Creative Destruction

15 August 2012

Wednesday


Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase ‘creative destruction’ to describe the growth of a capitalist economy.

The phrase “creative destruction” is indissolubly linked to Joseph Schumpeter, who coined it. Schumpeter devotes a chapter of his masterpiece, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, to “The Process of Creative Destruction.” It has been observed that Schumpeter’s work was neglected for decades until in the late twentieth century the role of the entrepreneur in economic growth began to be appreciated.

I would argue that half of Schumpeter’s famous phrase continues to be neglected today, since the focus on entrepreneurial activity has primarily taken the form of singing the praises of innovation and the virtues of start ups, without an equal appreciation of the importance of business failure, bankruptcy, and economic collapse, despite the very prominent role that all of these phenomena have in the world today. It has been said that capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity with Hell, and this comparison is telling, more telling than I think most people realize, because the doctrine of Hell is about as unpopular as the idea of bankruptcy.

What events in recent world history have been more important than, for example, the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the dot com crash, the bankruptcy of Enron, or the bankruptcies of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns? There have been many events of roughly equal importance to these massive examples of the “destructive” phase of “creative destruction,” creative examples among these, but it would be difficult to name obviously more important events that these for shaping the world in which we live.

I think it is probably a little exhilarating for business types and economists to talk about the virtues of innovation, but the exclusive focus on innovation creates a kind of conceptual vacuum around its opposite number, but we are in as much need to innovative forms of business dissolution as for business innovation. The recent financial crisis and the consequent “great recession” (as it is now being called) focused a lot of attention on enterprises that were perceived to be “too big to fail.” That is to say, if very large institutions were allowed to fail catastrophically, the damage throughout the economy could be greater than that of keeping a failing business afloat. “Too big to fail” talk was also a constant accompaniment of many national crises, like that in Greece now, or the Argentine debt default more than ten years ago. I can easily imagine, in this spirit, someone arguing that the Soviet Union was “too big to fail.” In fact, I am certain that there are those who are argued that an engineered “soft landing” for the Soviet Union might have come at a lower human cost than that more or less catastrophic failure that the Soviet Union did indeed experience.

It is just as important for us to rid ourselves of what we no longer need as to innovate new products that are suddenly the thing that everyone needs. In my discussion of technological succession I emphasized that apparently exponential technological growth is often the result of several overlapping technologies succeeding each other in quick succession. This has certainly been the case with personal computers, as one generation of technology has rapidly succeeded another, and people have thrown out one computer after another as technology advances so quickly that the old computers are not merely inconvenient, but essentially useless.

There have been many news stories about computer waste, so if an individual wants to be informed about the process, the information is there for the taking. I recommend, rather than reading some news stories, watching the film Manufactured Landscapes, about the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky, in which you can see the painstaking work in a Chinese village of breaking up old computer parts, as well as the much larger scale but essentially parallel task of the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh.

It isn’t just individual objects like computers and ships that must be destroyed, or simply abandoned and allowed to sink into the landscape. In my post on Failed Cities I suggested that the process applies to entire cities as well:

“…industrial succession is part of the Industrial Revolution, and that the civilization that has emerged from industrialized societies is a civilization that must reckon with the industrial succession that comes with the Industrial Revolution. The rational approach to this would be to plan for cities to emerge around particular technologies, and for these same cities to be abandoned gradually as that same technology inevitably becomes obsolete.”

Ideally, the rational approach to obviously temporary supply chains would to build the facilities with the intention that they will be taken down and taken apart when this particular industrial process is succeeded by another industrial process. Unfortunately, civilization has not yet reached the point at which this level of planning and foresight can be integrated into large scale business operations.

In another sense, however, cities do in fact embody this idea — cities actually embody creative destruction — in the way that the build environment on the whole is always in flux. The same film I mentioned above in connection with computer waste disposal, Manufactured Landscapes, also features the ever-changing urban landscape of Shanghai.

Cities that have been continuously inhabited for long periods of time are inevitably built up and built over, sometimes intentionally destroyed no longer useful structures, and sometimes having existing structures destroyed by war or natural disasters. This is what makes cities so fascinating to archaeologists, since anywhere you dig is likely to reveal the history of the site in the layers below ground.

The city, then, considered from the perspective of the big picture and la longue durée, are or ought to be the model for the economy overall, which suggests that cities are the macroscopic model of rebuilding that needs to be realized on a microscopic level throughout the economy. We need an urbanism of objects to take control of our economic innovation and dissolution. Perhaps most macro-economic planning has been a failure in part due to the fact that it has not been conceived in this way.

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Thursday


The city plan of Timgad clearly shows the rationality of Roman town planning. The organic medieval cities that were eventually to house the successor populations of the former territories of the Roman Empire represent a very different approach to urbanism.

In Yesterday’s Why did Roman cities fail?, among several other assertions, I made the following claim:

“The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.”

I have no doubt that the dissolution of the Roman Empire will be discussed as long as human civilization endures, and because the discussion unquestionably endures in our own time, there is a lively debate over almost every aspect of Roman power and its eventual dissolution. It is a question that is endlessly fascinating, and that is one reason that I find myself returning to it.

An aerial photography of Timgad clearly showing the town plan as the most striking feature that remains of the city.

Moreover, a focus on cities in the ancient world can lend both clarity and focus to the discussion of Roman failure in the west, given the canonical status of city-states in classical antiquity. And it would add further clarity and focus to continue this concentration on urbanism into the medieval period in order to compare the ancient urban experience with the medieval urban experience. As I will sketch briefly below, there were some abandoned medieval cities, but most medieval cities of western Europe continued to grow and develop and were eventually transformed by this development rather than being abandoned.

View of Timgad with arch, colonnade, and theater clearly visible.

The decline of Roman cities was at the same time the rise of manorial estates, and with this transition from the city of the countryside, the socio-economic system of the city slowly gave way to the socio-economic system of the manorial estate. If we had good statistics from this period, we could identify the particular year in which the changing Roman Empire (or its former dominions) shifted from being primarily urban to being primarily rural, as today we can identify the particular year that humanity became a primarily urban species, such the more people live in urban areas than live in rural areas.

Henri Pirenne (23 December 1862 – 25 October 1935) formulated the eponymously known Pirenne Thesis.

Many distinct but interrelated process contributed to the failure of Roman cities and their institutions, which might also be called (if one would like to take a different perspective on the same historical events) the rise of the manorial system, which was already well underway (though not fully consolidated) in the later Roman Empire. With the diminution of Mediterranean trade, fewer and fewer grain ships came from Egypt to feed the urban masses; the country estates of the Roman aristocrats were forced to become productive farms in order to replace the other lost sources of food; the urban masses began to abandon the city for the sources of food in the countryside; small holders had to attach themselves to larger aristocratic households; and all the while the culture of the aristocrats and the former urban masses were becoming progressively more Christian, with genuine expressions of popular piety that broke the connections to traditional Roman festivals, which were often civic and urban events. When these several processes achieved near totality, the feudal system was complete, but it was already implicit in the socio-economic developments of the late Roman Empire.

Pirenne’s formulation of the Pirenne Thesis grew out of his analysis of medieval cities.

In yesterday’s discussion of Roman cities I didn’t make any attempt even to review the theories of Roman collapse. There are many such theories, most famously Gibbon’s contention that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire represented, “the triumph of barbarism and religion” — presumably a triumph over civilization and secularism — and the Pirenne Thesis, according to which it was the rise of Islam that signaled the end of classical antiquity. Recent thought focuses much more on the continuities than the discontinuities between the late Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and I alluded to this yesterday when I quoted Gordon Childe’s account, which was an early example of emphasizing historical continuity.

Coulanges studied the ancient city prior to the model of iterated Roman civilization that transformed the Hellenistic cities of the ancient Mediterranean.

The Pirenne Thesis is particularly interesting in the present context, because Pirenne’s thesis, despite making the rise of Islam central to the ultimate collapse of Roman power, emerged from Pirenne’s study of medieval cities. I remarked yesterday that it would be interesting to take up the failure of Roman cities from the perspective of Fustel de Coulanges’ famous book The Ancient City. Such a project would consider Roman cities in their formative stage. If the inquiry were extended to include Pirenne’s Medieval Cities, we could close the parentheses on Roman cities, as it were, by also considering the medieval urbanism that was the successor institution to Roman urbanism.

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, 18 March 1830 – 12 September 1889

The expansion of medieval cities recounted by Pirenne, and of medieval civilization generally, which certainly as much as ancient civilization exemplified what Gordon Childe called…

“…the result of the superficial expansion of civilization and the suspension of attritional warfare…” (What Happened in History, p. 281)

…experienced a crisis nearly equal to the failure of the Western Roman Empire with the Black Death. By the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Black Death struck Western Europe, medieval civilization had been steadily expanding for several centuries — economically, demographically, socially, politically, intellectually — and it was devastated by a crisis unlike any other in Western history. Medieval civilization survived (unlike Roman civilization, which did not survive its catastrophe), but it was diminished and altered.

Gordon Childe gained renown as a prehistorian, but in his later work his scope expanded to include the ancient world up to its dissolution.

Medieval civilization was quite literally diminished, since the Black Death resulted in a dramatic contraction of the population of Europe, which led in turn to a contraction of the farming that was the basis of the medieval European economy, and this in turn meant that many medieval villages were abandoned. Some survive today as place names with no remaining structures, while others disappeared without a trace.

V.(ere) Gordon Childe, 14 April 1892 – 19 October 1957

The expansion of medieval villages, and the organic nature — both in terms of structure and material — of medieval urbanism meant that most medieval villages founded during the period or Europe’s medieval expansion consisted of timber-framed, wattle-and-daub structures, which when abandoned during the Black Death were rapidly re-absorbed into the damp, rain-soaked landscape of Western Europe. The Robust towns built of durable stone were among those that survived. Even if abandoned, squatters could return to inhabit the most permanent dwellings, which I expect happened with some frequency in the aftermath of the plague.

Regardless of the relative merits of continuity theories and discontinuity theories of the transition from antiquity to medievalism, one point that can be made more clearly than debating the decline and fall (or, if you like, transformation) of an entire civilization, is this: Roman urbanism failed. Even if we maintain that Roman civilization continued on in altered forms, Roman cities failed.

The tradition of Roman town planning was lost; the new cities that eventually emerged after the abandonment of so many Roman cities emerged centered on a monastery or a cathedral. As I have observed on several occasions, these medieval cities were organic in composition and conception. The medieval successor institution to Roman urbanism simply happened; it was not designed and it was not planned. New social and political institutions meant that the cities functioned differently from Roman cities. The way of life of Roman cities was lost and it was not recovered. There were no more great public baths, or sacred prostitution at ancient temples, or syncretistic religious pluralism. For all the analogies between Roman cities and medieval cities, the central institutions of public life were distinct.

Thus whatever we may say of Roman civilization, Roman urbanism failed, and the urbanism that replaced it when medieval Europe returned to the building of cities (after a period of several centuries in Western Europe that saw almost no urban construction at all) was an urbanism based on different principles and different institutions. (Again, as Gordon Childe put it, “…old Mediterranean towns were replaced by new cathedral cities.” What Happened in History, p. 291) This fact alone makes the study of the failure of Roman cities singularly interesting. However, I must also point out the Roman urbanism only “failed” after having endured for more than a millennium, which means that Roman urbanism was also one of the most successful institutions in human history.

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Wednesday


Jerash in modern Jordan

Throughout Europe, North Africa, and West Asia you will find the ruins of ancient Roman cities. These abandoned ruins haunt the Western historical imagination, and not only the modern imagination. The Middle Ages were possibly even more haunted by the vanished Roman Empire than are we. There is a remarkable early poem in Anglo-Saxon — one of the earliest of all surviving poems in Anglo-Saxon — that communicates the sense of loss and mystery that abandoned Roman structures had for the peoples of the Middle Ages, who imagined them as the work of giants. Here are the first few lines of The Ruin (in a modern English rendering):

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire remains still one of the central points of reference in Western historiography. Italian historian Aldo Schiavone called it, “…the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilization.” (The End of the Past, p. 2) The ruined cities that dot the landscape of the Old World offer mute testimony to this catastrophe. (On a personal note, here I am, a Westerner on the far western edge of the New World, where no ancient cities dot the landscape, and there is scarcely a day that passes that I don’t think of the Romans and their accomplishments.)

Aphrodisias in modern Turkey

We cannot make a clear and unambiguous distinction between Roman cities and Roman civilization when we ask why Roman cities failed. It has been said that Mediterranean civilization is essentially urban, centered in its cities, so that the failure of Roman cities was the failure of Roman civilization, and vice versa. We could even take a term from economics to express this, and say that the fall of the Roman Empire in the west involved the co-movement of failure across Rome’s western cities.

Heliopolis, or Baalbek, in modern Lebanon.

When I previously wrote about Failed Cities I realized later that I had failed to make any basic distinctions between classes of failure suffered by cities. Some instances that I cited couldn’t even be called “failure” in the strict since, as these cities were destroyed by natural disasters (here I am thinking of San Juan Parangaricutiro in Mexico, which was covered by lava and volcanic ash, but any city destroyed by a natural disaster and not subsequently rebuilt and repopulated would serve equally well as an example, such as Pompeii). Even among destroyed cities we ought to distinguish between those destroyed by natural disasters, those destroyed purposefully in war, and those destroyed by their inhabitants. Once these distinctions are made, it can be observed that there will be no clear and unambiguous distinction between some cases of failure sensu stricto and some cases of the destruction of a city by its own inhabitants.

Leptis Magna in modern Libya

This last observation, which may seem a bit overly-subtle (and, believe me, I could go into in a much greater detail if I cared to do so), is germane to the present concern of why Roman cities failed. If Roman civilization may be identified with the network of Roman cities, then the failure of Roman civilization in the West may be identified with the systemic failure of Roman cities. Since a natural disaster may destroy a few cities but it not likely to cause the failure of many diverse cities over a wide geographical range of distribution (unless that natural disaster is global climate change), the across-the-board failure of Roman cities would not seem to be due to natural disaster. Similarly, cities destroyed in war tend to be localized to the theater of war, and this leaves definite signs that archaeologists can uncover. Similarly, again, cities intentionally destroyed by their own inhabitants is a measure of considerable desperation and is not likely to have occurred on a large scale, and it would moreover leave traces for archaeologists. This leaves us with the failure of Roman cities ambiguously related to the unintentional self-destruction of cities by their own inhabitants.

Volubilis in modern Morocco

In the most famous case of a Roman city — the city of Rome itself, the Eternal City — its fall was as slow and as gradual as its rise. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Rome didn’t fall in a day. And the “failure” of Rome was not complete, although at its nadir Rome had gone from being a cosmopolitan city of more than a million souls, and the largest megalopolis if the ancient world (possibly the only megalopolis of classical antiquity) to being a city of fewer than 50,000, stripped of its population, its power, its wealth, its public art, and its central place on the world stage. Domestic animals grazed in the Forum Romanum as the great temples and public structures were looted as quarries for stone to build ramshackle huts nestled in among the interstices of the ruins.

Rome itself, the Eternal City.

It was in the Eternal City itself that Gibbon was inspired to write his justly famous account of the fall of the Roman Empire, as he recounted in a beautiful passage from his Autobiography:

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

Gibbon’s literary ambition grew as he worked, and he eventually would write the entire history of the fall of the Roman Empire, not excepting the history of Byzantium until that Second Rome had fallen to the Grand Turk in AD 1453. There have been others who have taken a more tightly circumscribed focus in recounting the fall of Rome itself, the city, but it would be another project again to retain Gibbon’s original concrete and particular interest in writing the fall of Rome, and iterating this to all the Roman cities, recounting their joint and cumulative decline.

Perge in modern Turkey

For Rome, the Eternal City itself, was not the first or the only Roman city to have animals grazing in the marketplace where once the business of an empire was transacted. Here, from Dio Chrysostom, is an account of haw far and how quickly some cities had already declined in classical times:

“ ‘At the present moment even the land just outside the city gates is quite wild and terribly unattractive, as though it were in the depths of a wilderness and not in the suburbs of a city, while most the land inside the walls is sown or grazed. It is therefore surprising that orators trump up charges against the industrious people of Caphereus in the remote parts of Euboea, and yet hold that the men farming the gymnasium and grazing cattle in the market-place are doing nothing out of the way. You can doubtless see for yourselves that they have made your gymnasium into a ploughed field, so that the Heracles and numerous other statues are hidden by the corn, some those of heroes and other those of gods. You see too, day after day, the sheep belonging to this orator invade the market-place at dawn and graze about the council chamber and the executive buildings. Therefore when strangers first come to our city, they either laugh at it or pity it.’”

Dio Chrysostom, this is taken from a long passage which Dio quotes in the Seventh, or Eoboean, Discourse, 38-39, pp. 307-309 in the Loeb volume. The Original is in Greek.

Many cities, Rome and Caphereus among them, experienced depopulation, declining industry, declining trade, failing infrastructure, failing institutions, and the whole panoply of problems that simultaneously exacerbate each other when systematic failure compounds local failures in a vicious circle.

Timgad in modern Algeria.

But it was not always thus. The Hellenistic period was a time of bustling, wealthy cities surrounding the Mediterranean, and it was this network of cities (connected by a transportation network) that made the civilization of this period vital. Townspeople took pride in the status and beauty of their cities, their local gods and festivals, and the famous men who hailed from them. Here is a description of ancient Taras, modern Taranto, from Strabo’s Geography:

“…at the city there is a very large and beautiful harbor, which is enclosed by a large bridge and is one hundred stadia in circumference. In that part of the harbor which lies towards the innermost recess, the harbor, with the outer sea, forms an isthmus, and therefore the city is situated on a peninsula; and since the neck of land is low-lying, the ships are easily hauled overland from either side. The ground of the city, too, is low-lying, but still it is slightly elevated where the acropolis is. The old wall has a large circuit, but at the present time the greater part of the city — the part that is near the isthmus — has been forsaken, but the part that is near the mouth of the harbor, where the acropolis is, still endures and makes up a city of noteworthy size. And it has a very beautiful gymnasium, and also a spacious market-place, in which is situated the bronze colossus of Zeus, the largest in the world except the one that belongs to the Rhodians. Between the marketplace and the mouth of the harbor is the acropolis, which has but few remnants of the dedicated objects that in early times adorned it, for most of them were either destroyed by the Carthaginians when they took the city or carried off as booty by the Romans when they took the place by storm. Among this booty is the Heracles in the Capitol, a colossal bronze statue, the work of Lysippus, dedicated by Maximus Fabius, who captured the city.”

The booty that Strabo mentions was a symbol of civic status, and it true that when Rome or any other empire conquered a famous city they often took the most famous monuments and moved them to their capital. While this transfer of status represented a form of honoring tradition, this already points to a fundamental problem in the ancient political system, in which the strong did as they pleased and the weak suffered what they must — the famous formulation of Athenian hubris in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The renowned prehistorian Gordon Childe painted a compelling picture of the prosperity and comfortable circumstances of ancient cities in his What Happened in History:

“For all Roman cities, like the Hellenistic poleis, enjoyed the amenities of a public water supply, now often laid on to every block, handsome public buildings, baths, theatres, colonnades, market halls, and assembly places adorned with statues and fountains. The private dwellings were tasteful and commodious. In a provincial watering place like Pompeii with at most 30,000 inhabitants archaeologists have uncovered street upon street of mansions with mosaic pavements, frescoed walls, colonnaded courts, glazed windows, running water, bathrooms, and latrines.”

And to account for this relative wealth:

“Trade circulated freely throughout the Empire. The cities were united by a network of superb roads. Harbours were everywhere improved or constructed, and the seaways were now free from pirates.”

This is a picture that rivals our best cities today. I encourage the reader to read the entire last chapter of Childe’s book (i.e., What Happened in History, the last chapter of which is, “The Decline and Fall of the Ancient World”), as Childe gives in a few pages a summary of his own views on the collapse of Western civilization, as seen from the perspective of a non-dogmatic Marxism. Childe emphasizes the continuity of arts, industry, and institutions, and says that, “Progress is real if discontinuous.”

Dougga in modern Tunisia

To speak in terms of historical “discontinuity” is a polite way to speak of failure followed by subsequent recovery, and if the recovery surpasses the former peak of civilization, then we have “progress.” But the ruined cities that still stand vacant today never recovered. Civilization continued elsewhere in other modes, but it abandoned the dead cities that had once been prosperous and comfortable. And the wealth was not incidental. The failed cities of Roman Hellenism that surround the Mediterranean basin are only there because they were first built and grew and thrived, only later to fail systematically and catastrophically. The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.

The Porta Nigra (Black Gate) of Trier in modern Germany

In Complex Systems and Complex Failure I wrote the following:

“Complex systems fail in complex ways. Moreover, the scope of a catastrophic failure of a complex system is commensurate with the scope of the complex system. This is easy to see intuitively since a catastrophic cascading failure in a complex system must penetrate through all levels of the system and encompass both core and periphery.”

This is what happened in the Roman world. Each city is a complex system, and the network of cities that constituted the Roman Empire was an even more complex system. Moreover, each city is a micro-center of civilization, with its hinterlands as its periphery; and the clusters of cities tightly connected by roads and shipping networks were in turn larger centers of civilization, with the outlying networks of further cities as their periphery.

Emerita Augusta in modern Spain.

There is a systematic way to discuss these complexities, and that is in terms of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality, though here, in the present context, I will not ascend to metaphysical concerns, leaving the idea of the ancient city aside for the time being. Simply employing the bio-ecological levels of Bronfenbrenner without further extension, we can see that the city is a meso-system, or, rather, that the city is at the center of a meso-system which also includes a peripheral region. A network of cities constitutes an exo-system, with further meso-systems at its periphery.

Conimbriga in modern Portugal

These bio-ecological and bio-social systems collapse in reverse order as they emerged and grew. As the growth of complexity is attended by expansion, differentiation, and dynamic equilibrium, their collapse involved contraction, homogenization, and disequilibrium. Now, exactly what accounts for the ability of a complex social whole to achieve both internal differentiation and equilibrium is a problem that is widely recognized, but also unsolved. One would easily suppose that greater differentiation (as in craft specialization, division of labor, and social stratification) would lead to disequilibrium, but in a healthy and growing ecological system the opposite is the case. The healthiest ecosystems embody biodiversity, as the healthiest societies embody social diversity. Somehow it works, but no one quite knows now it works. But the very fact that it is not fully understand how complex and internally differentiated systems maintain an equilibrium is as much as to admit that the equilibrium is a balance, and a balance can be thrown out of balance and into disequilibrium.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The impressive world of the Hellenistic cities of Rome’s Mediterranean empire somehow passed beyond the point of balance and into disequilibrium. The apparent stability of the Roman world began to change, and it did not change for the better. The center could not hold. Things fell apart. Perhaps the interconnected ancient cities were drawn into a vicious spiral of a failure cycle. When I discussed The Failure Cycle recently I identified criminal exaptation of institutional weaknesses as a crucial part of this cycle. However, in the failure of the Roman cities, criminal exaptation does not seem to have played a major role. Perhaps I could re-formulate the failure cycle in order to account for the circumstances of Roman urbanism. when I wrote The Failure Cycle I was thinking of contemporary nation-states and their institutions, but I realize now that there is a fundamentally different relationship between center and periphery in the case of ancient cities and contemporary nation-states. In classical antiquity, failing institutions were exploited by elements in the external periphery rather than by elements internal to the center; and whereas the contemporary failed state may receive assistance from the external periphery, the ancient city was helped, if it was helped at all, by its internal core. Thus, when the core failed, there was nothing else upon which the ancient city could fall back.

Thus I previously laid out the failure cycle as follows:

1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

Whereas the institutional failure of classical antiquity looks more like this:

1. A city with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by external elements (e.g., barbarians), exacerbating city failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that traditional powers intervene, seeking to restore rule and order from the center.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a city with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

In either case, the iterated failure cycle can become a vicious spiral that grows beyond the ability of traditional guardians of traditional order to contain.

This way of looking at the problem suggests that the interconnected nation-states of today (which interconnection is often referred to as “globalization”) are analogous to the interconnected cities of classical antiquity. And given that the Roman world of classical antiquity grew out of the earlier world of city-states, with the expanded possibilities of today, the nation-state stands in a relation to other nation-states today that the city-state stood in relation to other city-states in classical antiquity.

Fustel de Coulanges, in his classic study The Ancient City, argued that the expansion of Rome destroyed the municipal institutions of the city-state, and replaced it universally with something Roman that was not the city-state as it was known in earlier antiquity. This would be an interesting thread to pursue in analogy to the present day, and as an extension of the thoughts above, but this inquiry will need to wait for another day.

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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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Friday


More than a year ago I formulated the idea of pastoralization as a possible development of macro-historical significance, and as a possible successor form of civilization to present-day industrial-technological civilization. In that first formulation I wrote:

If humanity withdrew into sustainable cities with their own ability to grow produce, the gradually depopulated countryside would be free to be returned to wilderness or to be at the disposal of pastoralists, or both. Wild game would be available in the wilderness for those who wanted to hunt, thus satisfying both a social need and dietary need, while nomadic pastoralists cold drive their herds seasonally from one self-sustaining city to another, selling a portion of their animals for slaughter in return for goods that they could not produce given their nomadic way of life.

I cited the emergence (actually, the re-emergence) of urban agriculture and the demographic trend toward increasing urbanization as driving forces in the scenario of pastoralization. The idea of urban agriculture is also important in another macro-historical scenario, neo-agriculturalism. Pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism are only distinct by degrees, and many of the features of each may co-exist.

Two recent books make suggestive arguments that point toward the ongoing strategic trends of urbanization and urban agriculture, which, if they become the dominant strategic trends in the future, will issue in something like pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism. These two books are $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner and Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (which latter I wrote about in Cities: The Constructive Kluge).

Glaeser’s book isn’t “brilliant” (as some reviews said) nor is he a mere shill (as some reviews seem to suggest). It is probably sufficient to read the first and last chapters and skip the anecdote the fills most of the book; you can pick up most of his ideas this way and miss very little. Really, all you need to know is the full title, since the book is concerned to demonstrate the thesis that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. One need not agree with every aspect of this argument to still agree with many or most of them, and to see that a clear case can be made for urbanization.

In regard to thinking in terms of “making a case for urbanization” we are clearly thinking in political terms rather than historical terms, and this seems to be Glaeser’s orientation. He is critical of policies that have had the unintended result of harming cities, and, since he thinks that cities are the best thing to come along in the human experience, harming cities is tantamount to engaging in self-harm. The limitations of thinking in terms of policy appear when we begin to think in terms of spans of time beyond that of a single human lifespan, and across which greater spans of time unintended consequences tend to swamp intended consequences. This is the difference between urbanization as a political idea and urbanization as an historical idea (conceived parallel to the distinction I made between globalization as a political idea and globalization as an historical idea).

If one is hesitant to fully subscribe to a rationally argued case for the city, there is, alternatively, the economic case for the city, and this is what Christopher Steiner argues in his book. He makes the case that steadily rising prices for gasoline will have far-reaching consequences for the structure of contemporary life, and these changes will have radical consequences for urban, suburban, and rural life. Although both Glaeser and Steiner argue that cities are environmentally and economically more sustainable than suburban, village, or rural life, Glaeser argues additionally that cities are a good thing; Steiner, on the contrary, argues that cities are the inevitable thing because they make more environmental economic sense. Again, this illustrates the difference between urbanism as political idea and urbanism as historical idea.

Steiner is at times almost apocalyptic in making his point, but, I think, justifiably so:

“There will be plenty of small towns that simply do not make the transition from a satellite living on cheap oil to a town that’s half self-sustaining and populated by people who not only prefer a small town life, but also are stringently loyal to their small town and are willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, their town, and their way of life. The hamlets that don’t survive, like the Wal-Marts who fall ahead of them, will be home only to ghosts, gusts, and a reclaiming Mother Nature.”

Christopher Steiner, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010, p. 151

This is very close to what I wrote about pastoralization, although I would argue further that “reclaiming mother nature” would include those individuals who would also choose to return to Mother Nature rather than live the superfantastic urban life that Edward Glaeser praises (although does not live, since he admits in the book that he lives in the suburbs). Even while high gasoline costs could make the automobile obsolete, and that part of industrial-technical civilization based upon the automobile also obsolete, there will be other technologies (like electric cars) which can be substituted. One could also, however, substitute those robust and durable technologies that preceded the automobile. Horses could be grazed in the abandoned spaces imagined by Steiner, and used for transportation by those who opt out of urban concentrations.

One way to define the difference between my closely related scenarios of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism is how the land freed by abandoned exurbs and rural depopulation will be put to use. If these lands are put to use in settled agriculture along a quasi-nineteenth century model, then the result will be neo-agriculturalism. If these lands are put to use (to the extent that they are “used” at all) for pastoralism, then we have the development of pastoralization. The neo-agricultural paradigm would likely converge upon (or, rather, return to) human societies exemplifying the agricultural macabre, while the pastoralization paradigm, with its mixture of extremely dense urbanism and nomadic pastoralism would produce a very different kind of society (or, rather, two societies), and it is difficult to say what this would be other than a unprecedented synthesis of urbanism and nomadism.

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Nazca to Ica

23 January 2012

Monday


A short distance north of Nazca, along the Panamericana, and situated between the designs of the “hands” (“manos“) and the “tree” (“arbol“), there is a tower (the “Torre Mirador”) that can be climbed, probably about 40 or 50 feet in height, in order to view some part of the lines of Nazca without flying over them. This close-up view of the lines clearly reveals the construction methods that I quoted yesterday (in Lines in the Desert) from Mason’s The Ancient Civilizations of Peru — stones have been removed from within geometrically defined areas and the removed stones have been piled at the edges of the designs. The piled stones not only represent the space cleared, but the piles themselves serve to make the demarcation between cleared and non-cleared areas all the more obvious, making the distinction more visually striking.

This construction technique was also used at nearby Palpa, and continues to be effective in the present day, as driving along the Panamericana (once outside the archaeologically preserved area) one sees a variety of messages spelled out in the desert, from the initials and names of individuals to fairly elaborate advertisements for small roadside stores.

In my naïveté I though that any intrepid visitor of sufficient curiosity might walk out into the desert and and look at the construction of the lines for themselves, but the desert has been fenced off along the Panamericana to prevent further damage to the lines, and once made aware of the threat it becomes immediately obvious how damaged many of the lines and figures are, which accounts for some of the difficulty in seeing some of the patterns from the air. Some — but not all.

Much is revealed by a close inspection (as one can gain from the tower along the Panamericana) that is lost in a distant view from the air, just as much is revealed in a distant inspection from the air that is close in the close-up view from near the ground. This is a perfect concrete illustration of what I was recently writing about in relation to the distinction between constructive and non-constructive thought (in P or not-P). In this post (on my other blog) I employed an image taken from Alain Connes to illustrate the constructive/non-constructive distinction such that the constructive perspective is like that of a mountain climber while the non-constructive perspective is like that of a visitor who flies over the summit of a mountain laboriously climbed by the other.

Any thorough investigation will want to make use of both perspectives in order to obtain the most comprehensive perspective possible — even though each perspective has its blind spots and its shadows that compromise our perspective on the whole. Indeed, it is precisely because each perspective incorporates deficits specific to the perspective that one will want to supplement any one perspective without another perspective with a different set of specific deficits. Between two or more fundamentally different perspectives on any one state-of-affairs there is the possibility of constructing the comprehensive conception that is excluded by any one perspective in isolation.

The two perspectives offered on the Nazca lines by the tower and an airplane flyover also reminded me of a point that I imperfectly attempted to make in my post on Epistemic Orders of Magnitude, in which I employed aerial photographs of cities in order to demonstrate the similar structures of cities transformed in the imagine of industrial-technological civilization. This similarity in structure may be masked by one’s experience of an urban area from the perspective of passing through the built environment on a human scale — i.e., simply walking through a city, which is how most people experience an urban area.

Now, in light of what I have subsequently written about constructivism, I might say that our experience of a built environment is intrinsically constructive, except for that of the urban planner or urban designer, who must see (or attempt to see) things whole. However, the urban planner must also inform his or her work with the street-level “constructive” perspective or the planning made exclusively from a top-down perspective is likely to be a failure. Almost all of the most spectacular failures in urban design have come about from an attempt to impose, from the top down, a certain vision and a certain order which may be at odds with the organically emergent order that rises from the bottom up.

This reflection gives us yet another perspective on utopianism, which I have many times tried to characterize in my attempts to show the near (not absolute) historical inevitability of utopian schemes transforming themselves upon their attempted implementation into dystopian nightmares — the utopian planner attempts to design from a purely non-constructive perspective without the benefit of a constructive perspective. This dooms the utopian plans to inevitable blindspots, shadows, and deficits. The oversights of a single perspective then, in the fullness of time, create the conditions for cascading catastrophic failure.

Historically speaking, it is not difficult to see how this comes about. After the astonishing planned cities of early antiquity, many from prehistoric societies that have left us little record except for their admirably regular and disciplined town plans, Europeans turned to a piecemeal, organic approach to urbanism. Once this approach was rapidly outgrown when cities began their burgeoning growth with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was a natural response on the part of Haussman-esque planners to view organic urbanism as a “failure” that necessitated replacement by another model that envisioned the already-built environment as a tabula rasa to be re-built according to rational standards. Cities henceforth were to be wholly planned to address to inadequacies of the medieval pattern of non-planning, which could not cope with cities with populations that now numbered in the millions.

I have observed elsewhere (in my Political Economy of Globalization) that many ancient prehistoric societies were essentially utopian constructions over which a god-king presided as a living god, present in the flesh among his people, and indeed some of the most striking examples of ancient town planning date from societies that exhibited (or seem to have exhibited) this now-vanished form of order. For only where a god-king is openly acknowledged as such can a social order based upon living and present divinity within the said social order be possible.

Nazca, however, does not seem to have been based on this social plan of a divinely-sanctioned social order which can bring utopian (and therefore likely non-constructive, top-down) planning into actual practice because of the physical presence of the god in the midst of his people. The book that I cited yesterday, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru by J. Alden Mason, has this to say of Nazca society:

“…the general picture seems to be one of a sedentary democratic people without marked class distinctions or authoritarianism, possibly without an established religion. There is less difference in the ‘richness’ or poverty of the graves, and women seem to be on an equality with men in this respect. The apparent absence of great public works, of extensive engineering features, and of temple pyramids implies a lack of authoritarian leadership. Instead, the leisure time of the people seems to have been spent in individual production, especially in the making of quantities of perfect, exquisite textiles and pottery vessels. This seems to indicate a strong cult of ancestor-worship. Cloths on which an incredible amount of labor was spent were made especially for funerary offerings and interred with the dead. The orientation seems to have been towards individualized religion rather than towards community participation, dictation, coercion, and aggression.”

J. Alden Mason, The Ancient Civilizations of Peru, Penguin Books, 1968, p. 85

Such egalitarian societies focused on the satisfaction of consumer demands were rare in the ancient world, but we should not be surprised that it was an egalitarian society, organized constructively from the bottom up, that produced the astonishing lines in the desert of the Nazca. Without an aerial perspective, the making of these lines was a thoroughly constructivistic undertaking, not even counter-balanced by a non-constructive perspective, which has only been obtained long after the Nazca civilization has disappeared, leaving only traces of itself in the dessicated sands of the desert.

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While I am posting this a couple of days after the fact, this entire account was written in longhand on the day here described.

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Tuesday


Lately I keep running across the name of Parag Khanna. When this happens, it is a good idea to investigate, since it is probably someone of whose work one ought to be aware. Some months back someone who commented on this blog mentioned that Parag Khanna had identified humanity as an urban species, as I had written in The Rural-Urban Divide. About the same time, there was a Parag Khanna article in the Financial Times, Future shock? Welcome to the new Middle Ages. Today, the e-mail that I receive daily from Foreign Policy Magazine included a link to the story Technology Will Take on a Life of Its Own by Ayesha and Parag Khanna. These synchronicitous encounters finally spurred me to look up the Khannas, and I find that they are behind something called the Hybrid Reality Institute. This influential pair obviously have their future cut out for them, and you can read their daunting list of credentials and honors at the profile page of the Hybrid Reality Institute. There is also a Parag Khanna website.

The story in Foreign Policy was quite fascinating, recounting a meeting between Ayesha and Parag Khanna with Alvin and Heidi Toffler, the latter of Future Shock and The Third Wave fame. As the Khannas point out, the Tofflers pretty much invented futurism in its present form. As they put it, “…the Tofflers made futurism a true calling — something that one does.” Whether this is to be lamented or regarded as a stupor mundi I leave to the reader.

The Khannas, it seems, are admirers of the Tofflers. I am not. I have tried to read Future Shock and The Third Wave, and I found them to be extraordinarily tedious, uninteresting, and utterly lacking in philosophical insight and intellectual subtlety. Until I read the Khannas, I didn’t realize that anyone other than mass market publishers took the Tofflers seriously. If you watch the Billy Wilder film Avanti! carefully (one of my favorite films, by the way) you’ll see the character played by Jack Lemmon reading a copy of Future Shock, and I thought its use as a prop in a comedy was the appropriate role for this book.

While I consider the work of the Tofflers very limited, I am not so hostile to their perspective that I am beyond being influenced by it, and I cited their idea of “de-massification” in my post, Nuclear Ambiguity. I put the Tofflers in the same category as John Naisbitt’s Metatrends, and what the Tofflers had to say about de-massification is close to what Naisbitt wrote about “narrowcasting.” So when I observed in The Persistence of Broadcasting that so-called “new” media have simply been reiterating mass marketing campaigns over the internet with remarkably little imagination or innovation, this is as much a criticism of de-massification as of narrowcasting. I don’t deny the significance of the long tail, but for the mass societies created by industrialization it is the top of the bell curve that rules, and not the margins tailing away on either side.

Futurism has been on my mind of late, and I have recently started listening to Michio Kaku’s work of technological futurism, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100. This stands as an interesting contrast to George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, since both books take as their framework predicting the overall features of the next century.

I put Friedman and Kaku in a very different category than Naisbitt or the Tofflers. Friedman has a method that he has obviously thought through very carefully, and which is frequently recapitulated in analyses published at Strategic Forecasting. This is a method firmly based in the brute facts of geography and power. I appreciate the explicit character of Friedman’s method, though I think that he substantially oversteps the inherent bounds of this method in his The Next 100 Years.

Kaku also has a method, and it is equally explicit and equally founded on a factual basis. Kaku has investigated what scientists today are working on, and extrapolating from their already existing research and prototypes to the social possibilities of such inventions becoming commonplace. This provides a very different perspective than that of Friedman. However, Kaku’s perspective on history leaves me a bit slack-jawed at times, though it is nowhere nearly as irritating as Ray Kurzweil’s breathless enthusiasms. The most amusing thing about futurism is how it usually gets things so outrageously wrong, but the way that Kaku tells the story of futurism, you would think that the futurists got things mostly right, and have only messed up on the occasional prediction. (Amusingly, Foreign Policy has a story now called Megatrends That Weren’t.)

So far I’ve only read some articles by Khanna (probably not representative of his thought on the whole), and I haven’t even skimmed his books, so I don’t know if he has a method, but his admiration for the Tofflers as described in his Foreign Policy article mentioned above already makes me more than a little suspicious. However, suspicion is no argument, and I keep an open mind on the matter. I’ll try to get his books from the library to find out for myself what’s up.

A couple of days ago I began the barest sketch of my own method, in The A Priori Futurist Imagination. However, I should point out that I don’t consider myself a futurist, but rather a philosopher of history, with history broadly construed to include the future — indeed, I construe history so broadly as to comprise what I call metaphysical history.

I write these reflections on futurism and prediction in the light of having recently been informed that my abstract submitted to the 100 Year Starship symposium, organized by DARPA and NASA, was approved, which means that I am to submit a paper and give a presentation. My submission was for the “Religious and Philosophical” track of the symposium, and I plan to hold forth on the moral imperative of human spaceflight. For this, I may well be taken for a futurist.

Well, I would rather be taken for a futurist and have my ideas get a hearing, than not be heard at all. So to the extent my philosophical ideas shade over into futurism, I will try to give an account of my conception of what futurism ought to be, and this is why I took up the theme again a couple of days ago. I suspect that I’ll be writing more about this as I prepare my presentation and continue to think about the issues involved.

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Monday


Above is a photograph that I took of Prague when I visited in 1992. There are many readily identifiable elements in the image. Even individuals without deep geographical knowledge might recognize the Charles Bridge or St. Vitus Cathedral, even if they didn’t know the names of these structures. More generally, a person is likely to notice that it is a European city that is in the photograph. The closer up your view, the more detail you see, and the more detail you see, the more knowledge that you have — though it is knowledge of a certain kind, specific to a particular scale. We could call this knowledge of a particular order of magnitude, or an epistemic order of magnitude.

This Oslo street scene (above) that I took in 2009 reveals more detail than the landscape view of Prague — for example, one can read individual signs, and perhaps even recognize a particular advertising campaign — but it would be difficult to identify the city unless you had really encyclopedic knowledge of the area. While this probably holds true for street scenes in most cities, there are, of course, immediately identifiable street scenes, such as that below, since it includes a portion of the readily identifiable Brandenburg Gate.

When we pull back further, looking at a city from a great distance, the texture and fabric of urban space presents a certain sameness to the eye, although a keen observer will still be able to pick out distinctive features. In Modernization, Industrialization, Urbanization I wrote regarding this distant perspective:

“Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm’s length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.”

The photograph below of San Francisco might be mistaken for another large city of the industrial era, and it could be just about anywhere, except it does reveal some of those distinctive features, such as the distinctive Transamerica Pyramid.

Pulling back even farther, moving to another order of magnitude in perspective, identifying a city can become quite problematic. Individual landmarks mostly disappear, except for truly monumental constructions, and most cities lack truly monumental constructions and thus become indistinguishable at this level. Consider the photograph below:

I cannot remember where I found this photograph, and I can’t identify it. The photograph admirably shows the road and rail networks that cut through all cities of the late twentieth century, and I suspect that it is in Europe or North America, but it could just as well be on other continents. There are details that can be picked out, but what we must notice at this level of magnification is the overall structure.

Some cities, even from orbital distance, are immediately recognizable, as with Brasília, which we can see (above) retaining the structure of its original plan (below). Generally speaking, planned cities built rapidly in accordance with a recognizable geometry are likely to be readily identifiable, whereas organic cities that grew up without a plan are less clearly differentiated.

Other cities have distinctive harbors or a relation to a distinctive river or ocean coastline or other natural feature that would make them identifiable, although few people have an encyclopedic knowledge of harbors and would be able to identify a city on that basis. Here (below) is Naples from space:

It used to be said, “See Naples and die,” such was its reputation for urban beauty. Whatever the reputation of Naples today, this kind of beauty is not recognizable from a great distance. Probably Naples would be a little more recognizable if the entire Bay of Naples were included. Here (below) is Tokyo’s harbor from space:

Whatever one knows or does not know about Naples and Tokyo, the satellite photographs tell you something important about their economies that may well not be revealed by a photograph of a street scene: both are major ports, and their economies are therefore tied to trade. And here (below) is São Paulo from space:

São Paulo is close to the coast, and while many maps make it look like it is on the coast, it is in fact an inland city. While São Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world, and therefore an economic force to reckon with, we can see that a port does not play the same role in its economy that port facilities play in Tokyo or, for example, Seattle, which is as wedded to Puget Sound, into which ocean-going ships can freely enter, as Tokyo is wedded to Tokyo Bay. While not a satellite photograph, this picture gives a great sense of Seattle’s dependence on water-borne commerce:

Some cities are a surprise from an aerial view, and present an aspect not at all evident from the ground. Take this city for example:

Who would have guessed that Khandahar is so orderly, with its regular grid plan and cruciform center? No street scenes give a sense of Khandahar’s overall order. It certainly surprised me. I suspect there is an interesting story behind Khandahar’s macroscopic order, and I would like to know that it is. My first intuition is that Khandahar has grown up from an ancient Roman street plan, which centered a city on the perpendicular crossing of the Decumanus Maximus and Cardo Maximus. This may be the case, but I have not confirmed this. The city of Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula, known for retaining it Roman street plan, has a far less obvious cruciform plan than Khandahar:

Poreč on the Istrian Peninsula

Barcino, Split, Umm Qais, and Damascus are also known for their preservation of Roman planning, and now that I think of it I will need to look at aerial or orbital pictures of these cities and see if they approach the rectilinear regularly of Khandahar. In any case, at least part of a city’s history may be evident from the abstract perspective afforded by distance.

If we pull back far enough, a city ceases to even look like a city. In the NASA photograph above, it has been observed that London at night looks like a constellation. Many of the satellite images above reveal cities that, from a distance, look like organic growths — or, if you prefer a more threatening image, like a cancer on the land.

There is a sense in which an view of cities from a distance gives us an abstract perspective — both upon the city itself, as a whole and as an artifact, and upon urbanized human life, which is inseparable from the city upon which it supervenes.

Abstract perspectives of necessity lack the kind of detail of a concrete perspective, but we learn particular kinds of things from an abstract perspective, and different kinds of things that we learn from close up concrete detail. The abstract and the concrete represent distinct (though complementary) epistemic orders of magnitude.

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Friday


Quick... is this a western city or a non-western city? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter?

Quick… is this a western city or a non-western city? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter?

Yesterday in A Note on Quantitative Civilization I quoted from Toynbee to the effect that the present international order is based on Western economic and political principles. Toynbee explicitly acknowledges that these borrowed principles of development do not compromise the non-Western character of the societies that adopt them. While he could be faulted for his untrendy language, which is spectacularly politically incorrect, the spirit of his remarks are very much within the present tradition of recognizing diversity.

In the midst of the urban intensity of downtown Osaka, a traditional Japanese performance art exposition at a street fair.

In the midst of the urban intensity of downtown Osaka, a traditional Japanese performance art exposition at a street fair.

Not all development leads to Westernization. Contemporary Japan provides an example of modernization, industrialization, and urbanization that does not coincide with Westernization. Japan remains profoundly Japanese in the midst of its technical progress. Japan is a bell-weather in this respect, but it is not a model. The rest of Asia would never model itself upon Japan, at least explicitly so. But Japan shows what is possible.

Industrialization Japanese-style: a beautiful crane motif on a sewage access cover in Himeji.

Industrialization Japanese-style: a beautiful crane motif on a sewage access cover in Himeji.

Of what the financial press now calls the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — the latter two industrializing powers are clearly non-Western, while the former two are on the periphery of Western civilization, or, if you follow Samuel Huntington, belong to two distinct contemporary civilizations, Latin American and Orthodox respectively. (One wonders why the financial press does not call them the CRIB countries.) In any case, as these regional powers develop, as they modernize, urbanize, and industrialize, they will not be Westernizing. Their societies are and will be experiencing wrenching social changes and profound dislocation, but this will be the result of the transition to a fully modern economic system, not the result of “Westernization.” (Though it is to be expected that some of these wrenching social changes will be charged to “westernization.”)

With India and China it seems to be pretty clearly the case that they want to join what Toynbee called the “world-wide comity of states” but that they will do so on their own terms. Like Japan, they will modernize, industrialize, and urbanize but all without Westernizing.

Previously I have observed that the US represents the society most transformed by industrialization because its society was the least mature and established at the time of its industrialization (and perhaps also more intrinsically flexible). If other countries come to resemble the US as they develop, it is because the US is the raw product of industrial development with the least admixture of history, culture, and social tradition.

One of the great fears that seems to be prompted by globalization, that great contemporary bogeyman, is that of cultural homogenization. The ideologically motivated left likes to formulate this in terms of “cultural hegemony” and to formulate parallels between the imposition of military and economic regimes upon poorer and weaker nation-states and the “imposition” of a cultural regime upon similarly disadvantaged nation-states. I touched only briefly on this question in Evo Morales’ Ideologist, about the career of Bolivia’s Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, since García Linera has been deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci, and Gramsci’s formulations are pretty much responsible for making cultural hegemony the hot topic that it is today.

Antonio Gramsci, Marxist philosopher and big hair aficionado.

Antonio Gramsci, Marxist philosopher and big hair afficianado.

The cultural homogenization that seems to make economically developing countries approximate the US the further their development progresses is a function of convergent evolution, not cultural hegemony. Similar selection forces are at work, so similar social structures are the result. There are only so many ways to construct a city from concrete, steel, and glass, and so it happens that most contemporary conurbations look alike.

Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm's length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.

Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm's length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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