History probably isn’t my strong point. And it’s hard to measure impacts over time. Causality is quite messy, the world’s quite big, and there’s a lot of time for things to happen.
Also, I’m never quite certain who us is.
But taking that all as a foundation, I’m tempted to say ‘a fair bit’.
I think the word that would be used by most people would be ‘civilisation’ but I think that’s a grossly dangerous term. Thinking back to that Monty Python bit, I think the actual word that’s being looked for is ‘infrastructure’.
Obviously, the bit becomes a bit less funny if you boil it down to one word, and this text won’t be long enough if I leave it there, so let’s look at what that might mean.
It’s all roads and sewers. It’s taking the local problems that are everywhere and spreading them out using technology. That’s one way an imperial power can have a huge impact on the lives of the people it conquers. (Obviously, the killing is also a fairly big impact, but the infrastructure lasts longer. At least for the people who don’t get killed?)
And of course, that sort of centrally planned and interlocked infrastructure is still the basis for how we deal with the world. Everything from shit to shopping follows models that spring from that way of doing things. We still live in an imperialist age, so we still follow those same approximate guidelines. Centralised infrastructure buys consent by dealing with our daily problems and providing the odd gaudy entertainment. Bread and circus.
Although in fact, I still maintain that it’s the ferrying away of our shit that makes the most difference. People’s unwillingness to face their faeces. The desire to flush it away and never have to even look at it. It’s not being willing to deal with it that makes us buy into a system of control big enough to produce that sort of disappearing act.
I mean, that may be more metaphor than factually true, but that’s enough for me.
It’s probably a simplistic view of history, but it certainly gives a sense of how the rough shape of life as we know it got to be this way. The problem is, the Romans were great over-reachers. Confidence in their technological superiority and general rightness led them, as far as I understand, to stop paying attention to the whole system. Infrastructure isn’t adaptable. Doesn’t deal with new threats very well.
This increasingly looks like a model we have now, and it’s going to be an interesting century. If we’re over-reached and overconfident (which its fairly clear to any perceptive individual looking at the ‘western’ use of infrastructure to quietly devastate two thirds of the world so one third can get fat), then maybe we’ll fall a similar way.
I just hope it doesn’t go straight through another dark age and into a new idolisation of the past.
Try and learn from the Romans. And ourselves. And move on.
Illustration by Alix.