(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘civilization

“All that mankind has done, thought or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books”*…

… But books (and their predecessors) are fragile, and need special archival care if they are to survive. That’s even truer, as Adrienne Bernhard explains in The Long Now Foundation‘s newsletter, of digital data and documents…

The Dead Sea scrolls, made of parchment and papyrus, are still readable nearly two millennia after their creation — yet the expected shelf life of a DVD is about 100 years. Several of Andy Warhol’s doodles, created and stored on a Commodore Amiga computer in the 01980s, were forever stranded there in an obsolete format. During a data-migration in 02019, millions of songs, videos and photos were lost when MySpace — once the Internet’s leading social network — fell prey to an irreversible data loss.

A false sense of security persists surrounding digitized documents: because an infinite number of identical copies can be made of any original, most of us believe that our electronic files have an indefinite shelf life and unlimited retrieval opportunities. In fact, preserving the world’s online content is an increasing concern, particularly as file formats (and the hardware and software used to run them) become scarce, inaccessible, or antiquated, technologies evolve, and data decays. Without constant maintenance and management, most digital information will be lost in just a few decades. Our modern records are far from permanent.

Obstacles to data preservation are generally divided into three broad categories: hardware longevity (e.g., a hard drive that degrades and eventually fails); format accessibility (a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk formatted with a filesystem that can’t be read by a new laptop); and comprehensibility (a document with a long-abandoned file type that can’t be interpreted by any modern machine). The problem is compounded by encryption (data designed to be inaccessible) and abundance (deciding what among the vast human archive of stored data is actually worth preserving).

The looming threat of the so-called “Digital Dark Age”, accelerated by the extraordinary growth of an invisible commodity — data — suggests we have fallen from a golden age of preservation in which everything of value was saved. In fact, countless records of previous historical eras have all but disappeared. The first Dark Ages, shorthand for the period beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and stretching into the Middle Ages (00500-01000 CE), weren’t actually characterized by intellectual and cultural emptiness but rather by a dearth of historical documentation produced during that era.

Even institutions built for the express purpose of information preservation have succumbed to the ravages of time, natural disaster or human conquest. The famous library of Alexandria, one of the most important repositories of knowledge in the ancient world, eventually faded into obscurity. Built in the fourth century B.C., the library flourished for some six centuries, an unparalleled center of intellectual pursuit. Alexandria’s archive was said to contain half a million papyrus scrolls — the largest collection of manuscripts in the ancient world — including works by Plato, Aristotle, Homer and Herodotus. By the fifth century A.D., however, the majority of its collections had been stolen or destroyed, and the library fell into disrepair.

Digital archives are no different. The durability of the web is far from guaranteed. Link rot, in which outdated links lead readers to dead content (or a cheeky dinosaur icon), sets in like a pestilence. Corporate data sets are often abandoned when a company folds, left to sit in proprietary formats that no one without the right combination of hardware, software, and encryption keys can access. Scientific data is a particularly thorny problem: unless it’s saved to a public repository accessible to other researchers, technical information essentially becomes unusable or lost. Beyond switching to analog alternatives, which have their own drawbacks, how might we secure our digital information so that it survives for generations? How can individuals, private corporations and public entities coordinate efforts to ensure that their data is saved in more resilient formats?…

Without maintenance, most digital information will be lost in just a few decades. How might we secure our data so that it survives for generations? “Shining a Light on the Digital Dark Age,” from @AdrienneEve and @longnow. Eminently worth reading in full.

C.F. also: “Very Long-Term Backup” by Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly).

* Thomas Carlyle


As we ponder preservation, we might recall that the #1 song in the U.S. and the U.K. (among other territories) was the Beatles’ “Help!” (their fourth of six #1 singles in a row on the American charts).


“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)

“Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand”*…

Sand dunes in the Idehan Ubari, Libya. Photo: Luca Galuzzi – www.galuzzi.it

(Roughly) Daily has looked before at sand: as a scarce resource, thus as a valuable commodity and an object of theft, and as a metaphor. In this excerpt from his book, The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, Vince Beiser makes the case that it is the most important solid substance on earth…

[Sand is] the literal foundation of modern civilization. … Sand is the main material that modern cities are made of. It is to cities what flour is to bread, what cells are to our bodies: the invisible but fundamental ingredient that makes up the bulk of the built environment in which most of us live.

Sand is at the core of our daily lives. Look around you right now. Is there a floor beneath you, walls around, a roof overhead? Chances are excellent they are made at least partly out of concrete. And what is concrete? It’s essentially just sand and gravel glued together with cement.

Take a glance out the window. All those other buildings you see are also made from sand. So is the glass in that window. So are the miles of asphalt roads that connect all those buildings. So are the silicon chips that are the brains of your laptop and smart­phone. If you’re in downtown San Francisco, in lakefront Chicago, or at Hong Kong’s international airport, the very ground beneath you is likely artificial, manufactured with sand dredged up from underwater. We humans bind together countless trillions of grains of sand to build towering structures, and we break apart the mol­ecules of individual grains to make tiny computer chips.

Some of America’s greatest fortunes were built on sand. Henry J. Kaiser, one of the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists of twentieth-century America, got his start selling sand and gravel to road builders in the Pacific Northwest. Henry Crown, a billionaire who once owned the Empire State Building, began his own empire with sand dredged from Lake Michigan that he sold to developers building Chicago’s skyscrapers. Today the construction industry worldwide consumes some $130 billion worth of sand each year.

Sand lies deep in our cultural consciousness. It suffuses our language. We draw lines in it, build castles in it, hide our heads in it. In medieval Europe (and a classic Metallica song), the Sandman helped ease us into sleep. In our modern mythologies, the Sand­man is a DC superhero and a Marvel supervillain. In the creation myths of indigenous cultures from West Africa to North America, sand is portrayed as the element that gives birth to the land. Bud­dhist monks and Navajo artisans have painted with it for centu­ries. ‘Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives,’ intone the opening credits of a classic American soap opera. William Blake encouraged us to ‘see a world in a grain of sand.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley reminded us that even the mightiest of kings end up dead and forgotten, while around them only ‘the lone and level sands stretch far away.’ Sand is both minuscule and infinite, a means of measurement and a substance beyond measuring.

Sand has been important to us for centuries, even millennia. People have used it for construction since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. In the fifteenth century, an Italian artisan fig­ured out how to turn sand into fully transparent glass, which made possible the microscopes, telescopes, and other technologies that helped drive the Renaissance’s scientific revolution.

But it was only with the advent of the modern industrialized world, in the decades just before and after the turn of the twentieth century, that people really began to harness the full potential of sand and begin making use of it on a colossal scale. It was during this period that sand went from being a resource used for wide­spread but artisanal purposes to becoming the essential build­ing block of civilization, the key material used to create mass-manufactured structures and products demanded by a fast­-growing population.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, almost all of the world’s large structures — apartment blocks, office buildings, churches, palaces, fortresses — were made with stone, brick, clay, or wood. The tallest buildings on Earth stood fewer than ten stories high. Roads were mostly paved with broken stone, or more likely, not paved at all. Glass in the form of windows or tableware was a rel­atively rare and expensive luxury. The mass manufacture and de­ployment of concrete and glass changed all that, reshaping how and where people lived in the industrialized world.

Then in the years leading up to the twenty-first century, the use of sand expanded tremendously again, to fill needs both old and unprecedented. Concrete and glass began rapidly expanding their dominion from wealthy Western nations to the entire world. At roughly the same time, digital technology, powered by silicon chips and other sophisticated hardware made with sand, began reshap­ing the global economy in ways gargantuan and quotidian.

Today, your life depends on sand. You may not realize it, but sand is there, making the way you live possible, in almost every minute of your day. We live in it, travel on it, communicate with it, surround ourselves with it…

Sand and Civilization,” from @VinceBeiser via @delanceyplace.

* Jorge Luis Borges


As we muse on minerals, we might note that it was on this date in 1913 that a famous “sand castle” (concrete building) was opened in New York City, the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building. Located at 233 Broadway in the Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, it was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930, at a height of 792 feet; more than a century after its construction, it remains one of the 100 tallest buildings in the United States.

The Woolworth Building has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966 and a New York City designated landmark since 1983. The building is assigned its own ZIP Code, 10279, one of 41 buildings in Manhattan so “honored” as of 2019.

Woolworth Building in November 2005 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 24, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor”*…

It can seem, in this chaotic world-moment, that Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is having a day. Nathan Gardels introduces a new series of essays in Noema that examine the prospects for rise and fall in our time…

“The intelligible unit of historical study,” Arnold Toynbee famously wrote, is neither the nation-state nor mankind as a whole, but civilizations that grew out of societies that evolved toward dominance of their “known world,” or stalled in isolation and fell into obscurity, depending on challenges to which they rose in response or that defeated them.

Writing his “Study of History” in the mid-20th century, he counted some 22 such civilizations that had arisen over the last 6,000 years, from the Mayan to Hindic to Sinic and Hellenic among many others. Each saw its foundation in a religious or cosmological outlook that shaped its internal cohesion through the form of the life of a society, its style of life, moral taste, form of government and spirit of laws.

For Toynbee, as the political scientist Robert Loevy has put it, “often one nation-state is the most powerful leader in the Civilization and comes to dominate it and symbolize it. After a lengthy period of domination, the Civilization falls, the world goes into a state of low-level organization, and humanity waits for the next Civilization to emerge and the cycle to begin anew.” Inevitably, as Toynbee saw it, creative elites become complacent in their success and fail to meet new challenges, both internally and from the outside. 

Oswald Spengler, another philosopher of history most known for his book, “The Decline of the West”, similarly argued that the dominance of a civilization always diminished as the creative impulse that propelled its rise waned, overcome by “critical impulses” that destroyed the internal cohesion that sustained it. 

These reflections are obviously relevant today as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China push back against the liberal world order led by the United States that has dominated the “known world” for the last eight decades following the West’s four-century rise.

Since they frame their challenge as “civilizational states” reasserting their historical identities anew, the question arises whether that challenge will defeat the West or serve to revitalize it by compelling a fresh creative response that both renews its internal cohesion and resists the hegemony of others. 

Over the next weeks, Noema will address these issues in a running symposium of authors from West and East…

Clashes and cross-pollination: “The Cycle Of Civilizations,” a series eminently worth following in @NoemaMag.

* Arnold Toynbee


As we work out world order, we might recall that it was on this date in 1865 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime).

Amendment XIII in the National Archives, bearing the signature of Abraham Lincoln (source)

On this date in 1960, the Greensboro Sit-Ins began. Four freshman at North Carolina A&T—  Joseph McNeilFranklin McCainEzell Blair Jr., and David Richmond, the “Greensboro Four,” as they came to be known– took seats at the lunch counter at the “Whites only” lunch counter of the F.W. Woolworths in downtown Greensboro. Followers of Martin Luther King, Jr., theirs was a non-violent protest– the Greensboro sit-ins grew (on February 4, more than 300 people took part) and lasted until July 25. On that date, after nearly $200,000 in losses ($1.8 million in 2021 dollars), and a reduction in salary for not meeting sales goals, store manager Clarence Harris asked four black employees, Geneva Tisdale, Susie Morrison, Anetha Jones, and Charles Bess, to change out of their work clothes and order a meal at the counter. They were, quietly, the first to be served at a Woolworth lunch counter. Most stores were soon desegregated.

The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro contains the lunch counter, except for several seats which the museum donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016 and a four-seat portion of the lunch counter acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 1993, displayed in the National Museum of American History.

The Greensboro Four (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 1, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Monetary policy is one of the most difficult topics in economics. But also, I believe, a topic of absolutely crucial importance for our prosperity.”*…

Basement of a bank full of banknotes at the time of the Mark devaluation during the economic crisis in the Weimar Republic

What can we learn from a twentieth century economist who was a critic of Keynes and a staunch advocate of the Gold Standard? Samuel Gregg considers the career of Jacques Rueff

Money, it is often said, makes the world go round. The inverse of that axiom is that monetary disorder brings chaos in its wake. As we learned from the hyperinflation that wreaked havoc in 1920s Germany and the stagflation which hobbled Western economies throughout the 1970s, the effects of such disorder go far beyond the economy. Further complicating the problem is that restoring monetary stability is invariably a painful exercise, often bringing unemployment, recession and lasting social damage in its wake.

As a rule, monetary theory and monetary policy are dry affairs, dominated by highly technical discussions concerning topics such as the nature of capital or the likely impact of interest-rates set by central banks. One thinker who did not conform to this mould was the French monetary theorist Jacques Rueff (1896-1978). Arguably France’s most important twentieth-century economist, Rueff played a major role in shaping the Third Republic’s response to the Great Depression in the 1930s, designed the market liberalisation programme that saved France from economic collapse in 1958, and emerged in the 1960s as the leading critic of the US dollar’s role in the global economy and a prominent advocate of a return to the classic gold standard.

Rueff was, however, much more than an economist. A graduate of the École Polytechnique, he was among that small elite of civil servants trained in administration, engineering, mathematics, the natural sciences, foreign languages, and political economy whose role was to inject stability into the perpetual political pandemonium of the Third Republic. But even among that highly-educated cohort, Rueff stood out for the breadth and depth of his knowledge and his willingness to integrate it into his economic reflections. For Rueff, the significance of monetary order went beyond issues such as economic growth or employment, as important as they were. Ultimately, it was about whether Western civilisation flourished or embraced self-delusion…

Gregg recounts Rueff’s career, his championing of “real rights” (e.g., property rights) vs. “false rights” (which involve the state declaring something such as unemployment benefits to be a right and then trying to realize it through means that destroy real rights), and his advocacy of a return to the Gold Standard (part of his critique of the use of the U.S. dollar as a unit of reserve)… all positions with which reasonable people (including your correspondent) might disagree. But Gregg reminds us that Rueff’s most fundamental goal– a healthy society– surely remains desirable, and that his fear of the chaos that monetary meltdowns can cause is only too justified…

Monetary order wasn’t everything for Rueff. His writings reflect deep awareness of the ways in which culture, religion, philosophy, music and literature influenced civilisational development. Nonetheless Rueff insisted the threats posed by monetary disorder were more than economic. For him, civilisational growth was impossible without monetary order…

Let us not allow means with which we disagree to obscure important ends.

After examining the economic chaos of the early twentieth century, monetary theorist Jacques Rueff argued that without monetary order, civilizational growth is impossible: “Jacques Rueff’s quest for monetary order,” from @DrSamuelGregg in @EngelsbergIdeas.

* Maxime Bernier


As we remember that neither should we allow ends with which we disagree to obscure important means, we might spare a thought for Leonid Kantorovich; he died on this date in 1986. An economist and mathematician best known for his theory and development of techniques for the optimal allocation of resources, he is regarded as the founder of linear programming— for which he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1975.


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