Imminent Collective Communication “Info-death”?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 24 Sep 2018
Collapse of Global Civilization Understood Otherwise
Part I of Collapse and Renaissance of Civilization: Dilemma of Communication and Engagement Understood Otherwise
Much is currently made of an impending collapse, whether the focus is on that of the economic system (as some kind of replica of 1929 or 2008), of the ecosystem (notably as a consequence of climate change), or of overpopulation and other post-peak implications (notably the exhaustion of non-renewable energy resources), as can be variously recognized (Checklist of Peak Experiences Challenging Humanity, 2008). Dystopian fiction has extensively explored the process. Possibilities envisaged include extinction of the human race as currently known.
The rise and fall of civilizations has been extensively studied — but not that of a “global” civilization. It is necessarily a preoccupation of macrohistorians (Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatulluh, Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: perspectives on individual, social, and civilizational change, 1997). Appropriately for the times, it is the theme of a video game (Civilization VI: Rise and Fall, 2018)
The process of collapse has been studied by Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, 2005). Through a study of the decline of the Roman Empire, the focus has been placed on energy by Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, 2006). Civilizational collapse is potentially implied by the many current warnings of imminent collapse of the global financial system — most recently that of Gordon Brown (Gordon Brown in dire warning about the next financial crisis, BBC News, 13 September 2009). He argues that the breakdown in international co-operation means nations would be unable to act in a concerted way to tackle the many future threats:
This is a leaderless world and I think when the next crisis comes, and there will be a future crisis, we’ll find that we neither have the fiscal or monetary room for maneuver or the willingness to take that action. But perhaps most worrying of all, we will not have the international co-operation necessary to get us out of a worldwide crisis.
Rather than the conventional understanding of “energy”, the focus here is on “information” as it might be understood by physics as being more fundamental than “energy”. A similar point could be made with respect to other resources by which humanity is variously nourished, including “finance” and “knowledge”, especially in relation to creativity and innovation. The more fundamental issue is then neither the consequence of overpopulation, nor that of environmental degradation in any tangible sense. It is rather the information analogues of these.
The accumulation of non-degradable waste in the environment is indicative of the condition, notably the accumulation of orbiting space debris and the oceanic gyres — the trash vortices of marine waste (Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Indian Ocean garbage patch, North Atlantic garbage patch). Whether through the swirls of factoids, the psychosocial analogues to such gyres are tragically suggested by the lines of a classic poem of a century ago:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919)
The irony of this focus is that, if anything, considerable pride is cultivated in the emergence of a global knowledge-based civilization — variously enhanced and supported by the development of information and communication systems. These are shortly to be further enhanced by widespread deployment of artificial intelligence systems.
However the argument here is that there are non-technical aspects of the implied communication which are widely neglected, although readily evident. It is the ever increasing influence of these which is seen as undermining the uncritical promotion of techno-optimism and the surprises its promises may hold (Forthcoming Major Revolution in Global Dialogue: challenging new world order of interactive communication, 2013).
Global civilization is characterized by ever greater specialization of every kind. At the same time much is made of the purported “equality” of human beings, as solemnly enshrined in various declarations and religious principles (Cultivating the Myth of Human Equality: ignoring complicity in the contradictions thereby engendered, 2016). The conflictual relations between one system of belief and another, whether religious or ideological, confirms the perception of inequality in practice — acknowledged in the extraordinary “inequality” with respect to income and control of resources, whether or not this is deplored. As currently framed there is little likelihood that these understandings will be modified to any degree.
Such factors, together with the conflicting claims made, are evident in loss of confidence in communication systems. This is exemplified by the increasing levels of insecurity created by invasive surveillance and misleading information (possibly framed as fake news, but as readily recognized in the questionable claims of advertising, and the promotion of competing ideologies). This dimension is notably deplored in the ever greater loss of trust in conventional authorities, whether political, religious, or scientific — seemingly disguised by promotional gloss (Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering, 2008). A variety of conspiracies of silence conceal what remains unsaid (Global Strategic Implications of the “Unsaid”, 2003; Social Remainders from Psychosocial Remaindering, 2011).
This “loss of confidence” is accompanied by an ever greater focus on the shortest-term. This necessarily excludes the longer-term considerations within which the trends towards collapse are more readily recognized. It could be described as a systematic blinkering seen as necessary to handle information overload. As a consequence, complacent cocooning is variously encouraged, whereby each retreats into a comfort zone — a personal bubble or bunker in cognitive terms, with or without others, whether consciously or unconsciously (Pricking the Bubble of Global Complacent Complicity, 2017). Such bubbles may well be understood as vehicles for escape into orbit or to other planets — understood metaphorically or otherwise (Combining Clues to ‘Ascent’ and ‘Escape’, 2002; Towards an Astrophysics of the Knowledge Universe: from astronautics to noonautics? 2006)).
Following earlier preoccupation with alienation, this process is variously recognized through studies of the degrees of isolation paradoxically enabled by the exponential development of internet communication. The collapse can be explored more specifically and recognizably in terms of individual and collective attention and the many competing efforts in the “attention economy” to attract and exploit that ultimate resource (Investing Attention Essential to Viable Growth, 2014).
In the dynamics towards collective “info-death”, it may however be argued that increasingly attention will be withdrawn from the processes which depend on communication and on the confidence with which it may be associated. Experientially to some degree, the cognitive dynamics in the progression towards collapse are necessarily evident to those considering suicide.
As a rapid loss of communication “oomph” in qualitative terms, the civilizational collapse invites comparison with the much-studied gravitational collapse of stars. Other analogues of interest are the understandings of brain death (as might apply to any notion of the global brain) or cessation of the heart beat (as might apply to the “economic heart” of any community). Understood as a collapse of the communication universe — a Big Crunch — the eventual “heat death” of the physical universe, with loss of capacity for effective work, also offers a source of insight.
As with the hypothesized eventual collapse of the universe, the question is then what form any Renaissance of global civilization might take. This is the theme of a further development of this argument (Renaissance of Civilization as Engaging with Otherness Otherwise? 2018) which reframes a potential relation to the environment (Cognitive Embodiment of Nature “Re-cognized” Systemically, 2018).
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