Society, Civilization and Technology

B.W. Wojciechowski

Society: an organization that offers an identity and services to its members.

Civilization: a group of societies which has reached a high level of common achievement in culture and knowledge.

Technology: scientific discoveries made available for our use.

We live in dangerous tumultuous times. Though much has changed in the structures of human aggregations, much outdated detritus is still with us. Just as everything in nature changes, social structures change with time as our capabilities increase and societies change under the influence of technological achievements and evolving ideologies. Some of the changes are gradual and some traumatic. Traumatic changes take place in all events in nature; long range gradualism is more myth than a reality. Many, many human societies and civilizations have come and gone over the last few millennia. Where are we heading?

Concepts held dear by both a variety of current societies and the remnants of antique civilizations are still with us. These two types of social structure, societies and civilizations, are connected but distinct. A civilization involves a common appreciation of culture, laws, and technology. It can encompass numerous societies differing in languages, customs and religion. A civilization is a unifying ethos involving an association of peoples who wish to enjoy its advantages and styles. To illustrate the point: the USA is a society; the West and societies under its influence constitute a civilization.

Numerous interesting and bizarre societies have existed in the recent history of the world, and many are still around. They are more idiosyncratic and confined in their influence than a civilization. Some organize their subjects in a participatory way and claim to be democracies; others are governed by a self-selected body or an individual dictator. But all societies share a common feature: they contain a population of adherents whose mobility is largely confined to travels within the domain of their society and whose customs and traditions are deep rooted in narrowly localized lore.

As a result of the isolation of societies in the past, to this day there are many kinds of societies displaying a wide range of inherited characteristics. For example, modern liberal democratic societies allow and even encourage external travel and communication at the whim of their citizens. More regimented societies restrict travel and communication beyond the domains under government control. The level of restriction and the enforcement varies from place to place. Some resort to using thoroughly impermeable borders backed up by the threat of imprisonment or capital punishment. Others simply sow fear of foreign travel or impede travel by traditional requirements or by regulations. Other more-antique societies are still ruled by hereditary monarchs or dominated by a religion. Civilizations are more likely to bloom when the constituent societies have a liberal view of their citizens’ freedoms, but idiosyncratic societies have trouble adjusting to a dominant civilization. And so the world is still populated by both civilized societies and laggards.

Societies come in many shades of gray and each seeks its own society-specific goals. Some are structured to concentrate power in the ruling elites; others are dedicated to defense against foreign enemies or the protection from unwanted cultural influences and so on. Some are relatively self-sufficient and prefer closed borders. Others rely on trade, and prefer more open borders. Many of these objectives have validity based on geopolitical or ideological reasons. Dictators usually pursue these causes beyond the realms of validity, and distort them so as to concentrate ever more power in their own hands. Think of present-day North Korea. On the other hand, free societies based on more democratic ideas do not practice isolationism, although they may try to minimize the importation of foreign influences by promoting local cultures, language and systems of law. National chauvinism is a useful tool in protecting a society’s identity and reducing foreign influence, but one can readily think of examples where it has become a detriment.

The choice of lifestyle within any society varies greatly and is very subjective. In free societies the divergence of opinions leads to disputes played out in the political arena. This mechanism of reconciling views of the citizens works fine as long as the disputes do not become insoluble or unacceptable in the view of some. At that point, the dissidents have several options: stay put and suffer whatever bothers them; or leave the society and move elsewhere; or turn to violence and foment a revolution. All the above have been employed in the past in most societies, whether free or not so free. The choice of action applied depends on history and tradition, how widespread is the discontent, how easy it is to move to a preferred society, and how serious is the dispute. In closed societies, disputes are quickly stamped out by legal and illegal means before they come to a boil. But when discontent boils over in any society, violence is often the only answer.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that violence is often the only way to change things once a society is well entrenched and dissidents gain sufficient strength. Unfortunately violence can also result if a faction guided by hostile influence and money leads to violent action and civil disobedience in a liberal society. In such cases the established government, even in “liberal” societies, has a right to employ violence to suppress the threat to peace and tranquility. How to tell the difference between just demands and subversion is not simple. Either way, the result can be a revolution.

Revolutions are normally destructive and bloody, and stability may not be reached for generations. That said, it is common that the eventual result of a revolt is progress away from the strictures of the previous structure. The French revolution was bloody, but eventually showed real progress and shed imperial structures which were a major cause of the revolt. The Russian revolution took decades to kill off dissidents and subjugate the population in “liberating” them from the despotic reign of the Czar. But to this day the Russian populace is subjugated under a regime that is only slightly less dictatorial. The promised liberation has yet to take place.

What is a civilization in contrast to a society? A civilization is broader than a society; it can embrace multiple societies. Of recent, dreamers have mentioned the “one world” slogan; that could be anything from a utopian civilization to a dystopian society. To call an influential social structure a civilization, we need more than monolithic government. We need a defining style, intellectual accomplishment, cultural diversity, technological advances, a secure and comfortable life style, pride in the community, rule of law with real justice for all, freedom of the individual and more. We do not have a civilized society if all its activities are tightly controlled rather than being spontaneous and welcoming to innovation. Civilized activities are optimized when the interests of the people are best served by the government, rather than regulated to a fare-thee-well. If the government is the sole initiator of change and innovation, many talents and ideas are lost for lack of opportunity. Civilization does not emerge from societies that are stultified. A style can emerge, but not a civilization.

To put it in a nutshell: civilization requires choice.

As a negative example of this dictum, take a look at communism. Certainly a dominant architectural style was developed under communist rule. A life style was established, but severely constrained. Certain aspects of science were successfully fostered under the direction of central authority. Information from other societies was restricted, as was international travel. Communism organized a society but failed to generate a civilization. The range of choices was too limited.

In contrast, look at the democracies of the West. A variety of styles in architecture has flourished. The arts have proliferated in all their forms. Technology filled niches which were not on the agenda of central authorities. Travel and trade flourished at the behest of individual demands. Living standards rose, as did the variety of life styles and entertainment. Yet in all this turmoil, there is an identifiable thread of behaviors, facilities and tastes that can be identified. Whatever one might think of the result, the West created a civilization.

But there is a fly in the ointment. All civilizations flourish, reach a pinnacle, and decay. Is this what faces the West? If so, when?

The reason for the eventual collapse of civilizations is that they become ossified. Civilizations become stale because at their peak they have achieved all that their founding principles can achieve, or are destroyed by being overrun by invaders or immigrants who will not assimilate. Either outcome can debase the civilization and cause it to fail. This happened to Rome, and Islamic migration is now a threat to Western civilization.

Even if all the founding principles have not yet been achieved, progress may be hindered by forces which are comfortable with things as they are. These forces are usually the ruling establishment of a threatened civilization; they will resist significant change with all their power. And it is not just the establishment figures who benefit disproportionately from the existing system that will oppose change. Much of the influential “intelligencia” of a civilization is invested in its functions and will also resist peaceful change, employing the finest sophistry it can muster. And when all else fails, both groups may be driven to violence. Today it is the establishment and the media in the USA that are resisting change, not the “little people.” It is the masses, the hoi polloi from the small towns and cities and flyover regions that are in turmoil. How long can Western civilization survive this conflict and continue to dominate?

For an example of a long-enduring civilization, look at ancient Egypt. Despite being despotic, it was long-lived because it survived periodic traumatic changes. It flourished under the influence of numerous centers of power — the state, the religion, and regional enemies — and the periodic restlessness of its population. Egyptian civilization stumbled and was renewed many times, renewals that gave it lasting power over three thousand years because the core values endured with the hoi polloi. Even the Greek usurpers who ruled Egypt for a protracted time succumbed to its ancient culture. Yet the Egyptian civilization finally failed beyond recovery when its stumbles became great enough to allow a more inclusive civilization, Rome, to erode its foundations.

China is another example of a civilization that thrived under a variety of rulers and was greatly influenced by their neighbors, particularly the Mongols. Chinese civilization survived because no one managed to present it with a more compelling alternative. The Mongols conquered China but became assimilated, rather than introducing a new civilization. Mongols raided, fought, brutalized and subjugated societies and civilizations to no end other than conquest and looting. Despite their conquest of China and several advanced middle-eastern societies, they did not develop a civilization and, like numerous conquerors of Egypt, succumbed to their captives’ civilizations instead.

Rome too conquered and looted. But they adopted the best of earlier Greek accomplishments, evolved them further, and generated new directions in technology, literature, and law. They adopted worthy aspects of foreign societies and Romanized them to suit Roman views. Colonized societies became largely assimilated. After an initial period of republicanism, Rome degenerated to a despotic society, but the momentum of its civilization was such that it took several centuries for Roman civilization to collapse. Still, Rome left the legacy of a solid foundation; their civilization underwent a hiatus, one might say. Many of its finer aspects survived for centuries, and its civilization underwent a renaissance after a period of dark ages.

Today Roman civilization is the foundation of the modern Western democracies. Roman culture, law, literature and engineering skills have inspired the West and underpin the renascent Roman civilization. The only other living civilization that has had such a renaissance is the Chinese. Both those civilizations have had their collapses and rebirths; both share certain features, while at the same time being clearly distinct.

It would be wrong not to mention India and its ancient though less well known civilization. Indian civilization once influenced much of the Far East including China. At present it seems to be dormant, and there is little chance it will greatly influence the course of coming events and future civilizations.

What civilizations share is that, at their pinnacle, each has a built-in sense of tradition which underpins its cohesion. The heritage is different in each case but in each case the roots are deep, both in mythology and in pride of achievement. They are more or less confined to their ancestral regions of dominance and their remnants may still border on regions controlled by ancestral foes. Those that survive the longest are those that manage to please the masses and assimilate both their invaders and their immigrants.

The other great and still-perking civilization is the Muslim world. This one is a relative newcomer to the list but presents a host of impressive accomplishments over its thirteen hundred years. At its peak its empire was more widespread than that of Rome. Today the Muslims, although widespread, have little to contribute to the modern world. They are no longer great traders, builders, scholars and innovators. Today their heartland in the Middle East subsists on their reserves of oil, an accident of nature conferring no merit on the remnants of a once-great empire. Whether Islam will have a renaissance like that of Rome and China, or continue to shrink into obscurity like Egypt, time will tell. To its detriment, Islam is not pragmatic like the others. Islam, the religion of submission, has simply not renewed its principles enough to succeed in an individualistic and freedom-seeking world. Instead, it is increasingly dominated by regressive radical elements.

China meanwhile is recovering from a relatively recent period of slumber, somewhat like Rome after the more-protracted dark ages. What the result will be is not clear. China has not shed its haughty imperial ambitions and, alone among modern societies, is expanding its empire by both peaceful and coercive means. In today’s world, this threatens the internal and external stability of many nations, and impedes any world-wide civilizing success it may be planning. China needs to learn to exercise “soft power” if it is to build an influential modern civilization.

On the other hand, the renewed civilization of Rome, in the guise of the West, seems to have once again reached its peak and is showing signs of decay. A second collapse is not impossible. But this time the West is not alone in its malaise. Despite the presence of China and the survival of remnants of other societies and cultures, the West has influenced the whole world in an unprecedentedly intrusive manner. It may not have created a “one world” civilization, but it has come closer than any preceding civilization.

The current Western civilization has spread its influence far and wide due to rapid communications made possible by the West’s invention of electricity and electronic devices, and because of mass travel made possible by modern transportation fueled by the abundant energy that western technology made available. You can go to the remotest part of the globe and find that many people living in underdeveloped circumstances have cell phones and even internet access, and many will have travelled beyond their place of birth. The world is more integrated than ever before and as a result the attractive (and some of the less-attractive) aspects of Western civilization have been adopted world-wide. All societies including China have eagerly adopted technologies and cultural styles developed by the West, and all are being influenced by the ideologies spawned in the West.

This does not always have a positive effect on societies, especially on Islamic societies which do not descend from Rome. Traditionalists in such societies decry the loss of heritage, while other elements in the same societies are restless for even more change. Restless elements in societies descended from Rome are also critical of any number of things, some real and others concocted. There is a widespread feeling that change is in the air. Restlessness seems to be gripping the whole world. What are we to make of it and where will it lead?

Here is the fundamental cause of this spreading malaise: progress in technology and science has outstripped the ability of populations and governments to deal with the changes in opportunities and life styles this has brought about. Social structures, legal systems, ideologies and individual mindsets are all out of tune with the realities of the world we have created. Social structures have fallen behind technological progress, and the elites have turned to corruption and false promises in view of the lack of rewards; rewards they might have been granted if their influence was bearing fruit, or if they had achieved power in despotic regimes. They have little merit in the eyes of the populace and hang on to power by any means they can. As in previous upheavals, elites are despised and, as in earlier pre-revolutionary times, they do not know what to do about it.

In times past, the elites were hereditary, placing them at a perceptible distance from the common man, the hoi polloi. That made them easy targets for reformers. This time the elites are more democratically based, although cronyism and nepotism have infiltrated all societies, placing generations of influential families at the public trough. Neither this nor the burdens of arrogant overly-expensive and unhelpful bureaucracies have endeared governments and their servants to the masses. On top of that, the increasing regimentation of societies by means of massive accumulations of laws and regulations makes many initiatives slow to come to fruition and expensive to activate. All this impedes progress and is irksome to a growing segment of populations living in free societies.

The identifiable elements that reformers now target are mostly those associated with the operations of governments. The spread of such sentiments is made possible by rapid communication of ideas, and threatens to lead to world-wide collapses of societies, and perhaps of the world-wide Western civilization. This stands in troubling contrast to the more-regional collapses of earlier civilizations. This turn of events, augmented by modern technology, can create chaos on an unprecedented scale. There is no easy way out. It is the lot of civilizations to collapse when their best has been done and people decide that the way ahead leads to more of the same in an increasingly-corrupt setting. At such times caution is not the driving force; the reformers want radical change. They want relief from perceived grievances and they want to create a more “modern” system, in keeping with current knowledge, technology and capabilities. They promote violent behavior and care little for the consequences of their actions. Most of the time, they have no clear idea of the eventual outcome.

Rather than denying the possibility of revolution and trusting that a peaceful solution will be found, we should try to imagine and prepare for what turbulence may lie ahead and what might follow a possible collapse. We should examine what followed previous collapses of civilizations. Some societies collapse leaving little trace and doing only localized harm, but the more robust and broadly-based civilizations that collapse can leave a foundation of useful debris which serves as the basis for a succeeding civilization. Egypt did not leave much of a heritage beyond its crumbling monuments, but Rome did, as did China in another part of the world. Will the West leave a foundation for a future world-encompassing civilization, or will it be China? Or perhaps Islam will regain dominance. How can we preserve the cultural and technological treasures of Western civilization from total, permanent, irrecoverable loss? This time we have no dedicated monks in isolated monasteries that will preserve ancient wisdom. Our institutions are rootless and may not survive the turmoil.

We must try to understand what currents drive the restless hoi polloi, and which of the still-extant civilizations offers the most satisfactory foundation for the future civilization they may wish to construct. I leave the reader to think this through.


For more on this topic, see my books, especially the first two, on Zamora Texts: The Year 9000: How We Got Here. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: Zamora Texts: The Regression: Was this our Last Social Disaster? Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: Zamora Texts: Space Exploration: Are We Alone? Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: Zamora Texts: A Chronicle of Martian Colonization: Terraforming a Planet. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link:Â Zamora texts: Region of Luna. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: Zamora Texts: Democracies: Their Fall and Revival. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. LINK: Zamora Texts: Human Societies: Our Search for an Organized World. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link:Â Bohdan W. Wojciechowski: Biography, Kindle Books, Blog. Link: Zamora Texts. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link:

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