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A Definition of Civilization 

What is a civilization? Is it a human community - a society - located in a particular place and time with continuity of government and social order; or is it a more abstract cultural configuration that describes the state of society at particular times? I subscribe to the latter view. Arnold Toynbee (my chief inspiration in this field) and most others subscribe to the former view.

In my view, human society in all parts of the world go through similar stages of development. In all cases, there is “pre-civilized” society when humanity is organized in small tribes, engaged in hunting-and-gathering activities or simple agriculture, and is possessing an unwritten or oral culture with ritualistic religion. Acquisition of the art of written language is a prerequisite for civilization in its initial stage.

My theory of civilizations extends this distinction to societies as they acquire other communication technologies. And so, the first civilization (Civilization I) would be a society that employs writing in its most primitive, ideographic form. The second civilization (Civilization II) would describe a society where written language advances to an alphabetic script. The third civilization (Civilization III) would describe a society where printed literature replaces handwritten manuscripts. The fourth civilization (Civilization IV) would be a society where the media of electric or electronic communication have added a culture to that based upon printed literature, or, some would say, have replaced it. The fifth civilization (Civilization V), now on the horizon, would be a culture created by the computer, as in the Internet or in future forms of computer-based communication.

One recognizes that each medium of communication, whether utilizing written language or images captured in electronic form, creates a certain kind of public space in which certain thoughts or intelligible messages can be expressed. This is the cultural aspect of civilizations. There is also, however, an aspect having to do with the structure of society. In my view, all human societies go through a process of development extending from primitive, tribal society to more complex societies that have a pluralistic structure of institutions. The various institutions become fully developed at certain times in world history. Civilization as a whole can be defined by the snap shot taken of the society as it successively acquires these institutions.

By this criterion, Civilization I would be a society dominated by the institution of government as it detaches from the earlier political-religious amalgamation, develops hereditary monarchies, and eventually large empires like the Roman empire or the Han empire in China. Civilization II would describe society as religion, transformed by philosophy and written texts, became a major power broker in society, joining government as a partner in organizing society. Civilization III would describe the society that originated in the Renaissance, where commercial institutions and institutions of secular learning (including literature, art, and the natural sciences) were the driving force in the culture. Civilization IV would be a society given over to popular entertainment where people spend much of their time watching television, following professional sports, listening to recorded music, and the like. As for Civilization V, we are now beginning to experience this culture but know not yet where it will lead. The young generation which expresses itself on MySpace, FaceBook, and YouTube has a better grip on this fifth civilization than we scholars.

There is a connection between dominant media of communication and emerging institutions of power in the society. I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say that the communication media and the new institutions of power appear roughly in the same time period of world history: the 4th and 3rd millennia B.C for Civilization I; the 1st millennium B.C. for Civilization II; the 14th and 15th centuries A.D. for Civilization III; the late 19th century and early 20th centuries A.D. for Civilization IV; and the late 20th century for Civilization V. But the culture of entertainment (Civilization IV) is the dominant culture now, at least in America.

Is civilization based upon the continuous society and culture of a geographically identified people or is it a phase in the development of a single world culture? Is there, for instance, a “Chinese civilization” distinct from ours?

For me, that question was decisively answered when, as a part of a group of Chinese tourists visiting Malaysia last December, I spent Christmas Day at a mountain-top resort called “Genting, city of entertainment”, with a 6,000-room hotel, gambling casino, and Las Vegas-style community park. To see hordes of Chinese teenagers running around excitedly in their Santa Claus stocking hats, playing electronic games, having their pictures taken in front of nonreligious Christmas displays - let me ask you now: Are these young people living in the “Chinese civilization” of Confucius or Mao Zedong or they, like young Americans and youth elsewhere, living in a materialistic, commercial, fun-centered “civilization” which I would associate with holiday shopping and electronic pop culture?

To adopt the latter view, one can begin to see civilization as an ongoing process, no less potent and dynamic in our own day than in the past ages that historians prefer to study. This view provides the basis of a penetrating form of historical prediction that can anticipate the future as being in a continuum with past and present events. Civilization is indeed a living creature within which we ourselves live.

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