The Technium

Civilizations Are Creatures

[Translations: Japanese]

Civilizations are creatures. They are organisms that live very long and that spread very wide over the surface of the earth. Civilizations are beings that consume energy and produce ideas. These ideas materialize as cities, institutions, laws, art, books, and memories. A civilization may persist for thousands of years, evolving constantly. Compared to fleshy animals, or even the wet tissue of the human mind, civilizations are the fastest changing organisms on the planet.


Today’s civilizations differ from those in the past by their greater degrees of complexity and their greater speed of transformation. Over time civilizations have progressed from amoebae-like blobs with few strands of intelligence to complex multi-nucleated creatures with many spans of adaptive learning. Western civilization today possess an embryonic memory. It is called a library.

For a civilization to survive ten thousand years requires a ten thousand year storage function — a ten thousand year library. This is not the only thing a ten thousand year civilization needs, but it is a vital need. A 10K library is the embryonic stem cell for a very long memory needed to steer and sustain a society over that very long time period.

Until recently a library seemed more dead than alive. Between rock-hard walls it housed old books, often ones that few people read, written by authors long dead. In what way could a library be an organ of a creature?

Life, big and small, is distinguished in part by its ability to carry the past forward, to currently represent what happened before, in order to make advantageous responses about what will happen next. There is little point in a creature responding to stimuli, if nothing guides the response. Biological creatures have memories of genes and memories of past stimuli. Civilizations have libraries. A library stuffed with tablets and scrolls of ideas and expressions from the past is an elementary memory, but it is an amazing improvement upon earlier methods of oral tales, narratives, and proverbs.

What does the memory needed for a ten thousand year creature look like?

First, civilization’s memory should be fed by a zillion sensory inputs. All motion sensors, camera, thermometers, microphones, keyboards, and computer chips should inform the memory. Imagine a library that has a body, and imagine this body as a membrane of gadgets and gizmos all linked together streaming a tide of real time information, including perceptions about what is happening.

Secondly, the creature’s memory it should encompass all that it knows. All civilized knowledge does not have to reside in physical proximity but it must all be connected. That means that all the works of human kind must be linked together by reference and index. This universal aggregate of information (the universal library) must act as a single distributed memory. Ideally the bits should be linked at the level of ideas, and not just documents, or “files.” The force of each idea should be supported by references to other ideas, to other facts, to other fantasies.

Thirdly this memory should be accessible by every node of the creature. Every person and machine in civilization should link into this common library such that it appears that this library memory is their memory.

This memory is not static. The connections and associations between ideas/files are in constant flux. Books are updated, documents revised, ideas improved or discredited. The entire library is like one very large wikipedia article.

Finally, the mark of success for this library “for this memory of this organism called civilization” is the production of new ideas and new ways of knowing. What this means is that new levels of memory will arise. The organism may know and recall in ways we humans, “mere nodes in the tissue,” may find perplexing.


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