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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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