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Posts Tagged ‘civilization

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”*…

 

mayan collapse

Mayan society experienced a gradual decline over three centuries

 

Is the collapse of a civilisation necessarily calamitous? The failure of the Egyptian Old Kingdom towards the end of the 2nd millennium BCE was accompanied by riots, tomb-raids and even cannibalism. ‘The whole of Upper Egypt died of hunger and each individual had reached such a state of hunger that he ate his own children,’ runs an account from 2120 BCE about the life of Ankhtifi, a southern provincial governor of Ancient Egypt.

Many of us are familiar with this historical narrative of how cultures can rapidly – and violently – decline and fall. Recent history appears to bear it out, too. Post-invasion Iraq witnessed 100,000 deaths in the first year and a half, followed by the emergence of ISIS. And the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011 produced a power vacuum, leading to the re-emergence of the slave trade.

However, there’s a more complicated reality behind this view of collapse. In fact, the end of civilisations rarely involved a sudden cataclysm or apocalypse. Often the process is protracted, mild, and leaves people and culture continuing for many years…

Civilisational demise can also provide space for renewal. The emergence of the nation-state in Europe wouldn’t have happened without the end of the Western Roman Empire many centuries before. This has led some scholars to speculate that collapse is part of the ‘adaptive cycle’ of growth and decline of systems. Like a forest fire, the creative destruction of collapse provides resources and space for evolution and reorganisation.

One reason we rarely appreciate these nuances is that archaeology mainly depicts what happened to the lives of the elites – a view of history through the eyes of the 1 per cent. Until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, writing and other forms of documentation were largely the preserve of government bureaucrats and aristocrats. Meanwhile, the footprint of the masses – such as non-state hunter-gatherers, foragers and pastoralists – was biodegradable…

But none of this means that we should be complacent about the prospects for a future fall…

The four big reasons why the next civilizational collapse might be both faster and harsher than many in the past: “Civilisational collapse has a bright past – but a dark future.”

* Eric Idle, for Monty Python’s Life of Brian

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As we contemplate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that “SOS”– “. . . _ _ _ . . .”– became the global standard radio distress signal.  While it was officially replaced in 1999 by the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, SOS is still recognized as a visual distress signal.

SOS has traditionally be “translated” (expanded) to mean “save our ship,” “save our souls,” “send out succor,” or other such pleas.  But while these may be helpful mnemonics, SOS is not an abbreviation or acronym.  Rather, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the letters were chosen simply because they are easily transmitted in Morse code.

click image above, or here

 

“Every form of government tends to perish by excess of its basic principle”*…

 

Urban-planning-of-the-Harappan

The town planning of the Harappan civilization has amazed archaeologists

 

Great civilisations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives.

So concluded the historian Arnold Toynbee in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History. It was an exploration of the rise and fall of 28 different civilisations.

He was right in some respects: civilisations are often responsible for their own decline. However, their self-destruction is usually assisted.

The Roman Empire, for example, was the victim of many ills including overexpansion, climatic change, environmental degradation and poor leadership. But it was also brought to its knees when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455.

Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq km (1.9 million sq miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq km (770,000 sq miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.

Our deep past is marked by recurring failure. As part of my research at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, I am attempting to find out why collapse occurs through a historical autopsy. What can the rise and fall of historic civilisations tell us about our own? What are the forces that precipitate or delay a collapse? And do we see similar patterns today?…

civilization larger version available here

Studying the demise of historic civilizations can tell us how much risk we face today.  Worryingly, Luke Kemp, of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, suggests that the signs are worsening: “Are We On the Road to Civilisation Collapse?

* Will Durant

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As we reread “Ozymandias,” we might recall that it was on this date in 425 that the University of Constantinople was founded by Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II at the urging of his wife Aelia Eudocia.  It opened with 31 chair (in  law, philosophy, medicine, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, rhetoric and other subjects– 15 taught in Latin, 16 in Greek, and survived until the 15th century.

university constantinople source

 

Written by LW

February 27, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges”*…

 

hadrian's wall

Hadrian’s Wall, England [source]

Almost anytime we examine the past and seek out the people most like us — those such as Ovid or the Chinese poets; people who built cities, knew how to read, and generally carried out civilian labor — we find them enclosed behind walls of their own making. Civilization and walls seem to have gone hand in hand. Beyond the walls, we find little with which we can identify — warriors mostly, of the sort we might hire to patrol the walls. The outsiders are mostly anonymous, except when they become notorious.

The birth of walls set human societies on divergent paths, one leading to self-indulgent poetry, the other to taciturn militarism. But the first path also pointed to much more — science, mathematics, theater, art — while the other brought its followers only to a dead end, where a man was nothing except a warrior and all labor devolved upon the women.

No invention in human history played a greater role in creating and shaping civilization than walls. Without walls, there could never have been an Ovid, and the same can be said for Chinese scholars, Babylonian mathematicians, or Greek philosophers. Moreover, the impact of walls wasn’t limited to the early phases of civilization. Wall building persisted for most of history, climaxing spectacularly during a 1,000-year period when three large empires — Rome, China, and Sasanid Persia — erected barriers that made the geopolitical divisions of the Old World all but permanent.

The collapse of those walls influenced world history almost as profoundly as their creation, by leading to the eclipse of one region, the stagnation of another, and the rise of a third. When the great border walls were gone, leaving only faint traces on the landscape, they left indelible lines on our maps — lines that have even today not yet been obscured by modern wars or the jockeying of nations for resources. Today, a newer set of walls, rising up on four continents, has the potential to remake the world yet again…

From an excerpt of David Frye’s Walls: a History of Civilization in Blood and Bricks. More at “The History of Civilization Is a History of Border Walls.”

Pair with Greg Grandin‘s bracing essay on America’s borders, and with “Walls are the foundation of civilization. But do they work?

* Joseph Fort Newton

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As we brood over borders, we might recall that it was on this date in 1639, according to the diary of John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Colony, that the first UFO sighting in modern history occurred.

Winthrop wrote that… James Everell, “a sober, discreet man,” and two others had been rowing a boat in the Muddy River, which flowed through swampland and emptied into a tidal basin in the Charles River, when they saw a great light in the night sky. “When it stood still, it flamed up, and was about three yards square,” the governor reported, “when it ran, it was contracted into the figure of a swine.”

Over the course of two to three hours, the boatmen said that the mysterious light “ran as swift as an arrow” darting back and forth between them and the village of Charlestown, a distance of approximately two miles. “Diverse other credible persons saw the same light, after, about the same place,” Winthrop added…

The governor wrote that when the strange apparition finally faded away, the three Puritans in the boat were stunned to find themselves one mile upstream—as if the light had transported them there. The men had no memory of their rowing against the tide, although it’s possible they could have been carried by the wind or a reverse tidal flow….

An odd sight returned to the skies of Boston five years later, according to another entry in Winthrop’s diary dated January 18, 1644 [the same date, five years later]. “About midnight, three men, coming in a boat to Boston, saw two lights arise out of the water near the north point of the town cove, in form like a man, and went at a small distance to the town, and so to the south point, and there vanished away.”

screen shot 2019-01-12 at 11.10.07 am source

 

 

Written by LW

January 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“‘Now I understand,’ said the last man”*…

 

G.Dyson_

All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

The digital revolution began when stored-program computers broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Numbers that do things now rule the world. But who rules over the machines?

Once it was simple: programmers wrote the instructions that were supplied to the machines. Since the machines were controlled by these instructions, those who wrote the instructions controlled the machines.

Two things then happened. As computers proliferated, the humans providing instructions could no longer keep up with the insatiable appetite of the machines. Codes became self-replicating, and machines began supplying instructions to other machines. Vast fortunes were made by those who had a hand in this. A small number of people and companies who helped spawn self-replicating codes became some of the richest and most powerful individuals and organizations in the world.

Then something changed. There is now more code than ever, but it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who has their hands on the wheel. Individual agency is on the wane. Most of us, most of the time, are following instructions delivered to us by computers rather than the other way around. The digital revolution has come full circle and the next revolution, an analog revolution, has begun. None dare speak its name.

Childhood’s End was Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece, published in 1953, chronicling the arrival of benevolent Overlords who bring many of the same conveniences now delivered by the Keepers of the Internet to Earth. It does not end well…

George Dyson explains that nations, alliances of nations, and national institutions are in decline, while a state perhaps best described as “Oligarchia” is on the ascent: the Edge New Year’s Essay, “Childhood’s End.”

(For Nick Bilton’s thoughts on the piece, see here; and for a different perspective on the same dynamics, see, e.g., Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable.)

* Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

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As we ponder the possibilities of posterity, we might spare a thought for Serbian-American electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla; he died on this date in 1943.  Tesla is probably best remembered for his rivalry with Thomas Edison:  Tesla invented and patented the first AC motor and generator (c.f.: Niagara Falls); Edison promoted DC power… and went to great lengths to discredit Tesla and his approach.  In the end, of course, Tesla was right.

Tesla patented over 300 inventions worldwide, though he kept many of his creations out of the patent system to protect their confidentiality.  His work ranged widely, from technology critical to the development of radio to the first remote control.  At the turn of the century, Tesla designed and began planning a “worldwide wireless communications system” that was backed by J.P. Morgan…  until Morgan lost confidence and pulled out.  “Cyberspace,” as described by the likes of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, is largely prefigured in Tesla’s plan.  On Tesla’s 75th birthday in 1931, Time put him on its cover, captioned “All the world’s his power house.”  He received congratulatory letters from Albert Einstein and more than 70 other pioneers in science and engineering.  But Tesla’s talent ran far, far ahead of his luck.  He died penniless n Room 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel.

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Written by LW

January 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

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

 

Art work by Banksy (title unknown). Source: Flickr

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications…

An important essay from David Graeber and David Wengrow: “How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened).”

* Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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As we rethink our roots, we might spare a thought for W. Lloyd Warner; he died on this date in 1970.  A sociologist and anthropologist, he is remembered for his studies of social class structure, in which he was a pioneer in applying anthropology research methods to the study of contemporary urban social communities.  Probably best-remebered for his (5 volume) study Yankee City, he was the first sociologist to use a six-fold classification scheme in attributing social class: Warner recognized three distinct groups – upper, middle and lower classes – each sub-divided into upper and lower sections… a rubric still very much in use.

An empiricist in a time when the social disciplines were increasingly theoretical, fascinated with economic and social inequality in a time when Americans were eager to deny its significance, and implicitly skeptical of the possibilities of legislating social change at a time when many social scientists were eager to be policymakers, Warner’s work was unfashionable in its time.  His interest in communities — when the social science mainstream was stressing the importance of urbanization — and religion — when the fields’ leaders were aggressively secularist — also helped to marginalize him.  But recently, more positive assessments of his work have emerged (e.g., Grant McCracken‘s, here).

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“Food is culture, habit, craving, and identity”*…

 

Brian Fagan is an archaeologist, a profession that we associate with dust and soil and stone, but here he attempts to capture the history of fishing in ancient civilization. It is not just fish that elude the historian: fisherfolk have always lived on the margins — of land and in recorded history (and still do). ‘To a scholar,’ writes Fagan, ‘the illiterate fishing people of the past are elusive, and their trade is a challenging puzzle of clues.’ So assembling a history of fishing means, well, fishing among archaeology, anthropology, history, marine biology and oceanography and paleoclimatology — ‘to mention only a few’.

Fagan has to fish deeply sometimes and into unexpected places. He investigates the ears of several-thousand-year-old men buried in what is now Israel, which show damage consistent with diving in cold, deep water. He uncovers the giant middens of mollusc shells that appear all over the planet, because though molluscs yield a tiny amount of protein — they are ‘small meat packages sealed in heavy inedible shells’ — they are easy to catch. ‘To knock a limpet from a rock,’ wrote Darwin, ‘does not require even cunning, that lowest power of the mind.’ Darwin was wrong: the ability to subsist on shellfish allowed humans to live through the lean seasons. It enabled survival.

Fishing, writes Fagan, “has created the modern world”…

The ways in which fishing– more than agriculture and husbandry– were central to the rise of civilization, from social organization to technology: “Holy mackerel! Civilization begins with fishing.”

* Jonathan Safran Foer

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As we spread our nets, we might recall that it was on this date in 1910 that French chemist, engineer, and inventor Georges Claude switched on the first public display of neon lights– two large (39 foot long), bright red neon tubes– at the Paris Motor Show.  Over the next decade, Claude lit much of Paris.  Neon came to America in 1923 when Earl Anthony purchased signage from Claude, then transported it to Los Angeles, where Anthony installed it at his Packard dealership… and (literally) stopped traffic.

Claude in his lab, 1913

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Written by LW

December 3, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs”*…

 

The 11,000-year-old Göbekli Tepe settlement in what is now southern Turkey

The emergence of state authority was a logical consequence of the move to settled agriculture, or so we thought. Until recently, we also assumed that ancient peoples welcomed the advantages of this way of life as well as the growth of state leadership, since it was key to the development of culture, crafts and civil order.

Over the past 50 years, though, more and more cracks have appeared in this picture. We now know settled agriculture existed for several thousand years before the emergence of the city states of the Near East and Asia. In the past few years, archaeologists have been stunned to find 11,000-year-old structures such as those at Göbekli Tepe, in what is now southern Turkey. These were built by peoples who foraged, and who also developed specialised skills, both artistic and artisanal.

This is a surprise, and leaves researchers busily trying to get the story straight – something that really matters for a number of reasons. Traditional definitions of the state and its authority hinged on the right to raise taxes, and on its legal monopoly on coercing its people, from punishing and imprisoning them to waging formal war.

But as James Scott points out, roughly between 8000 BC and 4000 BC we find settled agricultural communities with developing craft skills – yet no evidence of anything much by way of state authority.

This also poses a key question, one which resonates in the 21st century, about whether there is a necessary link between state power and community life.

Scott is a political science researcher at Yale University who has stepped out of his academic comfort zone to grapple with the new archaeological reality. Against the Grain delivers not only a darker story, but also a broad understanding of the forces that shaped the formation of states and why they collapsed – right up to the industrial age…

In the interest of understanding history (lest we repeat it), “The real roots of early city states may rip up the textbooks.”

* Tony Kushner

As we try to learn from the past, we might recall that it was on this date in 1917 that Margaret B. Owen won her fourth speed-typing title with a world-record 143 words per minute.

 source

 

Written by LW

October 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

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