Friday


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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Sunday


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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Saturday


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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Thursday


The Science and Technology of Civilization

In several contexts I have observed that there is no science of civilization, i.e., that there is no science that takes civilization as its unique object of inquiry. I wrote a short paper, Manifesto for the Scientific Study of Civilization, in which I outlined how I would begin to address this deficit in our knowledge. (And I’ve written several blog posts on the same, such as The Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, Addendum on the Study of Civilization as Rigorous Science, and The Study of Civilization as Formal Science and as Adventure Science, inter alia.) Suppose we were to undertake a science of civilization (whether by my plan or some other plan) and thus began to assemble reliable scientific knowledge of civilization. Would we be content only to understand civilization, or would we want to employ our scientific knowledge in order to effect changes in the same way that scientific knowledge of other aspects of human life have facilitated more effective action?

Can we distinguish between a science of civilization and technologies of civilization? What is the difference between a science and a technology? One of the ways to distinguish science from technology is that science seeks knowledge, understanding, and explanation as ends in themselves, while technology employs scientific knowledge, understanding and explanation in order to attain some end or aim. Roughly, science has no purpose beyond itself, while technology is conceived specifically for some purpose. Thus if we wish to use scientific knowledge of civilization not only to understand what civilization is, but also to shape, direct, and develop civilization in particular ways, we would then need to go beyond formulating a science of civilization and to also construct technologies of civilization.

This distinction, while helpful, implies that technologies follow from science as applications of that science. This implication is misleading because technologies can appear in isolation from any science (other than the most rudimentary forms of knowledge). Epistemically, science precedes technology, but in terms of historical order, technology long preceded science. Our ancestors were already shaping stone tools millions of years ago, and by the time civilization emerged in human history and the first glimmerings of science can be discerned, technology was already well advanced. However, the greatest disruption in the history of civilization (to date) has been the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution marks the point at human history in which the historical order of technology followed by science was reversed by the systematic application of science to industry, and since that time the most powerful technologies have been derived from following the epistemic order of starting with science and only then, after attaining scientific knowledge, applying this scientific knowledge to the building of technology.

Social Engineering for Preferred Outcomes

If we were to formulate a science of civilization today, it would be a science formulated in this post-industrialization historical context, and we would expect that we could converge on a body of knowledge about civilization that could then be applied reflexively to civilization as technologies in order to achieve whatever results are desired (within the scope of what is possible; assuming that there are intrinsic modal limits to civilization). At the same time, thinking of civilization in this way, and looking back over the historical record, we can easily see that there have been many technologies of civilization (i.e., technologies of civilization preceding a science of civilization) in use from the beginnings of large-scale social organization. (In an earlier post I called these social technologies, among which we can count civilization itself.)

Almost all civilizations have intervened in social outcomes in a heavy-handed way through social engineering. The inquisition, for example, was a form of social engineering intended to limit, to contain, to punish, and to expunge religious non-conformity. While this is perhaps an extreme example of social engineering through religious institutions, since most central projects of civilizations have been religious in character, most of human history has been marked by the use of religious institutions to shape and direct social life. Or, to take an example less likely to be controversial (religious examples are controversial both because those who continue to identify with Axial Age religious faiths would see this discussion as an affront to their beliefs, and also because religiously-based social engineering could be taken to be a soft target), law can be understood as a technology of civilization. From the earliest attempts at the regulation of social life, as, for example, with the code of Hammurabi, to the present day, systems of law have been central to shaping large-scale social organization.

The Structure of Civilization through the Lens of Social Technologies

Elsewhere I have suggested that civilization can be understood as an institution of institutions. This is a very low resolution conception, but it has its uses. In the same spirit we can say that civilization is a social technology of social technologies, and this, too, is a very low resolution concept. I have also proposed that a civilization can be defined as an economic infrastructure linked to an intellectual superstructure by a central project (for example in my 2017 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress presentation, The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout). This conception of civilization is a bit more articulated, as it gives specific classes of social institutions that jointly constitute the social institution of civilization, and how these classes of institutions are related to each other.

In revisiting the question of civilization from the perspective of a science of civilization that might make technologies of civilization available, I have come to realize that the definition one gives of the structure of civilization will reflect (in part) the concepts employed in the analysis of civilization. What I have previously identified as the economic infrastructure and intellectual superstructure of civilization could mostly be classed under the concept of technologies of civilization, and this can be employed to present a structural model of civilization slightly different from that I have previous presented.

As noted above, technologies are purposive, and in order to organize purposive activity it is necessary to define or otherwise specify these purposes. This is the function of the central project of a civilization. From this perspective, the structure of civilization is a central project that delineates purposes and all the other institutions of civilization are social technologies that implement the purposes of the central project. This account of the structure of civilization does not contradict my definition of civilization in terms of superstructure and infrastructure joined by a central project, but it does give a distinctly different emphasis.

Partial and Complete Definitions of Civilization

There are many definitions of civilization that have been proposed. Civilization is a multivariant phenomenon (it is characterized by many different properties) and so each time we look at civilization a bit differently, we tend to see something a bit different. I have been thinking about civilization for many years, writing up my ideas in fragmentary form on this blog, and continually re-visiting these ideas and testing them for adequacy in the light of later formulations. In the above I have tried to show how different definitions of civilization (especially definitions of varying degrees of resolution) can be compatible and do not necessarily point to contradiction. However, this is does not entail that all definitions of civilization are compatible.

Formally, we will want to know which definitions of civilization are different ways of looking at the same thing, and thus ultimately compatible if we can fit them together properly within an overarching framework, and which definitions are not singling out the same thing, either because they fail to single out anything, or they fail to single out civilization specifically. Someone may set out to define civilization, and they end up defining culture or society instead (and perhaps conflating culture, society, and civilization). Some others may set out to define civilization and end up producing an incoherent definition that doesn’t allow us to converge upon civilizations in any reliable theoretical way. More often, attempts at defining civilization end up defining some part or aspect or property of civilization, but fail to illuminate civilization on the whole.

Partial definitions of civilization mean that the definition does not yet capture the big picture of civilization, but partial definitions can still be very helpful. As we have seen above, the institutions that jointly shape civil society can be distinguished between a class of institutions of the economic infrastructure (the ways and means of civilization) and a class of institutions of the intellectual superstructure (exposition of the ends and aims of civilization), but that all of these institutions can also be seen as falling within the same class of social technologies employed to implement the central project of a civilization.

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Saturday


Recently in The Space Age turns 60! I wrote, “We are still in the very early stages of the Space Age; the inflection point of this developmental sequence has not yet arrived, so we are today still in the same shallow end of the exponential growth curve that was initiated sixty years ago.” What do I mean by an inflection point, and what is (or what would be) the inflection point for spacefaring civilization?

In a curve, an inflection point (according to Wolfram Mathworld) is, “…a point on a curve at which the sign of the curvature (i.e., the concavity) changes.” In this technical sense, then, I have misused “inflection point,” but it has become commonplace to speak of the inflection point of an exponential (or sigmoid) curve as the point at which the transition occurs from the long, shallow part of the curve, only incrementally growing over time, to the exponential growth part of the curve. In this sense, the inflection point is the transition from slow (sometimes very slow), incremental development to rapid, exponential development.

We have some good examples of inflection points from human history. The industrial revolution is a nearly perfect example of an inflection point. Human beings have been developing technologies since long before civilization. Pre-human ancestors were using stone tools more than two million years ago. However, technological development began to accelerate with the industrial revolution, and continues to develop at an expanding and increasing rate. Technological growth — both in terms of technological complexity and large-scale industrial application — has been exponential since the industrial revolution. Is something like this possible with spacefaring?

In Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen and Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel I discussed one of my favorite themes, namely, that spacefaring civilization might have experienced its inflection point in the wake of the Apollo program, which latter demonstrated what was possible when significant resources are expended on a difficult goal. More recently, on The Unseen Podcast Episode We, Martians? I said that if we had gone to Mars as NASA once planned, building immediately following Apollo, it would have been a different mission than any mission to Mars undertaken at the present time. It would have been, in short, a mission much like the Apollo mission, meaning a transient presence on Mars sufficient to plant the flag of the sponsoring nation-state and to collect some samples to bring back to Earth. Paul Carr called this a “Flags and Footprints” mission, which is a good way to phrase this, and I subsequently heard this from others, so apparently it’s a thing.

These counterfactuals did not occur, so that they represent a permanently lost opportunity for human civilization. The door has closed on this particular shape for human history, but the door remains open for different shapes for human history if spacefaring technologies are eventually adopted, and when they are adopted (if they are adopted), will decisively and definitively alter the shape of human history — or the history of any intelligent species able to build spacefaring technologies. To consider this a little more carefully I am going to delineate three generic scenarios for the breakout to spacefaring civilization that might be experienced by a civilization that develops spacefaring technology. These three scenarios are as follows:

● Early Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency immediately upon the technology being available.

● Middling Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency only after it has been available for a substantial period of time, but within the longue durée in which the technology became available.

● Late Inflection Point when spacefaring is pursued with exponential frequency after the technology has been available throughout a longue durée period of history.

No great store need be placed on the time frames I have implied above; sufficient to our purposes is that spacefaring may become routine immediately upon, sometime after, or long after the technology is available. Each of these spacefaring inflection points can be taken separately, since each represents a different civilization as defined by the relationship between the civilizations of planetary endemism and spacefaring civilization. Moreover, we can justify the significance of the position of the spacefaring inflection point in the overall history of civilization by reference to the infinitistic possibilities available to a spacefaring civilization

Early Inflection Point

On several occasions I have written about the possibility of a spacefaring civilization emerging immediately upon the technology of the Space Race being available, specifically in Late-Adopter Spacefaring Civilization: the Preemption that Didn’t Happen. In this post I suggested that industrial-technological civilization as it has been known from the industrial revolution up to the advent of the Space Age might have been suddenly “preempted” by the emergence of a new kind of civilization — a spacefaring civilization — that changed the conditions of human life as radically as the industrial revolution changed the conditions of human life. This is what did, in fact, happen with the industrial revolution: as soon as the technology to drive machinery by fossil fuels became available, it was rapidly exploited, and western societies passed through a series of rapid social changes driven by industrialization.

While an early inflection point did not occur on Earth with the initial availability of spacefaring technology, we must consider the possibility that this is could occur with any civilization that passes the spacefaring technology threshold. I explored some of these possibilities in my Centauri Dreams post, Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel. In so far as an early spacefaring breakout would encourage a focus on spacefaring technologies (the relative neglect of other technologies being an opportunity cost of this alternative focus), the developmental trajectory of such a civilization might involve continual and rapid development of spacefaring technologies even while other technologies (say, for example, computing technologies) remain relatively undeveloped. Thus the technological profile of a given civilization is going to reflect the existential opportunities it has pursued, and when it pursues them.

We may also observe that, along with early-adoption spacefaring scenarios that did not occur with human civilization, it is also the case that a variety of counterfactual existential risk scenarios also did not occur. What I mean by this is that, once nuclear weapons were invented (shortly before the advent of the Space Age), human beings immediately realized that this gave us the power to destroy our own civilization. A number of novels were written and films were made in which human beings or human civilization went extinct shortly after the technology was available for this. These scenarios did not occur, just as the scenarios of early spacefaring adoption did not occur.

Middling Inflection Point

It has become a commonplace to speak of the recent development of space industries as “NewSpace.” If the technologies of NewSpace come to maturity in the coming decades and results in the following decades in a spacefaring breakout and the establishment of a truly spacefaring civilization, this would constitute an instance of a mediocre spacefaring inflection point. Given that the Space Age is now sixty years old, a few more decades of development would mean that spacefaring technologies will have been available for a century before they come to be fully exploited for a spacefaring breakout and a spacefaring civilization. In other words, the spacefaring inflection point did not occur immediately after spacefaring technology was available, but it also did not have to wait for an entirely new epoch of human history to come to pass for the spacefaring breakout to occur. (In terms of human civilization, we might identify a period of 100-300 years from advent to breakout as a mediocre spacefaring inflection point.)

As implied above, the current nominal spacefaring capacity of our civilization today is consistent with a middling spacefaring inflection point, if spacfaring expands rapidly in the wake of the maturity of NewSpace industries and technologies. Among these technologies we may count reusable spacecraft (Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser), including the booster stages of multi-stage rockets (SpaceX and Blue Origin), hybrid rocket engines (Reaction Engines LTD), and ion and plasma rockets (Ad Astra’s VASIMR), inter alia. These are the actual technologies of spacefaring; many industries that seek to exploit space for commercial and industrial uses are focused on technologies to be employed in space, but which are not necessarily technologies of spacefaring that will result in a spacefaring breakout.

Late Inflection Point

Say that the NewSpace technologies noted above come to maturity, but they prove to be impractical, or too expensive, or simply uninteresting to the better part of humanity. If this opportunity arises and then is passed over without a spacefaring breakout, like the initial existential opportunity presented by spacefaring technologies, the middling spacefaring inflection point will pass and humanity will remain with its nominal spacefaring capacity but no spacefaring breakout and no spacefaring civilization. In this case, if there is to be an eventual spacefaring breakout for human civilization, it will be a late spacefaring inflection point, and human civilization will change considerably in the period of time that passes between the initial availability of spacefaring technology and its eventual exploitation for a spacefaring breakout.

Just as in the meantime from initial availability of spacefaring technology to the present day, computer technology exponentially improved, a late spacefaring inflection point would mean that many technologies would emerge and come to maturity and industrial exploitation even as spacefaring technologies are neglected and experience little development (perhaps as an opportunity cost of the development of alternative technologies). Thus a late-adopter spacefaring civilization may develop a variety of fusion technologies, alternative energy technologies, genetic engineering technologies, quantum computing, human-machine interface technologies (or xenomorph-machine interface, as the case may be), artificial consciousness, and so on. Once a civilization possesses something akin to technological maturity on its homeworld, its historical experience will be radically different from the historical experience of a species that pursues an early spacefaring inflection point.

I can imagine a civilization that becomes so advanced that spacefaring technologies become cheap and easily available simply because the technological infrastructure of the civilization is so advanced. Thus even if there is no large-scale social interest in spacefaring, small groups of interested individuals can have spacefaring technologies for the asking, and these individuals and small groups will leave the planet one or two at a time, a dozen at a time, and so on. The homeworld civilization would be unaffected by this small scale spacefaring diaspora, since the technological and financial investment will have become so marginal as to be negligible, but these individuals and groups will take with them an advanced technology that will allow them to survive and prosper even at this small scale.

The worlds these small groups pioneer will grow slowly, but they will grow, regardless of whether the homeworld notices. Under these conditions, an ongoing nominal spacefaring capacity could develop over longer scales of time into a spacefaring capacity that is no longer nominal, though we would never be able to say exactly when this changeover occurred; this would be an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary transition. However, once these other worlds began to grow in population, eventually these populations would exceed the population of Earth, and at this point we could say with confidence that the late spacefaring inflection point had been reached, without spacefaring per se ever becoming a great civilizational-scale undertaking.

The Null Case

In addition to these three scenarios, there is also the null case, i.e., spacefaring technology is initially developed, but it is not further pursued, so that it is either forgotten or regarded with disinterest. A civilization that develops spacefaring technology and then either fails to pursue the development, or loses the capacity due to other factors (such as civilizational collapse), never achieves a spacefaring breakout and never becomes a spacefaring civilization. As I make a distinction between the nominal spacefaring capacity we now possess, and a spacefaring civilization proper, our contemporary civilization remains consistent with the null case scenario unless or until it experiences a spacefaring breakout.

The null case is the trajectory of a civilization toward permanent stagnation. Even if many technologies are developed and come to maturity and industrial exploitation, nothing essential will have changed in the human relationship to the cosmos (or the relation of any intelligent species that develops spacefaring technology but which does not exploit these technology for a spacefaring breakout). Spacefaring technologies, if exploited for a spacefaring breakout that results in a spacefaring civilization, would change the relationship of a species to the cosmos, as the species in question then has the opportunity to develop separately from its homeworld, and is therefore no longer tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld. Without a spacefaring breakout, an intelligent species remains tightly-coupled to the natural history of its homeworld, and necessarily goes extinct when its homeworld biosphere is rendered uninhabitable.

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Addendum added Wednesday 25 October 2017: Further to the above discussion of early spacefaring inflection points, I happened upon Space That Never Was is one artist’s vision of a never-ending space race: Where else might we have gone? by Andrew Liptak, which led me to the work of Mac Rebisz, Space That Never Was, who writes of his artistic vision, “Imagine a world where Space Race has not ended. Where space agencies were funded a lot better than military. Where private space companies emerged and accelerated development of space industry. Where people never stopped dreaming big and aiming high.” Rebisz’s images might be understood as illustrations of early-adopter spacefaring civilization.

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Worlds of Convenience

24 August 2017

Thursday


Three Worlds, Three Civilizations

In August of this year I spoke at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress 2017. One of the themes of the congress was “The Moon as a Stepping Stone to the Stars” so I attempted to speak directly to this theme with a presentation titled, “The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout.” The intention was to bring together the possible development of the moon as part of the infrastructure of spacefaring civilization within our solar system with the role that the moon could play in the further buildout of spacefaring civilization toward an interstellar spacefaring capacity.

Most of our spacefaring infrastructure at present is in low Earth orbit.

In preparing my presentation I worked through a lot of ideas related to this theme, and even though Icarus Interstellar was very generous with the time they gave me to speak, I couldn’t develop all of the ideas that I had been working on. One of these ideas was that of the moon and Mars as worlds of convenience. By this I mean that the moon and Mars are small, rocky worlds that might be useful to human beings because of their constitution and their proximity to Earth.

Any agriculture on the moon will of necessity be confined to artificial conditions.

The moon, as the closest large celestial body to Earth, is a “world of convenience”: It is an island in space within easy reach of Earth, and might well play a role in terrestrial civilization not unlike the role of the Azores or the Canary Islands played in the history of western civilization, which, as it began to explore farther afield down the coast of Africa and into the Atlantic (and eventually to the new world), made use of the facilities offered by these island chains. Whether as a supply depot, a source of materials from mining operations, a place for R&R for crews, or as a hub of scientific activity, the moon could be a crucial component of spacefaring infrastructure in the solar system, and, as such, could serve to facilitate the growth and development of spacefaring civilization.

Because Mars is a bit more like Earth than the moon, conditions on Mars may be less artificial than on the moon.

Mars is also a world of convenience. While farther from Earth than the moon, it is still within our present technology to get to Mars — i.e., it is within the technological capability of a rudimentary spacefaring capacity to travel to a neighboring planet within the same planetary system — and Mars is more like Earth than is the moon. Mars has an atmosphere (albeit thin), because it has an atmosphere its temperatures are moderated, its day is similar to the terrestrial day, and its gravity is closer to that of Earth’s gravity than is the gravity on the moon. Mars, then, is close enough to Earth to be settled by human beings, and the conditions are friendlier to human beings than the closer and more convenient moon. These factors make Mars a potentially important center for the exploration of the outer solar system.

The further buildout of our spacefaring infrastructure will probably include both space-based assets and planetary assets, but it is on planets that we will feel at home.

We can easily imagine a future for humanity within our own solar system in which mature civilizations are found not only on Earth but also on the moon and Mars. Since the moon and Mars are both “worlds of convenience” for us — places unlike the Earth, but not so unlike the Earth that we could not make use of them in the buildout of human civilization as a spacefaring civilization — we would expect them to naturally be part of human plans for the future of the solar system. Because we are biological beings emergent from a biosphere associated with the surface of Earth (a condition I call planetary endemism), we are likely to favor other planetary surfaces even as human civilization expands into space; it is on planetary surfaces that we will feel familiar and comfortable as a legacy of our evolutionary psychology.

Our planetary endemism predisposes us to favor planetary surfaces for human habitation.

These three inhabited worlds — Earth, the moon, and Mars — would each have a human civilization, but also a distinctive civilization different from the others, and each would stand in distinctive relationships to the other two. Earth and the moon are always going to be tightly bound, perhaps even bound by the same central project, because of their proximity. Mars will be a bit distant, but more Earth-like, and so more likely to give rise to an Earth-like civilization, but a civilization that will be built under selection pressures distinct from those on Earth. The moon will never have an Earth-like civilization because it will almost certainly never have an atmosphere, and it will never have a greater gravitational field, so Lunar civilization will depart from terrestrial civilization even while being tightly-coupled to Earth due to its proximity.

The moon will always be an ‘offshore balancer’ for Earth, but conditions on the moon are so different from those of Earth that any Lunar civilization would diverge from terrestrial civilization.

The presence of worlds of convenience within our solar system does not mean that we must or will forgo other opportunities for the development of spacefaring civilization. Just as Icarus Interstellar holds that there is no one way to the stars, so too there is no one buildout for the infrastructure of a spacefaring civilization. One of the themes of my presentation as delivered was the different possibilities for infrastructure buildout within the solar system, how these different infrastructures could interact, and how they would figure in future human projects like interstellar missions. Thus the three worlds and the three civilizations of Earth, the moon, and Mars may be joined by distinctive civilizations based on artificial habitats or on settlements based on asteroids or the more distant moons of the outer planets. But Earth, the moon, and Mars are likely to remain tightly-coupled in ongoing relationships of cooperation, competition, and conflict because of their status as worlds of convenience.

The worlds of convenience within our solar system may be joined by artificial habitats.

The possibility of multiple human civilizations within our solar system presents the possibility of what I call “distributed development” (cf. Mass Extinction in the West Asian Cluster and Emergent Complexity in Multi-Planetary Ecosystems). In the earliest history of human civilization distributed development could only extend as far as the technologies of transportation allowed. With transportation and communication limited to walking, shipping, horses, or chariots, the civilizations of west Asia could participate in mutual ideal diffusion, but the other centers of civilization at this time — in China, India, Peru, Mexico, and elsewhere — lay beyond the scope of easy communication by these means of transportation and communication. As the technologies of transportation and communication became more sophisticated, idea diffusion is now planetary, and this planetary-scale idea diffusion is converging upon a planetary civilization.

An interplanetary internet would facilitate idea diffusion between the worlds of our solar system.

Today, our planetary civilization has instantaneous communication and rapid transportation between any and all parts of the planet, and planetary scale idea diffusion is the rule. We enjoy this planetary scale idea diffusion because our technologies of communication and transportation — jets, high speed trains, fiber optic cables, the internet, satellites, and so on — allow for it. So fast forward to a solar system of three planetary civilizations — i.e., three distinct and independent civilizations, though coupled by relationships of trade and communication — and with an interplanetary network of communication and transportation that allows for idea diffusion on an interplanetary scale. The pattern of distributed development among multiple civilizations that characterized the west Asian cluster of civilization could be iterated at an interplanetary scale, driving these civilizations forward as they borrow from each other, and no one civilization must make every breakthrough in order for the others to enjoy the benefits of innovation.

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Tuesday


In several posts I have argued that the structure of civilization consists of an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project, and that, moreover, the civilization extant today consists of an industrial economic infrastructure joined to a technical intellectual superstructure by the central project that we know as the Enlightenment project. Contemporary civilization as so defined dates back only to the 18th century, when the Enlightenment project emerged as a reaction to the carnage of the religious wars in Europe. The three pillars of modernity — the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and political revolutions — all burst the bounds of traditional feudal societies, and ever since the world has been trying to master the forces unleashed by these revolutions.

The American revolution was the first and the most successful of the political revolutions that swept aside traditionalism, feudalism, and aristocracy. (Sometimes I think of the American revolution as being, in this sense, like Augustus, who was the first of the Roman emperors, and arguably the best of the lot. After that, it was all downhill.) The unique confluence of circumstances that made the American revolution successful, both militarily and politically, included unlikely revolutionaries who were property owners, the pillars of colonial society, and also well-read, as Enlightenment gentlemen were expected to be.

There was nothing democratic about the mostly aristocratic founding fathers, other than their desire to found a new kind of political order drawing upon the best of ancient Greece (democracy) and the best of ancient Rome (republicanism). The founding of a new political order required a revolutionary war to separate the United States from the British Empire, but it also involved a profound intellectual challenge to conceptualize a new political order, and this challenge had already begun in Europe, where the Enlightenment originated.

The Enlightenment produced a large number of top-notch philosophers whom we still read today, and with profit: their insights have not yet been exhausted. Also, these Enlightenment philosophers were highly diverse. They disagreed sharply with one another, which is the western way. We disagree and we debate in order to analyze an idea, much as an alibi is dissected in a courtroom.

William Blake, who represents the romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, wrote a poem criticizing Voltaire and Rousseau in the same breath:

MOCK on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

Never mind that Voltaire and Rousseau quarreled and represented polar opposite ends of the Enlightenment. When Voltaire received a copy of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, he responded in a letter to Rousseau: “I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it.” But perhaps this was Blake’s intention to invoke opposite spirits of the Enlightenment, given his appreciation of antitheses as expressed in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — both Voltaire and Rousseau were to be condemned for their mockery of tradition.

If these quarreling Enlightenment thinkers were alive today, feuding bitterly with each other, the popular press would say that the Enlightenment was obviously burnt out and was now “tearing itself apart.” Soon, the pundits would presumably say, we could go back to the comforts of monarchy and a universal church as though nothing had happened, the whole episode of the Enlightenment having been something like the social equivalent of a bad dream.

Strangely enough, we find a view much like this on both the far left and the far right today. The far left, as represented by the philosophers of the Frankfurt school (the dread prophets of “cultural Marxism”), rejected the Enlightenment (cf. Theory from the ruins: The Frankfurt school argued that reason is dangerous, mass culture deadening, and the Enlightenment a disaster. Were they right? by Stuart Walton), just as neoreactionaries reject the Enlightenment by contrasting the 18th century Enlightenment with the “Dark Enlightenment,” the latter growing organically out of the counter-Enlightenment of J. G. Hamann, Joseph de Maistre, and others.

Like Blake’s dual condemnation of Voltaire and Rousseau, the dual condemnation of the Enlightenment by both left and right is a condemnation of two distinct faces of the Enlightenment. Partly this is a result of the ongoing debate over the proper scope and application of reason, but I think that the deeper issue is the failure of western civilization to overcome the chasm separating its twin ideals of freedom and equality, which are two faces of Enlightenment morality.

Naïvely we want these two ideals to be fully realized together within democratic institutions; when we grow out of our naïveté we usually see these ideals in conflict, and assume that any attempt to mediate between the two must ultimately take the form of a compromise in which we lose some freedom in exchange for equality or we lose some equality in exchange for freedom. But the nineteenth century, which produced the counter-Enlightenment, also produced Hegel, and Hegel would have pointed out that a dialectic, such as the dialectic between freedom and equality, will only be resolved when we transcend the antithesis by a synthesis that is more comprehensive than either ideal in isolation.

When we consider the absolutizing tendency of political rhetoric we would not be at all surprised to see Hegelian formulations like, “The absolute is freedom,” later to be countered by, “The absolute is equality.” Even if such things are not stated so explicitly, it is clear from the behavior of many who set themselves up as the arbiters of American values that they typically take the one or the other as an absolute ideal, and absolutization of one or the other prevents us from seeing the more comprehensive synthesis in which freedom and equality can not only coexist, but in which each can extend the other.

The problem of freedom and equality is the equivalent for social thought of the problem of general relativity and quantum theory for physics. Some are certain that the solution to their integration lies on one side or the other of the divide — there must be quantum gravity because all of physics is now formulated in quantum terms — but the truth is that, at our present stage of intellectual development, the solution eludes us because we have not yet achieved the intuitive breakthrough that will allow us to see the world as one and whole.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Sunday


The “West Asian Cluster” is a term that I use to identify the several early civilizations that emerged in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Anatolia (cf. my remarks on the west Asian cluster in The Seriation of Western Civilization and The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State). Whereas civlization emerged independently in geographically isolated regions scattered across the planet, in the case of the west Asian cluster, these civilizations seem to have arisen in concert and to have been in contact with each other throughout their development.

A nomadic or pastoral people, accustomed to walking, would readily have traveled between the regions of the west Asian cluster. Moreover, we know that long-distance trade routes that preceded civilization ran through the area. Distinctive forms of obsidian were traded over long distance, and examples can be traced back to their source. These trade routes likely remained in place as civilization developed in the region, probably expanding as more manufactured goods became available for trade, and these trade routes could have served as vectors for idea diffusion throughout the region.

Thus I assume that continuous idea diffusion within the region meant that whenever a civilized innovation emerged in one location within the cluster, that it was picked up relatively rapidly by other locations in the cluster. In this way, civilization in the region likely developed in a kind of reticulate pattern, rather than in a unitary and linear manner, so that, if we were in possession of all the evidence, we might find a series of developments took place in sequence, but not necessarily all originating in a single civilization. Developments were likely distributed across the several different civilizations, and disseminated by idea diffusion until they reached all the others. This could be called a seriation of distributed development.

As these civilizations rose in concert, it seems that they also fell in concert, in an event that is sometimes called the Late Bronze Age (LBA) collapse. Previously in Epistemic Collapse I mentioned Eric H. Cline’s book, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, which deals with this period of history. Near the end of the book Cline wrote:

“…for more than three hundred years during the Late Bronze Age — from about the time of Hatshepsut’s reign beginning about 1500 BC until the time that everything collapsed after 1200 BC — the Mediterranean region played host to a complex international world in which Minoans, Mycenaeans, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Mitannians, Canaanites, Cypriots, and Egyptians all interacted, creating a cosmopolitan and globalized world system such as has only rarely been seen before the current day. It may have been this very internationalism that contributed to the apocalyptic disaster that ended the Bronze Age. The cultures of the Near East, Egypt, and Greece seem to have been so intertwined and interdependent by 1177 BC that the fall of one ultimately brought down the others, as, one after another, the flourishing civilizations were destroyed by acts of man or nature, or a lethal combination of both.”

Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 171

If, as I suggested above, the development of these intertwined civilizations was reticulate, one would not be surprised that their collapse was also reticulate, distributed throughout the region, following from multiple causes and cascading into multiple consequences — a seriation of distributed collapse. If we think of this as an ecosystem of civilizations, it is easy to think of the LBA collapse as a mass extinction of civilizations. Species, like civilizations, arise in concert, embedded in coevolutionary contexts, not only evolving along with other species, but also with the inorganic environment. When a food web catastrophically collapses, it brings down many species because of their interdependence, and the same may be true of civilizations within their coevolutionary context.

What exactly is a mass extinction? Here is a discussion of definitions of mass extinctions:

“[Sepkoski] defines mass extinction as any substantial increase in the amount of extinction (that is, lineage termination) suffered by more than one geographically widespread higher taxon during a relatively short interval of geological time, resulting in at least temporary decline in their standing diversity. This is a general definition purposefully designed to be somewhat vague. An equally vague but more concise one offered here is that a mass extinction is an extinction of a significant proportion of the world’s biota in a geologically insignificant period of time. The vagueness about extinctions can be dealt with fairly satisfactorily in particular cases by giving percentages of taxa, but the vagueness about time is more difficult to deal with. A significant question about mass extinctions is how catastrophic they were, so we also require a definition of catastrophe in this context. According to Knoll (1984), it is a biospheric perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the geological record.”

A. Hallam and P. B. Wignall, Mass Extinctions and their Aftermath, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 1

The last of these definitions could be adapted to the mass extinction of civilizations: a social perturbation that appears instantaneous when viewed at the level of resolution provided by the historical record. This isn’t exactly right, as we know that it takes time for civilizations to collapse, but if we soften the “instantaneous” to “rapidly” it works, after a fashion. And the authors of this passage openly recognize the ambiguity of time in the definition.

Have there been other mass extinctions of civilizations in history? If we think of the interconnected Mediterranean Basin in Late Antiquity, the collapse of Roman power in the west would constitute a mass extinction of civilizations of the region, though if we count this as a single Hellenistic civilization stretching across Europe into North Africa and West Asia, then it is only a singular collapse. Similarly, if we think of all the civilizations subsumed under Islamic rule during the greatest reach of Islamic civilization, its collapse might also be characterized as a mass extinction of civilizations.

Could a mass extinction of civilizations happen again? We face similar definitional challenges. Are we to consider the whole of planetary civilization as one civilization, or as several civilizations merged and subsumed? A catastrophic institutional collapse of planetary civilization today might be counted either as the collapse of one worldwide civilization or as several tightly-coupled civilizations, as interdependent as the civilizations of West Asia during the Late Bronze Age.

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Epistemic Collapse

13 April 2017

Thursday


Not long ago in Snowstorm Reflections on Collapse and Recovery I discussed some of the experiences likely to be related to a local and limited collapse of social institutions, as a way to consider broader and deeper scenarios of social collapse. In this connection I quoted the following from Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

“Collapse, as viewed in the present work, is a political process. It may, and often does, have consequences in such areas as economics, art, and literature, but it is fundamentally a matter of the sociopolitical sphere. A society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a society must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The demise of the Carolingian Empire, thus, is not a case of collapse — merely an unsuccessful attempt at empire building. The collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of sociopolitical structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of weakness and decline.”

Joseph A. Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 4

For Tainter, collapse is sociopolitical collapse, but we need not be limited by this stipulation. There are potentially many different meanings of “collapse” and I would like to particularly focus on what I will call epistemic collapse, which has played at least as prominent a role as social collapse in the extinction of civilizations.

A definition of epistemic collapse, that is to say, a catastrophic loss of knowledge, can closely parallel Tainter’s definition of social collapse, like this:

A society has epistemically collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of knowledge (epistemic complexity). The term ‘established level’ is important. To qualify as an instance of collapse a body of knowledge must have been at, or developing toward, a level of complexity for more than one or two generations. The epistemic collapse, in turn, must be rapid — taking no more than a few decades — and must entail a substantial loss of epistemic structure. Losses that are less severe, or take longer to occur, are to be considered cases of epistemic weakness and decline.”

Tainter emphasizes that a “collapse” implies a previous level of attainment and stability (continuity); I agree with Tainter that this is an important qualification to make. It should also be pointed out that collapse implies a subsequent stability of the lower level of complexity and attainment, perhaps for a generation or two. In other words, a collapse — whether social, epistemic, or otherwise — means that stability and continuity at a higher level of complexity and integration is rapidly replaced by stability and continuity at a lower level of complexity and integration.

We know that one of the reasons the European “Dark Ages” were dark was the loss of the accumulated knowledge of classical antiquity, or, if not the loss (in an absolute sense), its restricted access due to loss of educational institutions, reduction in the publication, copying, and distribution of books, reduction in literacy, and so forth. During this period of reduced access to knowledge, some knowledge was lost in an absolute sense. Some books deteriorated or were destroyed before they were copied, and so have been lost to history. Much of the tradition of educational institutions was lost, as the educational institutions of classical antiquity went extinct or were extirpated (Justinian ordered the closing of the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD) and were subsequently replaced by educational institutions attached to the Catholic Church.

To reach further back into the past, around 1200 BC there was a generalized collapse that led to the extinction of several Bronze Age civilizations (this story is recounted in Eric Cline’s book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed). This severe blow to civilization led to a significant epistemic collapse characterized by widespread loss of literacy throughout the ancient world. Homer, we recall, was recounting an “ancient” time of heroes and heroic deeds, and it has been speculated that the Homeric corpus was the translation into written form of oral poetry that survived from this dark age of more warfare and less reading as compared to the age that preceded it.

In the kind of generalized collapse resulting in the extinction of civilizations that characterized the Late Bronze Age, there was both social and epistemic collapse, but to what extent are these two modalities of collapse separable? Even if not instantiated in human history, is it possible for a civilization to remain socially stable while experiencing epistemic collapse, or to remain epistemically stable while experiencing social collapse? I think that counterfactuals could be constructed to illustrate the possibility of isolated social or epistemic collapse, but these would not be very convincing without some historical parallel to make the point. A possible example could be the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, which was not tightly-coupled to a social collapse, but which entailed a significant epistemic loss, or the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, which, again, was not tightly-coupled to social collapse (except for the collapse of Baghdad itself) but was a disaster for learning and certainly issued in permanently lower levels of epistemic attainment in the region. For an illustration of the opposite isolation, it is arguable that Byzantium preserved the epistemic record of Roman civilization even as all Roman social institutions collapsed and were replaced.

The above considerations suggest that a distinction should be made between collapse (of some particular kind) and the extinction of a civilization. Only the most generalized collapse over several classes of human endeavor result in the extinction of civilization, and we can obtain a more finely-grained appreciation of how societies ultimately fail and civilizations go extinct (or resist extinction) by separating social, financial, legal, religious, and epistemic collapse, inter alia.

Multiple collapses result in the extinction of civilization. Civilization is itself a complex institution that is comprised of many sub-institutions; that is to say, civilization is an institution of institutions. We can classify the institutions that go on to make up a civilization as social institutions, economic institutions, legal institutions, epistemic institutions, and so on. All of these institutions are intertwined in civilization, but it sometimes happens that even an integrated institution within civilization will collapse without the civilization of which it is a part collapsing. The many intertwined institutions that together constitute civilization mutually support each other and can bring a civilization through a difficult time if enough of these institutions persist despite the failure of other institutions.

If our nascent scientific civilization were to experience an epistemic collapse, but the social institutions of our civilization retained a significant measure of continuity, our civilization could enter into a state of permanent stagnation (something I noted as the greatest existential risk of our time in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?). If, on the other hand, we provide a robust backup of our knowledge, so thorough that a social collapse is not also an epistemic bottleneck, we could see the social institutions we know disappear even while our knowledge was largely intact and propagated into the future. Thus the human future itself admits of possible isolated social or epistemic collapse. Something like our civilization would survive on the other side of this collapse, after the recovery or replacement of the failed institutions, but that civilization would be fundamentally altered by the process.

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Thursday


The large number of cities that formed the network of the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley nicely illustrates a concrete conception of civilization.

Some time ago in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being I discussed a famous passage in Plato that gives an explicit definition of being. The passage is as follows:

STRANGER: Let us push the question; for if they will admit that any, even the smallest particle of being, is incorporeal, it is enough; they must then say what that nature is which is common to both the corporeal and incorporeal, and which they have in their mind’s eye when they say of both of them that they ‘are.’ Perhaps they may be in a difficulty; and if this is the case, there is a possibility that they may accept a notion of ours respecting the nature of being, having nothing of their own to offer.

THEAETETUS: What is the notion? Tell me, and we shall soon see.

STRANGER: My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.

The Greek text of the Eleatic Stranger’s crucial formulation is as follows:

Ξένος: λέγω δὴ τὸ καὶ ὁποιανου̂ν [τινα] κεκτημένον δύναμιν [247e] εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ ποιει̂ν ἕτερον ὁτιου̂ν πεφυκὸς εἴτ’ εἰς τὸ παθει̂ν καὶ σμικρότατον ὑπὸ του̂ φαυλοτάτου, κἂν εἰ μόνον εἰς ἅπαξ, πα̂ν του̂το ὄντως εἰ̂ναι: τίθεμαι γὰρ ὅρον [ὁρίζειν] τὰ ὄντα ὡς ἔστιν οὐκ ἄλλο τι πλὴν δύναμις.

My extrapolation of Plato’s definition of being was to derive four permutations from this definition of beings, in this way:

1. Beings that act only and do not suffer

2. Beings that suffer only and do not act

3. Beings that both act and suffer

4. Beings that neither act nor suffer, which may be non-beings

Another way to extrapolate Plato’s definition of being would be the ability of some entity to act or to suffer in kind, that is, to engage in reciprocal relations with a peer, to interact with another entity of the same (or similar) kind in the same (or similar) way. With this extrapolation, the fourth permutation above — beings that neither act nor suffer — becomes meaningful, because a given entity might possess a minimal ontological status in regard to interactions of acting and suffering without the opportunity to engage in such relationships with a peer entity. Thus a contradictory, or at least problematic, permutation of Plato’s definition of being can be given meaning.

An entity might be analyzed in terms of the classes of relationships across which it interacts, and where a class of interactions is absent, the entity is a non-being in this respect even if it is clearly a being in other respects. For example, Robinson Crusoe, living alone as a castaway on a desert island, interacts with the island, its flora and fauna, but initially interacts with no other human beings. Crusoe has not been cast out of existence by being marooned on a desert island, but he has been deprived of human society; no human society exists on his island (at first). Crusoe has lost his status as a member of human society by being deprived of the kind of interactions that constitute human society, i.e., interactions with other human beings, even as he continues to interact with the world across broad categories of existence that have nothing to do with human society.

This example of Robinson Crusoe and his interaction with peers (or lack thereof) can be scaled up and applied to larger human societies. Human society at the level of organization of the hunter-gatherer band, such as characterized the human world of the upper Paleolithic, brought into being relationships between such bands, which relationships were almost certainly implicated in the human expansion across the entire surface of Earth. When, near the beginning of the Holocene, some bands settled down into agricultural villages, these villages would have interacted with each other, and when some of the villages expanded in size and complexity and became cities, these early cities would have interacted with each other. What I would like to suggest there is that interaction among cities as cities is what characterizes civilization.

Recently in Another Counterfactual: the Single City Civilization I discussed a couple of different definitions of civilization that I have been employing, particularly in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, one of these definitions abstract and the other concrete:

● Concrete — A network of cities engaged in relationships of cooperation and conflict.

● Abstract — A society with a central project that unifies its economic infrastructure and its intellectual superstructure.

My “concrete” definition of civilization interpreted in the light of Plato’s definition of being suggests that civilization comes into being when cities interact on the ontological level distinctive to cities, i.e., cities interacting on a civic level. Before this, isolated cities would not have had an opportunity to interact with ontological peers; a city would interact with the surrounding countryside, and perhaps also with hunter-gatherer bands that might pass by for raiding or trading, but these sub-urban interactions would not yet rise to the level of civilization.

The class of relationships that are distinctive of civilization come into being when multiple cities interact with each other as cities. Before this, individual cities may emerge and interact with their surroundings, but these relationships belong to another order of being.

This is, I think, a conception of civilization that is consistent with V. Gordon Childe and the “urban revolution” that I discussed in my Centauri Dreams post Martian Civilization, but also a definition that goes beyond Childe and fills in the gap between Childe’s formulations specifically concerned with the nature of cities but not yet with the nature of cities in mutual interaction.

This Platonic interpretation of my “concrete” definition of civilization transforms it into a theoretical definition that may yet point to implications that I have not yet fully realized.

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The large number of Mayan cities in Mesoamerica also illustrates a network of cities engaged in interaction.

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