The Northern Spy – Quo Vadim Civilization?

The Northern Spy

The Spy’s Reader

who’s been lurking around here a while will be familiar with his many discourses on the mutual effects of society and technology upon each other (including the entire currently-being-revised textbook on that theme referenced below among his web sites). In order of technological sophistication, the three (kinds of) civilization to date are/were the Hunter-Gatherer, the Agrarian or Agricultural, and the Industrial.

Hunter-Gatherer societies are usually nomadic, and transition to Agricultural mode with the invention of the plough–which drives settlement in fixed locations, the domestication of animals, the requirement to trade necessarily local food surpluses for other goods, the creation of central governments, searches for additional resources, empires, and the armies to maintain them–the latter possible because food production requires a smaller portion of the population. The most successful of these were the Roman and much later, the various European empires.

In the crucible of the United Kingdom, largest of the latter, and stoked by a parallel scientific flowering, steam was harnessed for manufacturing, farming, and later, transportation, and the Industrial revolution flowered.  

Both revolutions triggered massive social changes. The first made hunter-gathering nearly obsolete, and empowered nations already in the second phase to colonize what they saw as primitive peoples. This was a mischaracterization, for the so-called aboriginal peoples often had complex trading and social networks of their own, and merely lacked the technology to defend themselves from takeover by those whose only superiority was due only to more powerful technology.   

The second revolution did something similar to the large percentage of their people who farmed for a living. The new machines meant  farming required a much smaller number of workers, obsoleted both family farms and cottage manufacturing, and simultaneously required enormous numbers of factory workers gathered in what were initially the abysmally squalid conditions of industrial centres. 

The point is that where they have happened, either transitionary revolution drove a disintegration of the existing social structure, and the creation of a new one in a relatively short time. Neither was ever pretty. Thus, no pundit should have expected that the demise of the industrial age and dawn of the information age (fourth civilization) would be any less fragmenting or disruptive. The key invention was the electronic computer, the key idea was what the Spy, back in the 1980s, termed the Metalibrary, or comprehensive assemblage of the industrial civilization’s (and all new) information, together with the means of universal access to said collection. As with the light bulb, whose eventual inventor was Edison, Tim Lee-Berners actually instantiated the World Wide Web that became the Internet, but many people knew what had to come (just not exactly how), so the Spy does not claim any unusual prognostic acumen here.

Neither should the dramatic social change that comes with such a transition to a new type of civilization be too much a surprise. As far back as the mid 1950’s white collar employment had, by percentage of the population, exceeded that of blue collar factory workers, and by the 1980’s the Spy was telling his students to prepare for a future sitting at a desk processing information inputs into information outputs, holding a constantly changing job title and description, and that they could continue being employed only if they were problem solvers and personal re-inventors at heart. Automation, eventually with robots needing few if any, human tenders would do all the factory work, all the driving, and many other then-existing jobs. That is the nature of such revolutions. 

Other forecasters however, also touted the idea of an information-driven global village, and in the demise of the Cold War with the fall of the iron curtain and collapse of the Soviet Empire, they loudly trumpeted the triumph of Western-style liberal democracy. The Spy’s readers here, even if they have not read “The Fourth Civilization,” know full well how sharply he differed, predicting that the more that diverse peoples would come in contact each other, the more sharp old divisions would become and the more new ones they would invent. In social media’s echo chambers, this is exactly what has happened, for there racism, hatred, and anti-[fill in almost anything] thrives, an ever mutating deadly collection of social viruses.

As he has said for decades now, the problem is more comprehensive. A social and intellectual aspect of the third civilization has been fragmentation. In a discipline like medicine, for instance, there is too much for one practitioner to know personally, so specialities arose. Today, every academic discipline sports specialities so narrow that two mathematicians, two chemists, two engineers may have little common interest or register, and as C.P. Snow observed as far back as the 1950’s those in the arts, social sciences, and humanities, barely share the same language with those in the sciences, much less the same culture. By training they cannot, and by inclination they do not talk to each other. Society at large mirrors those stand-alone silos of the university in its own solitudes, but adds ever-increasing hostilities to the “other”. 

However, the Spy always believed that this fragmentation would not continue, that the key for fourth civilization professionals (of whom there would be a far larger proportion) would NOT be fine specialization of their personal knowledge from a vast collection, but of necessity the ability to locate, integrate, and apply the necessary specific information as need demanded for the project at hand. In this alone, he agrees with E.O. Wilson’s diagnosis and the necessity of integration–but the latter as a discovery of pre-existing concinnity, not as Wilson’s entirely human invented consilience founded on exclusive logical positivism.

Moving on, add the intellectual fragmentation of the third civilization to the general disruption and fragmentation characteristic of its own death throes, and the sharpening of old hatreds and divisions that the Internet has wrought, primitive as it still is, and you have a toxic stew more potent even than what the Spy warned about in the final chapter of his book, when he noted even in the 1988 edition that the forces of fragmentation could, after all, prevail absolutely, and civilization, instead of moving through rough waters to an eventual landing at the fourth type, might instead founder and sink altogether. 

In his Alternate History 

science fiction, which the Spy undertook to explore such ideas in a form more accessible and subtle than a textbook no one would read if it were not required by some (ahem) stuffy professor, there are several PODs (Points Of Departure). For non AH-SF readers, those are the specific events, decisions, or inventions that change everything coming after. In the discussion above, the civilization-changing inventions were the plough, steam engine, and computer. A fictional POD “what if” might be, say, the practical Romans seizing on the Greek theoretical invention of the steam engine, thus triggering the industrial revolution in the first century A.D. Another favourite is Hitler winning the Battle of Britain, or some other key WW II conflict, with us moderns now all speaking German and living under a brutal racist dictatorship. Hey, some people today still worship him.

In his own AH, the last POD or Nexus, as he terms them, prior to 2000, came in 1014, just after the battle of Clontarf, which saw the demise of nearly the entire Irish leadership including, for our version of Earth, that of High King Brian Boru. For one of the Spy’s alternate Earths, Brian’s would-be murderer Brodar was instead apprehended in the act and killed by young Cormac O’Malachy. The Boru then createed the new royal line of Meathe from Cormac and Catherine O’Niall of Ulster, after the latter takes over her father’s command and helps Brian’s forces win the battle. He simply instructs the Bishop to marry the two, who’ve just met for the first time on their way into his tent, and enthrones them as King and Queen to succeed him.

Ireland remains united, Catherine cynically ensures England stays a collection of fragmented tribes by sending troops to defeat the Normans in 1066, and eventually Ireland rules the world. The Scientific and Industrial revolutions happen in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. The society that develops is, well, rather different. Read the stories.

The point is that a seemingly insignificant change of outcome in a battle, a key invention, whether one individual lives or dies, dramatically changes subsequent history and therefore society. True, God is the Lord of history, but SF, after all, stands for speculative fiction. The author explores ideas in a “what-if” setting. It’s the ideas that make the story; the plot follows along and entertains, whether the reader gets the point or not.

And this returns us to our current Quo Vadimus

Will our future indeed see at least a coherent (even if not united) information based society, one that at least can collectively tackle and potentially solve the enormous problems left in the wake of its predecessor civilization? Or will the present fragmentation effectively prevent that from happening, lead instead to a collection of illiberal pseudo-democracies and tin pot dictators warring over the scraps of a collapse, to an all-destroying nuclear war, or to unsolved and runaway global warming that renders most or all the earth’s real estate uninhabitable?

Assuming that our true Aslan does not call “Time” on us, tell us we can no longer continue as mismanaging stewards of His creation, evict us, and bring down the final curtain on humankind, there is certainly no shortage of potential technologically-driven doomsday scenarios going forward. Perhaps the salient question though is, rather, what is/will be the nexus point, the key decision, invention, the event one could look back upon and be able to say “that’s when everything changed, and subsequent history (or its lack) was determined?

Some look to the solution of the human aging or cancer problem. Interesting, and potentially doable as those may be, neither addresses the issues raised here. The same could be said to solving one or more of the current economic, energy, nuclear proliferation, or global warming crises. No, the fourth-civilization-defining technology of the computer and incipient Metalibrary called the Internet are already extant, and given time and the collective will, technological solutions to technological problems could generally be found.

When our successors on this Earth look back, the nexus point to them will rather most likely be one or more political decisions. Can a collective will develop to use the information we now have, and what will yet develop to integrate sufficient fragments to solve our civilization threatening problems or not? Indeed, not if Western-style “liberal” democracy itself vanishes from the scene. The tyrants ruling China, Russia, Hungary, North Korea, numerous past and present third world countries, and a variety of special interest groups in Europe and North America, have agendas that specifically exclude the general population from decision making and rather than a positive agenda, have their own personal anti-[fill in the blank] ones. 

The bellwether appears at the moment to be the United States’ experiment with democracy. Winston Churchill, in the aftermath of his post-war election defeat, famously quoted an unattributed pundit: “Democracy is the worst form of government–except for all the others that have been tried.” But a significant percentage of the American populace today supports a man who, like all would-be tyrants, wants to rule by voiding the democratic will of the people, and/or preventing [fill in the blank] from voting, and it is touch-and-go whether he can prevail. After all, he has already attempted an armed coup.

No, the nexus point around which the future, if any, turns will not be technological–which OS or smartphone prevails, the next Apple invention, the solution of supply chain problems, or even the expansion of the Internet to the true Metalibrary. Perhaps it will turn out to be the finding of stolen top secret documents in a defeated president’s home, whether his friend Putin triumphs in the rape of Ukraine, the next sets of North American elections, whether or when China invades Taiwan, North Korea invades the South, how India and Pakistan settle their differences, whether or when Iran nukes Israel or….

The bottom line:

The Spy’s mother often used to say: “You kids will be the death of me yet.” Of course, that already happened on a Roman cross about 30 A.D. However, it could be personified civilization speaking today of its errant members. To repeat a question from last month, “Do we ever learn anything, or do we just doom ourselves to repeating a history of failures?

We live in perilous times. What if, anything, will our children and grandchildren say of us?

–The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author’s own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics and Assistant Dean of Science at Canada’s Trinity Western University. He completed his fifty-second year as a high school and university teacher in 2022. He has been involved as a member of or consultant with the boards of several organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He was co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and ten alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His various columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (dead tree and online formats) since the early 1980s, and he’s been a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and other conferences. He and his wife Joyce celebrated their fiftieth anniversary in 2019 and lived in the Langley/Aldergrove/Bradner area of B.C. from 1969 to 2021, where he now continues alone, depending heavily on family to manage. 

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About the Author

Rick Sutcliffe

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a. k. a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.