What is a technological civilization?

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

A model of civilization applied to the problem of technological civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three additional permutations not mentioned above:

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

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

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

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

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

Can technology function as the central project of a civilization?

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

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

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

Technology as an end in itself

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

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

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

Preliminary conclusions

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

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

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

Significance for the study of civilization

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

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

Looking ahead to Part II

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

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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Science has a problematic relationship to mythology, so that to speak in terms of the mythological function of science is to court misunderstanding, but this idea is so important that I am going to take the risk of being profoundly misunderstood in order to try to explicate the mythological function of science, both in its descriptive and normative aspects. One of the problems that science has with mythology is that a great many if not most prominent institutional representatives of science explicitly reject mythology, or, if they do not explicitly reject mythology, they invoke a quasi-NOMA doctrine in order to demonstrate their respect for and tolerance of traditional mythologies as long as these mythologies do not interfere in the practice of science.

Science today, however, cannot be neatly contained within any category or limited to any one aspect of life. Science is the driving force behind our industrial-technological civilization, and as such it penetrates into every aspect of life whether or not we recognize this penetration, and whether or not science is even wanted in every aspect of life. Science has become as comprehensive as the global civilization with which it is integral, and so we find ourselves, both as individuals and as part of a society, facing a comprehensive institution that shapes almost every aspect of life. We have a relationship to this institution whether we like it or not, and in some cases this relationship approximates a mythological relationship, although (as I argued in The Next Axial Age) we have not yet seen the axialization of industrial-technological civilization.

On my other blog I have recently written a series of posts on religious experience, across the broad expanse of civilization from the transition from our hunter-gatherer origins to the forms that religious experience may take in the future. These posts are as follows:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experiences

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These posts were narrowly focused on religious experience, and not on other aspects of religious ideas and practices. However, I took as my guide Joseph Campbell’s delineation of the functions of mythology.

Campbell makes a fourfold distinction in the functions of mythology, including the mystical function, the cosmological function, the social function, and the psychological function, as follows:

● The Mystical Function is concerned with reconciling consciousness with the pre-conditions of its existence.

● The Cosmological Function is a unified and comprehensive conception of the cosmos consistent with the mystical function of mythology (above) and the social function of mythology (below).

● The Social Function is a conception of the social order that establishes a model and a form for social institutions, as well as a conception the relation of the individual to the social order, and, through the social order, to the cosmos at large.

● The Psychological Function, which I would prefer to call this the “personal function,” is the function of a myth to guide an individual through the stages of life and to act as a support and as comfort in the individual’s hour of need.

This is a somewhat schematic approach to how an mythological world-view functions in a social context, and not the only possible way to analyze religion. Recently I was skimming some of the work of Ninian Smart, who distinguished seven “dimensions” of religion: 1. Doctrinal, 2. Mythological, 3. Ethical, 4. Ritual, 5. Experiential, 6. Institutional, and 7. Material. Smart further decomposed these seven dimensions into the para-historical (1-3), which must be studied by “dialogue and participation,” and the historical (4-7), which can be studied empirically, like any branch of science. It would be an interesting intellectual undertaking to do a detailed comparison among taxonomies of religious study. Campbell’s master category of mythology is, in Smart, reduced to one among seven dimensions of religion, so some care would be required to sort through respective definitions.

For the moment, however, acknowledging that there are other theoretical frameworks for studying religion, I am going to remain within Joseph Campbell’s structure of the functions of mythology in taking up the central role of science in our civilization. Campbell’s four functions of mythology provide an agenda to approach how science functions in the society of industrial-technological civilization, which can in turn be compared to past instances of mythologies that have served the central role in earlier civilizations equivalent to the role of science in contemporary civilization.

Science, as we all know, has been a source of the dissolution of the cosmological function of traditional mythology. Wherever traditional mythology supplied a myth of origins explaining the structure of the world, this myth has been rudely confronted with the scientific account of the structure of the world. Where the mythological account could gracefully be accepted as a metaphor, this was not a problem, but when great value has been attached to literal interpretations, then it is a problem. Eventually, and slowly, science has supplanted any and all mythological accounts of the nature of the world. Science, then, is uniquely suited to serving the cosmological function of mythology, and does so today even if it is not understood to be a mythological account of the origins and the structure of the world.

In regard to the social function of mythology, I find the position of contemporary science to be very hopeful at the same time that it is very distressing. On the hopeful side, we have sciences of society that are becoming more sophisticated all the time. From an adequate social science human beings are in the position for the first time in the whole of human history to say what kind of cities function well, and which kind of cities function poorly; what kinds of intervention work well, and which kinds fail; what kind of societies are likely to provide health, wealth, and happiness, and which kinds of societies consistently fail to do so. On the distressing side, every utopian program derived from the most advanced social thought of every era of human history has been a disastrous failure that not only fails to provide for health, wealth, and happiness, but which more often than not is transformed in practice into a dystopian nightmare. Thus the ability of a social science to design and maintain even a mediocre society is in question, and we cannot yet count science as ready to fulfill the social function of mythology, even if we are optimistic about the hopeful progress of social science.

The psychological or personal function of mythology is, in some senses, the whole of the problem in miniature. If science can provide an adequate account of the individual, many of the other functions of mythology will fall into place; if science cannot provide an adequate account of the individual, nothing else will work. The best science of the human individual is to be found today in evolutionary psychology. While evolutionary psychology remains controversial, the growing body of work on evolutionary psychology is giving us insights into human nature as derived from our biology and our evolutionary history. We should distinguish criticisms of evolutionary psychology between the political rejections of evolutionary psychology (which is hated by both left and right, in the same what the both the political left and the political right ultimately cannot countenance natural history) and the criticisms of evolutionary psychology that rest on a is/ought conflation. The politicized rejection of evolutionary psychology is uninteresting, so I will ignore it, and only discussed is/ought conflation in the criticism of evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a descriptive science with no normative content, but, sadly and inevitably, no matter how carefully one points out that evolutionary psychology only studies human history, and how we got to be the way that we are, and has nothing whatsoever to say about what we ought to do, nor does it contain any prescriptions, many are unconvinced and are profoundly disturbed by the unflattering evolutionary origins of behaviors that we think of as being typically human. The confusion over the word “natural” in contemporary popular culture embodies a similar problem, except that “natural” is not a scientific term. People use “natural” in ordinary language to describe the world apart from the intervention of human civilization, but they also use the world to express certain values, especially connecting nature with conservation values and environmental concerns. It is extremely difficult to talk about nature without others jumping to the conclusion that one is also going to advocate for a range of issues related to environmentalism. While advocacy may grow out of the growth of scientific knowledge (as was explicitly the case with Lori Marino), and scientists often grow to love their object of study no less their their personal contributions in terms of a theory of their object of study, there is no necessary connection between scientific knowledge and advocacy. It has been considered highly counter-intuitive that, for example, Michel Foucault has been called an “anti-humanist human scientist,” as it is simply assumed that if you study humanity by way of the human sciences, you will also be an advocate of humanity. Similarly with evolutionary psychology, it is often assumed that one is being an advocate for behaviors conditioned by evolutionary, rather than merely explaining the evolutionary mechanism that brought them about.

If we can get past these simple-minded conflations, evolutionary psychology can teach us a great deal about ourselves and our relations with others while in no sense arguing that we are obligated to blindly follow those instincts engendered in us by our evolutionary development. It is a familiar theme that human instinctual life must be repressed in the context of civilized life; this was, of course, the theme of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Another way to formulate this would be to observe that civilized life is incompatible with the instinctual life, so that evolutionary psychology would seem to provide no guide whatsoever to life in our industrial-technological civilization. But this is a deceptive claim to make. To understand the discontent of man in civilization, and especially the widespread anomie of alienated individuals, it is necessary to understand exactly the conflict between instinctual behavior and the behavior demanded by civilized society. Individuals who have studied evolutionary psychology have gained a unique measure of insight into these instinctual conflicts, and I think it is entirely reasonable to assert that such knowledge would likely be a help in guiding the individual through the stages of life experienced in civilized society — especially if evolutionary psychology were supplemented by an evolutionary account of the development of civilization — so that science could be said to be within reach of a robust ability to serve the psychological function of mythology.

This leaves us with the mystical or metaphysical function of mythology, and this will be the toughest task for science, because the science that has propelled industrial-technological civilization relentlessly forward has been a positivistically-conceived science that distances itself both from the mystical and the metaphysical, almost to the point of a cultivated ignorance of the tradition — what I have elsewhere called Fashionable Anti-Philosophy.

I see two possible sources for a mystical function that science could serve: 1. the eventual reconciliation of science with philosophy that allows science to draw from the resources of philosophy of produce a metaphysical conception consistent with modern science, or 2. a scientific theory of consciousness that is neither eliminativist or reductionist, but which gives a definitive account of consciousness that individuals without scientific training will feel is adequate to the explanation of their experience of the world. While many scientists are working on consciousness, and several scientifically-minded philosophers have claimed to “explain” consciousness, we cannot regard any of these efforts or explanations as yet being adequate to the task that would be required of a scientific approach to the mystical function of mythology.

A definitive scientific account of consciousness coupled with an account of evolutionary psychology, including evolutionary social psychology, would give a thorough descriptive account that could serve the mystical, social, and psychological functions as mythology as well as science now serves the cosmological function of mythology. The same is/ought distinction, however, the prevents us from being forced to regard a descriptive account of evolutionary psychology as a prescriptive account of how individuals and societies ought to conduct themselves, constitutes a limitation on the ability of science to function as a mythology, though even here science is not powerless. Sam Harris has recently written a book and given many lectures on the possibility of a scientific approach to morality, and while I disagree with his account, it demonstrates that scientific thought still has many resources that it can bring to the table. Here is where philosophy becomes indispensable. The kind of rapprochement between science and philosophy mentioned above as a possible source for a scientific metaphysics that could serve the mystical function of mythology is perhaps more crucial in overcoming the limitations of science to be prescriptive without violating the is/ought dichotomy.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A couple of days ago in Beyond the Kardashev Scale I suggested the possibility of a moral quantification of civilization in terms of attaining intended consequences and ameliorating unintended consequences, and I followed up on this yesterday in Addendum on Unintended Consequences by making a distinction between utopias that are dystopian because they are another’s ideal which we do not share, and utopians that are dystopian because their unintended consequences overwhelm the admirable intended consequences. I am going to return to this once again to make another distinction.

After writing yesterday’s post I realized that there is a constructive character to non-utopian thought that privileges reform over revolution, and a non-constructive character to utopian thought that privileges revolutionary action over incremental reform. I will try to explain why this is the case.

Another way to formulate the above distinction would be to say that utopian thought is “top down,” based on a grand plan, drawn up in advance, and imposed from above. Non-utopian thought proceeds in the opposite direction, from the bottom up, involves no detailed plans for the future ideal structure of society, and emerges gradually from background events, rather than being imposed.

It might be a little awkward, but we could distinguish a “bottom up” utopianism and a “top down” utopianism, recognizing that traditional utopian thought is always “top down.” The reason this distinction may be a little awkward is that it could be argued that “bottom up” social thought is not utopian, and by its very nature cannot be utopian, although this would ultimately come to a question of how broadly we wish to define utopian thought.

Another way to look at this would be a compare it to a point I made last month in Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations. In that post I contrasted Freud’s psychodynamic psychology, concerned to address particular pathologies, with Maslow’s humanistic “third way” in psychology, that proposes something like a blueprint for a fully functional individual. Indeed, in that post I characterized Maslow’s position as utopian — that is to say, there is a sense in which Maslow develops a utopian philosophy of mind.

Freud’s thought, in contrast, is about as anti-utopian as ever thought was. Nevertheless, Freud’s thought, however cautious and even pessimistic at times, does point to an ideal, and that ideal is an ideal of human life purged of neurotic misery and mental illness. In this latter sense, we can (admittedly with hesitation) call Freud’s thought utopian, though even as we do so we understand that it isn’t quite right to do so (hence the awkwardness mentioned above).

The classical utopian is like Maslow in designing an ideal society (rather than an ideal life of an individual), and we might even call this a fully functional, self-actualizing society if we wanted to stress the parallelism with Maslovian psychology. A Freudian “utopia” would consist not in formulating a plan for an ideal society, but rather in taking society as we know it, and addressing particular pathologies — patiently, gradually, incrementally, and one-by-one taking up the problems of the world and seeking to solve them on their own terms, in their own setting, rather than counting on a single imposed solution from above solving all problems by fiat. If you think of utopianism in this latter sense you will immediately understand why I have characterized utopian thought as being non-constructive in character.

I must say that I rather like this idea, and the very idea of a reluctantly Freudian utopia, gradually coming about through the slow and steady work to ameliorate social pathologies, fills a gap in my own thought that I mentioned yesterday. Since in yesterday’s post I mentioned that I find the pull of utopian thought strong but I didn’t know of any utopia formulated to date that appeals to be personally.

I went for a walk last night immediately after posting my Addendum on Unintended Consequences and I continued to think about these themes. I realized that I rather like the world as it is, and with the elimination of some of its more noxious features (and perhaps also with the addition of some pleasant features), the world more-or-less as I know it could be something of a utopia for me. Moreover, I would not want to see the world as we know it simply extirpated in anarchic or revolutionary fury.

I value the achievements of human civilization just as I value the beauties of nature, and since both of these components of the world are part of both my personal history and my species history (what Marx called “species-being”), both would be essential to any utopia I would formulate, while the loss of either or both would for me be unacceptable.

Nature and culture are often unified in profound ways that give us profound pleasure. The view of Mount Hood from downtown Portland of the view of the Olympic Peninsula from Seattle are quite striking, and it is at least in part the synthesis of natural beauty and the beauty of civilization that makes it so profoundly affecting (for those of us who are affected by such sights; I can easily imagine someone who would find nothing beautiful about nature or nothing beautiful about cities). To take another example, familiar to all, the cityscape of Rio de Janeiro is one of the most amazing sights in the world. I defy anyone to stand on Corcovado or Sugar Loaf and not to be affected by the view.

While we all know that the city of Rio is no utopia, I would add that there could be no utopia without Rio.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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(1931) The Scientific Outlook, London: George Allen and Unwin; New York: W.W. Norton.

Yesterday in Beyond the Karhashev Scale I suggested that a moral measure of civilization could be made by considering the degree to which a civilization has control of its own destiny, not simply responding reactively to events as they happen, but proactively shaping the form that future civilization takes. Part of such a development, it seems to me, would involve systematically privileging intended consequences and taking steps to ameliorate unintended consequences.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (b.1872 – d.1970)

In so saying I was following a suggestion of Bertrand Russell from his book The Scientific Outlook. This isn’t one of Russell’s best known works, but it is a book that made a real impression on me and has continued to influence my thought, even though I sharply disagree with much of it. Russell wrote:

“I should define a government as in a greater or less degree scientific in proportion as it can produce intended results: the greater the number of results that it can both intend and produce, the more scientific it is.”

Bertrand Russell, The Scientific Outlook, Part Three, Chapter XIV, p. 227 (New York: Norton, 1962)

Russell goes on to describe what he thinks to be a scientific society. He openly admits that it is not to his personal liking, and what he describes has a vague resemblance to what I was writing about yesterday. There is also some resemblance between the “society of experts” (p. 237) that Russell imagines and Schumpeter’s implicit predictions in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. In fact, there is much in Russell’s book (first published in 1931) that reflects the debates in political economy in the 1930s.

As I said just above, Russell is an contrarian among utopians, as he doesn’t even seem to believe in his own utopia. And of course he doesn’t call it a utopia. Russell thinks that the scientific society he described was likely, but not necessarily desirable. Much that Russell described besides not being any more desirable than it was when he wrote it, now seems also highly unlikely. In short, there is little or nothing to recommend Russell’s dystopian utopia.

We know from the painful experience of the twentieth century how badly utopias fair when we attempt to put them into practice. As I recently quoted Ernesto Sabato, “Harsh reality is a desolate confusion of beautiful ideals and clumsy achievements.” The ideals of utopia are beautiful, but the execution is clumsy. So clumsy, in fact, that that the execution can be counter-productive to the beautiful ideal.

But in considering utopias that become dystopian in practice we have to make a distinction between those that become dystopian because of their intended consequences or because of their unintended consequences. This is an important distinction, because it marks the point of demarcation between incommensurable ideals.

If we examine famous instances of utopian societies, it is not too difficult to determine whether or not we would, as individuals, enjoy living in a given society, or whether we would thrive in such a society as a result of it expressing our own ideals and aspirations. For example, Plato’s republic would be a hideous place to live for a great many people, myself included. More’s utopia would be pretty dull. Social experiments like Brook Farm, or indeed any number of extant communal living experiments ongoing as I write this, would be an absolute horror for me personally, though some individuals are so attracted to this social model that they abandon their lives in order to become part of such an experiment.

These examples of utopias are abhorrent to me personally because of their intended consequences; even if everything goes right, I still would not want to live in Plato’s republic (much less the society described in Plato’s Laws) or in any commune. This is very different from believing in or being attracted to an ideal, but finding the ideal imperfectly realized and therefore rejecting it for its failure to exemplify the ideal.

During the later stages of the Cold War, when I was growing up, it was not unusual to hear intelligent, thinking people say that the communist ideal was a noble one, but it was the execution of that ideal in actual fact that made existing communist societies as dystopian as they had become. Such comments imply that the speaker would consider living in a perfectly realized communist society, but rejected actually existing communist societies because of the unintended consequences that followed from their imperfect realization.

I would like to be able to give an example of a society that reflects my own ideals and aspirations, but which has failed in the execution due to unintended consequences, but I honestly can’t think of anything. At one time, many years ago, I was attracted to the libertarian socialism of Bataille, but since that time I have learned enough about myself and enough about the world to know that, with or without unintended consequences, such a system would not ultimately be congenial to me. (Whether or not it would be congenial to the world at large I will not attempt to determine.)

I have often thought about writing my own utopia. It is something that has been in my thoughts on and off for as long as I have been studying philosophy. In fact, I just took some notes on this theme last week, but I can feel that I am not yet prepared for this work; the requisite ideas have not yet come to fruition. So in the meantime I must refer to the utopias formulated by others, as I do not as yet have a scientific society of my own to promulgate. But when I do promulgate such a society, I will be certain to note the distinction between what I believe to be likely and what I believe to be desirable (as Russell has done), and I will also be certain to note the distinction between the intended consequences and the unintended consequences of any society I might dream up in my idle moments.

The utopian impulse is strong. The fact that I feel its pull tells me that I am not a Burkean or a de Maistrean; the fact that a utopian formulation continues to elude me tells me that I am not a Platonist or a Marxist.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Technological Succession

25 January 2011


Knives constitute a perennial technology

Reflecting on what I wrote some time ago about mature technologies, stalled technologies, and perennial technologies — whether hardware technologies or social technologies, i.e., whether a structural innovation or a functional innovation — I realized the inadequacy of throwing together these categories of technological institutions. For particular technologies have their distinctive institutions no less than particular peoples have their distinctive institutions.

Bicycle technology has improved significantly, but the basic design has not changed in more than a hundred years. Bicycles, then, would seem to be a perennial technology, though they emerged much later in history than knives.

An appropriately fine-grained account of technological institutions would recognize that while mature and perennial technologies are both robust and durable technologies, they nevertheless represent robustness and durability for different reasons. Indeed, there is a sense in which perennial and mature technologies are opposed, and that sense is rooted in the natural history of both technologies. A perennial technology derives from the first stages of the succession of technological institutions, while a mature technology derives from the latest stages of the succession of technological institutions.

Nuclear warhead design is now a mature technology that reflects a period of rapid development followed by a plateau of incremental development.

Perennial technologies are those which perennially emerge even under adverse conditions. These are the hardiest, and their appearance in the historical record is a response to perennial needs. Mature technologies emerge from stable societies with stable institutions that allow for continued and continuous development of a given technology over time. Such mature technologies do no necessarily correspond to a perennial social need, although changed social conditions that make use of available technologies create needs previously unanticipated.

Most of our strategic weapons systems are mature technologies.

A perennial technology matures early and remains useful despite having attained a plateau. It is useful precisely because it cannot be improved upon in any essential way. A perennial technology may change in inessential ways, and later iterations may make use of indirect technological innovations, but direct technological innovations to essentials are not possible for a truly perennial technology. Perennial technology could be defined in terms of its imperviousness to essential improvement.

I have argued previously that tire chains are a perennial technology, although I will allow that they are a little more problematic since they are contingent upon automobile technology, which is now a mature technology. However, tire chain design is not likely to change any more significantly than bicycle design.

Sometimes it is quite difficult to improve upon a perennial technology, even if it has direct origins in the earliest stages of technological succession. A knife, for example, is a perennial technology, and knives date back to the earliest human technological innovations. While the construction and composition of knives have changed as technology has changed, this is just an improvement in the way to produce essentially the same thing. It should also be noted that there is a great diversity of knives, some of them highly specialized for a particular purpose, and some of them useful precisely because they are not specialized. (It is interesting to observe that a tool or technology produced without a specific use in mind cannot properly said to be exapted by any unanticipated use in the future.)

A mature technology, on the other hand, derives from the later stages of technological succession. A mature technology has achieved a plateau in its development, with most of its aspects having been explored for their possibilities to further extend and exploit the technology. The technology of nuclear weapons is a mature technology. There are many designs for many different varieties of nuclear weapons, most designs have been tested repeatedly, and most of the possibilities of the technology have been explored. The technology of automobiles is also a mature technology.

Some technologies are more difficult to classify, and perhaps deserve a category of their own. It is to be expected that there will be problematic cases, which is not a counter-example to the clear cases that are easy to classify. (And this latter observation is a clear example of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy and later called the truncation principle.)

It can now be seen that what I previously formulated in terms of the Law of Stalled Technologies has an alternate formulation in terms of technological succession. That is to say, we could formulate a law of technological succession, and it would look a lot like the law of stalled technologies.

The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need but by way of a distinct method is an extension of a society with stable institutions that was able to bring to fruition a mature technology. With a mature technology in place, and stable economic and social institutions built upon this technology, there emerges an incentive to continue or to expand these institutions to a greater extent, at a cheaper cost, more efficiently, more effectively, and with less effort. This attempt to do previous technology one better is, in turn, a spur to social changes that will call forth further innovations. It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution emerged from just such an escalation of social and technological coevolution.

By analogy with microevolution (evolution within a species) and macroevolution (evolution from one species into another) in biology, we can see the microevolution and macroevolution of technologies. Perennial technologies exhibit micorevolution. No new technological “species” emerge from the incremental changes in perennial technologies. Technological macroevolution is the succession of a stalled technology by a new, immature technology, which latter still possesses the possibility of development. Mature technologies experience adaptive radiation under coevolutionary pressures, and this macroevolution can result in new technological species.

In Political Constraints on Weapons Systems I attempted to demonstrate some ways in which weapons systems, presumably constructed on a pure “form follows function” principle, with the function understood as winning battles, in fact are deeply embedded in a social context that dictate what tactical imperatives will be embodied in weapons systems. The idea of technological succession tied to coevolution with evolving social institutions gives us an alternative formulation of the same basic idea. Social institutions that govern the fighting of battles and the waging of wars spur particular developments of tactics and weapons systems, and these tactics and weapons systems, once employed in the battlespace, constitute a changed condition that will, in the fullness of time, make itself felt in the social institutions that influenced their development.

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technological succession

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Dynastic Communism

7 July 2010


Please allow me to bring to your attention to an excellent article in the Financial Times, North Korea: Drastic dynastics, about the ongoing struggle for power in that impoverished, isolated, and miserable place. The plotting and machinations involved in the current succession struggle, as detailed in the FT story, reveal the essentially feudal character of the North Korean state. This is the very embodiment of non-transparency.

Last month in The Evolution of Marxism I discussed the strange (but understandable spectacle) of how Marxism has evolved from an essentially internationalist project into something intensely local and indigenous, as caught up with ideas of nationalism and national self-determination as with any idea of an economic structure that engages in the redistribution of wealth. In North Korea, we not only have an intensely nationalistic communist despotism, we also have economic redistribution of the kind that communism was originally conceived in opposition to. In fact, North Korea is much more like a feudal kingdom than a contemporary nation-state, with its power personally held by a single family, transmitted from father to son, and the bulk of state resources directed into the military.

Alfred Russel Wallace called his paper formulating his independent discovery of natural selection, “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type.” This pregnant title is equally applicable to ideologies: one could speak of the tendency of ideologies to depart indefinitely from the original type. And what is the result? Speciation. In this case, the speciation of ideologies, which experience descent with modification. Except in the present case of North Korea, what we have seen is evolutionary avatism — a throwback to earlier forms of ideology — rather than any ideological novelty arising from social evolution.

In several posts about the technological singularity (for example, More on Stalled Technologies) I tried to develop the idea of mature technologies, which enjoy a high degree of stability, but which have reached a certain plateau of development and are not likely to experience any further exponential growth. The atavism revealed by North Korea’s feudal institutions represents a case of stalled social technology, i.e., the return to a robust and stable feudalism.

Today’s diplomats, if they would like to deal profitably with North Korea, should hit the history books, and particularly those detailing the early modern period (which I recently described as a goldmine of ideas). And for this reason: in the early modern period, the earliest examples of nation-states had already emerged, while many feudal kingdoms still hung on to life at that point, and would continue to hang on to life to the present day. However, even those formerly despotic feudalisms that still survive in Europe (count the number of European countries that still have a king of queen as symbolic head of state), have been transformed over time into new species of governmentality that have ceased to be feudal and ceased to be despotic even while retaining some feudal institutions. There are lessons to be learned from this transition.

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Last fall in Experimental Archaeology I discussed the recreation of several sea voyages in the interest of determining what exactly is possible in terms of the capabilities of early seafaring technologies. Today my attention has been directed to another form of experimental archaeology in the form of the construction of a castle, Guédelon, in Yonne, Burgundy.

On the BBC front page the story about the castle was called “France’s Folly” and even the website maintained by the castle builders calls the project an “idée folle” and further identifies it as “Michel Guyot’s crazy scheme” and a “hairbrain scheme.” There is, of course, nothing crazy about it. Ever since the first Skansen (open air museum) was founded in the late nineteenth century near Stockholm, Europeans have been attempting to preserve the rural heritage of Europe’s Agricultural Paradigm.

The open air museums of Europe range from the simple preservation of historical structures to elaborate reconstructions of rural and village life before the Industrial Revolution. And in Sweden, the point of origin of the Skansen movement, there is even an open air museum dedicated to the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the Siljansfors Skogsmuseum, which has an early blast furnace and Bessemer works on display. I have especially enjoyed open air museums since my first trip to Europe in 1988 (when I visited a large open air museum outside Copenhagen), and have visited as many as I could locate in subsequent years.

While open air museums usually focus on reconstructing life within actual buildings preserved from the past, it is an obvious next step to seek to recreate a building in furthering the mission of experimental archaeology. One learns much by attempting to live as our ancestors lived and in their structures. One also no doubt learns much from attempting to build from scratch the kind of structures that our ancestors would have built. The construction of a small castle would have much to teach the experimental archaeologist, since it would involve not only the castle itself, but the crafts, skills, tools, and materials needed to build a 13th century building with 13th century tools and technology.

Previously I wrote about reconstructing sea voyages, and today I have touched on the reconstruction of the built environment. It is interesting to note how schematically these two approaches to experimental archaeology divide between an activity that represents a mobile way of life (sea borne trade) and a structure that represents a settled way of life (subsistence agriculture). These two approaches to experimental archaeology (which are in no sense mutually exclusive) also constitute two approaches to life and to civilization: the mobile and the settled. These two attitudes also embody a distinction that I have made between social technologies and hardware technologies: choosing to move is a behavioral modification that is essentially a social technology, whereas choosing to settle means developing a settled civilization whose primary monument is its material culture, i.e., its hardware technologies.

Obviously, and in the big picture, mobile and settled societies are inter-dependent. In the long term, the bulk of the human species may tend more to the one or to the other, but the mobile life and the settled life are both perennial aspects of the human conditions. The nomad and the settler re-appear time and again throughout history, each playing a role that is related to the other.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Swarming Attack

7 April 2010


A sufficient number of tanks massed in attack can transform the efficacy of mobile fire into a swarm.

Yesterday when I wrote about the Iranian acquisition of the high-performance speedboat Bradstone Challenger (in Speedboat Diplomacy) I also had occasion to review a post from last August, The Power of Mobile Fire, and in retrospect I now see, despite my satisfaction with the argument in the latter piece, its inadequacies. But even as I wrote it I knew that I would need to revisit the topic, for I merely mentioned the contribution of mobile fire to swarming attacks, but did not develop it there because I had only begun to think of it at that point.

The Apache helicopter gunship is one of the preeminent weapons of mobile fire of our time.

In yesterday’s piece I quoted the Financial Times article to the effect that armed patrol boats based upon the design of the Bradstone Challenger, might be used for, “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats.” This led me to reflect on what I had previously implied about swarming attacks and mobile fire.

The Lockheed AC-130 gunship is a fixed wing platform for mobile fire.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I wrote:

The most advanced weapons systems of our time are those of mobile fire: the helicopter gunship and the aircraft carrier. Precisely because these are the most advanced weapons systems of our time, technological marvels of unrivaled sophistication, they are subject to severe constraints …one of the distinctive features of effective mobile fire has been its mass deployment. This hasn’t been discussed in the above simply because I am not sure of how to formulate it, but mobile fire is like a swarm that engulfs an enemy…

It would be worthwhile to think a little more clearly and more systematically about mobile fire. It would not be difficult to calculate, for various weapons systems, what we might call a mobility quotient, which would take into account the weight (and therefore the inertia), top speed, acceleration and deceleration, time to execute a 180 degree turn (inversely proportional), number of crew required to operate (inversely proportional), and the number of dimensions in which the weapons system in question can operate. This wouldn’t take much research, but at the present moment it takes more time that I am going to invest today. But we can calculate a very rough mobility quotient for some obvious weapons systems by taking top speed multiplied by the number of dimensions in which a weapons system operates. This is limited and imperfect, but it will make a point.




in knots


of operation



M1 Abrams tank 36.50 2 73
Apache helicopter 148.00 3 444
Nimitz class carrier 30.00 2 60
armored Humvee 56.48 2 113
AC-130 gunship 260.00 3 780

Even a rough calculation of the mobility quotient of a weapons system reveals the differences that should be obvious even without any explicit analysis: an Apache helicopter gunship is far more mobile than a Nimitz class aircraft carrier. The above rough method has obvious problems: the Apache can reverse its facing far more quickly than the AC-130, but the AC-130 has a higher top speed. That is why I said in the above the a more thorough calculation would take in additional factors like the ability to turn and acceleration. Also, a warship or a tank can bring its gun turrets to bear on a target without having to turn to face the target. But I’m sure you get the idea.

In The Power of Mobile Fire I identified aircraft carriers as mobile fire, and certainly to an extent carriers and warships are mobile on the seas, but there is a more important sense in which an aircraft carrier is a platform for mobile fire. True mobility on the water would be something like the craft that the US Bureau of Industry and Security warned that the Iranians would make by adapting the design of the Bradstone Challenger: armed with “torpedoes, rocket launchers and anti-ship missiles” with the aim of “exploiting enemy vulnerabilities through the use of ‘swarming’ tactics by small boats”. By the above rough calculation, the Bradstone Challenger has a mobility quotient of 130, better than twice that of the carrier. We know that a small patrol boat would be crewed by just a few men, reducing response time to commands, and that it would turn far quicker than any carrier or warship. Thus a more sophisticated mobility quotient calculation would only show a greater disparity between the large ships and the small boats.

The next step is to go from mobile fire to a swarm of mobile fire, and this could also be rendered in a rough calculation such that mobility quotient multiplied by mass (in the sense used in military doctrine, not inertial mass) equals a swarm. That is to say, the mobile fire unit multiplied by a mass deployment equals a swarm of mobile fire. This is where a platform for mobile fire becomes important: an aircraft carrier is sufficiently large to carry sufficient numbers of mobile fire units to induce a mobile fire swarm. On land, an airbase would be a platform for mobile fire. Or, for ground-based swarm attacks, a staging point, perhaps a military base with infrastructure such as fueling and repair, would be a platform for mobile fire swarm attacks.

In Speedboat Diplomacy I quoted the Financial Times quoting Craig Hooper to the effect that, “A small, fast boat navy is nothing more than a surprise strike and harassment force. Every time small, fast boats run into helicopters, the helicopters win.” This seems to call into question the possibility of the efficacy of a swarming attack by patrol boats. I consulted Craig Hooper’s website, Next Navy: Future Maritime Security, where he makes the point again, writing, “Once a fast boat swarm is identified as “hostile,” those small boats tend to have relatively short, exciting lives.” Hooper, however, ultimately leaves the question open: “The trick, of course, is avoiding any losses as a ‘swarm’ transforms from ‘traffic’ to a swarming ‘attacker’ …And that might be a tad difficult. Or… maybe not.”

The “maybe not” deserves our attention. Helicopters have the advantage of operating in three dimensions and of speed, but a patrol boat is potentially less sensitive to the direction it is facing, if it has a deck-mounted heavy machine gun with a 360 degree range of motion. Are there patrol boats that have been armed equivalently to the AH-64 Apache? I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. It would also be interesting to run a war game with patrol boats armed as heavily as an Apache, and with boats and helicopters present in equal numbers. Lessons might be learned that could teach the boats a few things about anti-helicopter tactics. Certainly, somewhere in the world, someone is conducting such exercises, in so far as it is within their capability, and learning the lessons. Presumably this would be those most heavily invested in the idea of swarming patrol boat attacks.

It is interesting that this discussion of swarm attacks should emerge at the same time as the BBC has reported swarming tactics by Somalian pirates. In Navies struggle with ‘swarming’ pirates, Rear Adm. Peter Hudson is quoted as saying, “What we’ve seen in the last month in the southern part of the Indian Ocean, the Somali basin, is almost swarm tactics by some of the pirates who try to flood the area with action groups.” While the small pirate boats are mostly taking on unarmed and defenseless commercial shipping, it is also to be noted that the pirate’s boats are far from being anything like the Bradstone Challenger. If the pirates had to take on armed vessels they probably wouldn’t have a chance, but if the pirates, with their experience of small boat mobility and boarding on the high seas, were given a squadron of Bladerunner 51s and more sophisticated weaponry, they might well prove an adversary to a naval ship. Experience is key. It has been reported that the remarkable marksmanship exhibited by the Taliban with weapons such as shoulder-launched missiles is a result of the protracted civil war in Afghanistan and the resultant extensive experience accrued thereby.

In a swarm attack one can expect that there is a “tipping point.” This is what a philosopher would call a “sorites paradox” also known as the paradox of the heap: if you progressively add more and more grains of sand together, at some point they stop being a few grains of sand and become a heap. There is no definitive answer to when this transition occurs. That is why it is a paradox. For the same reason, there will be no definitive answer for inducing a military swarm attack: reaching the tipping point from massed deployment to the “lived experience” of a swarm (to borrow a phrase of phenomenology) will always depend upon variable factors like weather, terrain, morale, and cultural factors.

In a swarm attack, the forces attacked are ideally not merely demoralized and panicked, they are overpowered, overwhelmed, and utterly bewildered. In other words, the point of a swarm attack is to induce the enemy to experience the sublime. This may sound a little odd, so I will try to explain.

While in ordinary language “sublime” is used almost interchangeably with “beautiful,” in the technical jargon of aesthetics it means a distinctive aesthetic experience different from the beautiful. I have written about the sublime several times in this forum, for example, in Algorithms of Ecstasy, The Intellectual Sublime, and Salto Mortale. In the latter piece I elaborated on the Kantian conception of the sublime. Kant, primarily remembered as an abstruse metaphysician, devoted the third of his three critiques to the sublime. He makes a fundamental distinction between the mathematical sublime and the dynamic sublime. While almost all of his examples of the dynamic sublime are instances of natural beauty that overwhelm us, the idea of the dynamical sublime could be equally well applied to war, or perhaps better applied to war.

Immanuel Kant wrote extensively on the sublime.

Even Kant, in his genteel eighteenth century way, can glimpse the sublimity of war, although for Kant war was the sort of relatively well-behaved exercise between small professional armies to be found in the Europe of his day:

“Even war has something of the sublime about it if it is carried on in an orderly way and with respect for the sanctity of citizen’s rights. At the same time it makes the way of thinking of a people that carries it on in this way all the more sublime in proportion to the number of dangers in the face of which it courageously stood its ground. A prolonged peace, on the other hand, tends to make prevalent a merely commercial spirit, and along with it base selfishness, cowardice, and softness, and to debase the way of thinking of that people.”

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Sec. 28

To say that war is sublime is not to say that it is good, or that it is inevitable, or that it is anything else flattering or unflattering. The point is that war, and especially the experience of battle, can overwhelm a man, or a group of men, and leave them disoriented and bewildered. One can imagine (I must attempt to imagine for I have never been a soldier and never been in battle), that if one is on the side that is winning, confidence grows and one feels an increasing sense of power and control over the situation. On the losing side, the opposite happens: confidence collapses and one feels a dwindling sense of power and control over the situation. Past a certain tipping point, this lack of control passes over into an experience of the sublime when one is utterly at the mercy of circumstances.

I am not suggesting that there is anything essentially new about swarming tactics. On the contrary, in The Power of Mobile Fire I recounted the history of swarming mobile fire in the form of Hittite chariot archers and Mongol mounted bowmen. Moreover, since the emergence of Blitzkrieg, almost all battlefield tactics are implicitly aimed at swarming around and over enemy positions, leaving strong points to be “mopped up” later. What I am suggesting here is that a swarming attack by mobile fire is an effective way to think about such battlefield tactics, and that we can further conceptualize the situation in terms of inducing an experience of the sublime among the enemy. Since the sublime will be culturally relative to a certain degree, military doctrine might profit from studying the culture of the enemy in order to better understand how an experience of the sublime can be induced through military action.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Social Networks

25 January 2010


Social Networks did not emerge with Web 2.0; social networks are as old as social species, which is to say that social networks are far older than our species. What do I mean by this? In Argentina at Loma del Pterodaustro there is a remarkable paleontological find of a rookery of pterosaurs, that is to say, there is paleontological evidence that pterosaurs lived closely together in rookeries as many seabirds do today. This, of course, makes sense as birds are the surviving descendants of dinosaurs.

All social species develop conventions for living together at close quarters.

Darwin argued that any species in which the individuals live in crowded conditions with others of the same species (as in a rookery) will eventually and inevitably develop social conventions for living together in such close circumstances. I believe this to be correct, and when I watch large groups of social animals I see it confirmed in my own experience. For example, I have watched large groups of sea lions on the Oregon coast on many occasions. Like seabirds on a rookery, sea lions often congregate together in large numbers in rocks just offshore, and in this way are easy to observe.

An idealized representation of a social network.

When people speak of social networks today, they mean those social networks that have recently been enabled in the internet: Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, and countless others. The popular press discusses social networks ad nauseum because young people are fascinated by them (young consumers are a desirable demographic) and the business press discusses social networks because young consumers are fascinated by them and young consumers are a desirable demographic. I learned about Twitter from an article in the Financial Times, of all places.

Before we solemnly proclaim the revolutionary character of contemporary internet-enabled social contracts, we ought to think a little about the history of social networks. Beyond the social networks that are the concern of natural history, such as mentioned above in the first paragraph, the emergence of human societies is identical to the emergence of social networks. The social networks of the earliest settled civilizations of the neolithic agricultural revolution would have emerged from the social networks of the hunter-gatherer bands and preceded them, as the social networks of hunter-gatherer bands would have emerged gradually and continuously from the social networks of natural history that in turn preceded them.

In social networks during the historical period proper we can see the continuing emergence and evolution of such networks, always dependent upon what came before while adopting and adapting old social networks to new social contexts arising from unprecedented historical change. This continues in our own time, such that internet-enabled social networks must be understood not as revolutionary new developments but as the continuation of a process as old as mankind, and, in fact, older. Each development is a continuation, but always with a new twist.

In the absence of the formal social networks such as the feudal aristocracy of medieval Europe, or even the semi-formal client-patron networks of classical antiquity, in contemporary industrialized nation-states social relationships are organized through informal social networks. In other words, as it has been put in a familiar saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. (Or, in some cases, it’s not what you do, but who you do.) But such seemingly informal social networks emerging from mere friendships are not so innocuous as they may seem: who one knows is almost always a function of one’s socio-economic status. Of course there are individuals who cross socio-economic class lines, and there is a certain amount of social mobility, but these are the exceptions, and we notice them precisely because they are exceptions. The rule remains the rule.

For those who have no advantageous friendships, no friends in high places, and no social connections to well-placed individuals who can make things happen, there emerges the need to be liked. One makes (or attempts to make) oneself likable in order to get things done. One must be liked by the right people. (And, on the right sort of people, consider the devastating critique of such people and such aspirations in C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters.) In some cases, perhaps in many cases, this is a dismal state of affairs, scarcely better than the flattery and sycophancy of aristocratic court culture and the formal social networks of feudalism. Indeed, I would argue that both forms of culture are species of the same genus.

I would argue that the formalization of informal networks is one mark of the maturation of a civilization. I do not say that it is good, or even that it is better than the social networks of barbarism; I say only that mature civilizations tend to formally define a greater number of aspects of life the longer such civilizations last, and among these aspects of life we must include social networks. With this in mind, we can define at least one sense in which medieval Europe constitutes continuous progress beyond the achievements of classical antiquity (whereas in most senses medieval civilization is viewed as less sophisticated than, as representing a devolution from, classical antiquity): the medieval feudal system is a far more formal, detailed, defined, and evolved social network than any that existed in the ancient world.

Internet-enabled social networks constitute a new formalization of informal social networks, and many unprecedented institutions are emerging from the intrinsic structures of this new public forum. Social networks, especially when laid out in the formal terms of internet-enabled social networks, are a concrete expression of social capital, a buzz word that has made it from academic sociology to the popular press. The greater one’s social network, the greater one’s social capital (an equivalence principle for sociology, as it were). Today, in virtue of internet-enabled social networks, we might even be able to quantify social capital of an individual or an institution. This represents a new level of the formalization of informal social networks, perhaps even a new order of magnitude, such that internet-enabled social networks actually could be called revolutionary in comparison to what came before them.

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Failed Cities

6 November 2009



Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

The city is the central exhibit of civilization, crucial to the origins, development, and continued vitality of civilization. And as history is littered with now defunct civilizations, so the landscapes of the world, from arid deserts to tropical jungles, from broken cliffs to the shores of the world’s oceans, are littered with defunct and abandoned cities. And even in their derelict state, these cities continue to exercise a power over the landscape and over our imagination. Is there anyone, anywhere in the world, who has not heard of Babylon? Babylon is a city perhaps more famous posthumously than during the years of its glory.

Promyshlennyi, in the Vorkuta area, was abandoned as services were cut off with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Promyshlennyi, in the Vorkuta area, was abandoned as services were cut off with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And Rome. What city has exercised greater power over the historical imagination of Western civilization than Rome? Consider the famous passage from Edward Gibbon’s Autobiography:

It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire…

It was the experience of the ruins of Rome, of Rome in its derelict state, that inspired Gibbon to write The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Detroit today

Detroit today

As we have observed above, the globe is littered with failed cities. Most were small, but there is a significant number of larger remains as well. Some failed cities are remembered only by pot sherds and broken roof tiles and the remnants of terracing (I have walked through a site like this in the hills of the Turkish coast) while others have left more considerable remains, some to the point of almost appearing intact, so that one can easily imagine moving in to the abandoned structures and taking up life almost where it left off, as though seamlessly recovering a lost history.

Abandoned buildings in Pittsburgh, since redeveloped into soi-dissant lofts.

Abandoned buildings in Pittsburgh, since redeveloped into soi-dissant lofts.

The question of exactly what constitutes a city is as difficult as the question of what exactly constitutes a civilization, and indeed the question of how one knows when it’s love. Well, even if we can’t define a city precisely, we can usually recognize one — or the remains of one — when we see it. I suppose we could specify some quantitative measure in terms of population, area, production or consumption, but this would only be an oblique admission that we cannot get at the essence of the city… at least not yet…

The Lee Plaza Hotel in Detroit.

The Lee Plaza Hotel in Detroit.

The ends of great cities are as mysterious and as varied as their origins and growth. In so far as a city is like a king among the lesser human assemblages of villages and towns, the manifold ends of cities remind me of a passage from Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act III, scene iii):

For Heauens sake let vs sit vpon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of Kings:
How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,
Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,
Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,
All murther’d.

So it is with cities: there is no single pattern of urban dissolution Of course, we know much more about the decline and fall, the decay and ends of great cities, because there were people, many people, present to chronicle the events — unlike the obscure years of their rise to prominence. Yet there remains something compellingly inscrutable about how a grand and thriving metropolis ultimately meets its doom.

San Juan Parangaricutiro, buried under lava and ash, was abandoned during the eruption of the Parícutin volcano in 1943.

San Juan Parangaricutiro, buried under lava and ash, was abandoned during the eruption of the Parícutin volcano in 1943, claimed by a natural disaster.

Every successful city has spawned a literature devoted to it. Many authors are closely identified with their chosen city, as Joyce with Dublin or Baudelaire with Paris. Unsuccessful cities, that is to say, failed cities, have not the same paper trail to document them. As dying men often find themselves isolated and lonely, so too dying cities are left only with those who cannot leave, and once the city is utterly dead, no one but an archaeologist or an historian has anything to say about it: the authentic voices the city, those who partook of its life, are as dead as is the city itself.

An abandoned train station in Buffalo, New York

An abandoned train station in Buffalo, New York

No city is a failure in its inception. A city begins with a pre-city nucleus, perhaps a town or even a mere village. It is precisely due to the success of such a nucleus that it grows into a city. But it is often the case that the first thought inspired by the ruins of an abandoned city is how and why the city was ever built in the first place, and how it ever came to grow to its apparent former size. Many abandoned cities are to be found buried deep within tropical jungles, far from contemporary civilization, or stranded in the midst of a desert like the toppled statue of Ozymandias in the poem by Shelley.

Atlantic City, New Jersey

Atlantic City, New Jersey

A failed city is not the same as an abandoned city, although failure and abandonment obviously overlap. On the one hand, cities might be abandoned for many reasons, most of which have little or nothing to do with the intrinsic failure of a given city as a city, while, on the other hand, a failed city may continue in existence, much as Rome was never completely depopulated even at its nadir. Many cities are abandoned due to natural disasters. Pompeii is perhaps the most famous example of this, buried by the ash of the eruption of Vesuvius, but more recently, much more recently, there is the example of San Juan Parangaricutiro, buried by the lava flow from the formation of Parícutin volcano in 1943.

Trees growing out of a second floor window in Gary, Indiana.

Trees growing out of a second floor window in Gary, Indiana.

We all know that particular technologies outlive their usefulness. I have written about this in The Law of Stalled Technologies and More on Stalled Technologies. Because of the succession of technologies, one technology and its infrastructure may have to be abandoned in order to move on to the next technology. This does not mean that the society or civilization that produced the first technology has collapsed; on the contrary: the abandonment is a consequence of the vigor of a society that can leave behind the past. However, when an entire life of a city is based upon the infrastructure of a particular technology, and that technology is abandoned, or has changed so rapidly that older production facilities are without value to the contemporary iteration of the technology, then that city must enter a most painful decline.

Pripyat, near Chernobyl, was abandoned not due to natural disaster or to changed economic conditions, but to a man-made disaster.

Pripyat, near Chernobyl, was abandoned not due to natural disaster or to changed economic conditions, but to a man-made disaster.

The most obvious examples of the process of abandonment because of obsolescence due to technological change are to be found in the industrialized “Rustbelt” of the United States, although examples can be found in every industrialized region of the world. In the Pacific Northwest, a similar process has occurred in connection with the timber industry. Small towns dependent on a single large timber mill were reduced to not much more than a minimart, a gas station, and maybe a bowling alley once the mill closed. I have long thought it would be an excellent topic for an academic study — whether sociological or economic or cultural geography — to write a thesis on After the Mill Closes. We could call this process industrial succession, by analogy with ecological succession, understanding that cities are a petri dish of the ecology of civilization.

Oregon Business timber towns

There is a sense in which this process of industrial succession is predictable and an obvious consequence of social and technological change, but there is also a sense in which it is striking and remarkable. Even in a middling-sized city like Portland, where I am somewhat familiar with the commercial and industrial real estate market, a relatively small structure in the industrially zoned area of the city (and I understand that not all cities have zoning laws) costs a million dollars or more, and this represents a significant investment for a small business. If you cross the bridges over the Willamette in downtown Portland and see a panoramic view of the city, thick with small and large buildings, and you realize that each one of these properties may be worth millions (some of them worth tens of millions), you immediately understand how valuable a contemporary city can be. The amount of money represented by a urban landscape is staggering, and we aren’t even talking New York, Paris, London, or Berlin here.

The barren and desolate National Stockyards at East St. Louis

The barren and desolate National Stockyards at East St. Louis

That anyone can afford to abandon commercial or industrial urban properties is remarkable. And yet it happens. Perhaps the property is owned by a corporation that goes bankrupt, the property tax bills go perpetually unpaid, and the city has other, more pressing needs and will not spend the money required to raze or refurbish such properties. Where the decline of a particular city is terminal, this process escalates and turns into a vicious circle of declining property values that drive further bankruptcies and abandonments.

The pod city of San Zhi, Taiwan, abandoned before completion.

The pod city of San Zhi, Taiwan, abandoned before completion.

Industrial succession is a force as relentless and as inevitable as the Industrial Revolution itself. We could say, in fact, that industrial succession is part of the Industrial Revolution, and that the civilization that has emerged from industrialized societies is a civilization that must reckon with the industrial succession that comes with the Industrial Revolution. The rational approach to this would be to plan for cities to emerge around particular technologies, and for these same cities to be abandoned gradually as that same technology inevitably becomes obsolete. This has been attempted in some highly controlled and managed economies, but cities cannot avoid becoming the domicile of our dreams and our aspirations at the same time as they grow rich, just as they become symbols of failure and decay as they decline into poverty.

An abandoned high rise in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

An abandoned high rise in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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