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.

  • Sam Sade

    A brief gloss on “Library of Babel” — the Borges library (as the billion blogs) might equally be ordered in simple alphabetical sequence. Then, to find the book you want, select the first word, for example “My” , go to the “M”s, select the next word, for example “perfect”, go to the “My perfect”s, choose your next word, etc, etc. And Bob’s your uncle. In this inevitable manner, everyone can find exactly the book they most desire… Perhaps another hand might reach for your book just as you find it!

  • Michael

    While I like the notion of a civilization being like a living organism, the kind you are envisioning will need a few more key things.

    A huge, perhaps limitless library is technologically possible, but where is your error correcting process ? How will the civilization know that what it’s library contains is not valid ? While the internet is a wondrous resource, its main weakness is that it takes a clever and insightful human to sift through the nonsense. I can use the resources of the internet much better than my 16 year old son, not because I am more adept at accessing data, but because I know the useful and relevant sites and which are clearly self interested charlatans. I am not always correct, but I am right much more often than he is.

    The next problem is what will guide your civilization. What are the parameters for determining right from wrong ? Is a new 100,000 hectare plot of GM corn worthwhile for its ethanol potential or is the land better left as natural habitat for woodland creatures ? This is not a simple question to answer. While biodiversity might be argued to be worthwhile, what if the corn will be broken down and the chemical constituents used to produce some new vaccine ? Is GM inherently bad, or must it be reconstituted before we pursue it on a large scale ?

    Lastly what will your civilization do when it bumps into a neighbouring one � whether human or not. How does it determine the right course of action ? Is there an optimal impact on the environment that it can minimize ? Is it the total number of inhabitants, the total heat output, the happiness of those whom it encompasses ?

    Before embarking upon notions of creating a 10,000 year resource such as a library for your civilization to use, I think that you need to spend more time thinking about the possible uses of the library and what would guide the civilization.

  • Kevin,

    Thanks for the thought you put into this post and the NYT article on Sunday.

    You note that “digital technology is remarkably fragile over time; entire platforms become obsolete and hard to find.”

    That fragility is due to more than just changing platforms, as the greater risk is the powerful forces that would alter the contents of that archive to suit their agendas.

    The Library of Alexandria was the last time a civilization tried to aggregate all knowledge, and it was destroyed for political and religious reasons.

    In Orwell’s 1984, the totalitarian government has aggregated all information under its control. But it employs legions of workers to alter inconvenient information in the archives, surveil its citizens, and censor information it doesn’t like by flushing it down the “memory hole.”

    Governments and fanatics have tried and succeeded in censoring information and rewriting history for as long as people have recorded their thoughts to share with each other.

    It’s not hard to see how much of today’s knowledge can be scanned, linked, indexed, tagged and shared — and the potential to improve the human condition is staggering.

    But unless we put a lot of thought and effort into how to protect digital material from intentional alteration and censorship, this amazing tool that is designed to empower could be used to deceive. The technology to enlighten can also be used to enslave.

    What corporation can resist these forces in its pursuit of shareholder value? And what government can be trusted with this power?

  • Aurimas Bukauskas

    Not sure if this post is so out of date that nobody checks it anymore, but I figured I’d post anyway, because this particular visualization of civilization has really caught my imagination.

    I have seen the TED talk on how technology evolves, and I believe this same concept is mentioned, in a somewhat more developed form.

    What particularly caught my interest was the idea of calling civilization, and even the social networks between people, facilitated by communication technology (anywhere from verbal and gestural communication, to the internet), can be observed as a single organism, using the metaphor of the cells in our body making up the moving, talking, thinking construct that we call ourselves. Dan Dennet, in his TED talk on consciousness (I have yet to read his book on his interpretation of consciousness), made a similar point: all of the neurons interacting with each other as interconnected, yet individual organisms, and unaware of their collective product, generate the perception of consciousness, though we consider the neurons themselves unconscious. Within the cell as well, the systems can be broken down into smaller and smaller parts.

    Taking the example of the brain, the individual nodes making up the whole are not fully ‘aware’ of their collective society, and that that society seems to imagine itself as conscious, we can apply it to human society in the same way, and we humans, mere cells in the system, cannot fully understand what the ‘consciousness’ of the complete system may be. As is well covered in these posts, the information transfer rate is accelerating, and increasingly more effective means of information and goods transfer are evolving, as a trend of culture and technology. It seems almost inevitable that in a not so distant future, every one of us will be linked intimately with every single other, through modes of technology not yet foreseen, but that would allow for instantaneous, effective, and adapting information flow in the collective network of the human species. Forms of life, made up of all the humans in existence today, perceive and exist in planes that we literally cannot imagine. As is often useful to do when discussing evolutionary systems such as this, the phenomenon can be described as having intention and desire: “What does technology want?”
    Obviously, evolution has no intentions or desires, but merely trends, that within certain fractal scales of time and space, are relatively constant.

    Don’t have time to finish this post,

    thanks for the posts; they really get the mind going.

  • plg

    “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”

    I think you underestimate the value of past civilization compared with our. I’ve eardh those same claims practically in all the civilizations in history. Perhaps our unique quality is the wordship we dedicate to machines as if they wern’t our own creation. Of course culture is part of our evolution and we have evolve quite a lot, but written ( and please, dont use western) culture is for the momement as important as the discovery of wheel.

  • T.Rob

    If we had a “zillion sensory inputs”, each instrumented with algorithms to cross-link, aggregate, catalog and collate, and feed back into the system, wouldn’t some kind of emergent behavior be predicted? If so, the civilization-organism might be sentient or even self-aware. When that happens, would it be aware of humans any more than the hive mind is aware of the individual bee? Conversely, would we be aware of it any more than the worker bee is aware of the hive mind?

    If you start with the assumption that, like the hive and the bee, civilization-organism operates far outside of comprehension of individual humans, how will we know when it exists? For that matter, how do we know that it does not already exist? Perhaps it is guiding our actions now to satisfy it’s own survival instinct and what we think of as “the quest for human knowledge” is the simply civilization-organism contemplating its own existence.

    If our new technology, knowledge, connectivity and creativity collectively accrue to civilization-organism, imbuing it with ever higher powers of reasoning, then there is something spiritual indeed about all of it.

  • Matt

    This is a topic that is covered in great detail in Robert M. Pirsig’s follow up to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s called Lila. I highly recommend it. He talks about static and Dynamic Quality. How things need to be able to change dynamically, but not so much that everything devolves to total anarchy. You need the static patterns to latch on to. He talks about how NY is a living entity. There are myriad workings that no one human understands, but there are systems in place if something breaks. Is the city made for us or are we here to serve the city?

  • Karl

    Hi All,

    I have a comment on the use of civilization as a metaphor for information management. Please don’t interpret this as needlessly negative. It is certainly worthwhile to look at things with different organizing meta-models. But this notion of the memory of a civilization is suspect on so many levels…let me just point out a few:

    1. The very idea of civilization is suspect. We all use the idea without having a good definition of exactly what it is. Can you tell me exactly what it’s not? Is an ecosystem civilized? Is the most primitive tribe a civilization? Were the Greek city states of the Homeric period (an ancient Dark Age ca. 1200 BCE) a civilization in the sense we mean today? (this example centers on the word – civitas, the Latin form of polis, city, in Greek, and of course points to the source of a huge part of our word-cluster that ultimately reads out as “civilization”).

    2. The time sense of this notion is suspect. The information management puzzle of the 21st century is so completely time-compressed when compared to the idea of accumulated information in civilizations. Technology of information certainly is on an exponential curve (Moore’s law for starters) whereas civilizations have been historical – that is no more than geometrically progressive (sometimes civilizations retrograde or go dormant). Without adding this idea to your metaphorical matrix, using civilization is misleading rather than enlightening. Adding this idea makes the entire analogy bend to breaking.

    My point is that what we’re in is something entirely new and unexperienced. Using civilization as a model may be no more than a form of mental self-medication, to anesthetize ourselves from the bewildering cognitive consequences of the ultimate “global information meltdown event” we may be entering.

  • “What additional conclusions can be made from the recognition of human civilization as a complex organism? Given the complexity of its behavior, it is necessary to conclude self-consistently that as individuals we are unable to understand it, even though we comprise it as a collective.”

  • Sounds like Google :-)

    I work in publishing (for the Physical Review physics journals) and we think about archiving and availability of information quite a bit. We were one of the first publishers to scan in our entire “back-file” and make it available to researchers online. I’m not sure what the statistics show, but there’s definitely anecdotal evidence that the step we (and others) took has led to real new knowledge, and perhaps more importantly, has helped a lot of researchers avoid repeating work that had previously been done.

    I assisted with a recent IUPAP conference on archiving – you may be interested in the conference report here:

    as it discusses (but does not resolve) a number of issues pertinent to a 10-thousand-year digital archive. Multiple copies seem essential, but how do you avoid errors creeping in, and divergence of content (from, for example, corrections to original articles that don’t propagate).

    I also wonder if our concept of an archive or a library has to change – Google is perhaps opening our eyes on this a bit. If you simply archive every possible single thing and make it all of equal weight, you end up with a “Library of Babel” that is essentially worthless, because you can never find anything relevant. In other words, the ability to search information and to rank quality of information is at least as important as the archive itself.

    The issue of placing digital data on a single medium and in a single format that can last thousands of years is I think less critical than the “Long Now” people seem to believe – after all, we have a lot of information now that is thousands of years old, only a tiny fraction of which is actually preserved in the original medium. As long as information is worth enough for multiple good copies to be kept, it’ll be preserved.

  • Kevin Kelly

    “As long as information is worth enough for multiple good copies to be kept, it’ll be preserved.”

    That’s true Arthur, but our concern is over the information that is not considered valuable at the time, and is now. Have you ever been to an opening of a time capsule? Stuff people thought was important later often is not. And the things we wish folks 2,000 years ago wrote down (as valuable) they thought worthless.

  • Deva Sagayam

    Perception is key to understanding, as your Asia grace proves. Pictures have a meaning to people who can associate with it.
    Similarly a mammoth library is useless. If each people, each discipline, maintain their own, which in itselves wil be huge and send it to Mars or similar for storage and have means of retrieval for future generations of such people or dicipline, then it will be useful.

  • Hi Kevin, thanks for discussing all this! A lot of thought-provoking pieces here – I see you have another already.

    On: “our concern is over the information that is not considered valuable at the time, and is now” – I agree that’s an issue; on the other hand, if it’s not considered valuable for current use, where are the resources necessary for preservation going to come from? The wonderful thing about digital information is the cost of preserving it is amazingly small, and decreasing astonishingly fast.

    So my worry isn’t so much that things won’t be preserved, but rather that in the immense mass of preserved information we won’t be able to find the things we need, the things that have real value. When the world is awash in information, where do we find knowledge, and wisdom?

  • Kevin Kelly

    Digital technology is remarkably cheap. It copies fast and easily. Copies travel fast within time. But digital technology is remarkable fragile over time; entire platforms become obsolete and hard to find. So it turns out that the worst format for long-term storage is digital and the best is either rock or paper.