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Civilization, As We Know It (by Paul W. Smith)

Destroyed city with phones

Civilization as we know it is all about an advanced state of culture, government, science and industry – the opposite of a savage, unrefined or uneducated condition.  It is presumed to include a plethora of modern comforts and conveniences made possible by science and technology.  After a week of backpacking in the wilderness, or a few hours without an Internet connection, most of us welcome a return to civilization. 

Pundits of diverse persuasion have used the potential end of CAWKI as a call to action.  Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi said the end would come if the GOP took control of the Senate, but she was wrong (at least so far).  A NASA study predicts the culprit will be a combination of resource depletion and unequal wealth allocation, and while that makes sense, it’s also a bit too early to confirm this as well.  Science writer Mark Gibbs suggests it may end with a cough, which in this era of superbugs doesn’t sound too far-fetched.  There is an endless supply of such threats to worry about, but before we can properly focus our anxiety, it helps to consider how we got to this point.

Historian Yuval Noah Harari has lately addressed the question of how we (Homo sapiens) evolved from a meh primate to the foremost power on planet Earth.  Yuval describes our ascendance in terms of three somewhat novel revolutions- cognitive, agricultural and scientific. The fact is that we are able to do something that no other lifeform can – fabricate ideas that aren’t real and then use them as a basis for connecting with one another. 

There was a popular bumper sticker back in the ‘60’s that read, “Reality is Overrated.”  Although the actual intent may have had more to do with pharmaceuticals than the advancement of the human race, it was still thought provoking. In his book Sapiens, Harari concludes that it is man-made, non-existent ideas, which he calls shared myths, that bind us together and move us forward.  Some of his examples are money, religion, limited liability corporations and politics.  While the narrative of each of these myths will shift with time, our language allows us to communicate with anyone about the basic ideas they embody. For this to continue working, there are a few ground rules, the most important of which is this; the new myths must evolve from previous shared ones.  Radical introduction of original myths just doesn’t happen.  The entire shared myth construct is built on one key ingredient - communication. 

There was a time not long ago when you could communicate with a large subset of earth’s population from almost anywhere, provided you could find a payphone.  When I was a teenager this worked to our advantage as our curfew approached (“I would have called but I knew I’d be even later if I wasted time hunting for a payphone.”)  Technology began ruining this excuse around 1983. 

One of the first mobile phones, the Motorola DynaTAC (MSRP $3995), came a lot closer to a call-anyone-from-anywhere communication model.  It was universally despised, earning the nickname “brick phone.”  Hatred for what was to become the ubiquitous cell phone was a big part of what drove the extraordinary success of the iPhone.  The communication necessary to tell the stories that would evolve and advance the shared myths of our culture was suddenly in every pocket.  Cell calls and text messaging were no longer a wealthy thing nor were they a nerd thing; now our myths could be spread through the explosive growth of WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

Anyone born between 1995 and 2012 has never known life without tablets and smartphones.  According to a 2017 study, 3 out of 4 American teenagers owns an iPhone.  This new iGen lives in a world completely shaped by smartphones and social media.  Communication of shared myths is what secured our dominance in the primate competition, and civilization as we’ve known it is not done changing.

The only reason I didn’t get my driver’s license on my 16th birthday was because the DMV was closed that day.  My peers were just as anxious to get behind the wheel.  Now, less than half of teens get their license within a year of the legal age.  They are also less likely to get in a car with someone who has been drinking.  Teen pregnancy rates peaked in 1990, and have declined steadily to their recent historic lows.  While some of that is due to better awareness of contraceptives, a significant part comes from just not having sex. 

Today’s phone-fortified teens are driving later, drinking less, and postponing sex.  Their social lives are mainly played out on the phone, from the safety of their own homes.  The iPhone-based social norms are not all good; teen depression and suicide rates have also shot up since 2011.  Although fewer kids are going out to parties, those who do are sure to document every detail instantly on social media, making everyone else feel left out.  It turns out that inequalities and social hierarchies are shared myths as well.

In the perspective of history, civilization as we know it is an advanced state of life where technology supplies many comforts and conveniences.  But the same things that provide us with a comfortable lead in the primate race continue to change our society in subtle ways.    Once upon a time, social skills involved recognizing and responding to body language and facial expressions.   Now they consist of the ability to choose just the right emoji for a situation.  Know it or not, this is our new civilization.  :-\

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Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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