The Technium

Major Stages of the Technium

Biological life plays out in stages. Although our lives are continuous, we recognize certain thresholds that we pass through as human beings. We might designate the stages of human life as proceeding from a fetus to infant to toddler to child to adolescent to adult. Each developmental phase is marked by certain quantifiable patterns. Children are small, their heads large in proportion to their body, their hormones and organs hover at a certain level. These proportions will shift significantly when they reach they next phase of development at about 12-15 years.

No individual exhibits growth in exactly the same way.  However the general trajectory of development will be similar no matter what we care to measure. In every meaningful classification of human development,  the infant will precede the codger.

I suggest that civilizations follow the same patterned development. If we were able to survey galactic civilizations, we would of course find a tremendous variety, but also a range of advancement.  Some planets would shock us by their unexpected societies, much as we are astounded by the life cycles of peculiar organisms on earth. But just as the development pathways of ferns, whales,  mushrooms, and butterflies differ wildly, they share a common set of stages in their taxonomic realm – such as seed/spore/egg. Individual civilizations will exhibit growth in their own distinctive way, yet the large-scale trajectory of development might be shared.


If we viewed  the technium – the whole adaptive system of technology and culture — as a planetary-scale organism, we can categorize its short history into stages.  A few brave historians have classified past epochs of humanity, almost as if these grand eras were geological periods. I say brave because it there are few ways to test this classification and nothing but trouble for attempting these distinctions. What is to prevent the classification from being totally arbitrary? On the other hand there very well might be certain inherent dynamics constraining any society, which would generate similar thresholds – similarities that would only be apparent if we have a sample larger than the one we have.

I decided to examine as many large-scale classifications of societal development as I could in order to see if, in aggregate,  an agreement across independent charts would reveal  a larger pattern of stages. Perhaps dissimilar views might perceive similarities.

However while I was curious about the past, my chief interest in this exercise is to imagine what the future stages of societal development would likely be. Framing the past developmental  epochs of planetary society might point to future stages. Since this is outright speculation I felt comfortable ransacking science fiction for suggestions as well. I acknowledge that the premise I am working on — that there is a single convergent evolution among civilizations — could be laughably wrong. But I find it useful to two reasons. First, in the total absence of other evidence,  it is still the simplest hypothesis. Second, I am more persuaded than most people of the evidence for convergent evolution in biology and in theories of exo-biology, and so I find the prospect of convergent evolution in societies plausible.

I uncovered ten schemas (sources below) charting past stages of humanity or possible future stages of galactic civilizations. All the schemas are very one-dimensional – measuring one or a few qualities in a ranking scale. Matrixes capable of mapping society types in multi-dimensions are rare, even in historical research. Robert Carneiro’s work is an exception in academia, and very controversial.  The most robust multi-axis space of possible civilizations that I’ve come across is one created as a world-creation tool kit for role playing games: The Cosmic Creation Netbook. (If I have missed any, please email me or post in the comments.)

I combined these ten schemas into one chart and correlated (as best I could) their stages.



Thomsen, Ledetraad til Nordisk Oldkyndighed, 1836.

Mumford, Technics and Civilization, 1934, p. 109.

KardashevTransmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations, Vol.8, No.2, Soviet Astronomy – AJ, Sept-Oct. 1964. p.217-221.

K/S: Carl  Sagan, Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, 1973. p.234-238.

Sagan, Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, 1973. p.233-234.

Star Trek, Richter Scale of Cultural Development. A fictional taxonomy the crew of the Enterprise use to classifies civilizations it encounters.

Jackson and William Barton, GURPS, Space, 3rd Edition, 2002. p. 26. This system is devised to aid role-playing gamers to devise game worlds.

Dawkins, River Out of Eden, 1995, p. 151-161. Dawkin’s metrics are the levels of replication organization, starting with molecular replication and continuing to the level of planetary civilizations replicating.

Kurzweil, Kurzweil uses an exponential notation for the advance of computing power, He also suggests the benchmark of a computer equal to 1,000 human brains, which I have abbreviated as 1KHB.

Smart, The Developmental Spiral . Smart suggests each phase occurs in half the duration as the previous, forming the picture of a spiral closing in on itself to the point where it stops being measurable – the Singularity.

Several patterns emerge. First, the classification schemes have evolved over  time. The earliest ones rank civilizations by their use of materials (stone, brass, iron), the later ones rank by a society’s use of energy, and most recently the schemes rank by the civilization’s control of information. This drift in ranking criteria mirrors the general drift in what we find most important, and most challenging. The crucial ask of early civilizations was to organize and control matter; later it was to organize and control energy, and now it is to organize and control information. (Of course, I’ve just introduced yet another schema for society types, one ranked by their central organizing challenge!) If we had any idea of what the crucial challenge in a hundred years from now would be, we could bet that their ranking would use that focus.

Second: In the speculations about the future levels of civilizations we have no trouble imagining new degrees of control of both matter and energy. When the Star Trek scale of cultural development labels a planet system as a “Type M civilization” it is categorizing its mastery of energy and matter. The ingenious Kardashev classification system likewise labels societies according to their ability to control all the energy contained on their planet, star, or galaxy. What’s missing are detailed speculations on possible levels of cognition, information organization, or mind. The prospect of a singularity scares off speculation beyond that.

My hunch is that the next stage in our civilization will revolve around the challenge of controlling and organizing minds. We’ll have our own enhanced minds soon, the minds of personal AIs, the global mind of all our minds connected,  and a global AI – just to start. Fifty years from now the chart of the Major Stages of the Technium will have new columns of speculations, and these levels of civilizations – both historical and future — will revolve around types of intelligences.

  • Kevin Kelly

    Soundacious said,

    ” it’s like civilization has it’s own version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs!”

    That’s a great framing. Our problem is that we tend to think of mind as the top of the ladder, that is, we can’t imagine anything higher than the mind rung. What’s higher than a very smart mind?

    I am trying to imagine a Maslow hierarchy where mind is the middle rung!

  • Riffer

    Describing the history of civilization as the accumulation of control over matter, energy and now information is a very elegant description. To predict the next area, I think one needs to examine why the accumulation of control happened in this way. A needs framework seems like an excellent tool. I would just argue that these areas of control accumulation are not rungs, they are the results.

    It seems like the central need of any civilization is self-perpetuation of the civilization. Civilizations that historically did not obtain control over matter lost out to those that did, and so on.

    What is the next threat to civilization perpetuation? I would argue that the increase in inter-connectedness of the many civilizations of the world into a single civilization is a desirable, utterly unstoppable and not necessarily benevolent trend.

    This trend is getting a lot of popular attention right now, which makes me suspicious of it catalyzing future progress. However, the task of better organizing information is not nearly complete, and the continuation of this task can only result in more global inter-connectedness.

    It seems like the need of civilizations to perpetuate themselves is likely to drive future progress in a direction which would reduce the tension created by a more inter-connected world.

  • When you lay it out this way, it’s like civilization has it’s own version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs!

  • Pekka

    “Types of intelligences”… What type of intelligence “a hunch” is? Are we developing a collective hunch? And what would we do with it? Use it as a probe to predict the future – just like we are doing forecasts for the weather at the moment? I wonder whether it would be appropriate if someone would try to control “the hunch”. My guess is that hunch needs to be unrestricted to work properly – of course it can be directed to some certain focused area, but that is different from mastering “the hunch”.

    Some blokes have thought that “the hunch” is actually the only form of intelligence (and regarded it as free energy) – and that thought, memory and knowledge are not to be confused with intelligence. But how to share – connect so to speak – intelligence? The metaphor of intelligence as supraconductivity of mind gives a glimpse of the aspect of “unrestrictedness” found in this kind of… thought?

    A global mind, a global thought, a global intelligence. What are they good for – or is that just a technical question?

  • Ralph Weidner


    If you haven’t already, I would recommend looking at the AQAL framework devised principally by Ken Wilber. Like you, he has looked at what others have had to say on this and related topics, and come up with AQAL to reference the most essential of what they have had to say. From his interview of you it’s obvious he is very interested in the many ideas you have about the transformation human civilization is currently undergoing.

  • Kevin Kelly


    Yes there is a mystical version of global intelligence. I suspect that in the long term, these two ideas will be distinct. But the mystic’s speculation may be worth studying.

  • wade

    Was it ‘Drake’sP classification or stages that identified four, based on degree to wich energy of solar system was…no first was energy of planet mastery, second was mastery of our sun”s energy, third was mastery of our solar system’s energy, and fourth was mastery of energy of our galaxy…. Well I am just asking this but since I remembered Drake I will just google “drake’s classification” to find an answer. But any comments from this very kind bunch of thinkers would be gratefully taken in by this innocent ponderer. Wade