July 16,2007 21:49

History Society期刊訪談(作者專訪)

This book mixes old and new wine, and pours the blend into a new bottle. Some of the ideas and perspectives offered here are distilled versions of the ones first proposed half a century ago. Others are set forth here for the first time. The new bottle, giving shape the book, is the notion of the centrality of webs of interaction in human history.

A web, as we see it, is a set of connections that link people to one another. These connections may take many forms: chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition. In all such relationships, people communicate information and use that information to shape their future behavior. They also communicate, or transfer, useful technologies, goods, crops, ideas, and much else. Furthermore, they inadvertently exchange diseases and weeds, items they cannot use but which affect their lives (and deaths) nonetheless. The exchange and spread of such information, items, and inconveniences, and human responses to these, shape history.
What drives history is the human ambition to alter one's condition to match one's hopes. But just what people hoped for, both in the material and spiritual realms, and how they pursued their hopes, depended on the information, ideas, and examples available to them. Thus webs channeled and coordinated everyday human ambition.

Although always present, over time the human web changed its nature and meaning so much that we will speak of webs in the plural. At its most basic level, the human web dates at least to the development of human speech. Our distant ancestors created social solidarity within their small bands through exchanges of information and goods. Beyond this, even tens of thousands of years ago, bands interacted and communicated with one another, if only sporadically. Despite migrations that took our forebears to every continent except Antarctica, we remain a single species today, testament to the exchange of genes and mates among bands through the ages. Moreover, the spread of bows and arrows throughout most of the world (not Australia) in remote times shows how a useful technology could pass from group to group. These exchanges are evidence of a very loose, very far-flung, very old web of communication and interaction: the first worldwide web. But people were few and the earth was large, so the web remained loose until about 12,000 years ago.

With the denser populations that came with agriculture, new and tighter webs arose, superimposed on the loose, original web. The first worldwide web never disappeared, but sections within it grew so much more interactive that they formed smaller webs of their own. These arose in select environments where agriculture or an unusual abundance of fish made a more settled life feasible, allowing regular, sustained interactions among larger numbers of people. These webs were local or regional in scope.

Eventually, after about 5,000 years, some of these local and regional webs grew tighter still, thanks to the development of cities that served as crossroads and storehouses for information and goods (and infections). They became metropolitan webs, based on interactions connecting cities to agricultural and pastoral hinterlands, and on other interactions connecting cities to one another. Metropolitan webs did not link everyone. Some people (until recent times) remained outside, economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, politically independent. The first metropolitan web formed 5,000 years ago around the cities of ancient Sumer. The largest, formed about 2,000 years ago by a gradual amalgamation of many smaller ones, spanned most of Eurasia and North Africa.

Some of these metropolitan webs survived, spread, and absorbed or merged with others. Other webs prospered for a time but eventually fell apart. In the last 500 years, oceanic navigation united the world's metropolitan webs (and its few remaining local webs) into a single, modern worldwide web. And in the last 160 years, beginning with the telegraph, this modern worldwide web became increasingly electrified, allowing more and faster exchanges. Today, although people experience it in vastly different ways, everyone lives inside a single global web, a unitary maelstrom of cooperation and competition.

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All webs combine cooperation and competition. The ultimate basis of social power is communication that encourages cooperation among people. This allows many people to focus on the same goals, and it allows people to specialize at what they do best. Within a cooperative framework, specialization and division of labor can make a society far richer and more powerful than it might otherwise be. It also makes that society more stratified, more unequal. If the cooperative framework can be maintained, the larger the web gets, the more wealth, power, and inequality its participating populations exhibit.

But, paradoxically, hostile competition can also foster the same process. Rivals share information too, if only in the shape of threats. Threats, when believed, provoke responses. Usually responses involve some closer form of cooperation. If for example, one kingdom threatens another, the threatened king will seek ways to organize his subjects more effectively in defense of the realm. He may also seek closer alliance with other kingdoms. Competition at one level, then, promotes cooperation at other levels.

Over time, those groups (families, clans, tribes, chiefdoms, states, armies, monasteries, banking houses, multinational corporations) that achieved more efficient communication and cooperation within their own ranks improved their survival chances and competitive position. They acquired resources, property, followers, at the expense of other groups with less effective internal communication and cooperation. So, over time, the general direction of history has been toward greater and greater social cooperation—both voluntary and compelled—driven by the realities of social competition. Over time, groups tended to grow in size to the point where their internal cohesion, their ability to communicate and cooperate, broke down.

The tight webs of interaction, linking groups of all sorts, tended to grow for several reasons. They conferred advantages on their participants. Through their communication and cooperation, societies inside metropolitan webs became far more formidable than societies outside. Participation in a web brought economic advantages via specialization of labor and exchange. Military advantages came in the form of larger numbers of warriors, often full-time specialists in the arts of violence, aware of (and usually choosing to use) the cutting edge of military technology. Epidemiological advantages accrued to people living inside metropolitan webs, because they were more likely to acquire immunities to a wider array of diseases than could other people.

All these advantages to life inside a web came at a cost. Economic specialization and exchange created poverty as well as wealth. Skilled warriors sometimes turned their weapons against people who looked to them for protection. And people acquired disease immunities only by repeated exposure to lethal epidemics. Nonetheless, the survivors of these risks enjoyed a marked formidability in relation to peoples outside of webs.

But there was more to the expansion of webs than this. Webs were unconscious and unrecognized social units. But nonetheless they contained many organizations—lineages, tribes, castes, churches, companies, armies, empires—all of which had leaders who exercised unusual power. These leaders caused webs to expand by pursuing their own interests. Leaders of any hierarchy enjoy an upward flow of goods, services, deference and prestige. They normally struggle to expand the scope of their operations so as to increase this upward flow. Their followers help, to avoid punishment and to earn a share (however paltry in comparison to the leaders) of the anticipated rewards. In the past, this urge to expand often came at the expense of people outside of existing webs, who were poorly organized to defend their own persons, property, territory, or religion. Survivors found themselves enmeshed in new economic, political, and cultural linkages, in a word, in a web. Thus leaders of organizations within a web, in seeking to enhance their own power and status, persistently (if unconsciously) expanded the webs in which they operated.

Webs also tended to expand because communications and transport technology improved. Writing, printing, and the Internet, for example, were major advances in the transmission of information. Each reduced information costs, and made it easier to build and sustain larger networks of cooperation. Sailing vessels, wheels, and railroads, similarly, cut transport costs and promoted cooperation and exchange over broader spaces and among larger populations.

So webs involved both cooperation and competition, as their scale tended to grow. So too did their influence upon history. The original worldwide web lacked writing, wheels, and pack animals. The volume and velocity of messages and things that circulated within it was always small and slow by later standards. Its power to shape daily life was weak, although it could occasionally transmit major changes. But the more tightly woven metropolitan webs that evolved in the past 5,000 years transmitted more things more quickly, and thus played a larger role in history. As webs grew and fused, fewer and fewer societies existed in isolation, evolving in parallel with others, and more and more existed and evolved in communication with others. Between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago at least seven societies around the world invented agriculture, in most cases quite independently: parallel pressures led to parallel solutions. The steam engine did not have to be invented seven times to spread around the world: by the 18th century once was enough.

The power of human communication, cooperation, and competition shaped the earth's history as well as human history. Concerted human action upset prevailing ecological relationships, first through the deliberate use of fire, coordinated hunting of big game, and the domestication of animals and plants. Eventually, humankind learned to divert ever-larger shares of the earth's energy and material flows for our own purposes, vastly expanding our niche and our numbers. This, in turn, made the infrastructure of cosmopolitan web, the ships, roads, rails, and Internet, easier to build and sustain. The process of web building and the process of enlarging the human niche supported one another. We would not be 6 billion strong without the myriad of interconnections, the flows and exchanges of food, energy, technology, money, that comprise the modern worldwide web. We have inaugurated a new era of earth history-the Anthropocene-in which our actions are the most important factor in biological education, and in several of the planet's biogeochemical flows and geological processes.

How people created these webs of interaction, how those webs grew, what shapes they took in different parts of the world, how they combined in recent times into a single worldwide web, and how this altered the human role on earth is the subject of our book. With luck, this perspective on the past will shed a ray of light on the dilemmas of the present--and future.

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