Tuesday


Interior view showing the control room at Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Receiving Station B.

Questioning the Marxian Thesis

In the final section of Technological Civilization: Addendum to Part III, I made the following tripartite distinction among civilizations, such that there are:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

To recap these theses, the Marxian Thesis is that the intellectual superstructure is largely determined by the economic infrastructure, while the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the economic infrastructure is largely determined by the intellectual superstructure. In a paradigmatic civilization, infrastructrure and superstructure are equally determined (to some degree) by the central project. Alternatively, in the language of Robert Redfield, the Marxian Thesis is that the moral order is determined by the technical order, and the Burckhardtian Thesis is that the technical order is determined by the moral order. We can give these theses weaker or stronger formulations depending upon whether we hold the determination of one institutional structure of civilization by other to be marginal or total (or something in between).

The Marxian Thesis is the most familiar and the most influential, having been promoted and argued by Marxists for more than a hundred years. I had to formulate the Burckhardtian thesis myself because no one (to my knowledge) has attempted an explicit exposition or defense of the idea. Since the Marxian Thesis still has considerable influence in some quarters, I want to explicitly confront it with a counter-example. This does not mean that I reject the Marxian Thesis or affirm the Burckhardtian Thesis. My larger point is that different civilizations in different stages of historical development might embody the one or the other by turns. I take on the Marxian Thesis now primarily due to its popularity.

If the Marxian Thesis were true, one would expect that the intellectual superstructure would track the development of the economic infrastructure of civilization, so that as the economy developed, and as sciences and technologies appeared and entered into the economic infrastructure, they would be reflected in the intellectual superstructure precisely for their contribution to the economic infrastructure. One can point out instances that seem to confirm this expectation, but there are also instances that seem to defy the expectation. In order to set aside individual instances that may or may not be representative of a general trend, I would like to paint with a broad brush (as indeed Marx was painting with a broad brush). I have been entertaining a thought experiment for several years that I only recently realized speaks to this assumption of the Marxian Thesis, so I will use this in an attempt to make my point.

The Thought Experiment: Euclid and Darwin

Suppose, across a gulf of nearly two thousand years, we swapped Euclid with Darwin. Suppose that an ancient Greek Darwin had lived in the first few centuries AD, while a Victorian Euclid had lived in the 19th century. Obviously (I hope obviously), I am here using Euclid and Darwin as symbols to evoke developments in science associated with the two figures. Euclid represents the growth of mathematical science in classical antiquity, culminating in a figure like Euclid who would rationalize and systematize prior centuries of mathematical research into a great synthesis. Darwin represents the emergence of a scientific biology in the wake of 19th century achievements in scientific geology. Hutton and Lyell had opened the deep past to geologists, and Darwin opened the deep past to biologists. Euclid and Darwin are not perfectly symmetrical figures. Euclid was a systematizer and and synthesizer, like Thomas Aquinas or Hegel. Darwin stood at the head of a new scientific tradition, that would later be systematized and synthesized by others (significantly, the early twentieth century joining of evolution and genetics is called the “neo-Darwinian synthesis”).

Though Euclid and Darwin were not perfectly symmetrical figures in intellectual history, both men were the authors of books that defined a discipline: Euclid’s Elements defined ancient mathematics, while Darwin’s Origin of Species defined evolutionary biology. Thus by invoking Euclid and Darwin as symbols, what I am suggesting is not merely swapping the historical order of Euclid and Darwin, but more-so transposing their respective sciences in history, so that biology, instead of becoming scientific in the 19th century, instead became scientific in classical antiquity. And that geometry, and, by extension, all of higher mathematics, mostly lay dormant during classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, and only fully came into its own in the 19th century. Prior to this time there would have been a rudimentary mathematics, as there was a rudimentary biology in antiquity, but nothing like the sophistication of the Conics of Apollonius of Perga.

Natural selection, despite being counter-intuitive (the human mind is deeply teleological), is a simple idea. Certainly, natural selection is sufficiently simple that, had the idea been formulated in antiquity, and had it become the focus of research in the way that mathematical (and astronomical) ideas had been the focus of multi-generational scientific research programs in antiquity, most of the ideas of Darwin’s Origin of Species could have been formulated in terms understandable in classical antiquity. Moreover, the kind of experiments that Gregor Mendel later performed, which were the foundations of genetics, could also have been performed in classical antiquity. However, there is some ambiguity here in saying that the experiments, “could have been performed.” The experimental programs of Darwin and Mendel required no high technology, and thus could have been performed in classical antiquity (i.e., the lack of experimental apparatus would not have prevented these experiments from being performed), but the idea of experimental research in science did not yet exist in classical antiquity. There are many intimations of experimentation in antiquity, but nothing as methodical and systematic as Mendel’s pea plant experiments.

Let us suppose, then, as part of our thought experiment to transpose modern biological thought into antiquity in exchange for transposing ancient mathematical thought into the modern world, that Euclid’s axiomatization did not exist prior to being formulated in the 19th century, so that it did not appear as a method in antiquity, while experimental scientific method (at least in biology) instead appeared in antiquity. In a sense, this is not so far from what did happen, in terms of mathematical development. Axiomatics appeared in antiquity, but was little developed as a discipline, and was essentially static until the revolution in rigor in the late 19th century which brought a new urgency to axiomatics, which then developed rapidly thereafter, especially in the 20th century.

An Interpretation: Relevant and Irrelevant Scientific Developments

A fully developed evolutionary biology available in classical antiquity would have had significant ramifications. I don’t think it would be too much to say that this would have radically altered the course of the development of subsequent civilization. For example, to take a truly radical scenario, it might have taken human beings and our civilization in the direction of greater eusociality as a species; the understanding of natural selection would have provided the conceptual framework to go about selective breeding in a way that human beings did not undertake. With the knowledge of how species evolve, but without the biotechnology made available by technological civilization, the knowledge would have been there to manage selective breeding to accomplish what could not have been accomplished by biotechnology, and human beings might have bred themselves into multiple castes, phenotypically distinct, and serving functions as distinct as the classes in Plato’s Republic.

This scenario highlights an easily overlooked aspect of modern history: one of the consequences of the world wars of the 20th was a social and political regime of containing and limiting technologies. Global treaty regimes based on moral concerns to limit certain technological developments (paradigmatically, nuclear proliferation, but also chemical and biological warfare, etc.) were the result of a long historical development, and this development had not yet occurred in classical antiquity. (I do not say that this development was good or bad, or that it helped or hindered the development of civilization, I only say that it is.) If ancient civilization had had the power to shape species implied by a knowledge of natural selection, but had not possessed the subsequent history to appreciate the dangers inherent in scientific knowledge and technological power, civilization might have developed in a way that could not be undone, and that would have put humanity of a different course than that which we did in fact take.

One could modify the thought experiment in any number of ways, so, for example, we might have had an ancient Darwin but not an ancient Mendel, which would have meant that the idea of natural selection was available, but the technological application of genetics was not, which would have greatly limited the application of ancient biotechnology. This would be something like the stagnation of axiomatics after Euclid’s use of it. Natural selection as an idea might have lain stagnant for two thousand years before being revived at a later stage of history, and very little would have been changed in subsequent history, especially compared to the radical scenario above.

However, even a level of practical biological knowledge such as represented, for example, by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have made a great difference in the subsequent development of civilization. One of the things (inter alia) that made western European civilization so stagnant during the Middle Ages was the conservatism of agriculture. A better agriculture would have meant a much richer society, with much less likelihood of starvation, hence a lower likelihood of disease, better infant nutrition, and higher IQs as a result. Over hundreds of years, this would have had a significant impact on social development.

To mention the British Agricultural Revolution suggests something about the limitations of thought experiments such as this. It is arguable that Darwin’s work would not have happened without the backdrop of the British Agricultural Revolution; Jethro Tull may have been as important an influence on Darwin as Charles Lyell (whether or not Darwin knew it). After all, Darwin’s Origin of Species begins with a long chapter on selective breeding. It is an act of historical violence to disentangle the history of science from its actual course and to transpose it into another period of time, in which it is not native, and therefore considerable changes must be made in order to naturalize this science in another era.

Back to the Marxian Thesis: a Refutation?

The point of this thought experiment was to examine the Marxian Thesis critically. What I want to suggest with this thought experiment, then, was that classical antiquity did not develop a biological science that would have had a large and significant influence on a biocentric civilization that primarily derived its energy flows from the ambient environment through agriculture. A more sophisticated biology, even a practical biology as represented by the British Agricultural Revolution, would have been immediately applicable to civilization on a large scale, and would have altered the fates of civilizations that used a more sophisticated biology to its ends.

Instead, classical antiquity developed mathematics to a high degree of sophistication and precision. The achievement of Greek mathematics, later to be supplemented by the Hindu number system and Arab algebra, was so far beyond applicability in its time that many of the discoveries of ancient mathematics would not find application until after the scientific revolution, and some not until after the industrial revolution. While the biological thought that could have transformed civilization in antiquity did not develop, a body of mathematical thought virtually without application did develop (a mathematical body of knowledge that would have been highly useful to a technocentric civilization). In this sense, not only did the intellectual superstructure of scientific knowledge fail to track the development of the economic infrastructure, it arguably achieved the antithesis of tracking the economic infrastructure, neglecting knowledge that would have been applicable while developing knowledge that was largely inapplicable.

Taking the Marxian Thesis in the abstract, one might have expected that an agricultural civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated agricultural science, while a technological civilization would have resulted in a sophisticated industrial science. In the former case, this does not seem to have occurred, and, in the latter case, it occurred assisted by the mathematics of an earlier civilization which developed mathematics as an end in itself, and not out of any practical concern for application. While we could try to explain away the absence of a sophisticated agricultural science in pre-modern agricultural civilizations, and appeal to the prominent role of agriculture and pastoralism in ancient mythology and religion (which are other expressions of the intellectual superstructure), this should at least give the advocate of the Marxian Thesis pause.

Part of this disconnect between the knowledge of the intellectual superstructure and the practices of the economic infrastructure may be put to the overall progress of human social and technological development. Any science, such as Darwin’s biology, that was formulated after the scientific revolution was able to be developed much more rapidly, and with greater practical effect, than any science formulated prior to the scientific revolution, which might lie fallow for centuries or even millennia without practical application. The scientific method itself is a triumph of the human intellect, and its formulation, while several hundred years old, is far from complete. We have a lot yet to learn about how to do science. Because modern science is historically recent, one might argue, no science of evolutionary biology could have existed in classical antiquity. There is some validity in this argument, but I do not think that this fully accounts for the disconnect between the infrastructure and superstructure of classical antiquity, which could simply be put to suboptimality.

Arguably, mathematics was developed in antiquity because this was a science that could be developed on a purely intellectual basis with a minimal level of technology, and a minimal, perhaps absent, sense that scientific knowledge would have any application at all, especially to economics. Education in classical antiquity was about preparing an élite class to give persuasive speeches in a public assembly or a law court, and not about advancing knowledge. Moreover, there were any number of simple mathematical ideas that did not appear in classical antiquity. Obviously, the Greeks did not formulate the numbers we use today, which seem to have originated in India, and which are perhaps the most effective and intuitive formalism ever invented by human beings. I noted above that natural selection is essentially a simple idea; for that matter, set theory is also based on very simple ideas that ancient mathematicians could have have grasped, but the idea did not appear until the late 19th century, after Darwin. It would make another interesting thought experiment to ask how history might have been different if set theory had been introduced in classical antiquity. Maybe it would have made no difference at all; maybe not.

Another Take Away: Human Technophilia

However flawed this thought experiment, another take away from it is the extent to which human beings might be called a technologically adept species. We are interested in and express ourselves through technology in a way that suggests that the peculiarities of the human intellect have a particular affinity for technology. We have had many opportunities in our history to go in a more “biological” direction, but we have almost always taken the technologically intensive path. This has been recognized in the past, when human beings have been called homo faber in addition to homo sapiens: man the builder, the doer, the maker, the innovator, and eventually man the engineer of machines. Now that we possess the technological capability to do so, we build entirely artificial environments in which we live, which is why I have argued that Wilson’s biophilia needs to be supplemented with an understanding of technophilia.

Technological civilization, in all its contemporary scope and scale and sophistication, may be a consequence of the peculiarly technological bent of the human mind. And this may be sufficiently peculiar that it happens infrequently in the history of the universe. That is to say, it may be common for biology to evolve into more complex forms, and common even for intelligence to emerge from biology, but uncommon for that intelligence to take the form of a technological interest. It was the human use of technology — spear points, canoes, the bone needle, form-fitting clothing, the use of fire, and so on — which made it possible for our Paleolithic ancestors to settle the planet entire even before we developed civilization. Another way to think about this is that our technological impulses are stronger, and were expressed earlier, than our eusocial impulses. This in itself is an important observation, and may suggest why human eusociality attained the level that it did, but it did not go further, as it has with bees and termites and ants.

Even if my thought experiment does not show what I hoped it would show in regard to casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis (by which I mean, casting doubt on the Marxian Thesis as describing the only or predominant permutation of civilization), it may have some value on shining a light on the peculiarly technological character of the human intellect. Philosopher of technology Don Ihde has identified a technological texture to contemporary life; he is right to make this observation, but we might ask whether this technological texture of life is a result of our lives being unexpectedly transformed by technology since the industrial revolution, or whether human life has always had a technological texture, expressed with the materials on hand, and is due not to some accident of history like the industrial revolution, but is an inevitable projection of the human mind, which is a technological mind. In the latter case, it is the technological character of the human mind that is the accident of history, and, given a mind of this cast, the industrial revolution was an inevitable expression of a mind of this kind.

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Reconsiderations and Revisions

While working on Technological Civilization, Part IV, I have reconsidered some of my formulations in Part III and I now see that several revisions are in order, both to improve and to clarify what I wrote previously. My model of civilization is a work in progress, conducted in the open and made available in talks and blog posts — an exercise that has been called “open-source philosophy.” Being a work in progress, I have had many false starts and have had to backtrack infelicitous formulations.

Immediately after my talks in 2015 (“What kind of civilizations build starships?”) and 2017 (“The Role of Lunar Civilization in Interstellar Buildout”) I started making revisions to my PowerPoint presentations because of the shortcomings I perceived in each of these talks. Neither of these revised presentations was delivered, but continuing to elaborate these ideas did lead to further insights that I have applied to later formulations. There remains something of value in these earlier efforts, but I am not tied to any one set of ideas or a single way of expressing ideas. Hence the need for continual revision.

The Symmetry Thesis Rather than the Interaction Thesis

In Part III I defined the Marxian Thesis as being that the moral order of a civilization is determined by the technical order, the Burckhardtian Thesis as being the technical order determined by the moral order, and I also suggested the Interaction Thesis as being that, “…the technical order and the moral order mutually influence each other.” This latter claim is poorly stated. I now realize that interaction is not a strictly structural concept, so that it is out of place here in this exposition of the institutional structure of civilization. (The distinction implicit in singling out strictly structural concepts will become important in a future post in this series.)

What I meant by calling the interaction thesis the condition in which the moral and technical orders influence each other, is that there can be both forms of institutional causality at the same time, so that some elements of the moral order determine some elements of the technical order, and some elements of the technical order determine some elements of the moral order. This is distinct from interaction in time, in which each might influence the other in turn, with causality passing back and forth from the one to the other. This is indeed another way in which a civilization might function, but it isn’t what I was trying to say in this context. For what I was trying to say, Symmetry Thesis would be a better name.

Sir William Hamilton, 9th Baronet FRSE DD FSAS

Exhaustive, Strong, Weak, and Null Theses

I want to go into a bit more detail on the relation of the Symmetry Thesis to the Marxian Thesis and the Burckhardtian Thesis. I thought the possibilities were sufficiently obvious that I didn’t need to state them, but perhaps I should spell it out just to be clear. The vulgar interpretation of Marxism is that the ideological infrastructure is exhaustively determined by the economic infrastructure. In this case, all of the moral order is determined by the technical order. By substituting for the quantifier “all” we arrive at different possible permutations of the Marxian Thesis. We have already mentioned the exhaustive Marxian thesis. If we assert that most of the moral order is determined by the technical order, this is the strong Marxian Thesis, and if we assert that some of the moral order is determined by the technical order, that is the weak Marxian Thesis.

The reader will see that these permutations can be mirrored by formulations of the Burckhardtian Thesis. The exhaustive Burckhardtian Thesis is when all of the technical order is determined by the moral order; the strong Burckhardtian Thesis is when most of the technical order is determined by the moral order; the weak Burckhardtian Thesis is when some of the technical order is determined by the moral order. There are also null permutations of each: when none of the moral order is determined by the technical order (the negation of the Marxian Thesis, which corresponds to the exhaustive Burckhardtian Thesis), and when none of the technical order is determined by the moral order (the negation of the Burckhardtian Thesis, which corresponds to the exhaustive Marxian Thesis).

The strong Marxian Thesis (most determination of the moral order by the technical order) is consistent with the weak Burckhardtian thesis (some determination of the technical order by the moral order). Moreoever, the weak Marxian thesis (some determination of the moral order by the technical order) is consistent with both the weak Burckhardtian thesis (some determination of the technical order by the moral order) and the strong Burckhardtian thesis (most determination of the technical order by the moral order). Contrariwise, each of these formulations holds, mutatis mutandis, for the strong and weak Burckhardtian theses in relation to strong and weak Marxian theses. All of these are permutations of the Symmetry Thesis (some elements of the moral order are determined by the technical order, and vice versa), so the Symmetry Thesis is ultimately reducible to formulations in terms of either the Marxian Thesis or the Burckhardtian Thesis, thus the Symmetry Thesis does not define a fundamentally distinct kind of civilization.

Even these formulations above, though a bit clearer than my previous exposition, admit of ambiguities, but I believe that these ambiguities can be cleared up in a more formal presentation of these ideas. For example, when I say that some elements of the technical order determine the moral order is the weak Marxian Thesis, this could mean either that some elements of the technical order determine the entirety of the moral order, or the same elements of the technical order determine some (but not all) of the moral order. Here the quantification of the predicate — an innovation in traditional Aristotelian logic introduced by Sir William Hamilton — is particularly relevant, and Hamilton’s formulations could be employed in a statement of the permutations that might hold between the moral order and the technical order. For now, as a kind of shorthand, the reader should assume that I am not speaking of exhaustive formulations (which are usually idealizations not exemplified in matters of fact).

Determination of Moral and Technical Orders by the Central Project

Elements of the moral or technical order not determined by the other order might be autonomous, i.e., self-determining, or they might be determined by some other factor. The obvious factor that I failed to mention in Part III is that they might be determined primarily by the central project. The paradigmatic form of civilization, according to my model, is when the moral and technical orders are primarily (though not necessarily exhaustively) determined by the central project, and I think that this is what we find among pristine civilizations. With historically derivative civilizations that follow the earliest pristine civilizations, when novel central projects have had time to evolve either out of the moral order or the technical order, we find civilizations of the two fundamental kinds that I identified in Part III, viz. the technical and the spiritual.

It was not my intention to suggest that this distinction between fundamentally technical civilizations and fundamentally spiritual civilization was especially important, even though it certainly is interesting. In an attempt at clarification of this distinction I provided the following analogy: “…we can say that all human beings fall into one of two classes, male or female, and in some contexts this is important, but it doesn’t really tell us much about our species. To know what human beings are it is better to know anatomy, physiology, psychology, and natural history (i.e., the sciences relevant to anthropology).”

Here is another analogy: hunter-gatherer nomads might pass through a year in which there is very little game to be had, so that most of their nutrition comes from gathering, or there could be a year with plenty of game but little to gather, so that their nutrition comes primarily from eating meat. Thus we could say that there are two fundamental kinds of hunter-gatherer bands: those that derive most of their calories from gathering, and those that derive most of their calories from hunting. In fact, we know of nomadic peoples who have specialized in the one or the other. For example, the Sami people of the far north of Europe follow reindeer herds and primarily eat meat. Although we can make this interesting distinction, there is a lot more to know about a hunter-gatherer band than where it gets the greater part of its calories, though this question does point to an important distinction, and this distinction sometimes has uses in understanding hunter-gatherer peoples.

It is a matter of historical contingency when a civilization comes to be dominated by either the moral order or the technical order, and indeed we might identify such civilizations as essentially derivative and as a deviation from the paradigmatic form of civilization, in which the central project plays in the primarily role in determining both the moral order and the technical order.

Three Kinds of Civilizations

The upshot of the above is that I should have said that there are three fundamental kinds of civilization, rather than two fundamental kinds:

1. Civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis (technical civilizations)

2. Civilizations that exemplify the Burckhardtian Thesis (spiritual civilizations)

3. Civilizations primarily determined by their central projects (paradigmatic civilizations)

Again, this tripartite distinction is interesting, and has implications in understanding civilization, but it should not be accorded more emphasis than it deserves. Above all, I am not interested in making a distinction like this and then going through the world’s civilizations and placing every one of them in one column or the other; such an approach to the study of civilization would be unhelpful at best, and would prove an obstacle to understanding at worst.

However, in the present context this discussion is relevant because I have defined one of two kinds of technological civilization as a civilization for which the Marxian Thesis holds, the other kind of technological civilization — properly technological civilization — being a civilization that takes technology as its central project. Given what I have suggested above, viz. that pristine civilizations are likely to be paradigmatic civilizations, and given the unlikelihood that a technological civilization could be a pristine civilization, it makes sense that our usage of “technological civilization” accords with the Marxian Thesis, and that our technological civilization today is not one that takes technology as its central project.

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Review of Parts I and II

In Part I we began to examine the institutional structure of civilization, following a schema that I have elsewhere developed and have applied to spacefaring (cf. Indifferently Spacefaring Civilizations), to science (Science in a Scientific Civilization), and virtual worlds (cf. Virtual Optimization as a Civilizational Imperative), such that a civilization is an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project. According to this schema, a properly technological civilization is a civilization that takes technology as its central project. However, this is not how “technological civilization” is most commonly used, so to try to get at what people actually mean when they invoke “technological civilization” it is necessary to dig a bit deeper.

In Part II we began to examine some of the developmental characteristics of technological civilization, introducing the ideas of the prehistory of technology, Darwin’s thesis on the origin of civilization, Gibbon’s thesis on the continuity of technology, and what archaeologists call a “horizon.” We arrived at a provisional characterization of technological civilization such that a technological civilization represents the horizon of industrialized technologies of the industrial revolution. This, however, is inadequate because circular: if we cannot say what industrialized technologies are, and do not explicitly differentiate industrialized technologies from other technologies (including the technologies that preceded the industrial revolution), this characterization of technological civilization is empty.

Second Thoughts on Technological Civilization

Since posting Part II I have done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking about the theoretical problems posed by technological civilization, and this effort has yielded me considerable clarification, but it has also taken me in a direction that is a bit different from how I planned to develop the concept of technological civilization when I started this series. The way I intended to develop the concept was not especially elegant (and I knew this to be the case, hence the amount of time I spent trying to clarify my conception), whereas now I have a fairly simple and straight-forward way to characterize technological civilization within the model of civilization I have already developed.

As I previously argued, a properly technological civilization is a civilization that takes technology as its central project. But technology precedes human civilization and is pervasive in human experience, so what exactly is meant by a civilization taking technology as its central project? Does this mean that some particular technology is the central project of a civilization, or some class of technologies, presumably related to each other by some common properties, or does it mean all technologies, i.e., technology as an end to itself, is to be the central project of a technological civilization? This latter conception would yield a civilization of engineers, which is entirely possible, but it is also unsatisfying because what distinguishes technology is its utility, so that making technology an end in itself would mean taking a means to an end as an end in itself. A civilization so constituted would be likely to drift and not maintain a strong sense of direction, ultimately issuing in failure.

I will, then, continue to refer to a properly technological civilization as one that takes technology as its central project, and I will allow that such a civilization is at least possible, whether or not it has been instantiated on Earth. There is, however, another way in which a civilization can be a technological civilization, but for an exposition of this we must return to one the sources of my definition of civilization, which is the Marxian distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure (which latter I have preferred to call the intellectual superstructure).

American anthropologist Robert Redfield made a distinction between the technical order and the moral order.

The Marxian Distinction and a Redfieldian Distinction

Marx made his infrastructure/superstructure distinction explicit in only a couple of passages of which I am aware, but the distinction is pervasively present throughout Marx’s writings. Here is the first of the two passages from Marx in which the distinction is made explicit:

“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”

Karl Marx, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12.

Here is the second such passage of which I am aware:

“Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality, and inwardly must organise itself as State. The word ‘civil society’ (burgerliche Gesellschaft) emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relationships had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communal society. Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organisation evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all ages forms the basis of the State and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology

Since Marx’s writings are rather long-winded and not very clear, I won’t try to quote any long passages in which the distinction is implicit but not made as explicit as in the above passages. If the reader would like to penetrate more deeply into this, there is a voluminous amount of Marx scholarship, as well as the writings of Marx himself, with which you can engage.

I have been using this Marxian terminology for lack of anything better, and also because I found the distinction made explicit in Marx before I found it elsewhere. The idea implicit in the distinction, however, is fairly common, and indeed I myself wrote a couple of blog posts some years ago, The Civilization of the Hand and The Civilization of the Mind, which implicitly makes the same distinction: the civilization of the hand is the economic infrastructure while the civilization of the mind is the intellectual infrastructure.

More recently I have come across a similar distinction in the writings of the American anthropologist Robert Redfield, who makes a distinction between the technical order and the moral order. Here is Redfield’s distinction:

“Technical order and moral order name two contrasting aspects of all human societies. The phrases stand for two distinguishable ways in which the activities of men are co-ordinated. As used by C. H. Cooley and R. E. Park, ‘the moral order’ refers to the organization of human sentiments into judgments as to what is right… The technical order is that order which results from mutual usefulness, from deliberate coercion, or from the mere utilization of the same means.”

Robert Redfield, The Primitive World and its Transformations, Ithaca, New York: Great Seal Books, 1953, pp. 20-21

Redfield’s exposition of this distinction goes on for several pages, so that the above quotation is only partly representative of his full exposition. The reader is urged to read Redfield’s book in its entirety in order to get a good sense of how he uses these terms (if not the whole book, at least read the first chapter, “Human Society before the Urban Revolution,” implicitly referencing V. Gordon Childe on the urban revolution).

While Redfield’s distinction is not precisely the same as Marx’s distinction, the two at least partially coincide, and I will therefore occasionally adopt Redfield’s terminology of the technical order and the moral order to indicate the same distinction in the institutional structure of civilization that I have heretofore identified as the economic infrastructure and the intellectual superstructure.

Our old friend Karl Marx continues to haunt us — and to influence us.

The Marxian Thesis

In my presentation at the 2015 Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress, “What kind of civilizations build starships?” I discussed the Marxian distinction outlined above and noted that Marx maintained that the economic infrastructure determines the intellectual superstructure. However, this is only one possible implementation of the distinction that Marx set up, and I noted in my talk that there might be civilizations in which the intellectual superstructure determined the economic infrastructure, and still other civilizations in which there was a mutual causality operating in both directions.

Now I realize that Marx, in theorizing the new industrial civilization to which he was witness, was unwittingly characterizing technological civilization and applying the structures that he saw in the civilization of the industrial revolution to all human societies, which I take to be an illicit extrapolation. With this in mind I am going to distinguish the Marxian Thesis on Civilization—or, more briefly, the Marxian Thesis—as the thesis that infrastructure determines superstructure. In Redfield’s language, this becomes the thesis that the technical order determines the moral order.

It is the Marxian Theses that distinguishes another form of technological civilization in addition to properly technological civilization. That is to say, I will identify as a technological civilization simpliciter (and in contradistinction to a properly technological civilization) those civilizations that exemplify the Marxian Thesis, in which the moral order is determined by the technical order. And, I think, if we dig into this more deeply we will find that this usage accords with casual usage of “technological civilization” in a way that properly technological civilizations do not precisely accord with popular usage.

Jacob Burckhardt, Swiss historian

The Burckhardtian Thesis

The Marxian Thesis immediately implies the complementary thesis, which I will call the Burckhardtian Thesis on Civilization, or, more briefly, the Burckhardtian Thesis, named after the famous Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt. While Burckhardt did not address the above distinction in his writings (Burckhardt’s most famous book is The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy), he did write a book called Force and Freedom: An Interpretation of History, in which he identified the “three powers” that shape human society as being the state, religion, and culture. Culture, moreover, Burckhardt wrote:

“…is the sum of all that has spontaneously arisen for the advancement of material life and as an expression of spiritual and moral life—all social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature and sciences.”

Jacob Burckhardt, Force and Freedom, New York: Meridian Books, 1955, pp. 95-96

Friedrich Rapp wrote that Burckhardt’s book Force and Freedom

“…demonstrates that a competent world history can be written with virtually no reference to technology. For him, the historical process is determined by the interaction of three factors: the state, religion, and culture.”

Friedrich Rapp, Analytical Philosophy of Technology, Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing, 1981, p. 30.

This is close enough to making the technical order derivative of the moral order that I will use Burckhardt’s name to identify the Burckhardtian Thesis in contrast to the Marxian Thesis. (Careful scholars of Burckhardt — who are not likely to read my blog — may object to my usage here, but I am only invoking Burckhardt symbolically, and not making any claim about the argument of his works.)

Redfield implicitly acknowledges the Burckhardtian thesis to hold for pre-modern societies:

“In folk societies the moral order predominates over the technical order. It is not possible, however, simply to reverse this statement and declare that in civilizations the technical order predominates over the moral. In civilization the technical order certainly becomes great. But we cannot truthfully say that in civilization the moral order becomes small. There are ways in civilization in which the moral order takes on new greatness. In civilization the relations between the two orders are varying and complex.”

Ibid., p. 24

This passage is perhaps more representative of Redfield than that which I quoted above. Redfield here makes an implicit distinction between folk societies and civilizations, attributing the moral order’s predominance over the technical order to folk society and implicitly denying it to civilization, but he also allows that civilizations may take varying forms, so I don’t take this passage to outright contradiction the interpretation I am here giving to Redfield’s distinction. Redfield’s special object of study, especially in his early years of anthropological fieldwork, was folk society, and many of the societies he identifies as such I would identify as the hinterlands of agricultural civilizations. (I will go into this in more detail in a future post.)

The remaining possibility, that the technical order and the moral order mutually influence each other, I will for lack of a better name at present call the Interaction Thesis on Civilization (though if I can find something like an exposition of this idea already set down, I will rename the Interaction Thesis). The null case, which is the fourth permutation, is when neither the technical order determines the moral order nor the moral order determines the technical order. In this case, there is, according to my definition, no civilization.

Note the resemblance of this way of thinking about civilization to my elaboration some years ago of the Platonic theory of being (cf. Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being). Plato held that the definition of being is the power to affect or be affected. I have observed that this idea has four permutations:

1) the power to affect without being affected

2) the power to be affected without the power to affect

3) the power both to affect and be affected by, and

4) the null case, which is to be neither affected nor to affect

I take the null case to coincide with non-being, in the same way that I take a social context in which the technical order neither affects or is affected by the moral order, and vice versa, which is a case of non-civilization, i.e., the non-being of civilization. This adds an ontological dimension to the idea of civilization that goes beyond that which I discussed in The Being of Civilization.

ca. 1940s, USA — Computer operators program ENIAC, the first electronic digital computer, by adjusting rows of switches. — Image by © CORBIS

Two Fundamental Kinds of Civilization

Because of the distinctive institutional structure of civilization that follows from my model, the particular direction of development that a civilization takes can take on an added significance when this developmental direction coincides with some structural feature of civilization. Thus technological civilization (other than properly technological civilization) involves the technical order in a way that makes the technical order — already a feature of civilization — dominant. The contrary case is that of a civilization that involves the moral order in a way that makes the moral order — again, already a feature of civilization — dominant. Roughly, this describes civilization prior to the industrial revolution.

Following this line of reasoning, there are two primary types of civilization: the spiritual and the technical. This fundamental division follows from the institutional structure of civilization. The primarily spiritual form of civilization (in which the moral order largely determines the technical order) dominated from the earliest emergence of civilization up to the industrial revolution. The primarily technological form of civilization (in which the technical order determines the moral order), while with many intimations in earlier history, only decisively emerged with the industrial revolution. Thus technological civilization is a relatively recent phenomenon, and has far less of an historical record than primarily spiritual civilizations, which have, in some cases, histories measurable in the thousands of years.

The technical and spiritual forms of civilization may be conceived as idealized endpoints of a continuum, along which most civilizations can be located, either closer to the technical end or closer to the spiritual end. Those civilizations that embody the Interaction Thesis would be located near the middle of this continuum, being equally constituted by the moral order and the technical order. But if such a continuum be denied, civilizations that embody the Interaction Thesis may constitute a third fundamental kind of civilization.

There also may be a third primary type of civilization that corresponds to a structural alignment with the central project, but since my model of civilization already assumes that both the technical order and the moral order will be aligned with the central project, this doesn’t seem to point to another distinctive kind of civilization. However, I have not yet fully thought this through, and I may yet be able to delineate a third fundamental form of civilization. This remains an open area of research in the theory of civilization, and I will continue to question my formulations relative to this problem until I am satisfied I have achieved sufficient clarity on the matter.

Looking Ahead to Part IV

Having adopted this new perspective on technological civilization that I have outlined above, which I consider to be a significant clarification, I will go back through the notes of what I had planned to say about technological civilization prior to this clarification and attempt to reformulate what can be reformulated, and toss out that which is no longer relevant or helpful in coming to an understanding of what is distinctive about technological civilization.

My plan is to penetrate more deeply (and more systematically) into the development of technological civilization, building on the discussion I started in Part II, but now extending it in the light of the concept of technological civilization given here in Part III. In order to do this, further distinctions and elaborations to my model of civilization will be necessary, so there is more theory of civilization to come, using the particular example of technological civilization as a springboard for the exposition of concepts of civilization more generally applicable not only to technological civilization, but also to non-technological civilizations.

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Friday


Review of Part I

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

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

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

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

The prehistory of technological civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darwin’s Thesis on the origin of civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gibbon on the Continuity of Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Gibbon, ibid.

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

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

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

The Antikythera Mechanism

Technological Horizons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Horizon of Industrialization and Technological Civilization

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

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

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

Looking Ahead to Part III

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

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

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Sunday


What is a technological civilization?

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

A model of civilization applied to the problem of technological civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are three additional permutations not mentioned above:

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

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

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

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

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

Can technology function as the central project of a civilization?

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

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

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

Technology as an end in itself

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

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

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

Preliminary conclusions

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

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

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

Significance for the study of civilization

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

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

Looking ahead to Part II

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

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

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Saturday


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Inflection Point

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

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

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

Middling Inflection Point

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

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

Late Inflection Point

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

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

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

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

The Null Case

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

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

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

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Monday


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What are the consequences from a cosmological point of view when an industrial-technological civilization comes to an end, whether destroying itself or succumbing to outside forces? What kind of trace will a vanished industrial-technological civilization leave in the universe?

halo of a vanished civilization

An industrial-technological civilization that masters electromagnetic spectrum communications — i.e., ordinary radio and television signals — generates an expanding globe of EM signals as long as it is transmitting these signals. If an industrial-technological civilization that has been transmitting EM signals comes to an end, these signals cease to be generated, and the expanding globe of EM signals tapers off to silence at the interior of this globe, which means that there will be an expanding sphere of weakening EM signals. The thickness of this three-dimensional halo in light years will correspond to the age in years of the now-vanished industrial-technological civilization.

If precise measurements of the EM halo were possible, and its exact curvature could be determined, it would be possible to extrapolate the original source of the signal. Once the curvature of the halo has been determined, and therefore also the source, the measurement of the distance from the source to the inner boundary of the halo to the source in light years will yield the number of years that have elapsed since the end of the industrial-technological civilization in question.

While such signals would be very faint, and largely lost in the background radio noise of the universe, we cannot discount the possibility that advanced detection technology of the future might reveal such EM structures. The universe might contain these ghostly structures as a sequence of overlapping bubbles of EM radiation that describe the past structure of industrial-technological civilization in the universe.

It has been said that astronomy is a form of time travel, and the farther we look from Earth, the farther back we see in time. (This is called “look back time.”) Thus we can think of astronomy as a kind of luminous archaeology. Another way to think of this is that the sky reveals a kind of luminous stratigraphy. The EM halos of vanished civilizations would also admit of a certain stratigraphy, since these halos would possess a definite structure.

The outermost stratigraphic layer of an EM halo would likely consist of the simplest kind of high energy radio signals without any kind of subtle modulation of the signal — like Morse code transmitted by radio, rather than vocal modulation. This would be followed, deeper within the EM halo, by analog radio modulation corresponding to spoken language. Next within the EM halo would be analogue television signals, and then digital television signals and data signals of the sort that would be transmitted by the radio link for the internet.

This, at least, is the approximate structure of Earth’s expanding EM halo, and if our civilization destroys itself (or is destroyed) in the near future, our EM halo would be approximately 100 light years thick. The longer we last, the thicker our EM halo.

An EM halo may drop off as an industrial-technological civilization makes the transition from openly radiated EM signals to the pervasive use of fiber optic cables, but if that civilization begins to expand within its solar system, and possesses numerous settlements in EM contact with each other (as I described in Cyberspace and Outer Space), then the halo will reflect these developments — this is further historical structure layered into the EM stratigraphy of the halo.

Given that the structure of a large EM halo would consist mostly of space empty of intelligent EM signals, much of the structure of these halos would be void. It is entirely possible that Earth at present lies within the void of an EM halo that both began and ceased to transmit prior to our ability to detect such signals.

EM halo 1

In the event of human exploration of the cosmos, as we move outward within a possible void within a halo, it is possible that our first contact with a xenomorphic exocivilization will take the form of encountering the inner boundary of an EM halo, which as we pass through it, will reveal in reverse order the development of that civilization, beginning with its destruction and ending with its emergence.

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EM halo 2

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A revised, updated, and expanded version of this post is available at The Halos of Vanished Civilizations: Revised, Updated, and Expanded. A spoken word version of this updated formulation is available at Burst 9 — The Halos of Vanished Civilizations.

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Thursday


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Science has become central to industrial-technological civilization. I would define at least one of the properties that distinguishes industrial-technological civilization from agriculturalism or nomadism as the conscious application of science to technology, and the conscious application in turn of technology to industrial production. Prior to industrial-technological civilization there were science and technology and industry, but the three were not systematically interrelated and consciously pursued with an eye toward steadily increasing productivity.

The role of science within industrial-technological civilization has given science and scientists a special role in society. This role is not the glamorous role of film and music and athletic celebrities, and it is not the high-flying role of celebrity bankers and fund managers and executives, but it is nevertheless a powerful role. As Shelley once said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, we can say that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of industrial technological civilization. Foucault came close to saying this when he said that doctors are the strategists of life and death.

I have previously discussed the ideological role of science in the contemporary world in The Political Uses of Science. Perhaps the predominant ideological function of science today is the role of “big science” — enormous research projects backed by government, industry, and universities that employ the talents of hundreds if not thousands of scientists. When Kuhnian normal science has this kind of backing, it is difficult for marginal scientific enterprises to compete. Big science moves markets and moves societies not because it is explicitly ideological in character, but because it is effective in meeting practical needs (though these needs are socially defined by the society in which science functions as a part).

Despite the fact that progress in scientific research is driven by the falsification and revision of theories through the expedient of experimentation, the scientific community has been surprisingly successful in closing ranks behind the most successful scientific theories of our time and presenting a united front that does not really give an accurate impression of the profound differences that separate scientists. Often a scientist spends an entire career trying to get a hearing or his or her idea, and this effort is not always successful. There are very real and bitter differences between the advocates of distinct scientific theories. The scientist sacrifices a life to research in a way not unlike the soldier who sacrifices his life on the battlefield: each uses up a life for a cause.

I have some specific examples in mind when I say that scientists have been successful as closing ranks behind what Kuhn would have called “normal science.” I have written about big bang cosmology and quantum theory in this connection. In Conformal Cyclic Cosmology I noted at least one theory seeking empirical evidence for the world prior to the big bang, while in The limits of my language are the limits of my world I discussed some recent experiments that seem to give us more knowledge of the quantum world that traditional interpretations of quantum theory would seem to suggest is possible.

No one of a truly curious disposition could ever be satisfied with the big bang theory, except in so far as it is but one step — and an admittedly very large step — toward a larger natural history of the universe. Given that the entire observable universe may be the result of a single big bang, any account of the world beyond or before the universe defined by the big bang presents possibly insuperable difficulties for observational cosmology. But the mind does not stop with observational cosmology; the mind does not stop even when presented with obstacles that initially seem insuperable. Slowly and surely the mind seeks the gradual way up what Dawkins called Mount Improbable.

Despite the united front that supports fundamental scientific theories (the sorts of science that Quine would have placed near the center of the web of belief), we know from the examples of Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology and the recent experiments attempting to simultaneously measure the position and velocity of quantum particles that scientists are continuing to think beyond the customary interpretations of theories.

The often-repeated claims that space and time were created simultaneously in the big bang and that it is pointless to ask what came before the big bang (as earlier generations were assured that it was illegitimate to ask “Who made God?”), and the claims of the impossibility of simultaneous measurements of a quantum particle’s position and velocity have not stopped the curious from probing beyond these barriers to knowledge. One must, or course, be careful, for there is a danger of being seen as a crackpot, so such inquiries are kept quiet quiet until some kind of empirical evidence can be produced. But before the evidence can be sought, there needs to be an idea of what to look for, and an idea of what to look for comes from a theory. That theory, in turn, must exceed the established interpretations of science if it is too look for anything new.

We know what happens when scientists not only say that something is impossible or unknowable, but also accept that certain things are impossible or unknowable and actually cease to engage in inquiry, and make no attempt to think beyond the limits of accepted theories: we get a dark age. A recent book has spoken of the European middle ages as The Closing of the Western Mind. (In the Islamic world a very similar phenomenon was called “Taqlid” or, “the closing of the gates of Ijtihad“.) When scientists not only say that noting more can be known, but they actually act as though nothing more can be known, and cease to question normal science, this is when intellectual progress stops, and this has happened several times in human history (although I know that this is a controversial position to argue; cf. my The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited).

It is precisely the fact that science continues to be consciously and systematically pursued in the modern era despite many claims that everything knowable was known that sets industrial-technological civilization apart from all previous iterations of civilization.

Science goes on behind the scenes.

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Sunday


The Löwenmensch or Lion Man sculpture, about 32,000 years old, is a relic of the Aurignacian culture.

Recently (in Don’t Cry for the Papers) I wrote that, “Books will be a part of human life as long as there are human beings (or some successor species engaged in civilizational activity, or whatever cultural institution is the successor to civilization).” While this was only a single line thrown out as an aside in a discussion of newspapers and magazines, I had to pause over this to think about it and make sure that I would get my phrasing right, and in doing so I realized that there are several ideas implicit in this formulation.

Map of the Aurignacian culture, approximately 47,000 to 41,000 years ago.

Since I make an effort to always think in terms of la longue durée, I have conditioned myself to note that current forms (of civilization, or whatever else is being considered) are always likely to be supplanted by changed forms in the future, so when I said that books, like the poor, will always be with us, for the sake of completeness I had to note that human forms may be supplanted by a successor species and that civilization may be supplanted by a a successor institution. Both the idea of the post-human and the post-civilizational are interesting in their own right. I have briefly considered posthumanity and human speciation in Against Natural History, Right and Left (as well as other posts such as Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror), but the idea of a successor to civilization is something that begs further consideration.

Now, in the sense, everything that I have written about futurist scenarios for the successor to contemporary industrial-technological civilization (which I have described in Three Futures, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, and other posts) can be taken as attempts to outline what comes after civilization in so far as we understand civilization as contemporary industrial-technological civilization. This investigation of post-industrial civilization is an important aspect of an analytic and theoretical futurism, but we must go further in order to gain a yet more comprehensive perspective that places civilization within the longest possible historical context.

I have adopted the convention of speaking of “civilization” as comprising all settled, urbanized cultures that have emerged since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is not the use that “civilization” has in classic humanistic historiography, but I have discussed this elsewhere; for example, in Jacob Bronowski and Radical Reflection I wrote:

…Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities.

Taking this long and comprehensive view of civilization, we still must contrast civilization with its prehistoric antecedents. When one realizes that the natural sciences have been writing the history of prehistory since the methods, the technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure for this have been developed since the late nineteenth century, and that paleolithic history itself admits of cultures (the Micoquien, the Mousterian, the Châtelperronian, the Aurignacian, and the Gravettian, for example), it becomes clear that “culture” is a more comprehensive category than “civilization,” and that culture is the older category. The cultures of prehistory are the antecedent institutions to the institution of civilization. This immediately suggests, in the context of futurism, that there could be a successor institution to civilization that no longer could be strictly called “civilization” but which still constituted a human culture.

Thus the question, “What comes after civilization?” when understood in an appropriately radical philosophical sense, invites us to consider post-civilizational human cultures that will not only differ profoundly from contemporary industrial-technological civilization, but which will differ profoundly from all human civilization from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the present day.

Human speciation, if it occurs, will profoundly affect the development of post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions. I have mentioned in several posts (e.g., Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics) that Francis Fukuyama felt obligated to add the qualification to this “end of history” thesis that if biotechnology made fundamental changes to human beings, this could result in a change to human nature, and then all bets are off for the future: in this eventuality, history will not end. Changed human beings, possibly no longer human sensu stricto, may have novel conceptions of social organization and therefore also novel conceptions of social and economic justice. From these novel conceptions may arise cultural institutions that are no longer “civilization” as we here understand civilization.

Human speciation could be facilitated by biotechnology in a way not unlike the facilitation of the industrial revolution by the systematic application of science to technological development.

Above I wrote, “human speciation, if it occurs,” and I should mention that my only hesitation here is that social or technological means may be employed in the attempt to arrest human evolution at more-or-less its present stage of development, thus forestalling human speciation. Thus my qualification on human speciation in no way arises from a hesitation to acknowledge the possibility. As far as I am concerned, human being is first and foremost biological being, and biological being is always subject to natural selection. However, technological intervention might possibly overtake natural selection, in which case we will continue to experience selection as a species, but it will be social selection and technological selection rather than natural selection.

In terms of radical scenarios for the near- and middle-term future, the most familiar on offer at present (at least, the most familiar that has some traction in the public mind) is that of the technological singularity. I have recounted in several posts the detailed predictions that have been made, including several writers and futurists who have placed definite dates on the event. For example, Vernor Vinge, who proposed the idea of the technological singularity, wrote that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” (This is from his original essay on the technological singularity published in 1993, which places the date of the advent of the technological singularity at 2023 or sooner; I understand that Mr. Vinge has since revised his forecast.)

To say that “the human era will be ended,” is certainly to predict a radical development, since it postulates a post-human future within the life time of many now living today (much like the claim that, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”). If I had to predict a radical post-human future in the near- to middle-term future I would opt not for post-human machine intelligence but for human speciation facilitated by biotechnology. This latter scenario seems to me far more likely and far more plausible than the technological singularity, since we already have the technology in its essentials; it is only a matter of refining and applying existing biotechnology.

I make no predictions and set no dates because the crowding of seven billion (and counting) human beings on a single planet militates against radical changes to our species. Social pressures to avoid speciation would make such a scenario unlikely in the near- to middle-term future. If we couple human speciation with the scenario of extraterrestrialization, however, everything changes, but this pushes the scenario further into the future because we do not yet possess the infrastructure necessary to extraterrestrialization. Again, however, as with human speciation through biotechnology, we have all the technology necessary to extraterrestrialization, and it is only a matter of refining and applying existing technologies.

From this scenario of human speciation coupled with extraterrestrialization there would unquestionably emerge post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions that would be propagated into the distant future, possibly marginalizing, and possibly entirely supplanting, human beings and human civilization as we know it today. It is to be expected that these institutions will be directly related to the way of life adopted in view of such a scenario, and this way of life will be sufficiently different from our own that its institutions and its values and its norms would be unprecedented from our perspective.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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