Technological Civilization: Part I

10 June 2018


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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7 Responses to “Technological Civilization: Part I”

  1. scottfw said

    Re: “… though we don’t think of this as “high” technology …” Trains aren’t high technology? BLASPHEMY!!!!

    • geopolicraticus said

      It is interesting to note that trains can be either historical technology or contemporary technology. The pictures I showed of trains were consciously chosen to illustrate an earlier stage in the development of rail technology, although I could have reached back further with pictures of steam locomotives. Trains were some of the first practical applications of the use of the steam engine, and as such they revolutionized transportation and created our modern expectations for rapid transportation in industrialized civilization. I could have, by contrast, chosen to illustrate this post with some of the latest high speed trains, or even maglev trains, which definitely would be “high” technology.

      Best wishes,


  2. scottfw said

    Hi Nick! As you have likely deduced I am interested in trains. 🙂 And some of that tech is quite subtle: the development of wheels with conical tread profiles and of railhead profiles, and the mathematical curves of the wheel’s tread-flange meeting versus the curve of the railhead, to enable wheels fixed to an axle without a differential to traverse the unequal distances of the inner and outer rail on curves. And then imagine the manufacturing skill, metallurgy, and machining tolerances, required for the valves admitting steam to locomotive cylinders twice per wheel revolution at high speeds. And then remember there were compound steam locomotives with as many as 3 and 4 cylinders, in 2 different sizes for 2 different steam pressures, driving the same set of wheels in a rigid frame. I expect their designers were a whole lot better at calculus than I am! And today’s diesel-electric and straight electric locomotives using all manner of electrickery in their control circuitry; and even Doppler radar to check ground speed against wheel rotation rate to determine if wheels are slipping and losing traction. And in the 1960s the creation of 20 cylinder diesel engines where each individual cylinder of that set of 20 displaced 645 cubic inches. The engineering of a crankshaft which could deal with that was something of an accomplishment.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I agree that these are impressive technical and engineering accomplishments. When a particular technology becomes antiquated (like steam locomotives), we tend to lose our appreciation of how advanced it was for the time (except, perhaps, for individuals like yourself). And the level of technical accomplishment here points to very interesting questions in the definition of a technological civilization, which in this context means a civilization that can build technologies such as those you have described in relation to trains.

      At the same time rail engineers were working out the details you describe, early telecommunications engineers were working out surprisingly subtle ways of sending electrical signals over telegraph lines, and then transatlantic cables, and then telephones. I’ve recently been watching documentaries about this, and I immediately realized that most people today in the twenty-first century could not understand twentieth century telephone technology. And I bet that the elevator control mechanisms for the first skyscrapers built in the 1930s were pretty impressive, and I would like to get a look at this sometime.

      When you have a society in which groups of engineers are working on equally technical but distinct projects, you get a cross-fertilization of technologies, and “all manner of electrickery in their control circuitry” which you mention in relation to the application of electrical technologies to rail technologies. Despite the complexity and sophistication of these technologies, yet more complex and subtle technologies displace them: cell phone technology owes much to early twentieth century telephone technology, but it also represents an order of magnitude or better generational advantage over earlier telephone technologies.

      A society in which all this is going on is definitely a technological civilization, but is that what has been meant when people casually speak of “advanced technological civilizations”? That is the question I am trying to address in a systematic way, and I appreciate your drawing my attention to particular rail technologies of which I was previously unaware.

      Best wishes,


      • scottfw said

        One more input, which I’m not sure how to pin detailed words on what from here brings it to mind and its exact relation to this technology conversation. Via a post on Google Plus the other day I saw a blog post titled “What I learned about innovation from 60/70s sci-fi pulp”. And from it this point in particular is what I see as relating somehow to this post’s subject, “It seems the writers are predisposed to fail at predicting the impact of everyday iterative innovation. Arguably the most impactful innovation we have. Small iterative change is not always easy to notice, plot or predict.”

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