Annual Applied Complexity Network and Board of Trustees Symposium
“Civilization” is an ancient ideal. The word’s Latin root, civilis, points to the values of someone inhabiting a city. To be civilized means to accept certain norms and behaviors putatively necessary for life in a complex community. We might think of civilization as something inherently collective, the cumulative creative and expressive achievement of humanity. Civilization implies sophistication, breadth, self-awareness, and a sense of place in time. And yet civilization is fragile, transitory, capable of changing, collapsing, or fading away.
Civilization has always had its critics and discontents, too. What is lost when we give up simplicity or wield the idea of civilization as an instrument against others? Walter Benjamin’s adage reminds us that, paradoxically, “there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Now more than ever, in a time when the world wobbles between the astonishing advances of human technology and our uncertain ability to survive what we have created, we need to ask what civilization is, where it is going, and whether we can enjoy its advantages while addressing its faults.
How are technology and civilization related, and will future technologies be likely to usher in a fundamental break in the history of civilization? Is civilization an amplifier of collective intelligence, a mechanism to police ignorance and violence, or merely the collective justification for avarice?
Is the globe divided by fundamentally incompatible “civilizations” destined to “clash”? Or can the project of civilization contribute to the pursuit of peace? And will new technological platforms promote decentralized civilizations that transcend geography creating ahistorical world orders?
Can the idea of civilization help us understand the trajectory of past societies and emergent values and behaviors in human communities over time? And can we avoid collapse by learning from the disintegrations of the past?
We are asking what complexity science and related creations of the human imagination tell us about the past, present, and future of civilization. In the emergent civilization of a globalized commons might we reason our way towards something more inclusive and humane?