Saturday, March 19, 2011

Will We Endure?

Civilization is

a. Doomed
b. Going to be here for the long haul
c. Going to be here for the long haul, which is totally depressing

This quiz is prompted by a debate I had with our friend Jonathan last night, in which he essentially chose “a,” while I went for “b.” I feel obligated to point out that answer “c” has some supporters, who were not represented in our discussion.

The issue came up via Stuart “Whole Earth Catalog” Brand’s notion of a super-slow clock that would be big enough for people to actually walk around in, and which would provide information relevant to what Brand calls “The Long Now.” It would, for example, give us not just the year, but also the century and millennium as well as other chronologically and astronomically significant data.

Stuart Brand's World-Changing Catalog

The problem, as Jonathan sees it, is that eventually people won’t be able to read or understand Brand's 10,000 Year Clock because the languages and symbols of our civilization will be incomprehensible to future generations, just as cuneiforms were incomprehensible to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Here is why Jonathan is so very wrong:

We now have

1. widespread literacy,

2. replicated texts, both electronic and in duplicable hard copies, and

3. an international political/economic system that has apparently eliminated the kinds of catastrophic wars that in the past routinely toppled civilizations (e.g., Sumeria, Rome, Ming China). It is, after all, wars like these that resulted in the trashing of the information of the deposed civilizations making them largely lost to future generations. (I did not get to make all of these points last night, but they are still very, very valid.)

To my arguments, Jonathan replied, “Bob, you bumptious popinjay! Darla, how could you have married such a bloody optimist?!*

Jonathan is wrong to think the information available to us will vanish in a millennium or two, because, in my opinion, the Internet, in some form or another, is here to stay. I don’t believe it’s going the way of cuneiforms or the Library of Alexandria. There are, after all, multiple nations and organizations, both friends and rivals, now cooperating to keep it going, and I don’t see them just giving it up or being forced to abandon it by some greater entity.

Furthermore, you can read this. What I mean to say is that widespread literacy is the norm today, even in countries whose literacy rate was about 10% as recently as 100 years ago. I would guess that cuneiforms, when they were the basis of literacy, were accessible to fewer than one out of ten Sumerians. Limited literacy like that makes the texts much more vulnerable to eternal obscurity than literacy rates of 90 or 95%, which are now common.

Finally, War: The hippies won! We have peace in our time! (Sort of.)

As I write this, President Obama has announced possible military action in Libya, so maybe some clarification is called for. What I mean is, really catastrophic wars have become things of the past. The horrific, civilization-toppling wars of the last five millennia typically pitted the most powerful nations of the day against each other: UK, USSR, France, China and the US against Germany and Japan…and, I guess, Italy. Or, going further back, Arabs against Persians, Chinese against Mongols, etc.

But for the past 40 years, major powers have not gone to war directly against each other. This is no doubt partly due to the dangers of nuclear war, but probably more due to the elites of the great powers recognizing that their elite status is tied up in the international economy -- which would be demolished were, say, China and the US to go to war.

There are still some dangerous situations, as between India and Pakistan, but the tensions, even there, seem to be on the decline. The wars we’ve seen have been mainly either great powers vs. smaller ones (US vs. Vietnam, Iraq or the Taliban) or civil wars (Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone).

Given the ever decreasing likelihood of catastrophic, great-power wars, our precious body of knowledge will, I believe, endure. Generations to come will be able to enjoy the music of Mozart, the plays of David Mamet, tapings of the Jerry Springer Show, tales of the Kardashians, and so on.

Of course, in the really long run -- when the earth becomes a lifeless rock hurtling silently through empty space -- then Jonathan may have a point.

Here for the Duration


*These may not have been Jonathan’s exact words, but he has been known to use this phraseology on other occasions. Anyway, it captures his scornful tone.


  1. Whether civilization is here for the long haul or doomed, an optimistic attitude like this surely does more good than harm. The Pandich family supports your support!

  2. Bob, as you know, I am less optimistic. For more detail take a look here