Ziggurat Century: Global Civilization as the New Babel, with Reason for Hope

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We are living in a time of unprecedented global integration, where economies, security interests, legal systems, and languages and systems of learning have been dispersed and interwoven across the globe. There are obvious positive effects to this integration, along with certain overarching and seemingly intractable problems that cause real worry for even the most hopeful or studied observers.

Languages and cultures intermingle, yet seek to remain distinct and continuous, and individuals seek to enhance their own possibilities (requiring freedom of information, and freedom of movement), while seeking to prevent the corrosion of already structured social fabrics. The obvious problem is that some of our most vital human interests come into conflict more readily with those of others, when massive numbers of people mix and intermingle, individuals and cultures competing with one another for the spoils of a new global system.

But there is no reason this has to be a source of friction, suspicion or violence. It is also true that a more open system is more dynamic, more able to adapt to otherwise ‘trivial’ personal interests, and better able to establish truly just rules for negotiating tense competitive situations where decisions need to be made about whose interests are best served by what result. What is needed is devotion to that open system, and real pragmatic tools for helping that system recognize and address genuine situations of friction or crisis.

There are some 6,800 languages spoken in the world today, and more than half are expected to die off within the next 100 years, possibly much sooner, and possibly well over one-half. This rapid evacuation of global language culture —though some will say it brings the benefits of increased uniformity— robs us all of potential bridges across cultures where understanding can take place.

As words disappear, so do ideas, comparisons, metaphors, symbols and the human element of perception. And the degradation of the global culture, in this fashion, while it may be part of a process of integration which will deliver some much needed benefits for long-term peace and human wellbeing, is a stress on the sense of security or identity of those cultures which survive.

A key focus at all times, in the new globalized civilization, must be to ensure that identities are not threatened by the mass expansion of media, rights, capital and movement. The conflict of the Tower of Babel—a place where we presume too many distinct cultures and interests combined, and an empire collapsed—is a conflict of (abstract/thought-pattern) border tensions provoking animosity and rivalry.

Actual border conflicts derive fuel and momentum from abstract border conflicts—visions of the world, racial prejudice, linguistic rivalry, competition for resources—, a tendency 21st century technologies, politics and societal developments must counteract. Openness is part of the new era of information and communication, which has helped to make the world “smaller” or “flatter” or “come together”, if we think more optimistically.

As interests and opportunities coincide across nations and cultures, limiting the degree to which geography determines the life choices of a given individual, we face the need to embrace or to fear and oppose the increased openness that offers the resources and the opportunities to meet our interests. Similar to the way in which cloudscape-computing allows for much more resilient, secure, and super-fast computation, so a broad, integrated global society, if informed by and served by norms that protect the human individual as a creative and information-gathering entity, can achieve new dynamism and vastly more potent and timely means of problem solving, where needed.

The new integrated web, the dawn of hyper-convergence, and the global hunger for digital technologies means human society itself is becoming a sort of universal library or information-store. Technology can help us not only to communicate, but to share the work of solving basic human problems, and to transcend the nature of oppositional conflict. Productive adversarial systems can be woven into a broad social fabric that helps us to debate, confront and work through the challenges of our times without resort to armed confrontation: the ugliest and ultimately least productive of human talents.

The 21st century need not be the new fall of the Tower of Babel, but could be the agile and well-thought construction of an abstract ziggurat—a fortress, a temple, an storehouse of ideas and guidance—shared by the broad continuum of human societies and attuned to our need to communicate and co-create. If we understand the problem of our times is one of forging cooperative bonds that serve the individual and protect human rights, we will be best armed to persevere in the face of challenges to cultural and individual identity, and reap the rewards—as a species—of the information age.

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Originally published 17 May 2008 for The Hot Spring’s Crisis Policy Forum
Republished 25 May 2008 for Café Sentido’s project The Written Wor(l)d

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