Thursday, October 31, 2013

Monuments of our Age: Foundations of Civilization in the Digital World

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By Greg Bayles, graphic remixed from Mary Harrsch
Last week, I posted a bunch of my curation findings as to digital civilizations specifically. This week, however, I've been working to flesh out my research in terms of the requirements for civilization to exist, and I've had some pretty good success through both social and more traditional modes of inquiry. On Monday, I posted to my Facebook and Google+ profiles asking for people's insights as to the foundational elements of civilization. Google+ didn't yield a ton--just a post from my sister--but I was able to start up a rather healthy conversation on Facebook and got a lot of insights from friends, especially those studying political science, history, and anthropology.

You can check out the conversation below if you prefer to just read through the responses (I personally like the one about chocolate-covered almonds), but to sum up the arguments, my friends gravitated toward five or six main points:
1. Social surplus (extra resources)
2. Unified sense of culture
3. Code of law
4. Cohesive economic system
5. Territory (according to the UN)
6. A population (a more obvious but nonetheless essential component)
As to police/military forces and judiciary bodies, there was some disagreement, but as a general rule, they were viewed as "outgrowths of civilization" that become more or less necessary as civilizations become more complex. As a whole, I was really impressed with a lot of the answers, and I think this shows how sometimes crowdsourcing can prove just as useful as formal research. I did some research of my own, though, and I used Diigo to curate the various resources alongside the information which I've been  getting through Google Alerts. A number of sites suggested using the world "recipe" to understand the different aspects of a civilization's makeup: religious, economic, cultural, intellectual, political, environmental, and social. The International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC) offered a number of interesting definitions as well:
"[A] grouping of at least several thousand people with a common culture, usually a common language, usually a geographic locale, some significant (usually monumental) buildings and architecture, and a political structure that is not necessarily unified” (Blaha 2002).
"Civilization is fundamentally a cultural infrastructure of information and knowledge that serves survival and continuity. What distinguishes a civilization from a culture is that this infrastructure, having reached a critical level of complexity, becomes autonomous from constituent cities, nations, and empires" (Bosworth 2003).
"A ‘civilization’ is mental. It is cultural—a vastly complex and always developing series of human thoughts and feelings, but not of actions, except those very limited actions required to form and express thoughts and feelings" (Coulborn 1966).
“The fact is that a civilization of any but the most simple and archaic kind is a far more complex phenomenon than the philosophers of history have realized. No doubt it is always based on a particular original process of cultural creativity which is the work of a particular people. But at the same time it always tends to become a super-culture—an extended area of social communication which dominates and absorbs other less advanced or less powerful cultures and unites them in an oecumene,” an international and intercultural society, and it is this extension of the area of communication that is the essential characteristic of civilization as distinguished from lower forms of culture" (Dawson 1956).
"A civilization has a city or cities with monuments of certain permanence" (Fernandez-Morera).
"It is defined by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people" (Huntington 1993)
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By Greg Bayles, graphic remixed from langwitches
Now, admittedly, I extracted primarily those quotes with which my specific topic of digital civilizations deals, but it is striking that a great many of the definitions focus on cultural and mental unity rather than on geographical closeness or physical infrastructure. Even in those cases where theorists assert the necessity of physical territory or of cities with monuments, as did Fernandez-Morera, one could assert that the Internet
has its own 'monuments' like Wikipedia or Facebook, which more or less lend permanence to the inchoate digital 'civilization.' There is some issue (and perhaps ground for refutation of this claim) with the non-physicality of such monuments, as links can break and websites can disappear indefinitely, but time, perhaps, will have to be the judge on whether these abide as mementos of our current or future civilizations.

I fear that by this point I've likely lost most of my readers in abstraction or rambling, but I wanted to close with the thoughts of one final political theorist, William McGaughey, who provides an especially insightful look at civilizations in terms of communication and institutions of power:
Name  of CivilizationCommunication TechnologyInstitution of Power
Civilization Iideographic writingimperial government
Civilization IIalphabetic writingworld religion
Civilization IIIprintingcommerce and education
Civilization IVelectronic recording and broadcastingmedia of news and entertainment
Civilization Vcomputersthe Internet
 If, as McGaughey suggests, the Internet is the primary institution of power in our global civilization, then those most capable of bringing about positive and lasting change in the real world will be those possessing mobility, aptitude, and influence within the digital world. Think on that...