The Kardashev scale describes different levels of civilization by the amount of energy it can harness or the extent of nature that it can directly and confidently control. The low end of the scale describes harnessing or controlling an entire planet including its geologic processes completely to the core. Next up is doing the same with an entire star system. Next up is doing the same for an entire galaxy. I would suggest intermediate steps that would represent similar jumps in achieving. For example, harnessing and controlling other planets more or less remotely from a home planet would be quite an achievement.
I am drawn to science fiction speculations about advanced technologies. Generally, it seems that the civilizations would be a consequence of the technologies available. While we can write interesting stories about the civilizations by focusing on its internal and external conflicts, the civilization itself owes its existence to the advanced technology that made and makes the civilization possible.
I often yearn to return to when I was younger specifically for my eagerness to participate in science fiction of this variety. I was very young at that time. Something happened in my early adulthood and I began to think about the aspect of civilizations where technology is a distraction. There are many possible civilizations for a given inventory of technologies. Within these variations, we can begin to categorize them by how the operate. Obvious examples are autocracies versus democracies but I’m really thinking about variations even within them. The variations I think about it how civilizations differently comprehend and respect their subjects, ancestors, and gods. As I dabbled in writing, I began to call my genre social fiction instead of science fiction. Instead of owing their existence to certain technologies, civilizations owe their existence to how they perceive the broader human world (or alien species world).
I guess this thinking started in college, as should not be surprising. It would be less surprising if I had taken a lot of courses on history and comparative sociology, but I majored in engineering and was mostly interested in mathematics. I was not very good at fitting in or even at excelling in my chosen field but I persisted. I think this outcast feeling got me to subconsciously pay attention to the societal aspects of my condition. Even people who should be my peers were not recognizing me in the same way I recognized them. By that I mean, most of my peers appeared to be well adjusted in fitting into the expectations of belonging to a society of engineering. I recognized them in the sense that they were conforming to the expectations for being an engineer. I did not so readily fit in, and this was at times frustrating and at other times liberating.
I met some who similarly did not fit in but for different reasons, and most of them made the wise choice of switching careers. I stubbornly plowed ahead, probably in no small part due to my childhood fascination of science fiction. I wanted to help make science fiction non-fiction, something I never actually achieved but that drove me at the time. During the studies, I was paying attention to the growing separation between myself and my peers and our teachers.
This was more of a feeling than something I could clearly explain. During my early career years after graduation, I did dabble in writing my social fiction. At the time, I didn’t connect this perspective to my own experiences, I thought I was just being creative. I was imagining worlds with exactly the same technologies we have, but where people saw each other differently in fundamental ways. Obvious analogs may be societies that have caste systems or slavery. It is not fair for me to discuss this because I never published anything I wrote, and in my early 40s I threw away all of my manuscripts into the trash. At that time shredders were not a big deal but even if they were I doubt I could bring myself to shred them. Also at that time, the trash was almost certainly incinerated so I’m sure they are gone for good, but it is interesting that at some unconscious level I was hoping they would find some way to survive.
The motivation to write this blog is to solve that dilemma. Every one of these posts are essentially discarded. They won’t be published in any physical sense. Yet, I find comfort that it will not be as easily disappeared. Even if the blog itself is taken off line, there are probably cached copies of some of my words on others computers and in some backup databases that are too difficult to purge of my writings.
Hopefully, this brings me to the point of this post. Even though I have no intention of finding an audience, I find pleasure in the knowledge that these writings will persist and there is a possibility of someone, perhaps long in the future, reading this. I don’t care what they really think about it, the achievement is merely that they read something I wrote.
This desire for persistence of communication seems to me to be beyond my own personal vanity. Even with the statistics I get from people who viewed my posts, these are people I will never meet or neither them or I will benefit in any way in the exchange. From an economic point of view, this is an irrational activity. I think it is irrational at the individual psychological level as well. Some of my accidental readers are drawn to what is written no matter who wrote it or what the author actually intended. It is in this way I am also drawn to write. Both the reader and writer are participating in a broader social world rather than a personal one, and this participation is for the most part unconscious so that we are not aware we are doing this. Even here as I try to describe it explicitly, the underlying motivation still escapes me.
One remarkable thing about human history is the creation of script, the writing down an encoding of his language some persistent medium. The clear intention was that the message would be read absent the the original writer. Many of these were intended for relatively immediate communication but they were preserved in things like baked clay that managed to survive for millennia and we are still able to find value in the writings. One of the values is the recognition of how similar those distant people were to us today. We may wonder why they did certain things but as we better understand their surroundings, we can begin to imagine that we would have behaved similarly. This is a happy consequence of persistent writing.
There are also regrettable consequences of writing, especially when it comes from distant past, long after the death of the author, and also after the death of the society in which he wrote. As alluded to earlier, authorship is ambiguous. There must be an individual to write something down, but his motivation and inspiration comes from the society that he experiences. This becomes more explicit in archeology that interprets ancient writings as utterances of the society despite the obvious fact that an individual had to write it down.
The evolution of language itself is remarkable. While my childhood education taught me that language was somehow unique to humans, I maintain that basic language with an agreed upon syntax exists in all life forms, even at the microbial level. I believe life itself is inherently communicative. Superficially, we may see simple utterances such as a simple expression of warning or of attraction. Many times if we pay closer attention, we will begin to a more developed language up to and including a grammar. One example of what I call grammar is the etiquette of eye contact. All species with eyes appear to recognize the significance of eye contact, and of the various potential meanings that can be conveyed with eye contact, ranging from I’m about to eat you, to I want to play with you, to I want nothing to do with you.
Language evolves for higher organisms capable of more forms of expressions. There are rituals of sequences of bodily actions and vocalizations and also of external constructs such as marking of territory or of building nests or simple displays out of materials.
Within humans, there was a supposed evolution of language where earliest humans merely uttered simple sounds to express some immediate imperative statement. I personally think that well developed language with full grammars existed with the first humans. Assuming we find a translator, we would be able to have a meaningful conversation with the first humans. I don’t know how this came about, but I include the ability to have a meaningful conversation as a necessary element to being human.
Certainly by the time of rise of small permanent settlements, the inhabitants had access to conversation including in a matter that we could participate in, if we had the appropriate translator. Even during the preliterate societies, there arose a method of oral tradition that achieved a way to persist thoughts sometimes over spans of many generations. This came in the form of poetry. Poetry’s rhyme and rhythm created persistence. Not only was poetry easier to memorize, the rhyme and rhythm left little room for mistakes. Using the wrong word will eventually become recognizable as being wrong. The rhyme would not be right, or the rhythm would have a misplaced beat. There is controversy over the preservation reliability of oral traditions. Recitations clearly do change, even from the same reciter at different times. Meanwhile, broad messages appear to be preserved. We may not know exactly what happened during some conflict, but we have good confidence that there was a conflict between the broad entities described.
Because I start humanity with access to a developed language able to support oral traditions to preserve knowledge, the evolution within human language concerns the invention of writing, the transference of oral grammar into symbols that can be transferred back to oral sounds that match the spoken language.
The first stage of advanced civilization was the writing. The first substage was understanding the writing only when it is read out loud. The next substage was the ability to understand the writing silently. The full first stage of this level of civilization was the ability of an individual to understand the writing while in silent solitude. That individual could also silently write his thoughts without speaking them aloud.
This blog exists in this first stage of advanced civilization. I am writing in solitude. No one word is spoken. In fact, this will later get narrated by feeding the words to a computer program trained to speak reasonably similar to how a human would speak. From a evolutionary perspective, this is a remarkable achievement, to write something that will be spoke out loud only after it is written first.
Following the analogy of the Kardashev levels, there is are different levels of advanced writings. The first level involves one-dimensional writing. Although we may wrap words to fit on a 2-dimensional sheet of paper and arrange sheets into a 3-dimensional book that may be copied over time, the writing itself is equally comprehended if written out in one very long line. That very long line represents the oral pedigree. The writing is a substitution for speaking, and speaking is one word, even one syllable, at a time.
The next level of civilization is two dimensional writing. Arranging words on a page is still 1-dimensional writing. Two dimensional writing comes in the form of paintings or illustrations. Even the most unskilled illustration can condense information that would take many pages to write out and even then the linear writing would not fully capture all that is pictured.
Two dimensional writing arguably occurred before one dimensional writing. These are preserved in cave paintings and various carvings representing humans or animals. As an aside, I consider carvings and sculpture to be two-dimensional writing because the information still resides on the surface. I do distinguish the preliterate paintings and sculptures from post-literate two-dimensional writing. A recent example is the popularization of what are called memes, pictures that send rich messages that can spread very quickly and also that can escape censors. We recognize those memes as more powerful than just words. Memes are two dimensional. While memes in the Internet are a recent innovation, similar constructs existed in ancient times in the forms of pictograms or illustrations, especially small ones inserted in margins. In the case of some marginalia, the illustrations capture information that is not in the text, and often what the text is deliberately trying not to say.
Two dimensional writing is in the form of paintings, illustrations, animations, and other visualizations. These include physical objects like sculptures or models. There is a language and grammar associated with different styles or periods. We can recognize messages in different eras but we can also recognize they were using a different visual language. An example of differences in 2-dimensional grammar is the use of perspective, where one era would treat perspective to depict relative value or importance of different people, another era follow ruler-straight lines of perspective for realism, and another would use loose free-hand perspective to add ambiguity. We can recognize the messages in each, but clearly they are speaking in different 2-dimensional tongues.
The next level of civilization involves 3 dimensional language. This emerges with engineering, in the broad sense of that term, where we assemble components to build a new whole, but where those components have some functional purpose even when they are hidden from outside view. If that hidden component was missing or broken, then the entire construct would become different, at the very least it would be broken. The example is a machine of some type, even something basic like an oven with an internal thermostat control. Beyond the mere fact that the oven works as intended, the instance itself captures the information about how to make it. We can disassemble or dissect the machine to understand how it works and we can demonstrate our knowledge by building a replicate that works as well. We really understand it if the replicate is better than the original.
Normally, we will build something from the same plans used to build the original. Sometimes we need to reverse engineer something that we no longer have the original plans or those plans are no longer practical. A good example of this is the Antikythera mechanism where an important clue about its meaning is that it once worked and did something that once considered valuable. To replicate this message, not only do we have to reproduce the appearance, but we have to reproduce its functionality, and that reproduced functionality has to be reasonable to justify the original owners owning it.
Also normally, we just use our machines as they are given to us. Even so, each machine or construct brings with it information that we could read from the object itself. The information goes beyond what it takes to make a replicate. The instance exposes design choices, something things could have been bigger or smaller, stronger or weaker, using one material or another. The choices were deliberate, and considering those choices would tell us about how the machine was intended to be used or how it benefited the owner.
Even in the modern age with ready access to design software and computer aided manufacturing, there are still things that are hand-crafted made one part at a time where each is manually adjusted to fit where it is needed. That original construct is creative but the message is expressed immediately in the manufacture. It can occur in a single man’s workshop. At no point in this construction is there any verbal discussion, or any written instructions, or any diagrams. Just as my description of an author silently typing words without speaking them, this creator is silently constructing something without talking about it, writing it down, or drawing it out.
Just as with 2-dimensional example, there are prehistoric examples of 3 dimensional constructs before there was literacy. Back in stone age, individuals would craft up their own spear throwers or snares. They might even have found someone’s else’s work and successfully copied it. I make a distinction similar to the 2 dimensional example that after written language, 3 dimensional messaging developed into a richer language with its own grammar and meaning that can only be conveyed in the 3 dimensional form. I think of a recent example of the development of flying drones especially when used in war. The enemy would read the meaning of the drone by what it does and if they managed to capture one they would be able to understand it to either build one of their own or find a way to defeat it.
Four dimensional language involves processes. I like the example of the construction of large civil engineering projects. Work has to be done in a specific sequence, but also each step needs very precise planning to have multiple items of material, equipment, and manpower to get that step done in a precise time window. Even something like pouring concrete requires not just the concrete but the ability to complete the fill in one operation followed quickly by the appropriate finishing steps at the various point when the concrete cures.
We can look at a completed bridge as a 3-dimensional language and understand what makes it work and why it is needed, but no amount of disassembly or dissection would expose the process planning needed to construct it. This is better illustrated when we look back at ancient megalithic constructions that stacked very large stones on top of each other with very tight fits where the stones weigh as much as hundreds of tons. We can look at these structures today and understand how it standing and we may even have an idea as to why it was built, but we don’t know how they were built.
It appears that even at the time of construction, no one wrote down the instructions for the process of building the structures even when they had access to a written language that would be been useful to coordinate such activities. The process was communicated mostly by observing prior similar projects and repeating the same steps but changed to accommodate the new project. We may never know how the ancient civilizations accomplish what they did, the instructions only existed in the experience of watching the progress in the constuction.
I don’t grant humanity as achieving four-dimensional literacy. Even with modern construction, there is a heavy reliance on experience of the contractor to complete the project on time. If you give the same plans, or even the same records, to another contractor for a similar project, it is far from assured that the second contractor would success unless they already had their own experience. The actual process requires modification and adaptation as unexpected challenges occur, there is no prior record instructing them how to do this. They have to rely on their own ingenuity informed by their actual lived experiences on prior projects.
Meanwhile, I see an example where there is a persistent record of processes when it comes to life. Living things have some kind of instruction manual for how to grow and to deal with changes. I can plant a seed from a package that promises flowers within a certain number of days, or fruit within another number of days. After waiting those number of days, the results will come right on schedule allowing for adjustments according to weather conditions. It is even more remarkable to know that the instructions say that although the goal is bare fruit, the first task is to grow roots, then to grow the stalk, then the leaves, then stems, and only after many weeks later even start thinking about making the flower bud. Looking more closely at the microscopic levels, there are similar sequences to build cells, but also to specialize the cells. At each level some things are used only temporarily and then dismantled with confidence that they are no longer needed.
There is a parallel to the processes humans follow to build large projects, we do the same kind of sequences and the temporary constructs that are later discarded when no longer needed. The difference is that if stop doing this, we will forget how to do it in the future, just like humanity forgot how the ancients created megalithic constructions. Meanwhile, the seed has access to precisely this kind of information in some persistent form. A seed may even be dormant for several seasons and still manage to build itself even if it the only one of its kind in the entire landscape over many years. It will flower and fruit (if self-pollinating) on schedule.
There are claims that seeds managed this feat after being dormant for thousands of years. This would be like modern man being able to transport a 1000 ton monolith over dozens of miles without manual machinery (or perhaps even with it) for the first time in at least 4000 years.
Perhaps another description of this human deficiency is in the essay I, Pencil: “Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?”. A single seed knows how to create its seed.
For different levels of advanced communication, technology does not really play a part other than what is need to record the information. Even four-dimensional language exists on this earth without need for space ships, it just does not yet exist for humans. We current live in a luxury of continuity of a relatively peaceful era, that despite global wars still managed to preserve the experienced know-how to build things. I have no doubt that we will eventually, and possibly soon, experience a complete collapse like that of the bronze-age collapse or whatever separates us from the megalithic architects. Unlike the lowly seed, the human survivors would not be able to recreate what we take for granted now.
As I think about life, I think it goes beyond four dimensions. I do not think that the instructions for the growing processes exist in the DNA sequences of base pairs. The DNA is like the library of patterns to feed modern 3D printers. The actual sequences of base pairs providers instructions perhaps how to build components. The coordination and scheduling of the building of the entire bodies comes from information encoded in some other means. One explanation is that beyond the static record of various sequences, the DNA molecule dynamically twists itself to expose the necessary instructions at the appropriate times, and in particular puts those instructions in close proximity so that the combination of constructions occur at the right times and the right quantities. Once these are no longer needed, the DNA twists itself appropriately to go on to the next task. For building an entire body, this has to be coordinated across many other cells to occur at the same time, and yet only in just the parts in the body where it is needed.
The DNA is getting instructions from somewhere else. The proposition is that it is meta information that comes from the various ways that the DNA can twist itself where the sequences are determined by the results of the previous configurations. Another is that the information is in the combination of DNA and the proteins available in close proximity. An organization does not grow from a raw bundle of DNA even if that bundle was complete. The DNA has to be in a cell and that cell was prepared with just the right distribution of proteins to prime the project when signaled to start.
My point here is that life has access to level of literacy that humans have yet to achieve, and may never achieve. We enjoy our current prosperity with too much confidence that it will last forever. We have no permanent record of how we got this to work. Once we collapse, our predecessors may never be able to anything more than scavenge through our ruins. They would be as likely to rediscover how to make megalithic monuments as to rediscover how to create modern life, and that likelihood is near zero.