Is a Civilization a machine?

Via Noah Smith comes a puzzling article by historian Niall Ferguson about how to reverse the fall of Western Civilization. He makes extensive use of an analogy to computer technology: comparing the West to an Operating System, and listing some of the “killer apps” of the “Western OS”. They are as follows, quoting directly from his article:

COMPETITION: Western societies divided into competing factions, leading to progressive improvements.

THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION: Breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology.

THE RULE OF LAW: Representative government based on private-property rights and democratic elections.

MODERN MEDICINE: 19th- and 20th-century advances in germ theory, antibiotics, and anesthesia.

THE CONSUMER SOCIETY: Leaps in productivity combined with widespread demand for more, better, and cheaper goods.

THE WORK ETHIC: Combination of intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.

There is something very disturbing to me about this article, and I was struggling to put my finger on just what it was. Perhaps it was the same qualms articulated by Noah Smith in his response, for I think there is is much merit in what he says about Ferguson’s article.

Perhaps it was the uncanny way it reminded me of the scene in the film Lawrence of Arabia, wherein a British Colonel (played by Anthony Quayle) is lecturing the Arabs about why Britain is great. He argues that Britain is “small, but it’s great. And why?”, he asks rhetorically. But before he can answer this, an Arab (Omar Sharif) interrupts: “Because it has guns!” The Colonel, somewhat lamely, finishes: “Because it has Discipline,” but he’s clearly quite put-out by the Arab’s less-inspiring assessment.

But then I realized what it was that bothered me: there is no mention of Art in Ferguson’s article. His so-called “killer apps” are technical, legal, and scientific devices. Which are all fine things, and all of necessity to civilization, no doubt, but there is an oddly cold quality to it all.

His computer analogy is an interesting one, perhaps more than he realizes, because it reveals the true nature of Ferguson’s objective: he’s not actually interested in “civilization”, he’s interested in building a machine. For that’s what the key to his ideal of Western society is: a well-run machine. There is no mention of the sublime in it. I think that’s what unsettled me about it.

1 Comment

  1. The machine works this way:1. Parents start poor, work hard, buy land, build a surplus, gain wealth. 2. Children live off the wealth created by parents.3. Grandchidren sell all assets.4. Greaat Grandchildren back to being poor.The machine works on the way up the ladder, but those born on top have only one way down.

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