The poet Charles Olson said that when Aristotle came up with his classification system, it was a turning point where, as Heraclitus said, "man is estranged from that which is most familiar", and from there man became separated from the world, and knowledge began a relentless process of fracturing and branching into increasingly more and more specialized sub-disciplines and knowledge domains that would continue until the last quarter of the 20th century when knowledge had become so fractured that it looked like scientific progress itself was in danger of stalling because we had become so specialized that no one understood how their specialized domain of knowledge was related to any other domain of knowledge.
People whose domain of knowledge is the study civilization
itself, have all but abandoned the term which has too much
historical baggage to be useful, and prefer to use the more
Complex Society instead.
It was then that a few intrepid people, stepped back and began connecting everything back together again. It started with new disciplines with names like Systems Theory, Fractal, with new exotic thought experiments like the Butterfly effect that helped people to start seeing everything as interconnected.
That process is still in it's early days. Traditional institutions which shepard the myriad of specializations are threatened by integration, because it represents a fundamental shift in power. This has slowed the pace of progress in many areas as research laboratory and university department heads laud the idea of "interdisciplinary research projects" in theory but are loath to support or fund them in practice. But for knowledge to progress convergence is inevitable. Mathematics, information theory, astrophysics, particle physics and chemistry are now so intertwined that (with the exception of pure mathematics) it's increasingly difficult to even explain any one of these fields without understanding all of them.
And all of this is critical to formulating how to plan for the long term survival of our civilization and species because it is the complexity of knowledge, and the technology that is based on, that makes a global civilization with 7 billion people, heading towards 10 billion, possible.
It's the complexity and the countless numbers of specializations that make our survive possible. But it has to be understood that complex societies collapse when their complexity can no longer support the carrying capacity for where they live.
Carrying capacity has some very real, hard limits based on the physical laws of the universe. But it is complexity and technology that has extended those limits time and time again. Take away the technology and the complex web of specializations that make it possible for civilization and life at any given level and you have a collapse. It's as predictable as it is inevitable.
And that is only dealing with what we can control. There are a dizzying range of events that we cannot and never will be under our control such as solar storms, super volcano's, super novas.
But even here, there are long term strategies that can make even the vast majority of these threats, if not preventable, but at least survivable.
The Strategy is simple:
- Backup collect, encode, integrate, revise (REPL)
- Preserve dark archives that can degrade gracefully
- Distribute cache & library mesh networks
- Restore distributing what has been lost in context of what has been lost and for how long.
Implementation can be boiled down to three broad principles:
Long Term Thinking understanding how to look at things in terms of scope, in terms of scale, level of detail and distance both in time and space. Thinking in long time frames in these terms makes it possible to assess levels of threat at different scales of time and space, allocate resources and manage to execute those plans despite shorter term thinking in the larger society.
long term memory recorded information is how we talk through time and space. It's how we communicate not only with people on the the opposite side of the planet or on different planets, but with people far into the future, after you have passed out of living memory. This is far from being as straight forward as it may seem. It requires data structures that preserve context, encodings, languages and storage media that can keep everything safe not just over time, but during periods of benign neglect and sometimes prolonged episodes of temporary insanity.
It will also require a means of making long term institutional intention executable – which is another way of saying programmable code, but not strictly speaking in exactly the same sense as running a computer code in a traditional application. Rather, it is a means of taking intentions and rules and leveraging the data structures to do the heavy lifting through executable rule sets, and generation of models. This will have the long term effect of keeping the recorded information constantly relevant and of use, and to ensure that it remains in current context over very long time frames.
Long Term Institutions that preserve critical levels of complex societies specializations as living knowledge, and are responsible for backing up knowledge, distributing information and restoring anything that has been lost. Institutions are complex creatures that are made up of the organization of information which is reflected in the organization of power within that organization, of traditions and rules that provide continuity. Finally institutions are embodied in their architecture, which is the physical manifestation of an institution's history, traditions and mission. The tricky part of institutions is that they're greatest strength, which is to resist change in order to preserve itself, is also it's Achilles's Heel, preventing the institution from changing even when its in its best interest. This invariably comes down to perceived threats to the power and safety of individual's roles within an organization. This has always been the great dilemma in maintaining long term institutions, who survive because they resist change and eventually collapse because they are too slow to change. Institutions also need to be able to degrade gracefully from time to time. Town Gown friction….
As we will see, Mankind is a very young species, living on a very old planet. It is helpful to think of mankind as an experiment that the universe is running in a tiny lab in hundreds of millions of petri dishes. We are but one petri dish, blissfully unaware as yet even if there are any other experiments running. But we do know that in our little insignificant experient could suffer a catastrophic failure and to the universe we wouldn't be any more than a failed culture in a glass dish, our initial success might even be overlooked by the experimenter while observing another tray of petri dishes in a different part of the lab.
But we have been, at least, an initially very promising experiment, that has managed to become not only conscious of itself, but have begun to be able to rewrite the preconditions that the experimenter had set when they made the culture.
So, as insignificant as our experiment is to the rest of the universe, we are now becoming experimenters in our own right, and it would be a shame for our little experiment to end before seeing the full potential of what we may become. There may be no meaning to the universe or to life but what we make it.
I for one think that helping to keep the experiment going as long as possible, in order to see what will happen is an interesting way of spending the time we have. There are worse ways of spending the life, of an individual, of a civilization, of a species and even a planet.