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The Inverse of Civilization
Sunday September 11th 2005, 9:11 pm
Filed under: General
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One of my favorite computer games of all time is Sid Meier’s Civilization. I can’t speak much for the latest version, but the original game was one of the most revolutionary ever created, despite the fact that its central concept was taken from board and dice games that have existed for a very, very long time.

In the game, you would choose which government type your nation operated under: despotism, anarchy, monarchy, communism, republic or democracy. Each had its strengths and weaknesses, and was more or less suited to nations in particular stages of development. For example, democracy was not a choice for a pre-bronze-age nation. And when you finally were ready for it, you had to deal with the fact that under a democracy your citizens were unhappy if too many military units were deployed in the field.

And why should they be happy? A deployed military pisses off virtual citizens as much as it does real ones. For one thing, it fractionalizes the direction and spirit of the nation; conflict without creates conflict within. People miss their loved ones, they are uncomfortable feeling like a target. By the time you see democracy, it’s not 100 BC anymore, and people aren’t going to swallow that crap about their militaristic struggle being the righteous and inevitable conclusion of divine will. Or at least not as much of it as they used to.

Furthermore, a deployed military is a drain on the nation’s resources. Everything needed to overextend the limb of the nation siphons from those projects and endeavors that might benefit its heart. Today we measure this in the hundreds of billions of dollars, but the impact is truly much greater than that, and not measured in any currency.

Making citizens happy is one of the most important parts of the game in Civilization. If you don’t keep your people happy, your nation will not produce, and if you do not produce, you will fall behind the world in all things: scientific achievement, economic growth, military strength, environmental cleanliness. Once you’re behind, you’re the dog. If you don’t manage to kick international scientific ass and colonize space before everyone else, forget it. All your resources will, and there is no doubt of this, end up belonging to some other nation.

In Civilization, you, the leader, are the one playing the game. You’re the boss, the elite, the dude with the palace who makes the rules and calls the shots. That is, until it seems like a long time since your palace has been renovated, it’s been a while since Rome wasn’t in civil disorder, production on your great achievements has halted, and England is demanding your knowledge of nuclear fission at the threat of war.

Is Civilization anything like real life? It makes some assumptions, of course, such as the idea that all nations must be in a persistent state of war until they become one planetary government. Sid Meier thereby joins a multitude of media, art and thought creators who have made this assertion throughout history. This multitude is a subset of those people whose words anyone has ever bothered to record, which itself is a tiny subset of all the people that ever had something to say. At least in the case of Civilization we’re dealing with an interactive work, a different sort of fiction if you can look at it the right way.

But if you look at it another way, it’s a simulation of an historical record. The history that drives the simulation model of Civilization is true, at least in spirit if not in fact. What worries me more is whether it is also a model of the future. To what degree will our lives be at the mercy of the player? The player often makes bad decisions. Power flows like an eel through the hands of those struggling to play tug-of-war with it.

Civilization was a game I played on a glowing box, a mark of my own nation’s scientific achievement. I find myself playing the same game on a similar box today, only this time I am not the leader. I am the citizen.

The long and the short of why the Internet even exists is the military. It is a scientific achievement that was created in support of missile systems. The internet is a distributed system, designed specifically to mitigate the impact of any one node, or any several nodes, being destroyed by an opposing force.

It is the mark of all warfare, and much progress, that consequences are, if not forgotten, inadequately considered. Or that’s one theory. Personally, I’m more apt to believe that the consequences are understood but dismissed. The issues we must deal with are here and now. We’ll deal with the repercussions later. Look at biological weapons, look at terrorism, look at all the pieces of the game in all their forms that are both the natural consequence of human social evolution and a direct representation of our failure to do what is within our power, to find peace.

And here in the Internet is a new kind of tool. I’m sure the U.S. Government knew full well some of the ramifications of the choices it made with the Internet. It acted out of need, knowing it could deal with any problems later. For example, this June it reasserted its authority over the underlying systems that make the Internet possible. The only alternative to this central, U.S. authority would be for multiple “internets” to be created, fractionalizing the global digital mind share into a patchwork of competing interests, a place without physical bounds that is somehow sliced up as neatly as the lines and colors on a globe. Observers of technology have also discussed another alternative: War over (or on) the Internet.

Of course, the Internet is already fractionalized, just in smaller, less distructive ways. There are certain channels of the Internet with different demographics. Places where only certain people go, or even know how to get to. The Internet is becoming more local and personal all the time, even as it becomes more global and encompassing. Then you have the private places of the Internet. And perhaps more interestingly, the anonymous places, such as Anonymizer, Inc., which provide the kind of freedom that lovers of law and order might call anarchy, or at least consider dangerous. Interestingly, according to this BBC article, our very own government pays Anonymizer, Inc. to promote their services in Iran and China, to promote free speech. Are they considering the consequences, or dismissing them?

I think world voices coming together is a good thing. I think free speech should find its way across the globe. I think the central power, that final state of peace that Civilization supposes, and players like Bush and Stalin and Hitler and Caesar were looking for, driven by reasons that had nothing to do with peace, should not be up to the player but rather be found in another place altogether: A place as solid as the lines on a globe, yet as distributed and redundant as all the individual minds that, ultimately and together, own this planet. A network of thought and decision and knowledge and peace strong enough that if one part, or even several, are destroyed, it will still stand.

Maybe the Internet will be part of that. Maybe it won’t. There are two choices: Civilization as the old model or Civilization as the eternal model. Personally, I’m opting for the former, and I’m going try and seize my chance to play. More importantly, let’s bring everyone to the board.

2 Comments so far
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As always, well written. It’s interesting to think of war over the internet. But if you think about it, people are relying more and more heavily on the internet for information and commerce. I don’t see there being a threat right at the moment, but who’s to say in 5 or 10 years that the internet won’t be so intergral to our lives that some attack upon it could cripple nations?

Comment by veronika 09.13.05 @ 10:21 am

As always this is a brilliant commentary Eric. I have been thinking a lot about those thought networks and what we do with the power of our thinking. I wrestle regularly with the differentiations that come from a focus on valuing life and valuing capital. I think much of the old Civilization is modeled on the value of cap[ital that has dominated so much of historical civilization. Yet in pockets and throughout that same history there are common heroes and movements that have valued life and I believe they are at the heart of how it is we have not allowed progress in civilization to completely steer itself into oblivion. In fact it might be at the heart of why we have experienced the movements towards a mutually beneficial society in terms of capital from the 1 big kahuna commanding the energy, time and resources of all the little people in the kingdom to civilizations that seek to spread this capital out more – though this still fails. I would content because it approaches a problem of valuing life by capitalizing it.

On and on the fool on the hill goes around, and in the end I feel somewhat positive that the only true path to life, liberty and happiness with be through responsibility and sacrifice for life. And of course an eventual leap of faith into the scary unknown world where bettering ones self and ones world is the highest form of progress.

Thanks for your thought provoking wisdom Eric.

Comment by andrei hedstrom 09.29.05 @ 8:18 pm

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