I figure I owe the reader a summary of this entire work, now that it’s done. This is a complicated argument. That means that it could very well be wrong. I hope that it is; it’d be nice to find out that all of these terrible implications stemmed from me forgetting to carry a one or something trivial like that. But I’ve gone over the figures a few times and I really don’t see it.
I started out by defining civilization as “a set of social structures that, taken together, makes it possible for people to live persistently in functional cities.” Then, from there, I applied that definition to the earliest cities to figure out what was in fact necessary. The key developments were agriculture, unnaturally dense populations, and a heightened willingness to war for territory.
Then I explained that I find civilization interesting primarily because as a form of social organization, it’s the only one that seems to generate regular, significant energy surpluses. And from a thermodynamic perspective, it’s the energy surpluses that allow everything anybody might value about a civilization.
I took a detour to explain why civilization is hard. The key problem is that people are not wired for it naturally. That’s because the EEA was not civilized, civilization is too evolutionarily recent for people to be well-adapted to it, and thus civilization at any significant scale requires lots of brain hacks to get regular people to do their part.
From there, I took the story into the Bronze Age, where the critical social advance undergirding the explosive growth of civilization (from an energy capture perspective) appears to have taken place. Religion, maintained by a special priesthood, made possible hierarchical organization in humans. And hierarchy is the key algorithmic improvement needed to scale out further, since it scales at O(N) instead of the naïve O(N^2) approach.
Since the notion of hierarchy turned out to be so important, I next moved into talking about what sorts of people tend to be found at the tops of hierarchies, and what that means for the society as a whole. I found that there are three castes (defined by values and not merely social role) that can serve as the ruling elite: warriors, priests, and merchants. And it turns out that the distinction between these matter way more than any notion of formal social organization. So I spent some time talking about the tradeoffs that come from the differing modes of leadership, depending on what values govern status at the top.
Then I took some time out to talk about my theory of technological progress. Mostly, I wanted to refute the idea that technology just happens somehow independently of social change. I believe that technology is developed and put to use by people to accomplish ends, and that there is a mutual interaction between what technologies are possible and which ones actually get pursued by any given society.
Finally, with all that theoretical machinery in place, I set about applying it to the last two hundred years of Western history. I believe that in so doing I came up with some novel insights. But regardless of how novel they were, the really interesting thing is that with this new perspective, the familiar disjointed bits suddenly snapped together into one sensible whole. The experience was like finally seeing the picture in one of those Magic Eye optical illusions I had so much trouble with when I was a kid.
When I got to the end of the story, I was able to return to Detroit with my best theory of what actually happened. Then, finally, I went on to speculate some about what it means if I’m actually right about the causes of Detroit’s decline and fall.
It’s pretty sobering, really. I started this journey so long ago with what should have been a simple goal. I just wanted to understand what happened to Detroit. The next thing I knew, I was pulling on threads that connected to other threads that ended up with me questioning my entire paradigm.
Is democracy a good thing? Going in, I was pretty sure it was, with all the common reservations and caveats. Now I don’t know any more. But I’m pretty sure that – as it’s been defined by theocrats over the past century – it’s incompatible with civilization. And that’s pretty terrifying, because it either means that civilization is a bad thing (which makes me a really hard-core anarchist) or it means that I have to raise the flag of neoreaction. Well, I guess I could also abandon intellectual integrity and try to believe in both civilization and democracy again, but I don’t know how to do that, if I even really wanted to.
So here I am. Like the great wizard Andrak, I’ve spent my hours burrowing in the dark corners of the world, obsessively seeking the answer to a seemingly trivial question. And I can’t quite shake the feeling that, like Andrak, my answer has come only at a terrible cost.