1.2 The First Four Phases of Civilization

The purpose of this section is to review briefly the broad progress of civilization as it is driven by technology. Specific examples, however revolutionary, are left for later. This review will divide the complex development of history into more easily understood periods or phases, here called "civilizations". There is an element of fiction to this, as a boundary a given historian might propose to demark two phases of civilization is artificial, and could be disputed by others. After all, one type of society actually flows smoothly into another. New information and new technologies take time to be absorbed, to have applications developed, and to become influential. Even when technologies are put to use decisively to prosecute a war, their effects on the general population may not otherwise be seen until long after the victory or defeat of one nation. It is sometimes only with the passage of centuries the vision of hindsight perceives a transitional period as a sharply defined change.

A more detailed history of the world's peoples would surely refine the four broad divisions given here into many more, with excellent arguments about why additional divisions are necessary and important. However, more than one book would be needed to complete that task. In addition, a goal of this book is to take the moral, social and technological pulse of the fourth civilization, which has just begun. Any speculations on a possible fifth will be left for other works.

The First Civilization--The Hunter-Gatherers

The most primitive type of society has little need for organization. People who live by hunting animals and gathering edible plants wherever they find them need a large expanse of territory just to keep each individual alive. Consequently, such hunter-gatherers move about, following the weather and the food. Family groupings are small; life is short and brutal; and sophisticated medical care does not exist. There is no store of knowledge apart from what parents pass to their children, and anyone who does have the time to invent the wheel has little chance to tell anyone else, let alone to market it. Ethics and the practice of religion are personal and cultural matters, and are highly localized.

The highest technologies in a hunter-gatherer society consist of fire for cooking and protection, simple throwing or clubbing instruments for hunting or defense, and clothing manufacture from animal products. There might be some metal working, animal domestication, and possibly the use of wheels. People may band together in extended families (tribes) of up to a few hundred with a common language, limited trade, and some broad knowledge of traditional history and geography. Such tribes may eventually establish fairly complex social structures.

The most highly developed society of this type was probably that of the North American natives before the arrival of the Europeans. Theirs was a society with low population density and primitive technology but with well developed social and economic structures, including continent-wide trading routes. Yet, they found themselves unable to meet the challenge presented by the arrival of the expansion-minded Europeans. They were unable to compete effectively with the European technology (wagons, guns, and iron tools), and fell before the better organized and equipped invaders. They also suffered from a lack of immunity to diseases like smallpox, and from the demise of the buffalo herds.

Hunter-gatherers must expend most of their total working energy on feeding and defending themselves (though they may have some leisure time). They lack the resources to support many non-food-producing members such as teachers, lawyers, scholars, and other city dwellers. As a result, such societies gain technology only very slowly, and may remain nearly unchanged over many centuries.

The Second Civilization--The Agriculturalists

As an intermediate stage before the second level of civilization begins, some peoples domesticate animals and become nomads, with a wider geographical range and a somewhat expanded social complexity. Whether this step takes place before or after the domestication of plants, it transforms hunting from a solitary, weary pilgrimage to a community experience. The key discovery needed to make the actual transition to an agricultural civilization is that it is more economical to save seed from desirable plants and grow them systematically in one location than to go out and find them wherever they happen to have sprouted on their own. If a single technology can be pointed to as the most important factor in developing an agrarian economy, it is the use of plough, though arguments could also be advanced for earlier innovations such as the sickle or the flail.

Farming provides a powerful motivation for further invention, because the more one's arm can be augmented by tools, the more land that can be put under cultivation, and the more wealth that can be generated by one person. Wheeled carts, animal drawn ploughs, and increasingly complex planting and harvesting machinery become highly prized as do the skills of the artisans who make these tools. Once a family can produce more than it can eat, trade expands and service settlements become towns, then cities. Metal tools replace stone implements, and the economic advantages cause the change from iron and copper to brass and eventually to steel in the search for stronger ploughs and other tools.

Agriculture provides a basis for supporting large numbers of non-food-producing people. Some manage to acquire wealth by using specialized knowledge rather than by producing food, and a class structure grows. Scholars and students can be supported, as can artists, musicians and theatrical players, for there must be something for the new upper classes to take their leisure in. Once information can be communicated to others in written form, it can also be transmitted to the next generation. The amount of knowledge then increases greatly, and philosophers, mathematicians and other academic disciplines find a place in society.

At the same time, armies can be outfitted for adventures in other lands, and societies grow far beyond the bounds of single families, cities or even districts. Technological know-how is also turned to the production of decorative jewellery. Gold, silver and gemstones may also become important. The needs of cities also drive invention in both architecture and in the design of water and transportation systems. The really ambitious empire builders must both construct and maintain roads and also find ways of ruling the oceans. They must also codify systems of law and apply them uniformly. Religious practice may also become organized and standardized and its institutions grow in power and size along with the society, perhaps forming an alliance with the state to maintain stability.

None of this progress is without cost to the ordinary person, for daily life in an agrarian society demands steady, heavy labour and is more complex than in a hunter-gatherer culture, though the food supply is more likely to be consistent. There are more and broader civil obligations to meet, including taxes, conscription, and dealing with government bureaucracy. Farmers have their lives ruled entirely by the land, the weather, and the state; they are not free to take a day or two off after a successful hunt. That is, the gains in security achieved through larger networks of mutual obligation are partially offset by a loss of individual freedom. This is particularly true if farmers are members of an empire-building society, since the wealth generated by their work must support large armies. In such a case, farmers may be virtual slaves to land they usually do not own.

The largest and most successful such society in the ancient world was the Roman empire. Centred on the Mediterranean Sea, it dominated Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Northern Africa for centuries. Its capital city, Rome, grew to a population of over a million people, a level not reached again after its decline until the 1930s. When the empire did fall, the Roman system of roads deteriorated and communications and transportation suffered to the point that no other power could grow to dominate in quite the same way. Because many such links were lost, a great deal of knowledge was not transmitted to succeeding generations, and progress toward the next stage of civilization was stalled for centuries. Instead, nations rose and developed localized languages, customs, and technology.

During this time one group that successfully straddled the first two civilizations were the Mongols whose base was initially nomadic, but who conquered and ruled a settled empire stretching across much of Asia and part of Europe.

European empires were based on oceangoing communication, and these were centred on such trade routes as proved strategic for their time. Venice and Genoa came to dominate the Mediterranean, and afterward Portugal and Spain ruled the South Atlantic. Later still, the British, French, and Dutch joined Portugal and Spain in roaming the world's oceans in search of food, preservatives, subject peoples and trade goods. As a result, advances in technology centred around ship building and military applications. The widespread use of gunpowder, particularly for ship-mounted guns, increased the ability to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time. This changed the nature of warfare dramatically, but had little direct effect on society itself. In such encounters, those nations prevailed that took the trouble to train their midshipmen in trigonometry, and to train their munitions suppliers to mix gunpowder uniformly. Countries with inferior education and technology gradually lost both territory and influence.

The gradual increase in the number of foundries, the continuous search for better metals, and the increasing use of small machines set the stage for the advent of the next society. It was Britain that had carried the trade-centred empire to global proportions more successfully than any other nation, and it was there in the eighteenth century that the critical mass of technology first became great enough to take the next step.

The Third Civilization--Industrialists

The harnessing of the steam engine to factory-based machines for the production of textiles started the next major series of changes. Known as the Industrial Revolution, because of the rapid conversion to the new technologies, this period was characterized by a large scale transfer of people from a rural to an urban setting, as they gave up farm labouring and cottage industries for work in the new factories. This urbanization became even more dramatic as time went on. It spread, first to Europe, then to North America, and subsequently to other parts of the world, even though in some places it was not accompanied by the necessary increase in jobs to keep the new city population at work.

Profile On ... A Changing Society

The latter part of the industrial age saw a dramatic decline in the proportion of the population involved in farming--the principal occupation of the agricultural society. As time passes, fewer people grow food for an ever expanding total population. As the chart below shows, farm families had become an all-but-invisible 2% of the U.S. population by 1987, and was even then still dropping by 0.1% per year.

Workers, at first little better off in urban slums than in rural poverty, gradually became consumers of the goods they produced and their standard of living began a rapid and almost unbroken rise that has continued to this day. As the list of factory produced goods lengthened, machines were also revolutionizing mining and later farming. For the first time, a society became possible in which the majority of people did not have to live at subsistence level, expending nearly all their energy just to stay alive.

Technological breakthroughs continued at a rapid pace through this time and these have put lasting marks upon the nations that made them. In the latter part of the twentieth century (as in Roman times, but on a larger scale) national borders became less important in the face of transportation and communications technologies that were capable of bypassing such barriers. No one people can for long keep secret or monopolize any given technology, and there is an increasing sense that the world is one place.

The typical person in an industrial society is better off materially than at any time in history, having more education, longer life, better medicine, faster personal transportation, more consumer goods and better communications facilities than ever before. To be sure, the new technologies have, as usual, been used to deal out death and destruction on a wider scale in the past century than in any previous one, but despite this, there has been a continuous increase in the ability to produce goods. This increased production has been accompanied by an ongoing urbanization and consumerism, and also by a greatly increased food supply.

Moreover, leisure time is available to the workers for the first time in history. Whole new industries have been spawned by this development, and tourism is not only big business, but in many places it is the biggest business of all. Indeed, as the wealth one person can produce has increased, the percentage of people working in non-goods-producing service industries has risen dramatically. This trend, too, would no doubt continue, even in the absence of new dramatic changes in production technologies.

The initial upheavals of the Industrial Revolution saw vast numbers of people attempting to improve their economic conditions by leaving the land and moving to the city. Many of them simultaneously severed their connections with organized religion. The institutionalized church had begun to lose its authority in any case, for it insisted upon the teachings of traditional authorities to explain the physical world and its workings long after these had been undermined by the influence of the philosophies associated with modern science. Some religious leaders came to believe that the idea of an infinite, unchanging God with absolute moral standards could be extrapolated to lend a similar absolutism concerning the physical world. Religious traditions, whether liturgical, governmental, or scientific, were invested with the weight of divine authority, becoming as unchangeable as God. Knowledge was not an incomplete and inexhaustible aspect of an infinite God. Instead, it was finite and complete. The Bible (and by association God) came to be seen as a limited creation of the institutional church. What was created by humans could eventually be seen as flawed, and then discarded. At the same time, the increasing availability of consumer goods helped to promote a materialism that separated people from the spiritual roots of traditional morality.

Meanwhile, the rising intellectual class was quick to seek new interpretations and draw different conclusions in ethical and moral matters that religion had once claimed for its own. Thus, the success of the Industrial Revolution also spawned new ideologies to compete with Judeo-Christian teachings for the hearts and minds of the modern Western peoples. People came to place their religious-like faith in the philosophies of science (scientism), reason (rationalism), progress (progressivism), the state (statism), or humankind (humanism) as the measure and end of all things. Many discarded ideas like the worship of God as creator and sustainer of the universe and dispensed also with the social aspects of religion. Over time, religion ceased to be part of the glue that held society together. Simultaneously, the abundance of wealth and the newfound ability to indulge in consumption tended to replace the concepts of duty and interdependence with the notions of self-actualization and autonomy epitomized by the "yuppie" phenomenon of the 1980s.

This is not to say that traditional religion (or social values) have altogether vanished from everyday life, for they may have made somewhat of a comeback in recent years. Yet, religion seems to have had little influence upon intellectuals or upon the leading institutions in Western society in the Industrial age, and this fact alone would set off the last century-and-a-half as unique among all periods of history.

Some hail the decline of traditional religious influence and the rise of individualism, citing a beneficial increase in freedom for the human mind from such changes. Others note that the simultaneous fragmentation of the culture tends to make society more difficult to maintain as a working entity. Still others worry about the track record modern humans have using technology in the absence of religious influence. Life and the Earth itself are at risk from nuclear weapons on the one hand, and from widespread pollution on the other. Moreover, this century has already seen the most devastating wars in all human history, as well as political and economic exploitation on at least as large a scale as ever done before. It has also seen deliberate mass killings for racial, religious, and political reasons that dwarf the most ambitious pogroms of earlier centuries.

The machine age has brought unparalleled prosperity to those who own or serve the machines and can buy the goods they make, but it has also brought the world to the brink of destruction by the same technology. Thus, while one could judge from material evidence that the human race is better off, such a judgement cannot be unqualified. Material goods have not in the past been regarded as the chief measure of the value of the human spirit, and it seems unlikely the machine age will be looked back upon as an idyllic or utopian time.

Meanwhile, there have been striking new developments that promise to bring even more radical changes. It is a commonplace observation by now that critical mass in certain technologies has been reached, and the transition to a whole new kind of civilization is well underway.

The Fourth Civilization--The Information Brokers

This transition is also characterized by many social changes, some representing continuations of long-established trends. Others may be due to reaction against what some regard as the excesses of the industrial age. For example, society has embraced a set of changing attitudes and new technologies that are concerned with the environment in which people live and the quality of life. "High touch" is balancing "high tech." There has been an increased interest in ethics, morality, religion, and the disciplines of thought and study that relate more to people than to things, and consequences of this will be considered later in the text. On the other hand, certain new technologies can be cited as formative for the next mature phase of civilization. For convenience, they are here grouped into four major categories, and these provide the chapter divisions for the next section of the text.

The first, and most characteristic, is the rapid development of computer-based data systems toward the goal of universal information availability. Anyone who wants to learn the facts of a subject can find the desired material, and do so without leaving home. This will have a profound impact upon political systems, education, most institutions, and the use of various media. Along with this can be cited improvements in communications and transportation. Not only will people be able to travel farther and faster than ever, but they will be able to exchange information with any point on earth easily and inexpensively. New communication methods are also causing dramatic changes in the conduct of business. In all, the consequences of freer information flow may well be greater and farther reaching than those caused by Gutenberg's invention of the printing press.

It is also worthwhile to note that such universal availability of information means that little or none of it is likely to be lost, however difficult the social aspects of the transition to the next civilization may prove to be. The redundancy of information makes it easier to ensure that what is available to one generation will be for the next. Of course, the next generation may not interpret or use a given piece of information in the same way, because values (including spiritual ones) are much harder to transmit than facts.

The second aspect of technological change characterizing the fourth civilization is the culmination of the second industrial revolution. Jobs continue the recent rapid shift away from the smokestack industries and into the service industries, and in the light of other trends, this shift will likely accelerate. The most revolutionary aspect of this is the introduction of robots to replace people on assembly lines. The end result could be the reversal of many aspects of the first industrial revolution--from the workers' point of view, the most radical change of all.

A third that is often cited is the further development of computer-based or artificial intelligence (AI). Combined with developments in robotics, this could further mechanize certain aspects of decision-making and managerial level tasks. This is the third, or intellectual, phase of the transfer of human tasks to machines (First came manual labour, then skilled craftsmanship and repetitious jobs, and finally some brainwork, too). Whether a machine employed in such tasks will ever be said to understand either the issues or the decision is another matter. The chief consequence of such a move could be yet another dramatic change in the way many individuals make their living.

The fourth group of formative technologies has to do with life itself--the most fundamental of all issues, and the one to which study and some understanding has come the latest in human history. The developing understanding of the genetic code implies the ability to manipulate life forms, engineer them for specific uses, prolong human life far beyond the present limits, and solve medical problems that have resisted all previous efforts.

In addition, the way in which people live is being given increasing attention. In the fourth civilization, such things as air, soil and water may all be engineered for human benefit, rather than treated simply as expendable raw material for factories. There could also an increasing focus on technologies for food production, on developing new habitats in places people have not lived before, and on enhancing the quality of life in other than simply material ways.

Since much of the dramatic change in all four of these characteristic groups is due to the development of high-technology devices, many based on microprocessor equipment, the invention of the computer in the late 1940s looms as the most significant single technological advance responsible for entry into the new civilization.

Details on the effects of these formative technologies will be left to the appropriate specific sections. Perhaps this brief summary will assist the reader to begin considering what kinds of societal change these new trends in technology may cause, even before reading a more detailed analysis (and speculation) later in the book.

The chart below gives a simple summary of the four civilizations insofar as employment is concerned. The true story is more complicated, and it should not be thought that some "inevitable advance of the cycles" is being presented. The latter two transitions needed to take place only once among human societies; sufficient communication had by then been established to ensure that the effects would spread throughout the world. The availability of instant information immensely complicates any such analysis as has been attempted here. Many more people have knowledge of the most recent technologies, and are prepared to attempt to skip the intermediate development others went through to get to that point. Thus, the path through the four stages, while presented as characteristic, can only properly describe the first time it happened; the experiences of nations trying to catch up must be very different.

A different view of the four civilizations can be had by observing that the hunter-gatherers acted for the most part alone or in small groups, and had little flexibility to make changes in their life style or culture. The agrarians had more flexibility, though they too tended to remain in the same occupation for their whole lives. An industrial society is centred around organizations more than individuals, but there is greater flexibility and ability to change than in the other two. An information-oriented society returns us to a more individualistic orientation, but there is more flexibility and freedom for both individuals and organizations. The tension between flexible and inflexible organizational structures and between collectivizing and individualizing trends will be important themes throughout this book.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises