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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