To be civilized

What does it mean to be civilized? And why is it important?

One would think that people generally understand the idea of civilized behavior. However the day-to-day interaction with people in general shows that this is not the case. At least, if they understand it, they do not follow it. Perhaps the lack of civility is something that has developed in recent times. Perhaps it has always been that way.

People

I have probably talked about it several times, but I will probably talk about it over and over again, because I think it is important. So, let me explain what it is and why I think it is important.

The notion of civilized behavior is something that emerged in the early evolution of cultures. It was (and still is) a requirement for people to live together. People need to get along with one another in such circumstances. The idea is that if everybody accommodates each other then each person will experience a positive environment. On the other hand, if you treat everybody around you like an enemy, then you end up having lots of enemies. People with lots of enemies tend to have very difficult lives.

The idea of civilized behavior has far-reaching consequences. When people work together, they achieve much more then what an individual can achieve. Therefore, when we see the great works of people from the past then we see the evidence of civilized behavior. In fact, these achievements are so closely associated with civilized behavior that it is often recognized as civilization itself. In a TV series called “Civilisation” Kenneth Clark said that while it may be difficult to define civilization, it can easily be recognized in the artifacts left behind by a culture. While the collection of artifacts of a civilized society gives evidence of the level of civilization of their culture, it does not in my view represent civilization itself. Fundamentally, civilization is the way people behave toward one another within the culture.

Why is it important? It is one thing to say that civilized behavior can lead to cooperation among people and therefore lead to great works of art. But how cares about great works of art? It that what it is about? No. That is only an indication of civilization, a symptom. Of more importance are those things that are not primarily done for the sake of fame and glory. One such mundane product of cooperation among people is the establishment of infrastructure. In ancient cities, one can find evidence of water distribution systems, markets, schools, etc. all of which required some form of cooperation. These cultures also need to develop some form government and legal systems, together with all the other cultural structures necessary for the organizational aspects of a large number of people living together.

Well, today these cultural structures are all in place in all the nations of the world. If these structures are evidence of civilization, then clearly there is nothing to be worried about. Why should we then be concerned about the civilized behavior of people? The problem lies with the complacency. It seems to be taken for granted. While most countries seem to be able to maintain their level of civilization to an adequate level so that basic infrastructure can be maintained, there are countries where the level of civilization has deteriorated to such an extent that the infrastructure is starting to deteriorate. Many of these cases are so-called “developing” countries. However, even in developed countries signs of the deterioration of the level of civilization is starting to emerge. These signs include the rising level of crime and violence among the citizens of such countries. These manifestations of uncivilized behavior can be traced back to the fundamental notions of how people should behave toward one another. If left unaddressed, this rising uncivilized behavior will eventually lead to the fall the civilization.

Calling all cultural anthropologists

Once I’ve pick up a book at one of these book sales that book stores sometimes have. The topic did not fall in my immediate field of interest, but for the sake of “broadening my horizons” I decided to buy the book. The idea that something one reads in a book can change one’s life is perhaps rather far fetched, but this book came close. It definitely changed the way I look at the world and people.

The book I picked (mine is the 6th edition)

The book is about cultural anthropology, a topic which, until I’ve pick up that book, I did not know exists. It is not a topic that one hears about much. There are no big breakthroughs in cultural anthropology that appear in the news headlines. I don’t ever hear about excited young students that want to study cultural anthropology, but often hear about them wanting to study medicine or engineering. And yet, when I look at the world and what is going on, I realize that cultural anthropology is what we desperately need.

A cultural anthropologist studies cultures and tries to understand how they evolve. Cultures are complex emergent phenomena; a product of the highly evolved human mind and psyche. It is culture that makes humans different from animals. Our cultures protect us in hostile changing environments. People often think it is our technology that does that, but technology is just part of our cultures. Without culture, we won’t have technology.

Humanity has become progressively more complex and interconnected. It is one thing to have a culture when it evolves in isolation with occasional contact with other cultures. However, through colonization and modern technology, cultures at very different levels of development have been brought in close contact. The consequences are often devastating. Modern communication technology, which drives social media, also has severe unintended consequences. While each culture tends to develop its own unique morality, the intense interaction among different cultures causes morality to become diluted. One would think that this interaction would give rise to a unified morality for the world, but instead what we see is a general loss of moral behavior. It is as if the realization of the relativity in morality instills a disrespect of the very concept of right and wrong. This is not a good situation.

The problem is that we do not understand these effects. We do not have the knowledge to predict the consequences or, if possible, come up with solutions; the necessary actions that need to be taken. Governments take action to compensate for situations that occur in their countries, but when it comes to these cultural effects, they act in apparent complete ignorance of the consequences of their actions. There are countries with populations consisting of people with different cultures at vastly different levels of development. The governments of these countries are trying to manage this situation with complete ignorance of how to handle the situation, often with devastating consequences.

Clearly there is a desperate need for better knowledge about how cultures evolve and how they interact; the cultural dynamics. What is the effect of mixing people with vastly different cultural development levels? This is the topic of cultural anthropology. We need more cultural anthropologists.

The collective

Let’s for the moment imagine that humanity can avoid a fall of civilization. Then one may ponder where humanity is heading to. There are some very strong hints.

Despite laws that prohibit the use of a cell phone while driving a car, I often see people busy typing on their cell phones while they are supposed to be focussing on the road. I’ve also often seen couples or groups of people sitting at tables in restaurants typing on cell phones instead of talking to each other. Why do people behave this way? And what does it have to do with where humanity is heading?

It reveals a very strong urge lying within the human psyche. Humans like to interact with other humans. Social media provide them with this capability on a scale that far exceeds the usual level of interaction. They become so attached to this new thing that they cannot stop interacting via social media to do mundane tasks such as driving cars. They would also rather interact via social media with a large number of “friends” than face-to-face with a few individuals.

Many years ago there was a TV series called Star Trek. One of the antagonists introduced in this series was the Borg. It consisted of a hive of mentally interconnect individuals – a group mind. It was know as the Collective. Its mode of operation was to attack civilizations and then absorb the individuals from those civilizations into itself. It would say “resistance is futile, you shall be assimilated.”

The Brog from Star Trek

So, when I see how attached people become to social media, I get the feeling humanity is becoming a collective. We are turning into the Borg. There is no fighting it. Unless this process is halted by a fall of civilization, humanity will eventually be a single being consisting of mentally interconnected individuals.

Perhaps such a state of existence is not a bad thing. I can think of a few benefits. Most people are generally more happy when they have constant interaction with other people. There are exceptions of course (like me). But there always need to be those that keep the systems running.

Speaking of which, those that develop technology should keep in mind this tendency toward the development of a collective. For one thing, it would help if the need to be connected to the collective does not interfere with mundane tasks. It would be better if cars can drive themselves. However, there are other tasks that cannot be delegated. For that purpose, cell phones need to be replaced by wearable devices. The screen can become a heads-up display in goggles that can be integrated into glasses if necessary. The keyboard needs to become integrated into gloves that sense finger motion. Or the keyboard can be dispensed with if voice-to-text technology matures. Then the microphone needs to be replaced by a ultra-sonic sensor that images the mouth cavity to determine what is being said. This way, people would not need to talk out load. With such technology, you can stay connected to the collective while doing your shopping.

At the end of the cold war, one would have expected that humanity would have pulled out all stops to develop space travel and colonize the moon and the other planets. Instead, technology shifted to the development of communication in the form of cell phones and the internet. That brought us to where we are today. The one recent exception to this trend was Elon Musk who developed space travel into a commercial enterprise. But now he is buying Twitter. Go figure!

A spaceship called Imminency III

So, our technology today causes ideas to be spread too fast to be properly tested. Is that really so bad? Perhaps the spreading of false information causes people to make bad decisions, such as whether or not one should get vaccinated during a pandemic or which president to vote for. But does that really threaten the survival of humanity? We seemed to be getting through this pandemic and although a large number of people died, it is still a tiny fraction of the total human population. Even bad presidents are eventually voted out of office. Although the next president has a lot of things that needs fixing, humanity still goes on.

So, what is really the issue with us losing the cultural mechanism? Granted. It may not be that humanity as a whole would become extinct as a result of the loss of the cultural mechanism, but there are some very seriously unpleasant states of existence before we get to extinction.

Perhaps the most important thing that is being maintained by the cultural mechanism is civilization. What do I mean by the term civilization? Basically, it is ability to live and work together with other people. Often civilization is seen as all the accomplishments such as art works of scientific achievements. However, these accomplishment are merely the symptoms of civilization. These accomplishments would not have been possible if people did not cooperate to achieve them. A single person could not have built the rocket with the capsule to land on the moon. The bigger the achievement, the larger the number of people that needed to be involved. It implies that all these people had to work together. That is only possible thanks to their level of civilization.

People are different. They have different views and convictions. If these people want to work together, they have to tolerate one another’s views, even if those views are very different. In a culture, the views and ideas may to a large extent be correlated. However, as the population of a culture increases the diversity in ideas will also increase. Therefore, the people in that culture can only maintain their cooperation if their level of civilization – the extent to which they can tolerate different views – also increases.

Warlords

So, what happens when people do not tolerate different views anymore? Does it not simply mean that they cannot work together to achieve those accomplishments anymore? Yes, that is one inevitable consequence, but there are several much more severe things that can happen. The break down of civilization effectively implies a fragmentation of the culture into several lesser subcultures. It may sound like a scenario for civil war, but there are many other ways that the fragmentation can manifest. The fragmentation may happen along class separation lines. The lower classes would them reorganize themselves into gangs, living by stealing their resources. If the government of the day can muster enough cooperation to keep these gangs in check, some form of normality can be maintain. On the other hand, if the fragmentation implies that such cooperation cannot be maintained, the gangs would become ever more powerful. The gang leaders would eventually emerge as warlords. The point where these warlords become more powerful than the government would indicate the stage where the civilization has effectively fallen.

OK so that is bad. When civilizations fall, life as we know it changes drastically. It would generally mean that life expectancy decreases. The human population would dwindle. Although it does not necessarily imply that humanity becomes extinct, it is a close second.

But why would the fast spreading of information lead to such an apocalyptic state of affairs? The reason is that there is a concomitant breakdown in cooperation. Why this is happening, I don’t know, but there is a clear increase in animosity observable in social media. Somehow, the fast spreading of information puts pressure on basic civilization. In some parts of the world there is also an observable increase in criminal activity. These observations are all pointing to an imminent fall of civilization.

That is why the spaceship is called Imminency.

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A spaceship called Imminency II

Granted. One day, if humanity needs to take a spaceship to another planet to survive, the knowledge of how that spaceship needs to be maintained would be a technology that humanity depends on for its survival. But what about today? Although there are a large variety of existing technologies, none of it involves the survival of humanity as a whole, right? That depends on how you define technology.

Technology

What is technology? It is the knowledge of how to use the resources at our disposal to make devices that serve specific purposes. Well, it does not have to involved physical devices. Technology can also be represented by methodology – techniques of how to do things. Often the use of specific tools requires some sophisticated knowledge.

If we see it broadly enough, almost all the knowledge that we have can to some extent be seen as some form of technology. Perhaps it would be a stretch to think of the waltz as a form of technology, but that may be the exception.

So what technology, seen in this broader sense, is vital for the survival of humanity today? Well, in this broad sense, the technology of acquiring and maintaining knowledge is in itself also a technology. In fact, the mechanism for the way humanity learns and uses knowledge can be seen as a technology. When viewed in this way, it is clear that such a technology would be something that humanity needs for its survival.

This technology has a name. It is called culture. One may think of culture as things like theater, cuisine, fashion, etc., but culture is much more than that. These things are high culture, which is just a tiny part of culture. One may think that culture is a fixed rigid thing, but that is not the case. It evolves and changes as time goes by. One may think of culture as just a collection of traditions and activities, but in fact, it is a mechanism.

Culture is the most important mechanism by which humanity maintains its survival in an ever changing world. If we lose it, we are in a serious situation. I’m not taking about “losing our cultures,” instead I’m referring to losing the mechanism of culture.

Culture is a feedback system that filters new ideas and maintains the best among them. For this to work, it is important that new ideas are tested before they are propagated through the population. This mechanism is under threat today. The rate at which ideas are propagated far outpaces the rate at which these ideas are tried and tested. The result is that false information is spread far and wide. People are responding to it with detrimental consequences. This process erodes the very mechanism of culture and thus threatens the survival of humanity.

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