlightenment, the idea of a spiritual discipline leading to an inner freedom seemed, if not merely quaint, to be actually opposed to “true” human freedom. Hume, one of the great representatives of the Enlightenment, ridiculed the traditional forms of spiritual discipline in the western tradition:

“Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.”

David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, Section IX, Conclusion, Part I

It is interesting to compare this famous passage from Hume with a remarkably similarly passage from Spinoza, also in Part IV of the Ethics:

“…it rarely happens that men live in obedience to reason, for things are so ordered among them, that they are generally envious and troublesome one to another. Nevertheless they are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury. Let satirists then laugh their fill at human affairs, let theologians rail, and let misanthropes praise to their utmost the life of untutored rusticity, let them heap contempt on men and praises on beasts; when all is said, they will find that men can provide for their wants much more easily by mutual help, and that only by uniting their forces can they escape from the dangers that on every side beset them: not to say how much more excellent and worthy of our knowledge it is, to study the actions of men than the actions of beasts.”

We can see from these two passages that Spinoza and Hume are, at least in some respects, closer to each other than any simplistic contrast between liberal freedom and illiberal freedom would suggest. Spinoza and Hume might find common ground if their shades could discuss the question, but the social context of freedom has radically changed both from that of Spinoza and that of Hume. While the world that Spinoza knew is entirely lost, we can also say that what the Enlightenment was in Hume’s time was not yet what the Enlightenment project has become for us today.

Especially since the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of freedom has come to mean “doing your own thing,” which Plato would have called “license” and which more or less involves indulging the individual’s appetites to their limits and beyond. From a superficial perspective, the liberal conception of freedom has triumphed, and as it has triumphed it has trapped us in the idea of realizing our own “authenticity” (in the language of existentialists) and “self-actualization” (in the language of psychology and psychiatry). And yet, for all the authenticity and self-actualization we have lived through, the psychoanalysts have also diagnosed a condition of the “existential void.” That an existential void would attend the indulgence of human appetites would not have surprised any of the theorists of the illiberal conception of freedom.

Is there any place for or possibility of the illiberal conception of freedom today? Should we regard the illiberal conception of freedom as a relic of traditionalism of which we are best rid? Or is there any perennial wisdom in the idea that may have some applicability to the world today? Has the world changed too dramatically for the individual today to seek inner spiritual perfection (and hence spiritual freedom)? Is the illiberal conception of freedom a retreat from the world, an admission of defeat? Is it necessary to turn from the world in order to cultivate the life of the spirit, or can one remain engaged with world and also with the life of the spirit? I will leave these questions for another time.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Queen Victoria reigned 20 June 1837 to 22 January 1901.

There is not only an insufficient appreciation of the Victorian achievement in history, but perhaps more importantly there is an insufficient understanding of the Victorian achievement. Victorian civilization — and I will avail myself of this locution understanding that most would allow that the Victorianism was a period in the history of western civilization, but not itself a distinct civilization — achieved nothing less than the orderly transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. As such, Victorianism became the template for other societies to make this transition without revolutionary violence.

The transition from agriculturalism to industrialism was the most disruptive in the history of civilization, and can only be compared in its impact to the emergence of agricultural civilization from pre-civilized nomadic hunter-gatherers. But whereas the the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism occurred over thousands of years, the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization has in some cases occurred within a hundred years (though the transition is still underway on a planetary scale). The Victorians not only managed this transition, and were the first people in history to manage this transition, they moreover managed this transition without catastrophic warfare, without the widespread breakdown of civil order, and with a certain sense of style. It could be argued that, if the Victorians had not managed this transition so well, rather than a new form of civilization taking shape, the industrial revolution might have resulted in the collapse of civilization and a new dark age.

Today we think of Victorianism as a highly repressive social and cultural milieu that was finally cast aside with the innovations of the Edwardian era and then the great scientific and social revolutions that characterized the early twentieth century and which then instituted dramatic social and cultural changes that ever after left the Victorian period in the shadows of history. But Victorian repression was not arbitrary; it served a crucial social function in its time, and it may well have been the only possible social and cultural mechanism that would have made it possible for any society to be the first to make the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism.

Victorianism not only made an orderly transition possible from agriculturalism to industrialism, it also made possible an orderly transition from a social order (i.e., a central project) based on religious tradition to a social order that was largely secular. Americans (especially Americans who don’t travel) are not aware of the degree to which European society is secularized, and much of this occurred in the nineteenth century. Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach was an important early expression of secularization.

Nietzsche already saw this secularization happening in the nineteenth century, and, of course, Darwin, a proper English gentleman, worked his own scientific revolution in the midst of the Victorian period, which played an important role in secularization. Rather than being personally destroyed for his efforts — which is what almost any other society would have done to a man like Darwin — Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey and treated like a national hero.

Considerable intellectual toughness was a necessary condition of making a peaceful transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, and we can find the requisite toughness in the writers of nineteenth century England. The intellectual honesty of Matthew Arnold is bracing and refreshing. Arnold’s “Sweetness and Light” is a remarkable essay, and not at all how we today would characterize the aspirations of Victorian society, but in comparison to the horrific counterfactual that might have attended the industrial revolution under other circumstances, the grim Victorian world described so movingly by Charles Dickens is relatively benign. Since we have, for the most part, in our collective historical imagination, consigned nineteenth century English literature to our understanding of a genteel and proper Victorianism, it is easy to believe that the men of the nineteenth century did not yet possess the kind of raw, unsparing honesty that the twentieth century forced upon us. Reading Arnold now, in the twenty-first century, I see that this is not true.

Matthew Arnold’s world may have been innocent of World Wars, Holocausts, genocides, nuclear annihilation, and the rigorously realized horrors bequeathed to us by the twentieth century, but it was not an innocent world. History may always reveal new horrors to us, but even in the slightly less horrific past, there were horrors aplenty to preclude any kind of robust innocence on the part of human beings. And it is interesting to reflect that, while the Victorian Era is remembered for its social and cultural repression, it is not remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities.

This is significant in light of the fact that the twentieth century, which has been seen as a liberation of society once Victorian constraints were swept away, is remembered for the scope and scale of its atrocities. Again, the Victorians did a better job than we did in managing the great transitions of our respective times. Voltaire famously said (during the Enlightenment) that we commit atrocities because we believe absurdities. If this is true, then the absurdities believed by the Victorians were less pernicious than the absurdities believed in the twentieth century.

The late-Victorian or early Edwardian Oscar Wilde in his De Profundis was raw and unsparing, but was rather too self-serving to measure up to the standard of intellectual honesty set by Matthew Arnold. (I fully understand that most of my contemporaries would probably disagree with this judgment.) However, Wilde’s heresies, like Arnold’s honesty, was characterized by a great sense of style. We may criticize the Victorian legal and penal system for essentially destroying Wilde, but it was also the Victorian cultural milieu that made Oscar Wilde possible. If Wilde had not been quite so daring, he might have gotten by without provoking the authorities to respond to him as it did.

Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism is a wonderful essay, employing the resources of Wilde’s legendary wit in order to to make a serious point. Like many of Wilde’s famous witticisms, his central motif is the contravention of received wisdom, forcing us to see things in a new perspective. Though we know in hindsight the caustic if not criminal consequences for individualism under socialism, Wilde did not have the benefit of hindsight, and Wilde makes the case that socialism will make authentic individualism possible for the first time. Wilde’s conception of individualism under socialism was in fact a paean to his own individualism, carved out within the limitations of Victorian society. This, too, is an ongoing legacy of Victorianism, which was sufficiently large and comprehensive to include individuals as diverse as Queen Victoria, Charles Darwin, Matthew Arnold, and Oscar Wilde.

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Knowledge relevant to the Fermi paradox will expand if human knowledge continues to expand, and we can expect human knowledge to continue to expand for as long as civilization in its contemporary form endures. Thus the development of scientific knowledge, once the threshold of modern scientific method is attained (which, in terrestrial history, was the scientific revolution), is a function of “L” in the Drake equation, i.e., a function of the longevity of civilization. It is possible that there could be a qualitative change in the nature of civilization that would mean the continuation the civilization but without the continuing expansion of scientific knowledge. However, if we take “L” in the big picture, a civilization may undergo qualitative changes throughout its history, some of which would be favorable to the expansion of scientific knowledge, and some of which would be unfavorable to the same. Under these conditions, scientific knowledge will tend to increase over the long term up to the limit of possible scientific knowledge (if there is such a limit).

At least part of the paradox of the the Fermi paradox is due to our limited knowledge of the universe of which we are a part. With the expansion of our scientific knowledge the “solution” to the Fermi paradox may be slowly revealed to us (which could include the “no paradox” solution to the paradox, i.e., the idea that the Fermi paradox isn’t really paradoxical at all if we properly understand it, which is an understanding that may dawn on us gradually), or it may hit us all at once if we have a major breakthrough that touches upon the Fermi paradox. For example, a robust SETI signal confirmed to emanate from an extraterrestrial source might open up the floodgates of scientific knowledge through interstellar idea diffusion from a more advanced civilization. This isn’t a likely scenario, but it is a scenario in which we not only confirm that we are not alone in the universe, but also in which we learn enough to formulate a scientific explanation of our place in the universe.

The growth of scientific knowledge could push our understanding of the Fermi paradox in several different directions, which again points to our relative paucity of knowledge of our place in the universe. In what follows I want to construct one possible direction of the growth of scientific knowledge and how it might inform our ongoing understanding of the Fermi paradox and its future formulations.

At the present stage of the acquisition of scientific knowledge and the methodological development of science (which includes the development of technologies that expand the scope of scientific research), we are aware of ourselves as the only known instance of life, of consciousness, of intelligence, of technology, and of civilization in the observable universe. These emergent complexities may be represented elsewhere in the universe, but we do not have any empirical evidence of these emergent complexities beyond Earth.

Suppose, then, that scientific knowledge expands along with human civilization. Suppose we arrive at the geologically complex moons of Jupiter and Saturn, whether in the form of human explorers or in the form of automated spacecraft, and despite sampling several subsurface oceans and finding them relatively clement toward life, they are all nevertheless sterile. And suppose that we extensively research Mars and find no subsurface, deep-dwelling microorganisms on the Red Planet. Suppose we search our entire solar system high and low and there is no trace of life anywhere except on Earth. The solar system, in this scenario, is utterly sterile except for Earth and the microbes that may float into space from the upper atmosphere.

Further suppose that, even after we discover a thoroughly sterile solar system, all of the growth of scientific knowledge either confirms or is consistent with the present body of scientific knowledge. That is to say, we add to our scientific knowledge throughout the process of exploring the solar system, but we don’t discover anything that overturns our scientific knowledge in a major way. There may be “revolutionary” expansions of knowledge, but no revolutionary paradigm shifts that force us to rethink science from the ground up.

At this stage, what are we to think? The science that brought to to see the potential problem represented by the Fermi paradox is confirmed, meaning that our understanding of biology, the origins of life, and the development of planets in our solar system is refined but not changed, but we don’t find any other life even in environments in which we would expect to find life, as in clement subsurface oceans. I think this would sharpen the feeling of the paradoxicalness of the Fermi paradox still without shedding much light on an improved formulation of the problem that would seem less paradoxical, but it wouldn’t sharpen the paradox to a degree that would force a paradigm shift and a reassessment of our place in the universe, i.e., it wouldn’t force us to rethink the astrobiology of the human condition.

Let us take this a step further. Suppose our technology improves to the point that we can visit a number of nearby planetary systems, again, whether by human exploration or by automated spacecraft. Supposed we visit a dozen nearby stars in our galactic neighborhood and we find a few planets that would be perfect candidates for living worlds with a biosphere — in the habitable zone of their star, geologically complex with active plate tectonics, liquid surface water, appropriate levels of stellar insolation without deadly levels of radiation or sterilizing flares, etc. — and these worlds are utterly sterile, without even so much as a microbe to be found. No sign of life. And no sign of life in any other nooks and crannies of these other planetary systems, which will no doubt also have subsurface oceans beyond the frost line, and other planets that might give rise to other forms of life.

At this stage in the expansion of our scientific knowledge, we would probably begin to think that the Fermi paradox was to be resolved by the rarity of the origins of life. In other words, the origins of life is the great filter. We know that there is a lot of organic chemistry in the universe, but what doesn’t take place very often is the integration of organic molecules into self-replicating macro-molecules. This would be a reasonable conclusion, and might prove to be an additional spur to studying the origins of life on Earth. Again, our deep dive both into other planets and into the life sciences, confirms what we know about science and finds no other life (in the present thought experiment).

While there would be a certain satisfaction in narrowing the focus of the Fermi paradox to the origins of life, if the growth of scientific knowledge continues to confirm the basic outlines of what we know about the life sciences, it would still be a bit paradoxical that the life sciences understood in a completely naturalistic manner would render the transition from organic molecules to self-replicating macro-molecules so rare. In addition to prompting a deep dive into origins of life research, there would probably also be a lot of number-crunching in order to attempt to nail down the probability of an origins of life event taking place given all the right elements are available (and in this thought experiment we are stipulating that all the right elements and all the right conditions are in place).

Suppose, now, that human civilization becomes a spacefaring supercivilization, in possession of technologies so advanced that we are more-or-less empowered to explore the universe at will. In our continued exploration of the universe and the continued growth of scientific knowledge, the same scenario as previously described continues to obtain: our scientific knowledge is refined and improved but not greatly upset, but we find that the universe is utterly and completely sterile except for ourselves and other life derived from the terrestrial biosphere. This would be “proof” of a definitive kind that terrestrial life is unique in the universe, but would this finding resolve the Fermi paradox? Wouldn’t it be a lot like cutting the Gordian knot to assert that the Fermi paradox was resolved because only a single origins of life event occurred in the universe? Wouldn’t we want to know why the origins of life was such a hurdle? We would, and I suspect that origins of life research would be pervasively informed by a desire to understand the rarity of the event.

Suppose that we ran the numbers on the kind of supercomputers that a supercivilization would have available to it, and we found that, even though our application of probability to the life sciences indicated the origins of life events should, strictly speaking, be very rare, they shouldn’t be so rare that there was only a single, unique origins of life event in the history of the universe. Say, given the age and the extent of the universe, which is very old and vast beyond human comprehension, life should have originated, say, a half dozen times. However, at this point we are a spacefaring supercivilization, we can can empirically confirm that there is no other life in the universe. We would not have missed another half dozen instances of life, and yet our science points to this. However, a half dozen compared to no other instances of life isn’t yet even an order of magnitude difference, so it doesn’t bother us much.

We can ratchet up this scenario as we have ratcheted up the previous scenarios: probability and biology might converge upon a likelihood of a dozen instances of other origins of life events, or a hundred such instances, and so on, until the orders of magnitude pile up and we have a paradox on our hands again, despite having exhaustive empirical evidence of the universe and its sterility.

At what point in the escalation of this scenario do we begin to question ourselves and our scientific understanding in a more radical way? At what point does the strangeness of the universe begin to point beyond itself, and we begin to consider non-naturalistic solutions to the Fermi paradox, when, by some ways of understanding the paradox, it has been fully resolved, and should be regarded as such by any reasonable person? At what point should a rational person consider as a possibility that a universe empty of life except for ourselves might be the result of supernatural creation? At what point would we seriously consider the naturalistic equivalent of supernatural creation, say, in a scenario such as the simulation hypothesis? It might make more sense to suppose that we are an experiment in cosmic isolation conducted by some greater intelligence, than to suppose that the universe entire is sterile except for ourselves.

I should be clear that I am not advocating a non-naturalistic solution to the Fermi paradox. However, I find it an interesting philosophical question that there might come a point at which the resolution of a paradox requires that we look beyond naturalistic explanations, and perhaps we may have to, in extremis, reconsider the boundary between the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic. I have been thinking about this problem a lot lately, and it seems to me that the farther we depart from the ordinary business of life, when we attempt to think about scales of space and time inaccessible to human experience (whether the very large or the very small), the line between the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic becomes blurred, and perhaps it ultimately ceases to be meaningful. In order to solve the problem of the universe and our place within the universe (if it is a problem), we may have to consider a solution set that is larger than that dictated by the naturalism of science on a human scale. This is not a call for supernaturalistic explanations for scientific problems, but rather a call to expand the scope of science beyond the bounds with which we are currently comfortable.

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The truncated icosahedron geometry employed for the symmetrical shockwave compression of fission implosion devices.

The simplest nuclear weapon is commonly known as a gun-type device, because it achieves critical mass by forcing together two sub-critical masses of uranium through a mechanism very much like a gun that shoots a smaller wedge-shaped sub-critical mass into a larger sub-critical mass. This was the design of the “Little Boy” Hiroshima atomic bomb. The next level of complexity in nuclear weapon design was the implosion device, which relied upon conventional explosives to symmetrically compress a larger reflector/tamper sphere of U-238 into a smaller sphere of Pu-239, with a polonium-beryllium “Urchin” initiator at the very center. The scientists of the Manhattan project were so certain that the gun-type device would work that they didn’t even bother to test it, so the first nuclear device to be tested, and indeed the first nuclear explosion on the planet, was the Gadget device designed to be the proof of concept of the more sophisticated implosion design. It worked, and this design was used for the “Fat Man” atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

These early nuclear weapon designs (conceptually familiar, but all the engineering designs are still very secret) are usually called First Generation nuclear weapons. The two-stage thermonuclear devices (fission primaries to trigger fusion secondaries, though most of the explosive yield still derives from fission) designed and tested a few years later, known as the Teller-Ulam design (and tested with the Ivy Mike device), were called Second Generation nuclear weapons. A number of ideas were floated for third generation nuclear weapons design, and probably many were tested before the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty came into effect (and for all practical purposes brought an end to the rapid development of nuclear weapon design). One of the design concepts for Third Generation nuclear weapons was that of a shaped charge that could direct the energy of the explosion, rather that dissipating the blast in an omnidirecitonal explosion. There are also a lot of concepts for Fourth Generation nuclear weapons, though many of these ideas are both on the cutting edge of technology and they can’t be legally tested, so it is likely that little will come of these as long as the current test ban regime remains in place.

According to Kosta Tsipis, “Nuclear weapons designed to maximize certain of their properties and to suppress others are considered to constitute a third generation in the sense that their design goes beyond the basic, even though sophisticated, design of modern thermonuclear weapons.” These are sometimes also referred to as “tailored effects.” Examples of tailored effects include enhanced radiation warheads (the “neutron bomb”), so-called “salted” nuclear weapons like the proposed cobalt bomb, electro-magnetic pulse weapons (EMP), and the X-ray laser. We will here be primarily interesting in enhancing the directionality of a nuclear detonation, as in the case of the Casaba-Howitzer, shaped nuclear charges, and the X-ray laser.

What I would like to propose as a WMD is the use of multiple shaped nuclear charges directing their blast at a common center. This is like a macroscopic implementation of the implosion employed in first generation nuclear weapons. The symmetry of implosion in the gadget device and the Fat Man bomb employed 32 simultaneous high explosive charges, arranged according to the geometry of a truncated icosahedron, which would result in a nicely symmetrical convergence on the central trigger without having to scale up to an unrealistic number of high explosive charges for an even more evenly symmetrical implosion. (The actual engineering is a bit more complicated, as a combination of rapid explosions and slower explosions were needed for the optimal convergence of the implosion on the trigger.) This could be employed at a macroscopic scale by directional nuclear charges arranged around a central target. I call this a meta-implosion device. In a “conventional” nuclear strike, the explosive force is dissipated outward from ground zero. With a meta-implosion device, the explosive force would be focused inward toward ground zero, which would experience a sharply higher blast pressure than elsewhere as a result of the constructive interference of multiple converging shockwaves.

A partially assembled implosion device of a first generation nuclear weapon.

The reader may immediately think of the Casaba-Howitzer as a similar idea, but what I am suggesting is a bit different. You can read a lot about the Casaba-Howitzer at The Nuclear Spear: Casaba Howitzer, which is contextualized in even more information on Winchell Chung’s Atomic Rockets site. If you were to surround a target with multiple Casaba-Howitzers and fire at a common center at the same time you would get something like the effect I am suggesting, but this would require far more infrastructure. What I am suggesting could be assembled as a deliverable weapons system engineered as an integrated package.

A cruise missile would be a good way to deliver a meta-implosion device to its target.

There are already weapons designs that release multiple bomblets near a target with each individual bomblet precision targeted (the CBU-103 Combined Effects Munition, more commonly known as a cluster bomb). This could be scaled up in a cruise missile package, so that a cruise missile in approaching its target could open up and release 12 to 16 miniaturized short-range cruise missiles which could then by means of GPS or similar precision location technology arrange themselves around the target in a hemisphere and then simultaneously detonate their directed charges toward ground zero. Both precision timing and precision location would be necessary to optimize shockwave convergence, but with technologies like atomic clocks and dual frequency GPS (and quantum positioning in the future) such performance is possible.

A meta-implosion device could also be delivered by drones flown out of a van.

A similar effect could be obtained, albeit a bit more slowly but also more quietly and more subtly, with the use of drones. A dozen or so drones could be released either from the air or launched from the ground, arrange themselves around the target, and then detonate simultaneously. Where it would be easier to approach a target with a small truck, even an ordinary delivery van (perhaps disguised as some local business), as compared to a cruise missile, which could set off air defense warnings, this would be a preferred method of deployment, although the drones would have to be relatively large because they would have to carry a miniaturized nuclear weapon, precision timing, and precision location devices. There are a few commercially available drones today that can lift 20 kg, which is probably just about the lower limit of a miniaturized package such as I have described.

The most elegant deployment of a meta-implosion device would be a hardened target in exoatmospheric space. Currently there isn’t anything flying that is large enough or hardened enough to merit being the target of such a device, but in a future war in space meta-implosion could be deployed against a hard target with a full spherical implosion converging on a target. For ground-based targets, a hemisphere with the target at the center would be the preferred deployment.

In the past, a nation-state pursuing a counter-force strategy, i.e., a nuclear strategy based on eliminating the enemy’s nuclear forces, hence the targeting of nuclear missiles, had to employ very large and very destructive bombs because nuclear missile silos were hardened to survive all but a near miss with a nuclear weapon. Now the age of land-based ICBMs is over for the most advanced industrialized nation-states, and there is no longer any reason to build silos for land-based missiles, therefore no reason to pursue this particular kind of counter-force strategy. SLBMs and ALCMs are now sufficiently sophisticated that they are more accurate than the most accurate land-based ICBMs of the past, and they are far more difficult to find and to destroy because they are small and mobile and can be hidden.

However, hardened, high-value targets like the missile silos of the past would be precisely the kind of target one would employ a meta-implosion device to destroy. And while ICBM silos are no longer relevant, there are plenty of hardened, high-value targets out there. A decapitation strike against a leadership target where the location of the bunker is known (as in the case of Cheyenne Mountain Complex or Kosvinsky Kamen) is such an example.

This is, of course, what “bunker buster” bombs like the B61 were designed to do. However, earth penetrating bunker buster bombs, while less indiscriminate than above ground bursts, are still nuclear explosions in the ground that release their energy in an omnidirectional burst (or perhaps along an axis). The advantage of a meta-implosion device would be that the focused blast pressures would collapse any weak spots in a target area, and, when you’re talking about a subterranean bunker, even an armored door would constitute a weak spot.

I haven’t seen any discussion anywhere of a device such as I have described above, though I have no doubt that the idea has been studied already.

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It has long been my impression that one of the unacknowledged problems of industrialized civilization is that the individuals who ascend to the highest positions of influence and political power are the worst kind of people — the kind of people who, if you met them on a personal basis, you would hereafter seek to avoid them. I have not heretofore attempted an exposition of this impression because I could not express it concisely nor offer a causal mechanism to explain it. Moreover, my impression is merely anecdotal, and might be better explained as the sour grapes of someone not successful in the context of contemporary social institutions. Nevertheless, I cannot shake the feeling that most politicians and celebrities (the people with power in our society) are unpleasant, self-serving social climbers whose only redeeming quality is that, usually, they are not openly malevolent.

Having recently learned the meaning of the term “the managerial state” (also known as anarcho-tyranny, but I will use the aforementioned term) I find that I can use this concept to give an exposition of the idea that industrialized civilization promotes the worst kind of person into positions of influence and authority. Intuitively we can understand that the managerial state is a bureaucratic institution characterized by technocratic management; the anarcho-tyranny part comes into the equation because the managerial state, through selective enforcement of the laws, aids and abets criminality while coming down hardest on the law abiding citizens. If this sounds strange and improbable to you, I ask you to search your memory, and I would be surprised if you cannot think of someone whose life was destroyed, or nearly destroyed, due to some some infraction that was enforced as though it were to be an instance of exemplary justice, even while obvious criminals were allowed to go unmolested because of their wealth, their influence, or some other “mitigating” factor. If you have never heard of any such episode, then you are fortunate. I suspect that most people have experienced these injustices, if only obliquely.

What kind of person — what kind of bureaucratic manager — would thrive in the managerial state? Here we have a ready answer, familiar to us since classical antiquity: Plato’s perfectly unjust man. In an earlier post, Experimenting with Thought Experiments, I discussed the section of Plato’s Republic in which he contrasts the perfectly just man — who has the reality of justice but the appearance of injustice — and the perfectly unjust man — who has the reality of injustice but the appearance of justice. Thus the Platonic metaphysics of appearance and reality, which has shaped all subsequent western metaphysics, is invoked in order to provide an exposition of moral virtue and vice in a social context.

The perfectly unjust man would thrive in the role of apparently virtuous manager of the state while in reality exclusively serving the interests of the managerial class, who retain their authority by doing the bare minimum in terms of maintaining the institutions of society while turning the full force of their talents and interest to the greater glory of the technocratic elite.

The existence of the managerial state, then, engenders the conditions in which the perfectly unjust man can thrive, as though a petri dish were specially prepared to cultivate this species. The managerial state, in turn, appears in industrialized civilization partly due to the technocratic demands placed upon the leadership (charismatic and dynastic authority are likely to no longer be sufficient to the management of the industrialized state) and the increasingly scientific character of society encourages the rationalization of institutions, which in turn selects for an early maturation of the institutions of industrialized society.

I have here painted a very unflattering portrait of contemporary political power, but that I would do so starting from the premise that industrialized civilization raises the worst people to the top should come as no surprise. For a countervailing view we might take the many recent pronouncements of Jordan Peterson. I wrote a post about Peterson when he was first coming into wide public recognition, Why Freedom of Inquiry in Academia Matters to an Autodidact. Since that time Peterson has rocketed to notoriety, and has had many opportunities to present his views.

One of the themes that Peterson returns to time and again (I’ve listened to a lot of his lectures, though by no means all of them) is that the hierarchies that characterize western civilization are hierarchies of competence and not hierarchies of tyranny established through the naked exercise of power. The proof of this is that our society functions rather well: water comes out of the tap, electricity is there when we turn on the switch, and our institutions are probably less corrupt than the analogous institutions of other societies. I more-or-less agree with Peterson on this, except that I regard our hierarchies as more of a mixed bag. We have some hierarchies of competence, and some hierarchies that have more to do with birth, wealth, family, and, worst of all, dishonesty and cunning.

In traditional western civilization — by which I mean western civilization prior to the three revolutions of science, popular sovereignty, and industrialization — power was secured either through the naked exercise of force, or through dynastic pan-generational inheritance. In a dynastic political system (like that of contemporary North Korea), you get a mixed bag: some generations get good kings and some generations get lousy kings. Given the knowledge that the heir to the throne was not always the best leader, feudal systems developed a wide distribution of power and a battery of alternative institutions through which power could be exercised in their event of a weak, stupid, insane, or feckless king.

The feudal system called itself “aristocracy,” which literally means “rule by the best,” and this is precisely what is meant by hierarchies of competence: rule by the best. But the people who actually lived in feudal systems knew that the best were not necessarily or inevitably at the apex of the political system, and so they prepared themselves with institutions that could survive poor kingship. Each generation had the luck of the draw in terms of the king they got, but since this was a known weakness of the system, it could be mitigated to some degree, and it was.

One of the problems of industrialized civilization has been the simultaneous and uncritical embrace of popular sovereignty, which is at least as easily manipulable as feudal institutions, and arguably is more manipulable than feudalism. By throwing ourselves headlong into popular sovereignty, and, at least in the case of the US, slowly dismantling those institutions that once insulated us from the brunt of popular politics (thus accelerating the progress of popular sovereignty), we have few of the protections that feudalism had built into its institutions to limit the reach of incompetent leadership.

The perfectly unjust man is no analogue of an incompetent king: he is good at what he does. Plato called the perfectly unjust man, “great in his injustice.” Just so, the perfectly unjust man is a competent manager of the managerial state, but being a competent manager of a managerial state is not the ideal of democracy. And yet democracy, the more it seeks an illusory perfect egalitarianism, and deconstructs the last of the institutions that limit and balance power (for even the unlimited exercise of popular sovereignty is a dystopian tyranny), the more the managerial state comes into the possession of those temperamentally constituted to thrive within its institutions: the perfectly unjust men. This is my response to hierarchies of competence: yes, perfectly unjust men are competent, but they are not the ideal of leadership for civilization. They may even be the antithesis of the leadership that civilization needs. And now they have the stranglehold on power and will not be forced out without a struggle.

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The famous Virgin of the Navigators by Alejo Fernández, on display in Sevilla, like the Tordesillas meridian is one of the great ideological expressions of the Age of Discovery.

Some time ago I wrote Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800, in which I identified the period from approximately 1500 to 1800 in western civilization as a distinctive kind of civilization, which I have in subsequent posts simply called “modernism without industrialism.” For present purposes it doesn’t matter whether this is a distinctive kind of civilization, co-equal with other distinctive kinds of civilization, or whether it is a developmental stage in a larger civilization under which it is subsumed. This is an interesting question in the theory of civilization, but it will not bear upon what I have to say here. Whether we take the period 1500-1800 as a stage in the larger development of western civilization, or as a civilization in its own right, it is a period that can be described in terms of properties that do not apply to other periods.

The first two of what I have elsewhere called the “three revolutions” — the scientific revolution, the political revolutions, and the industrial revolution — transformed this period in novel ways, and the last of these three revolutions terminates the period decisively as a new way of life results from industrialization pre-empting the interesting social experiment of modernism without industrialism. Without the preemption of industrialization, this experiment might have continued, and the world today would be a different place than the world we known — it would be a counterfactual planetary high-level equilibrium trap.

There is another great revolution that occurred in this period, and that is the Age of Discovery, when explorers and merchants and conquerors set out from Europe and circled the planet for the first time since our Paleolithic ancestors settled the planet entire, without knowing what they had done. That the explorers and merchants and conquerors of the Age of Discovery knew what they were doing is evidenced by the maps they made and what they wrote about their experiences. They discovered that humanity is one species on one planet, and they knew that this is what they had discovered, though assimilating that knowledge was another matter; we still struggle with this knowledge today.

The Age of Discovery bounds the beginning of this period as the industrial revolution bounds the ending of this period, and, to a large extent, defines the period, since exploration and discovery is what initiates the human recognition of itself as a whole and the planet as a whole. Europe had been building out a shipping capacity in excess of its internal needs since the late Middle Ages, and it was the exaptation of this shipping infrastructure with its attendant technologies and expertise that made the Age of Discovery possible. Once the proof of concept was provided by Columbus, Magellan, and the other early explorers, initiating the Columbian Exchange, the planet opened to global commerce with astonishing rapidity.

What this global transportation infrastructure meant was that this distinctive period of civilization might be called the First Planetary Civilization, since throughout this period trade and communications take place on a global scale, and this in turn makes global empires possible for the first time. There were, of course, many survivals from the medieval period that characterize this first planetary civilization, but there were also perhaps as many novel features of this civilization as well. This was a civilization in possession of science, though science at a small scale, and not yet exploited for human purposes to the extent that science today is exploited for human purposes. This was a civilization in which merchants and industries had a distinctive place, and the political system was no longer dominated by rural manorial estates and their local feudal lords. Planetary-scale concerns now shaped the policies of increasingly centralized regimes, that would only become more centralized as the period drew to a close in the time of the Sun King. And while political regimes were marked by increasing centralization and the rationalization of institutions, it was also a time of great lawlessness, as the expansion of European civilization into the western hemisphere was also an age of piracy.

Since the industrial revolution we have also had a planetary civilization, but the planetary civilization that began to take form in the wake of the industrial revolution is distinct from the first planetary civilization that characterized the period from 1500 to 1800. The planetary civilization we have been building since the industrial revolution might be called the second planetary civilization, and it has been marked by the spread of popular sovereignty and Enlightenment ideals (and, I would argue, the gradual adoption of the Enlightenment project as the central project of planetary civilization), the mechanization and then the electrification of the global transportation and communications network (further accelerating the rapidity of commerce), the planetary propagation of cultural and social influences, and the rise of commerce and industry to a position rivaling that of nation-states. Merchants no longer merely have a place in civilization, but they often dictate to others the place that they will hold in the social order.

Are these successive first and second planetary civilizations an accident of terrestrial history, that could be and probably are different wherever other civilizations are to be found in the universe (if they are to be found)? Or are these first and second planetary civilizations sufficiently distinctive as kinds of civilization that they ought to be present in any taxonomy of civilizations because they are likely to be exemplified wherever there are worlds with civilizations? One of the ways in which to approach the problem mentioned above, that of whether the First Planetary Civilization of 1500-1800 is a kind of civilization in its own right, or whether it is a developmental stage in a larger formation of civilization, would be to identify as a distinctive kind of civilization any formation of civilization that can be formalized to the point of potential applicability to any civilization anywhere, whether on Earth or elsewhere. In this way, a scientific theory of civilization that is sufficiently comprehensive to address any and all civilizations can shed light on the particular problems of human civilization, even if that was not the motivation for formulating a science of civilization.

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Chinese politics was dominated by Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1976, and for more than a decade before that if we count the period from the Long March forward. Mao was effectively President for Life of China, though he wasn’t called that. However, he was called “The Red Emperor.” After the chaos of the Cultural Revolution some effort was made to regularize the political system after Mao’s death, and, to a certain extent, China managed to present itself to the world as a “normal” nation-state under the rule of law (not under military rule, or in the grip of a warlord or a strongman) and with a political succession that, while entirely internal to the communist party, seemed to follow certain rules. There was a semi-orderly succession process from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.

This façade of orderly political succession occurred throughout a period a spectacular economic growth for China. Given that economic growth at this pace can result in extreme social dislocation, it reflected well on the Communist Party of China’s firm grasp on power that it was able to preside over this orderly succession of political power during economic and social conditions that would prove challenging even to a stable and well-established political system. In consequence, the CPC seemed to be a source of strength, stability, and order for China at a time when much else was in flux.

The apparent solidity of the CPC and its own internal mechanisms for orderly political succession have now been revealed to be illusory. It has been clear for some time that Xi Jinping has been the strongest political figure in China since Deng Xiaoping, but we now must see him as the strongest figure in China since Mao Zedong. This month, the CPC eliminated term limits for the president and vice president, re-appointing Xi Jinping as president with no term limit. What this means is that a sufficiently powerful individual can bend the CPC to his will, so that the power is vested in the individual rather than in the party or its offices. And given that the CPC is the political institution of China, that these institutions can bend to the will of one man points to the weakness of CPC institutions. In other words, China is much more vulnerable than it appears on the surface.

To a remarkable extent the western press have given Xi uncritical coverage during his rise to power. A few China specialists discuss how the elements of Shanghai clique were pushed aside in Xi’s rise to power, and some of the internal machinations of the state machinery, but much less than the issue deserves with China now the second largest economy in the world, and the largest nation-state on the planet in terms of population. Most notable of all is the uncritical coverage of Xi’s “anti-corruption” drive, which has given Xi the moral high ground in cleaning house and consolidating power. I have not read a single account in the western press that has observed that the anti-corruption efforts in China have left Xi’s inner circle entirely untouched. But who is going to take a stand in favor of corruption? Consolidating power by punishing rivals for corruption is a winning strategy.

Now that we know that China is a nation-state secondarily, and primarily the domain of a strongman, all that follows will depend on Xi himself. If Xi cares about the Chinese people and their welfare, he will use his power to strengthen the institutions of the country and will make it possible for an orderly political succession after he leaves power. But Xi could just as easily transform China into the largest kleptocracy on the planet, or into a tyranny, or any number of suboptimal outcomes. The stakes are high. The lives of more than a billion persons are in play. Much of the world’s manufacturing is sourced from China; rare is the supply chain that does not incorporate China at some point.

Even if Xi proves to be an honest and competent leader, China’s position in the world economic system is placed at risk merely by the revelation of the weakness of its institutions. China has put a lot of effort into trying to convince western businesses that China is a stable place to do business, where assets would not be arbitrarily expropriated and international legal norms would be respected. There is no reason to believe that this will suddenly change, but the weakness of the CPC is (or ought to be) a red flag for every business operating in China. The economy is stable at present, but that could change with a single executive decision on the part of Xi.

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