(Roughly) Daily

“Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.”*…

From ancient empires to the industrialized nation-states of our globally-interconnected world, complexity theory offers a fresh perspective on the past and possible futures of human societies. Dries Daems explains…

… Civilizations rise and fall, sometimes at the stroke of a sword. Myriad explanations have been posited as to why this happens. Often, hypotheses of collapse say more about the preoccupations of contemporary society than they do about the past. It is no coincidence that Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (01776), written during the anticlerical Age of Reason, blamed Christianity for Rome’s downfall, just as it is no coincidence that recent popular accounts of civilizational collapse such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (02005) point toward environmental damage and climate change as the main culprits.

I’ve been fascinated by the oscillations of human societies ever since the early days of my research for my Ph.D. in archaeology. Over the last 12,000 years, we’ve gone from small hunter-gatherer groups to highly urbanized communities and industrialized nation-states in a globally interconnected world. As societies grow, they expand in territory, produce economic growth, technological innovation, and social stratification. How does this happen, and why? And is collapse inevitable? The answers provided by archeology were unsatisfying. So I looked elsewhere.

Ultimately, I settled on a radically different framework to explore these questions: the field of complexity theory. Emerging from profound cross-disciplinary frustrations with reductionism, complexity theory aims to understand the properties and behavior of complex systems (including the human brain, ecosystems, cities and societies) through the exploration of their generative patterns, dynamics, and interactions.

In what follows, I’ll share some thoughts about what social complexity is, how it develops, and why it provides a more comprehensive account of societal change than the traditional evolutionary approaches that permeate archeology. By recasting the rise and fall of civilizations in terms of social complexity, we can better understand not only the past of human societies, but their possible futures as well…

Fascinating– and arresting: “Reimagining the Rise and Fall of Civilizations,” from @DriesDaems at @longnow.

See also Nick Brysiewicz‘s “Creative Technology at the Timescale of Civilization@nicholaspaul26 for @_baukunst.

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451


As we contemplate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1644 that the Qing dynasty‘s Manchu forces, led by the Shunzhi Emperor, took Beijing– sealing the collapse of the Ming dynasty, which had ruled since 1368.

Aisin-Gioro Fulin, the Shunzhi Emperor– the first Qing Emperor to rule over China proper (source)
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