Cities of Refuge

Hmm. It’s interesting – as a writer who uses the realms of history as a source – how things have changed. As I’ve commented before, the Taliban are like kissing-cousins compared to the ancient Greeks, or indeed, the Jews of the Old Testament. And yet, while much has changed… those are our ancestors, the source of much of our modern Western culture. The source of a lot of echoes in our books from Oedipus to the Balm in Gilead.

Where we come from.

It’s nothing like where we are. (and yes, this is a recurring theme in my Books – Pyramid Scheme particularly). History, when viewed through a long lens obviously moves forward. Things are just outright better than they were in primitive times (or in present primitive societies. Trust me, the noble savage myth stands up to about two microseconds of examination with a wet noodle). Yes, the tribal chieftain will be bitter about his loss of power, and tell the universe that he (and his people, peripherally) are victims and deserve compensation forevermore, but in truth, for the average bloke life got a lot better, for the average woman vastly so, and for the average tribal chief – well, he lost absolute power, but he got to live a fair bit longer, and probably in more comfort.) Of course, when you look closer, it doesn’t even start to look like linear progress, but far more like a series of waves or circles, which peak slightly higher than the last, but they can drop very low. There isn’t a lot to choose between the massacre in Baghdad in 1258, or the actions of Khmer Rouge. And if there is one thing about history – the patterns recur. Still some things change (and NOT always for the better) and it seems that knowledge and the meme that something is possible (even if in reality it’s not quite as nice or glamorous or easy) is hard to wipe from the memory of men. If civilization crashed into a brick wall tomorrow, leaving scattered masonry and and embarrassed world-leader/driver trying to explain to the home owners that the world as they knew it had ended (which is after all, the stuff of sf-writers’ tales) some things would be remembered in the chaos and breakdown that followed.

What are they?

Once, in those Greek and Biblical times cities were places of refuge – which may seem hard to credit looking at Detroit. What will change in the fall? Will cities go back to being refuge? Will the treatment of women and slaves return to where it was? Will we forget fixed wing aircraft and return to trying to fly through flapping?

Come on. We write about this. Or at least _I_ write about the rebuilding, which needs material out of the ruins. I’m less concerned about the archaeological integrity of the bits of 21st century i-phones, as I am in their fire-starting capacity.


  1. Watching a video in art class about the first emperor of China, who I knew little about, and they got to the part about him burning the books, and burying the scholars alive, and I thought, “huh, the Cultural Revolution has a long history in China…” Come to find out, Mao was very aware of Qin’s actions, and boasted than he had done a hundred times better than the mad Emperor. Cycles, yes.

    I think if, no, when, I write about the next fall of civilization, it will be with disease. I know it was just done about Zombies, but with what I’m studying and the harder I look at what could come out of the darkness at us, that seems ever more likely. We think our modern medicine can protect us, but is it enough? How harsh a quarantine could this culture enforce to stop a pandemic? What would happen when the American eye on the globe is focused inward on it’s own pain? Will we see another cleansing of the intellectuals, to do a thousand times better than Qin?

    1. And there are pandemics and pandemics. Ones that affect people… ones that affect… plants. Or plastic. Or copper.
      I believe that the next ‘cleansing of intellectuals’ will be very effective – at least for some. But it will have the problem of ‘we know we climbed that pinnacle before. Therefore we can again. I think things like the moon landing will linger like memories of a mythical Golden Age, no matter how hard the next Qin or Mao tries to crush the very idea of technology. But then, I’m an optimist by nature, and a pessimist, by prep. BTW. I’ve lost all my e-mail addresses AGAIN. Will you please drop me a contact e-mail, Cedar?

      1. Email sent…

        As for the cultural memories of technology and freedom, yes, I don’t think those could ever be completely eradicated, no matter how hard the elite (whoever they turn out to be in the event) try. Am I imagining it, or does every cycle dip a little less than the ones before it? I can’t imagine what it would take for us to fall back into the Stone Age, for instance.

        1. I think some of the dips are just as depraved, but the ‘spread’ of humanity is wider. Actually… in some ways we’ve got worse, simply in that some things that people in general once feared have no referents now – So for example, a kid who has never BEEN hit, been sheltered from the violence and the consequences thereof – when they go off the rails they seem far worse (we had a bunch of spoiled girls on the Gold Coast here taking lead roles in some really brutal violence. Had they been subject to what I would consider normal discipline? It appears not. So instead of being sweetness and light as a result, they were barbarians).

      2. And now you have my mind going… Dad’s a beekeeper. The concern over the colony collapse disorder was a legitimate one, and thank goodness it’s tapering off. If we lost our pollinators we’d be in trouble! I started a story years ago and then abandoned it about bees on a new planet. Dad was studying honeybee neurology at the time and I was reading along. Weird, amazing little creatures!

        1. The role of microbes in healthy survival is severely under-estimated. A pandemic among the soil microbes… hardly bears thinking about. And for instance grasses (which produce most of our Carbohydrate foods) are all quite closely related. Yes, there are dicot plants which are starch sources, but the monocots produce 75% at least. A phytoplankton epidemic… THAT could have such knock-ons.

          1. We were talking in microbiology class about how eliminating pathogens and parasites from our bodies with the advent of modern health care may have had a boomerang effect, in that now, our immune systems being freed from fighting off the diseases and worms, they are turning on our own body. We’re having an epidemic of auto-immune disorders, allergies, and other odd systemic problems in the First World, and it may be the fault of medicine.

            1. When I was growing up, my parents did NOT medicate me at the drop of a hat, nor feed me antibiotics like candy at the first sign of a sniffle. Instead, they only took me to the doctor when it was obvious that I had more than just a cold, and actually needed some medicine because my immune system needed a bit of help. Nor did we use antibiotic hand soap. Now as an adult, I have no auto-immune disorders and no allergies. That might be a coincidence — a sample size of one certainly doesn’t make for scientifically valid results — but I’m inclined to the theory that my immune system was exposed to enough stuff during my childhood that it “learned” what it was supposed to fight off and what it wasn’t.

              1. Yes, there is a lot to be said for building up an immunity to stuff. Growing up we used to drink out of creeks all the time. I used to drink out of spillways on beaver dams, it wasn’t until I was in Boy Scouts that I or my family learned about giardia. We didn’t know about it, because we were immune to it. Like the Mexicans that drink their water with no ill effects, while if tourists drink it they are likely to get deathly ill.

      3. The “problem” with getting rid of intellectuals is you’d also be getting rid of weapon developers. This means that whatever polity did not participate willl have a significant military advantage. Probably enough to conquer the idiots who got rid of their engineers.

        Nomadic attacks on civilization tapered of around the time gunpowder weapons became practical, for similar reasons. People who can make gunpowder are a lot stronger than those who shoot arrows.

          1. It certainly is possible. China had all the pieces of what in the west became the modern technology revolutions and the age of discovery, but the pieces remained separate. When the apex of knowledge and culture are books of philosophy and social commentary written 1000 years before, and social advancement depends on knowing everything there is to know about only those books, you’ve got a problem. When that commentary encourages treating the business and engineering class as being lower than the land-bound peasant, well, what the west considers “progress” is going to come slowly at best. So, for a counter-factual, what if the First Emperor had succeeded in crippling Confucianism to the point that it never became the basis of social organization?

            1. To start with, you probably need to postulate that the intrigue that killed off Qin Shi’s plausible heirs left one of them alive to hold things together for a time. Three to five emperors might be enough to cost Confucianism its opportunity.

              Question is, what replaces it? If Legalism, Legalism’s flaws would be far more apparent to me in that analysis. I have trouble seeing pure Legalism not having huge issues over the long term. If we assume some novel philosophy that the author of the counter factual makes up, the story might tend towards squirrelly. If we assume a foreign import, what and how?

              1. Nestorian Christianity existed in China for a time. Granted its a little late in the time-line, but if something were to disrupt a Legalist system (famine, invasion from steppes) and Nestorians could organize a stable system, it might be seen as a compromise long enough to establish a foothold.

                1. It does seem Nestorianism had at least two major throws of the dice which could have changed history – both then and had Mongke Khan put off dying a few years.

              2. Legalism seems like a pre-industrial version of Communism(1). The ruler owns the country, and can command all the resources to be used according to his dictates. Individual autonomy is considered evil, and the existence of higher classes who aren’t courtiers reduced to a bare minimum.

                How well did Soviet science work? I know their biology was contaminated by Lysenko, but how did they did other than that? What about their engineering?

                The system wouldn’t work as well as free enterprise, but the idea of a government whose powers are limited by law wasn’t very popular in the west at the time either. The Israelite kingdoms seem to have had it, but I am not sure if it existed anywhere else.

                (1) Not the theoretical version Eric Flint supports, but the abominations that have mostly happened when Communism was tried as a system of government.

                1. Think Sarah’s economic fallacy model of Communism. Some of the later era Confucian zero sum, ‘farmers are important, merchants add no value’ economic models can be viewed as closer to that.

                  King owning territory and subjects does not seem to be that rare, certainly not rare enough for it to be a defining feature of communism. Legalism might be understood as simply rationally taking that to the extreme.

                  1. Legalism and Communism aren’t just “the king owns the country”, but “no lords besides the king”. This is very different from a feudal society where the king is just first among equals.

        1. Only in the fullness of time. In the short term there are plenty of old weapons around. And only with a willingness and ability to use: As an example of old weapons being all that was had, and an under-armed but willing and able group defeating the better armed, but less willing and able, see (among many others) Nagorno-Karabakh. In a long conflict, the larger better armed group will usually win, yes, but not always.

      4. I believe that the next ‘cleansing of intellectuals’ will be very effective – at least for some.

        Poking at that, I thought “well, of course the obvious folks will get caught. Who isn’t obvious?”
        The hobbyists, of course… and folks like home-schooling moms, or those who are two credits from having a degree and then ran out of money and switched careers. And their kids.

    2. Oddly enough, while I hate Mao a great deal, I don’t have the same reaction to Qin Shi Huangdi. I picked up the interpretation somewhere that the Han started out pretty close to where he was, legally speaking, and made sure he went down in history as the traditional Chinese Hitler, to make it seem like there were greater differences.

      Those intellectuals were Confucians. You know, the zero sum guys who restricted the economy and thereby prevented industrialization throughout their reign of power. Frankly, of them, the Taoists, and some others, I found the Legalists the least unsympathetic.

      1. In my brief researches into it, Qin ushered in the age of the legalists, and it seems he has gone in and out of favor as a cutural icon in china a couple of times in the past century, before which, very little was known about him. He seems to have been a brilliant martial man, with a descent into madness ushered by the consumption of mercury for immortality purposes.

        1. On the one hand, they apparently have found a number of tombs of Qin and Han minor officials, complete with law codes, and found that they were similar. On the other, I should adjust my level of distrust higher for that archaeological work due to my confidence in any government influenced by Mao Zedong.

  2. “Will cities go back to being refuge?”

    Not at first, certainly. They’d be sheer hell for years to come. Later, maybe. The old cities that were located where they were for reasons of geography (proximity to water transport, control of strategic mountain passes, etc.) would likely survive, or at least there’d be a new city in the same location. There were at least nine urban cultures at the site of Troy, despite numerous disasters (earthquakes, repeated rounds of sack-and-burn, complete demographic replacement for unknown reasons…).

    Cities that depend on modern technology and transportation for their very existence (e.g., Las Vegas) would likely disappear entirely.

    1. I think this may depend on 1)the size of the city (a small one, with resources may be better equipped to cope than individuals, and less prone to breakdown as the large do.) This rather depends on the size at which you consider a place a city (the historical ones were often relatively small – what we would call a country town) 2)The distance it is from any larger source of looters and unrest. So for instance a place like Greymouth on South Island, New Zealand – a population of 10 000 – enough to have most of the basic skills between them, a long way from anywhere, and a good supply of fish – would probably be safer than most.

  3. “When I was your age, young man . . . ”

    Dodger smiled politely and shifted his shovel to the other shoulder. The old crone claimed to be his great great great grandmother, and blamed her longevity on “modern medicine.”

    “. . . men sailed to the moon in ships of metal, driven by flames. I saw it with my own eyes!”

    Dodger wondered how she’d managed that, seeing as how the moon was a might far away, and even with the best lenses the telescopes could see well enough to resolve details of less than a few kilometers. He smiled politely at the senile old creature. “Well, Dad needs some iron ore, so I’ve got to go see if I can dig up another car. See you later, Granny.”


    Tech is changing so fast that it’s hard to say where we’ll start our collapse from. And how low we’ll fall.

    I tend to think that we’re in the middle of the “cleansing of the intellectuals.” The kids these days (says the old crone) are taught poorly, and of those who go to college, too many come out with degrees that won’t get them jobs and huge loans. You think my generation didn’t have enough kids? By the time the student loans are paid off and a woman found who isn’t into victimology and likely to accuse a man of rape because she changed her mind afterwards / find a man who is willing to risk a legal-financial relationship instead of just having sex . . . there might be enough money and time to consider children. But I’ll bet the birthrate among “intellectuals” is going to plummet. Further.

    1. 🙂 your example uses discoveries and measure which suggest that they have a foundation to build on – measures of distance for example – (farms in South Africa were still measured as ‘a day’s ride on a horse’ -less than 150 years ago) and advanced optics, plus of course stuff that would come out of dug up cars that would trump anything made before about 100 years ago (cabling, plastic fittings), and would last. There’d be both ways – skepticism – and blind faith believeing the people of yesteryear really were more capable than they were- isn’t that human nature? (and the stuff of stories).

      I do see your second point, and realize my kids are anomalies (both married – the younger is 24, boringly staid and conservative, go to church, want kids and are maths, physics and electronics, comp sci geeks – married to others of their type). In a way I see it as a self-administered emetic, which will affect sf-readership (ie. they got rid of kids like mine, and now they’ll end up with kids who can’t read.). Mind you I see the outcome being that ‘intellectuals’ might get a bit of a much needed clean out…

      1. Thing is, a lot of us Odds can see this. I got my sons through college without debt, with one in engineering. Sarah’s moving heaven and earth to get her kids through without debt. But the intellectual class as a whole has pretty well fallen down on the job. But then they’re the useful idiots to the upper levels who have apparently decided to eliminate both immediate competition and the middle class.

        Mind you, this is in the US, where we support colleges with taxes _and_ charge ruinous tuition. Many other places are more sane.

        1. Interesting. We managed -under somewhat easier conditions, but we were still atypical, to put both boys through Science and without debt. I’ve said this elsewhere, but it appears the more conservative folk of at least average and above intellect are following one strategy, where they’re investing a great deal in their children’s education, and directing them quite heavily toward the STEM areas, and the left wing are following another, where this investment is to a far greater extent left to the state, (and later to the child) and the subject targeting is very different. I can’t, in medium term let alone long term, think the latter a winning strategy, short of parasitism. Maybe that is what they assume they will do.

          1. People who believe in the safety net are a lot more likely to put their weight on it. Sadly, it is a net, not a floor. Put too much weight on it, and it would break.

  4. I’d say cities could become refuges, but only small cities in good geographic locations. Just looking at geography, St. Louis, Kansas City, Norfolk, are all in prime locations for transport and trade. If society collapsed, those cities would also be gutted, but people would return from the smaller outposts, because you can’t give up such good harbors and ports. I suspect small cities and large towns will be points of refuge, with a loose network developing, then budding off to re-colonize larger, failed cities.

    1. Senloo (sp?) – Pebble in the Sky. Asimov plainly agreed with you. However as an Historian – isn’t a big part of the issue that what a ‘city’ was, has changed. The walled settlements of that time were intended to be safer than the open country as a group refuge from marauders, and enforced pretty rigid rules within. Neither of those really fit with my concept of a modern city – which is just a bunch of people living close together.

      1. I’m not an urban historian, (nor can I play one on TV) 🙂 so I’m hesitant to speculate on what the latest theories are. I’m thinking of city as a market center and transportation hub, what one cultural geographer called “suttland” (as in where army suttlers had businesses). The Grand Island, NE or Marion IL type cities (small market centers, less than 150,000 people, culturally pretty homogenious) in places where self-defense is permitted or encouraged, could make good Cities of Refuge. You are right, a mega-city would fall apart into different neighborhoods, then collapse once the support infrastructure fails, like Detroit if the lights and water went out. (I’ve never heard of the Crips or MS-13 having electricians and water-supply experts on staff, but I could be wrong).

    2. A lot of otherwise good cities would be gutted by the farmland they were originally in the middle of now being largely covered with man-made rock.

      It would fix itself enough in, oh, a hundred and fifty years? (guessing by looking at cement I know is about 50-75 years old)

      1. Not even that long in some cases, Foxfier. If NYC’s pumps get cut off, the rivers will reclaim (IIRC) 5th Av. and a few other main streets, breaking through from below. London might be in a similar state.

  5. The first problem may be agricultural. If we drop back to pre-tractor tech, we won’t be able to support large cities. If we can keep modern farming–and distribution–going, then the fall will be minimal, and the recovery swift.

    It’s when the recovery is so slow it goes generational and you lose the living memory of how to do things that aren’t _quite_ possible anymore, but could be soon, that you have to rediscover and reinvent stuff and who knows when that will happen?

  6. ahh writing about the fall of civilization, or in my case reading about it in history and reading novelizations about what it might look like in the near or far future. Sigh…since we’re about to witness one of those hiccups very soon I expect…well more grist for the writing mill. Or in my case the reading and occasionally ranting, as I’m want to do, about it on my blog. meh.

    1. Yes, I am of the hiccup-coming school. I just hope it’s a hiccup and not heart-attack, because the past really was not all fun, or good medicine.

  7. Remember that in the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Minoan civilization, there were places that had completely forgotten what writing was. When Homer tells the story of Bellerophon, he has a vague idea about the hero being given “folded tablet inscribed with baleful signs” which are somehow to instruct the Lycian king to murder him.

    It’s not hard to tell a plausible story about reading being lost again. Replace printed books with e-books, energy shortages that make people burn the useless, extra paper books for heating, and then your choice of technological disaster or government censorship that wipes out all electronic records.

    1. It’s certainly not hard to envisage it being retained by a select few – a priesthood perhaps. Thing is, day to day, you CAN get by without reading (I don’t want to, but that is different). However in the long term a literate society has to trump an illiterate one (even if the illiterate over-runs and conquers, a la Chinese history)

  8. What if we lost magnetism? What record would we leave that would be comprehensible to our descendants?

    What if a high-tech civilization in the past had developed to a point where all of their building materials were biodegradable? And then the magnetic poles shifted? Could they recover? Would they leave a trace a few hundred millennia later?

    I loved the lost civilizations ERB put in the Tarzan books — Opar and the valley of the dinosaurs (can’t recall the name of the place).


    1. Well, there is a history of magnetic pole reversal, with the period between having low/no field. Interesting at a bunch of levels – from the effects on mutation (cosmic rays) to navigation by birds, insects, and certainly some other invertebrates.

      1. A nearby supernova, or a Carrington event, might manage to fry a large number of electronics. We really won’t know how it will play out until we have one and see.

        And sooner or later–hopefully later–the end of this interglacial. It’s not just the ice requiring hundreds of millions of people to move. The colder oceans resulted in less evaporation and less rainfall for a very very long drought.

  9. In my Latin 101 class we had to translate a sentence that was.. “The Roman roads are not safe.” (I knew “Roman” and “roads” and got the nominative sentence placement and the negative but missed “safe”.) I don’t know how safe or unsafe the Roman roads were, but if the cities weren’t safe, who would go there? But cities can’t exist unless someone goes there… farmers wanting to sell their crops or hunters wanting to sell their catch, if not traders from farther away. People attached to farm/compounds might kill or drive off anyone who wanders by, but a city couldn’t do that. Well, I suppose they could for a while and send out raiding parties to bring supplies back, but eventually that won’t work anymore, at least not without protecting the countryside close in and being “safe” for whoever counts as “one of us”.

    1. Well, the original cities had areas under their protection. But yes, destroy all trade and even stable settlements with safe fields outside their walls would probably wither. We need trade more than we realize.

  10. The physical world we live in is, on a large scale, quite fragile. Soil microbes or a monocot plague or worse yet massive plankton die-off would be pretty much TEOTWAWKI- I don’t think we could adapt quick enough to prevent it or even seriously mitigate its effects. Oh, we might linger on, but the world would be drastically changed.

    The one that seems most plausible and worrisome to me is cultural more than biological or technological. Which seems odd to me, because studying physical anthropology leads me to think in other directions (phys. anth. is sort of like being a modern day naturalist- you have to learn a bit about pretty much everything). Oh, I do love me a good zombie story, or post-apocalyptic tale. But I think of it this way.

    Nuclear war. Biochemical attacks. The hounds of hell let loose pretty much everywhere. Infrastructure smashed, social cohesion shredded, populations decimated at best, obliterated at worst. Trust becomes less of an asset. In this kind of world, the raider mindset thrives. Highest form of political control that lasts even ephemerally is the Strong Man system. Technology is largely wasted, what survives becomes dear and precious. Higher learning is more likely when immediate survival and one’s next meal are not the prime motivations.

    I’m a pessimist by natural inclination and an optimist by stubborn determination. I believe that even in such a world there will be those who try to preserve and remember the things we hold dear. What will we remember, after the Long Fall of Night? Not being hungry in the spring, perhaps. I always chuckle when I read about farming folks commonly “going hungry over the winter.” If that was truly the case, early spring would be a matter of life and death. After all, where did last fall’s harvest go?

    News and the internet- even the mail. Being able to know what was happening on the other side of the world, let alone a day’s ride away, at an instant or at least relatively quickly. Greenspaces near cities- y’all who aren’t near good natural gas and coal deposits would be in for some real, folks-freezing-to-death-in-their-homes cold. Maybe we’d think back on traffic tickets with a smile, when the only official justice we see often comes at the end of a rope. Or “volunteer fire fighters,” once fire becomes a real immediate local concern.

    I think there would still be those who “care” about the planet, the environment, and global warming, at least for a little while. Being in a situation where you have to feed, raise, slaughter and butcher your own meat (or hunt and clean it) tends to bring home what sentiment matters and what can be done without, concerning nature. I think slavery, as an economic institution, would still be less efficient- we’re not likely to forget horse collars, even if mechanical harvesters bite the dust. That’s not to say that sharecroppers and what is effectively wage slavery wouldn’t be tried.

    The thing about remembering that, oh, flying to the moon is possible applies to the evils, too. Should darkness fall upon the face of modern man, should the pillars that uphold civility and decency crack and crumble, should it come to pass that the age of the bandit, the pirate, and the raider comes again, I fear we will find that a corrupted spirit could gain a foothold in the world. Once lawlessness reigns, it is hard to return to what our culture was, for good or ill. These things take on a life of their own.

    That’s not to say “slit your own throat or go out in a blaze of violence hoping to take somebody worse down with you.” *grin* I’m only a pessimist by natural inclination. If we don’t *all* die screaming before drowning in our own blood, that means at least some of us survive. Hope is as much a part of the human spirit as greed and wrath, if not more so. But hope alone cannot stand without determination and strength. Honor, duty, justice, and moral codes are learned, not innate- these things will also be necessary. Those who retain those qualities and survive are the ones that will influence the next culture I’d want to be a part of. Maybe the next Great Experiment will learn the lessons of the last, and say (in effect) when talking about how the powers of the government must be constrained while the rights and freedoms of law abiding citizens shall not be infringed the tell us this time they really, really mean it.

  11. The environment is both fragile and incredibly adaptive – one simply has to look in ‘killed’ zones to read the truth of this. Major disasters – a plant pathogen affecting monocot mitochondria for example, or phytoplankton – well, you’d have a period of massive instability, and then new shake out, a lot of the time IMO.

    It’s worth remembering in your bandit /raider scenario, that many of the noble houses of Europe were robber barons once. The bottom line was that robber barons who protected their own, built, and robbed others seem to be the ones that flourished. And even within the invading barbarians, the hordes survived (and were actually very structured), individuals and small chaotic groups failed. And the most successful barbarian hordes – the Huns, Mongols – were actually very rigid and ‘safe’ inside their rule, and also very conservative of skilled tradesmen. A siege-engine builder – no matter what race or tribe had acceptance, respect and wealth.

    Me. I’m a pessimist by preparation, and optimist by nature. It shows: I go to sea a lot, and so far I have come home, sometimes with a lot of fish.

  12. Silly answer is ‘of course not, Cities are population sinks. It always goes source to sink.’

    The serious answer is that the defining feature of cities is people, and that the quality of the people is the quality of the city.

    There are degrees of civilization. At the lowest, the death rate to violence can’t be too high, else the city can’t be maintained, much less built. It probably has to get a little beyond every man a warrior, else too few specialists to do the specialist work.

    I currently think it works by layers of ideas, software, the mental tools that distinguish societies able to do different things. We’ve gotten to this point by layering the stuff that lets us build computers on top the stuff that lets us build steel furnaces on top of the stuff that lets us build farms. Not to forget the purely military side of things.

    I think that it is possible for a society built so well that it only exercises the higher levels in much of the population to have function at the lower levels drop or disappear. So if it lasts long enough, when the thing fails, you get one chunk of the population rebuilding things to the highest level the environment will support, because they still have the software, and other chunks dropping down to typical, or lower.

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