Modern Civilization


To be born into modern human civilization is both a great privilege (for the safety and opportunities it provides) and a rather absurd thing (because of the sheer volume of bullshit you’re fed, for a range of reasons both intentional and otherwise).

Brutish and short

Consider first the life of most humans for most of time, before schools and supermarkets and 9-5 jobs. It was nasty, brutish, short. Violent. The main concerns were food, sex and physical safety. People typically lived in small groups and had no concept of government, bills and so on. Groups must’ve had leaders- usually fathers, patriarchs, chief hunters, etc. Physical strength would’ve mattered a lot more then than it does now. Violence would’ve been a natural way of settling disputes.


Violence is still a tremendous feature of our everyday lives, but it’s not so obvious any more. Force itself isn’t necessary- what we have instead is the threat of force, typically monopolized by States. Before states we had tribes and villages, which consolidated into kingdoms. I’m not a historian, so my understanding of this stuff is a little vague– there were hunter-gatherers up until about 4000BC, then there were pastoral nomads (“barbarians”) and sedentary folk (“civilised”).

There’s a bunch of interesting details (and complexity) about how civilisations basically formed around resource-rich areas– typically rivers, where they could grow food. There’s some bickering about how exactly that happened, but that’s not what I’m interested in here. The point is, people started settling down one way or another– and when people were born into settlements, that would become the world they knew. When you grow up farming or practicing some trade within a settlement, it becomes a lot harder to make an exit decision– to pack up and leave town because you hate the place. [1]

My context

I’m a Singaporean born in 1990 – which means that I was born into a miracle story, and I have no personal experience of how miraculous the story is. I was just born into a world that was clean, neat, tidy, orderly, where there a reliable rule of law, where things get done, bad guys get apprehended, people in charge are generally honourable and good. My parents’ generation experienced one of the greatest improvements in quality of human life in the history of our species– sometimes called ‘from third world to first’. (Some people here would start talking a lot about Lee Kuan Yew and his achievements, or about colonialism, and so on. That’s been covered pretty extensively so I’ll skip that.)

Suppose we ignore things like the Roman Empire (I know), and say that for the purpose of this essay, modern civilisation began with the industrial revolution and printing press and so on. Let’s talk about say, the birth of America.

America had a very violent beginning. It involved a lot of guns. It’s very difficult for me as a young Singaporean to appreciate the American love of guns, but I suppose it’s closely woven into their history. Singapore used to be basically an opium den in the 1800s, and we have some sense about how China was brought to its knees by the British with opium, so it would make sense that the inverse would also be true– that Americans wouldn’t intuitively understand why Singapore is so viciously anti-drug. (Personally I think we could do with some relaxing, but I’m not representative of the average Singaporean.)

Between 1776 and now– America had slaves, where humans literally owned other humans by force, bought and sold them like cattle, raped them, all sorts of horrible things. And then there was a civil war, and 620,000 people died. For contrast, about 6,000+ Americans died in Iraq (more would’ve committed suicide, and gone home maimed and wounded), but consider the order-of-magnitude difference there. By the way– about 400,000+ Americans died in WW2, and 27,000,000 Russians died. Can you imagine 27 million dead bodies? About 3-6m of them died from famine and disease, which is basically all of Singapore. It’s hard to imagine.)

I guess the point I’m trying to make is– it’s easy for a young Singaporean born into peace and prosperity to overlook the fact that our species is violent and destructive. There have been so many atrocities even in fairly recent times– WW2, Vietnam, Korea, the killing fields in Cambodia. The situation in Syria right now. People say things like “Oh, it’s never been better!” and that’s a good thing, but it’s hard to be too paranoid about the state of our species. It still sucks to be a black person in America, the aftershocks of slavery aren’t done yet. And kids are still getting shot every day. And people die in car accidents every day. And we have crappy diets and sedentary lifestyles (that we feel guilty and ashamed about, which seems to make it worse), and it’s just a whole lot of death and suffering.

I suppose I’m trying to build up a sort of case here. I can’t say “civilisation is more bad than good”, or “civilisation is worse than the alternative”, because obviously we have a whole bunch of great things. Fewer people die in childbirth and from early childhood diseases and stuff than ever before. Life expectancies are going up.

We can and should do better

But I think the point I’m trying to make is that the world we’re living in isn’t quite good enough. We can and should do better, for ourselves and our children and so on because life is precious and fleeting. And every day when I go to work I sit in a comfortable office surrounded by colleagues I enjoy– I do go through a shitty commute to get there, suffering along with thousands of other people who’re subjected to the same thing– but it’s probably better than anything my parents or grandparents endured. And every day I get to look out the window and see many instances of my grandfather toiling in the sun and rain, working hard in difficult conditions so that his grandchildren might someday enjoy the privilege of middle-class guilt and maybe write blogposts about it to make sense of his thoughts and feelings.


[1] This has changed more in our globalised era– while there’s more paperwork, I could theoretically leave Singapore, my hometown, and go live somewhere else. But that doesn’t feel like a very real possibility to me, and probably because I grew up never having entertained that prospect seriously. I was born pledging allegiance to a flag, singing a national anthem, doing involuntary military service… and grew up eating the food, speaking the language– to migrate somewhere else permanently would be rather tedious, and I think people from sedentary cultures are generally uncultured to be tedium-averse, or novelty-averse. I not sure.


  • Pre-settled human life was brutish and short, but it was also simpler and relatively bullshit-free. In contrast, modern civilised life is bureaucratic, long, complex (byzantine, really) and full of bullshit.
  • A strange thing about being a young Singaporean is witnessing effectively zero violence and suffering, when so much of human history is so full of death and killing.
  • It would be very naive to imply that “people in the past had it better” – rose-tinted glasses are a thing, but it’s also probably true that our current state of affairs is suboptimal in ways that we do not even begin to realise– because we were born into this reality, and this reality is (usually) all we know.


I appreciate that life is longer than before, but I hate that it’s bureaucratic and byzantine and full of bullshit.

I would like to be grateful for all of the gifts, privileges and opportunities that civilisation provides me (which are things I love), but I’d also like to inoculate myself against bureaucracy, needless complications and bullshit (which are things that I hate).

To do that I’ll need to understand why things are the way they are– and I have to strive to do this as objectively and neutrally as possible. I need to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that underly these things, and figure out the actions that I should take to build a better life for myself (however I choose to define that).

The phrase “brutish and short” featured prominently in my mind when thinking about life before civilization. It comes from Thomas Hobbes, who coined the term to describe the unfavourable situation of pre-civilisation– the “war of all against all”.

Hobbes didn’t like that his predecessors appealed to the “greatest good” or “summum bonum”– the variability of human desires meant that there could be no such thing. I intuitively agree with this.

He did however believe that there was a “summum malum” – a greatest evil, the fear of violent death. I don’t properly appreciate this, because I come from a privileged, sheltered background where I’ve never had to fear my own violent death. I think he’s in the right ballpark with that.

Hobbes argues– and I have to agree– that there can be no industry or productivity in an uncertain environment, where everyone fears that all might be lost at any instant. That sounds legitimate. We work and save money because we believe that the value of money will hold over time. History has shown that this isn’t always the case, and that hyperinflation and anarchy are real things that can descend upon a previously orderly community or context.

“In the state of nature nothing can be considered just or unjust” – this is true. Justice is a human imagining.

“One ought to be willing to renounce one’s right to all things where others are willing to do the same” – this is a prescriptive appeal to social contracts. It would be nice if everyone agreed to this, but unfortunately in reality not everyone does. People tend to like situations that are designed to favor them– heads I win, tails you lose.

Hobbes goes on to describe how a State should be like – how it should establish, enact and enforce laws, preside over disagreements. Interestingly, he favoured press censorship and restrictions on the right of free speech if they promoted order over chaos. In this regard it seems Singapore is more Hobbesian than the USA, which prioritizes the separation of powers. [1]

Okay wait, so why did Hobbes write Leviathan again? Apparently his mother went into labor prematurely upon learning that the Spanish Armada had set said to attack England, and Hobbes wrote “fear and I were born twins together”. So I suppose he wrote it in fear that people wouldn’t uphold a decent State? Yep– he wrote it partly as a response to the political turmoil of the English Civil Wars. He was a Royalist– a person who supported King Charles I. He had been developing his philosophy of political and natural science for a long time before – maybe a couple of decades. [2]

Let’s get back in focus on what I wanted to figure out– which is, what is the source of bureaucracy, unnecessary complication, bullshit? Why is it such a prominent feature of our modern times?

[1]  Hobbes lived from 1588 to 1679, and published Leviathan in 1651. Some historical context– Japan was under the Tokugawa shogunate at the time, and there was a failed uprising by a number of ronin. The Taj Mahal was completed 2 years later. China was under the Qing dynasty. Louis XIV was King of France, crowned in 1654, and Ferdinand III ruled the Holy Roman Empire. Oliver Cromwell is a significant dude. Saturn’s largest moon Titan is  discovered in 1655, by the same dude who’d then invent the pendulum clock. History is so much more interesting that current affairs.

[2] I spent a bunch of time reading up about Thomas Hobbes and about 1650s history. I guess there were civil wars and stuff going on at the time. The French Revolution would probably happen not too much later– well it would be 130 years later, from 1789 to 1799. And then Napoleon showed up. Hm, and this was after America declared Independence. Interesting. Well I guess the big lesson for me here is that the history of States is far more complicated than I can ever fathom. But I think it’s necessary to figure out the big picture anyway, leaving allowances for inaccuracies and so on.


I’ve been thinking about the context that I live in, and the history that has lead to this context, and how it shapes my thinking and my life. I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s joke at a commencement speech about an old fish greeting younger fish with “Good day boys, how’s the water?”, and then one fish says to the other, “What’s water?”

Water in my case is modern civilization– the physical spaces, the technologies, the ideologies, the media, everything. I’m also thinking now about Paul Graham’s essay What You Can’t Say, and how he talks about moral fashions, and how we inherit them, and how they can prevent us from thinking certain thoughts altogether.

Like PG, I want to be able to have freedom of thought. I want to be able to be free in every way that is afforded to me. I say that because I think that will lead to a happier life for me, with more pleasure, enjoyment, fulfilment and all of those good things.

I outlined that there are things about modern civilization that I love– and I don’t need to talk too much about those things because that part is easy to rant and rave about – and there are things that I hate. And the things that I hate are (to name a few) bureaucracy, unnecessary complexity and bullshit. And boredom, I suppose, though boredom is a luxury and a privilege compared to living in fear or worry. Let’s focus on the earlier bits.

I chose bureaucracy as an antonym for brutish– I was thinking of Hobbes’s phrase “brutish and short” as a descriptor of life in pre-civilization. I was trying to figure out the inverse of that– long, obviously, but what’s the inverse of brutish? I came up with “bureaucratic”– and I was delighted to find out that the word’s etymology is rooted in “desk”.

And that sums up a lot of the transition, I think. We’ve gone from being wild to being desk-bound. We’ve gone from playing in the streets to playing in santized playgrounds, staring at iPads all day and whatnot. I don’t think of myself as an iPad hater, I love technological tools. I love my Macbook and my Android phone, and I’d quite like an iPad too though i can’t quite justify the expenditure right now.

But the point I think is that we’ve gone from living primarily in our bodies to living primarily in our heads (Ken Robinson has a great riff on this, re: how our education systems have been modelled after the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment and so on– that math is somehow definitely more important than dance, for example.)

I’m not going to claim that dance is more important than math, but dance is important. Diet is important. Exercise is important. Flirting is important. Movement is important. Hiking is important. We seem to have, in our eagerness to evolve or progress in some way, thrown out a bunch of things about ourselves that made us who we are. (My thoughts on this are informed, OTOH, by Jay Griffiths, Nassim Taleb, Ribbonfarm).

To be more precise – we cut out a lot of things from our lives in an attempt to make things more tidy, more organized, more legible, easier to account for, easier to measure and so on. Standardized tests. Standardized everything.

Again, I probably don’t fully appreciate how powerful and empowering standardization must’ve been for a lot of people. It would’ve brought them out of poverty, given them dignity, so on and so forth. I’m writing all of this under the blanket of security and wealth provided by all the sacrifices that people made before me, and for this I am grateful.

But I still want to understand how exactly we got to byzantine, bureaucratic bullshit-ville, so that I can navigate it better. My main way of dealing with BBB is to be angry, or sarcastic, or absurd, to call it out, to complain about it, to laugh at it, to find other people that I can laugh at it with. But it doesn’t make the problem go away. BBB stucks around after I’ve made fun of it. So I need to change my approach if I want to have less of it in my life.

Some tentative thoughts:

Cutting through bullshit requires knowing what the truth is. The truth is often obfuscated in civilization– sometimes because truth is expensive and tedious and people don’t want to bother putting in the effort when they don’t have to, and sometimes because somebody or some group of people don’t really want the truth because it’s awkward, painful, uncomfortable and so on. The latter can seem like a conspiracy theory but that doesn’t necessarily make it invalid. I recall reading a quote from someone in power who said that the drug war was knowingly perpetuated so that the “wrong” sort of people could be smeared on dinnertime television night after night for years. That makes total sense to me.

But I’m not doing this to take BS-artists to court. (Courts and legal systems are incredibly byzantine and full of BS too, allowing all sorts of wiggle room and interpretations– so much of it is theater, blah blah…). I’m doing this so I can come to a place of acceptance about my place in the BBB circus, and figure out steps for myself to climb out of it, to dust myself off and at least carve out a space that I can inhabit comfortably and not feel like blowing my brains out or otherwise committing acts of indecency. Or being lulled into a sense of helplessness and apathy, which is equally bad, I think. Sometimes I shake myself up a little in a silly way because I think that would be preferable to getting jaded.



Shelling out: The origins of money

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