Well, in a long conversation on the fragility of our civilization with commenter Boonton, one point of contention is apparent. Mr Boonton thinks that the “inflection point” in economic, i.e., the rise of technology in the late 19th century means that comparing today’s culture and civilization to those before is a apples/oranges comparison. Now, everything is different. I demur.

What features characterize today’s technological culture:

  • It is highly interconnected.
  • That interconnection is fueled and aided by high speed cheap transportation.
  • Continued technological advancement is essential.
  • Population levels are staggering when compared earlier eras.

Western Rome fell. It was highly connected and had, for its day, cheap transportation with the Roman road system. Yet it fell, and standards of living and population levels dropped precipitously. The statement “standard of living dropped” this cannot be emphasized enough. Roman era was quite wealthy. Technology that existed, for example examining simple wares like fine china was not eclipsed until the 18th or 19th century. Literacy was almost universal in Rome, even the poor and the slaves could read. Charlemagne was illiterate … and a king, the first “Holy Roman Emperor.” Literacy levels of the Roman era were also not eclipsed in the West until … the 18th or 19th century.

Examine the pottery situation for a moment in the Roman era. Pottery shards happen to be a refuse item which survives for archaeologists to find. In Britian, after Rome retreated something quite surprising happened. Pottery vanished. A potters wheel is conceptually quite a simple thing. But it takes a little time to master. It takes just a little infra-structure to maintain. But … the culture that survived in Britain in the post-Roman times had not the wherewithal to do so.

The only holdout and exception then is technology. How fragile then is technology. It is assumed by many that text and our written records, which are in fact robust and repeated and kept in many places, will insure that our technological advancement and prowess is secure. Things however may in fact not be a secure was we imagine. For it is not the written record on which most of our technology rests but instead of on the unwritten and ineffable expertise of those keeping industrial technological machines running and improvements coming. Michael Polanyi notes the example of the German sale to Hungary of a light bulb manufacturing process. The machines were duplicated, the process written down, and training was completed. Two years after the installation was completed … the machine still had yet to produce a single working bulb. Why? Because the people running the machine were not able to transfer the knowledge of how to run the machine elsewhere.

Our industrial processes and indeed our academic scientific culture is ineffable. It is a culture transmitted by master to apprentice. It depends not only on the skills transferred but cultural norms and values which have to be assumed successfully by the student in order for the continued progress of technology, of science, and academic excellence.

Additionally there are hundreds of thousands, if not many milions, of interlocking industrial components which are required for our civilization to continue. Most of these have multiple sources. Many of these (thousands) are essential, the loss of just one, for example high power/voltage step down transformers, would spell disaster. It is likely that many of these thousands of essential cannot-live-without components, of which we are not really aware in our daily lives, depend on just a few experts to continue their production maintenance, and improvement. One pandemic could wipe out a number of experts in many of these components and … it is not implausible that for some few components the expert base might be lost. Then the social unrest of the pandemic would be acerbated with a failure of one or more key infrastructure components keeping things running. Which in turn causes, because of our very high population levels, starvation and deprivation … which causes the loss of more components and bam! Most of us, just like the survivors of the Western Roman region will be back at pre-civilization early iron age levels.

It might not be a pandemic of course. Our worldwide economies are tightly linked. A monetary crises might cause civil unrest. The resultant violence might leave us missing the people needed to replace the lost infra-structure in the wake of just that. Right now there are some who suggest that the academic industry is the next bubble, which might pop under the stress of the current economic woes. This might not leave the scientific culture which in part depends on university cultural elements intact. If advancement of technology ceased … do we depend on continued technological improvement or not? Our culture is dependent on cheap oil. While it is a matter of debate how long cheap oil will persist … it is not really a debate over that it will at some time cease to be cheap. When, is debated. That it will become dear is not. The unrest that might arise on transition from an oil based civilization to a petroleum-is-expensive one, like the other events noted above could be the proverbial straw, breaking the back.

The point is that there are still striking similarities between our culture and the Roman one. It failed … and perhaps a lesson there to be learned is that our time of peace and prosperity is not likely to be as permanent, nor is as robust as we pretend.

Filed under: Mark O.You Cry Out

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