CIVILIZATION

I was listening to a talk Stewart Brand did for the Long Now Foundation and I had an idea about cities and civilization. I don't know if it's new or not but it's interesting. Basically, civilization is about information storage and cities are storage devices. The reason nomadic tribes don't have much civilization is that they have nowhere to store information except their own heads. All the old oral stories and traditions are information storage. When you settle down and have a house, you can store more information. You can keep books, scrolls, whatever, but you can also just have information like what kind of a house do you have, what art do you put up, things like that. Do all the members have individual houses or does everybody live in a giant house? That's important information. The more information you can store, the more civilization you can have. Once you have enough people and a town, you can have libraries and schools, massive information storage. A city is the center of civilization because of the amount of information stored per area. A skyscraper can store many times as much information as a single house in the same land area. How this will change when we can store all human knowledge in a chip the size of a fingernail (it's coming, don't doubt it), I have no idea. I think as long as we have enough bandwidth, I think it'll make all areas possible centers of civilization because anyone, anywhere will be able to share in the effects that right now only cities bring. So if you're sad about the death of the rural area, just wait, people will move back as soon as the bandwidth moves out there and bring access to the information.

Jarod Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel (soon to be a must-watch PBS miniseries) tells about why some cultures dominated others and it almost all comes down to geography. Here's how I think that fits in with my theory. Diamond says that certain cultures got agriculture because of their geography. This allowed them to settle down, make houses, and start storing information in mass quantities. More people, more agriculture, more information, more civilization. It's a cycle. With more information, you can make more information. People start putting ideas together, making discoveries, inventing things. Agriculture leads to settling, which starts the information storage cycle.

One of the things Stewart Brand talked about is manufactured housing in England. His idea was you just put up the houses and as long as you don't have covenants or rules about what people can do with their houses (like we have so much of here), you'll get real culture and not just a bunch of cookie-cutter houses. People bring their information, their culture, and transform the area. If people aren't allowed to bring their culture because the convenants and neighborhood associations want everything the same, you get less information storage and the area just stays an ugly real estate development, not a place for people to live in.

Like I say, I don't know if it's obvious or not but I've been thinking about it.