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The Beginning of the End of Civilization IV and its Replacement by the Next

Civilization IV is the culture of mass entertainment and news. Newspapers and magazines of the 19th century, especially those illustrated by photographs and engravings, were its predecessor. Then, in the 20th century, the motion picture began to attract mass audiences. Radio and television disseminated the images and sounds that were recorded on tape. The culmination of this civilization can perhaps be identified with the network-television shows which were so popular in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Huge audiences were tuned to each show. It seemed that the attention of the entire community was focused on what the networks put in their limited time slots. The network news programs became like an official record of public life. But then cable television came along to dissipate the mass audience, steering interest instead to narrow specialties. The electronic “empires” entered a phase of decline.

Civilization V is the culture of computer-based communication and entertainment. Its essential difference from the previous civilization lies in the computer’s ability to facilitate two-way communication. The “viewer” is not only one who views and electronically produced image but who acts or interacts with the image. Individuals are able to express themselves in this medium whereas, in the old entertainment culture, they merely sat back and enjoyed the show. Consequently, the culture as a whole becomes fragmented into many different streams of expression. The trend begun with cable television is thus extended to the individual level. Each person is able to create his or her own web site or blog, communicating with others throughout cyberspace. While some of these individually created sites attract much traffic, many are small and obscure. Yet, as a whole, this fragmented network offers a freer and more diverse kind of expression than what was possible in the previous culture. It is a culture with at least ten million points of light.

Regardless of the civilization, there are certain elements common to them all. First, the civilization depends upon a particular communication technology to spread the message from its author or creator to an audience. Whether it be newspapers, motion pictures, radio, television, or the Internet, a technology is invented which makes use of available physical resources to create an effective communication device. Second, the owners and managers of this technology find ways to provide messages or programming content which is interesting to people. They want to attract and retain people’s attention so that a large audience is created. Third, the media managers try to monetize the audience so that they will have the financial resources to continue to provide the stream of messages and, hopefully, make a profit. In other words, there is a business side of entertainment.

On another page in this web site (end.html) we have discussed the possible decline of the Fourth Civilization in terms of the loss of advertising revenues for network television and other entertainment media and the corresponding rise of Internet advertising. We have speculated on the potential decoupling of entertainment programming and commercial advertising. The focal arrangement of this civilization was the unspoken bargain between producer and consumer of electronic entertainment in which the producer - the television network - provided free entertainment on commercial television in exchange for the viewer’s willingness to watch commercial messages that were inserted into the programming. But this bargain, too, may be undone with the advent of TiVo. Commercial advertisers are having to find other ways to get their largely unwanted messages out to the public.

This page will focus on the new types of programming that have become available in Civilization V. This programming changes so rapidly that it seems every year there is a new web site sensation that sweeps our community. Today’s young people are riding the crest of this change; the old generation struggles to keep pace in its understanding of the emerging media phenomena through news reports and contact with the young. Among the sensational sites are the following: Yahoo.com, Google.com, Amazon.com, Ebay.com, Craigslist.com, Meetup.com, MySpace.com, YouTube.com, and SecondLife.com. There are also many, many other sites on the Internet worthy of mention, but our space is limited here.

Yahoo and Google are search engines, a programming innovation which helps individuals to find web sites of interest to them. One types in a certain search word on the Yahoo or Google site and a long list of related web sites appears. The web sites are listed in order of relevance or importance as the search engine determines. Therefore, the proprietors of web sites try to design their sites to gain a high ranking. A high ranking on Google or Yahoo brings a large number of first-time visitors to a site. It is an important determinant of traffic. The two search engines also sponsor Internet advertising which consists of messages that automatically pop up when a particular web site appears.

Amazon.com, Ebay.com, and Craigslist.com are web sites which have revolutionized the world of commerce. They are electronic substitutes for book stores (and sellers of other merchandise), commercial auctions, and classified advertisements respectively, able to handle the transactions more cheaply than traditional merchandising channels can.

Amazon.com was originally a web site where one could buy books. If one went to that web site and typed in the title of a book or the name of its author, one would be directed to a page which described the book in further detail and gave price information. By clicking an order button, one could put the book in an electronic “shopping cart” and pay for it with a credit car. Then Amazon.com would ship the book to the customer. This web site also maintains a best-seller list for books, ranking each title by sales volume. Amazon.com has lately branched out into merchandise besides books.

Ebay.com is a site where someone can offer merchandise for sale to the highest bidder. Unlike Amazon.com, Ebay.com is not itself a buyer and seller of merchandise but merely a market where commercial transactions take place. Once the bid is made and accepted, the seller is expected to ship the product to the buyer and the buyer is expected to pay.

Craigslist.com is a listing of classified advertisements on the Internet, organized according to product or type of interest. For free, a person can post an offer - for instance, to rent a particular apartment for a particular price - and people can browse through the listings to find an advertisement that interests them. Craigslist then provides a link by which the person responding to the ad can contact the person who posted it. The two parties then work out their own arrangements to conclude the deal. Being a free service, Craigslist.com has cut into the revenues which newspapers receive from their classified ads and, to a certain extent, threatened the future viability of newspapers.

Meetup.org is a site which helps to arrange meetings of persons with a similar interest. The organizer posts the time and place of the meeting and interested individuals show up. Some of the meetings are sponsored by an ongoing group while others are special one-time meetings called for a particular purpose. This site has shown itself to be especially useful in political organizing. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the supporters of Howard Dean called many such meetings and quickly established him as a front runner for the Democratic nomination. The Dean campaign also made effective use of web sites in raising money.

The various web sites which we have described all handle functions that were previously handled in traditional ways: book stores, auctions, newspaper classified ads. They improve upon those functions by offering a wider selection of products at a lower price. Transaction efficiency is greatly improved. The Internet has also brought new ways of providing services in other areas. For instance, on-line education lets people take college courses for credit whatever their schedule of work hours or wherever they might live. Numerous sex sites offer pornographic images or opportunities to hook up with willing sex partners in one’s own locality. There are sites for particular businesses which offer product information. There are sites (such as www.WorldHistorySite.com) that cater to people with particular interests.

No one can predict what the Fifth Civilization ultimately will bring. Predictably, it will create its own type of institution. The seeds for these institutions may have have existed since the beginning of time in human society, but the Internet will create the possibility of bringing them to full development. I would suspect that the coming civilization will focus on questions of personal identity. People are hungering to know who they are and to connect with likeminded individuals. The Internet is capable of facilitating those connections. It also allows individuals to express themselves or exhibit their unique personalities in ways that were not possible before.

As examples of cutting-edge sites of the Fifth Civilization, consider MySpace.com, YouTube.com, and SecondLife.com. Next year there may be something else that excites young people but today these sites have the buzz.

MySpace.com is a collection of personal web sites which individuals have created about themselves. The sites will exhibit photographs of the person, personal statements, favorite music, names of friends, and other information which the person is willing to reveal about himself or herself to a circle of friends. This site is all the rage among teenagers, who are constantly changing their sites to suit passing whims or leaving messages for others to see. More on the Myspace.com phenomenon is found at http://www.identityindependence.com/myspace.html.

YouTube.com is a site where individuals can post videos which they have made. This site attracted much public attention when Google bought it from its young founders in October 2006 for $1.65 billion. Time Magazine declared it the invention of the year for 2006. YouTube.com takes advantage of the fact that many young people today make their own videos and need some place to show them. They post their videos on this site. Not only does the site feed a hunger for egotistical exhibition or self-expression, it has also become an opportunity to audition for the commercial media. YouTube.com ranks the sites by popularity. The most popular video sites attract the attention of television producers who may hire the individuals involved or, alternatively, imitate them. The self-made programming on YouTube.com has become, indeed, like an alternative television network which attracts an audience and makes celebrities of its most-watched subjects .

SecondLife.com (which I learned about only today) is a web site that allows people to create their own identities in an alternative virtual world. Just this year, its membership has increased from 100,000 to more than two million. Persons logging on to this site are given software tools to design and create “avatars” of themselves - three-dimensional images of their own character inhabiting this world. Once “embodied” in cyberspace, people can be and do whatever they want to be and do. They can build houses, start businesses, visit night clubs, have sex, and spend money. (For a $6 monthly fee, SecondLife.com will give the player a certain amount of money to spend in this virtual world.) The various characters develop relationships with each other. They have experiences which simulate those in real life while avoiding the real-life consequences of making bad decisions. On the other hand, the hours which people may spend on their “second life” on line are hours which they might otherwise have devoted to their “first life”, dreary as it may be. To become addicted to this virtual experience is a form of escapism.

Although the most popular sites in this new culture are draining customers from traditional entertainment, it is hard to envision the “empires” that will arise in Civilization V. Empire suggests a concentration of power. Surely the television networks, which gathered a large audience, had this power. While some web sites may have a large volume of traffic, it seems unlike that, in its totality, the Internet will ever have any site with the cultural dominance of those three networks. By its nature, the Internet gives rise to individual expression, and individuals are hopelessly numerous and diverse. So we must wait to see how the coming Internet civilization compares with preceding ones with respect to its institutions of power.

I would suspect, however, that certain ideas will emanate from this culture that will gain a general influence. Self-expression may become increasingly valued. With that may come a more intense search for personal identity. Self-definition may become one of life’s more serious purposes. And, since one’s place in the world is an important part of self-identity, it will become important to have a clear idea of the world and where it is headed. Therefore, schemes of world history such as this one may have a role in the coming public consciousness. We get back to Goethe’s three questions: “What is the story of all mankind? What is the story of my time? And what story is mine alone?”

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