Manual for Civilization

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The Long Now Foundation is taking recommendations for their library-sized Manual for Civilization. Kevin Kelly originally called for a Library of Utility:

It would be a very selective library. It would not contain the world’s great literature, or varied accounts of history, or deep knowledge of ethnic wonders, or speculations about the future. It has no records of past news, no children’s books, no tomes on philosophy. It contains only seeds. Seeds of utilitarian know-how. How to recreate the infrastructure and technology of civilization so far.

The idea evolved to include these categories:

  • Cultural Canon (Great Books, Shakespeare, Plato, etc.)
  • Mechanics of Civilization (Technical knowledge, how to build and understand things)
  • Rigorous Science Fiction (Science fiction that tells a useful story about a potential future)
  • Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history (Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past)

Brian Eno’s recommendations were the first to be shared:

I’m inclined to see Steward Brand’s recommendations as definitive.


  1. Marc Pisco says:

    Yeah, when our descendants are clawing their way up out of a New Dark Age, they’ll rush past the water purification and metallurgy and fall gurgling on the TED talk bullshit like hungry children on a pile of hot dogs.

    Barbara frrrickin’ Ehrenreich. Yeah, who needs Pythagoras, we’ve got Ehrenreich now. Oh my God. Can we get some Lena Dunham in there? I mean, if we want to swing for the intellectual immortality fences here, let’s not hold back.

    Eno made some nice records 40 years ago. Good for him.

  2. Marc Pisco says:

    Eno asked himself, “If I lived in a desolate future world without airports, where would I find beach reading that wouldn’t make me look crass?”

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    Who’s Brian Eno?

  4. Faze says:

    It is amazing how Brian Eno got to be someone asked to opine on “intellectual” topics. I recently downloaded a couple of his albums to find out what the big deal is. The music is bland, soulless, and makes Pat Boone singing Little Richard songs sound like Little Richard singing little Richard songs. Brian Eno’s music isn’t entertaining on any level. He’s doesn’t even have the handful of good songs that that other “intellectual” musician, David Byrne, was able to muster up before he retired to a life of pretentious punditry.

  5. Marc Pisco says:


    Which albums? “Here Come the Warm Jets” and “Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy” are favorites of mine. After that, yes, there’s creative exhaustion punctuated by a song or two here and there (“Blackwater”, “Everything Merges with the Night”) and the “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts” lp with Byrne. He apparently had a lot of creative input on “Remain in Light”, by some accounts.

    The 1990 “Wrong Way Up” album with John Cale is nice, but not great.

  6. T. Greer says:

    The trouble with these lists is that they were composed by public intellectuals and literary figures, not actual experts in… well, anything really. Creativity alone does not a civilization make. For this list to be properly made one must ask experts in the following fields to contribute (in approx. order of importance):

    • Agronomy
    • Medicine, surgery, anatomy, and emergency care
    • Construction
    • Mechanical and civil engineering
    • Energetics and electrical engineering
    • Materials Science
    • Nautical Science
    • Navigation, cartography, and GIS
    • Archaeology
    • Ballistics
    • Linguistics
    • Genetics and epidemiology
    • Computer science and computational mathematics
    • Psychology and logic
    • Economics
    • History

    I would be very interested in reading what gets on such a list. Pity it won’t be compiled.

  7. William Newman says:

    “For this list to be properly made one must ask experts in the following fields to contribute (in approx. order of importance)”

    I think it depends on what timescale you’re thinking of. Your list makes a fair amount of sense if your goal is minimizing the badness of the first 5-15 years after some catastrophe that hammers civilization back to bare subsistence. But if you have a longer-term view, general technical knowledge that’s upstream from a lot of technology — mathematics and fundamental results in physics and some kinds of chemistry and biology — deserves to be high on the list. It is subtle enough that it took hundreds of years to figure out, and it’s a significant force multiplier for lots of the other stuff on the list, and in a sense it’s not that complicated. It *is* complicated in that few people get their mind around it in less than 5 years, so it’s not something you will look up to solve problems in the first hard winter. But it’s uncomplicated in the sense that by the time you devote one three-foot bookshelf to it you might already be into diminishing returns, unlike applied things like medicine and agronomy where without an entire room of bookshelves you have to make worrying compromises. (Do you really want to leave out the 3-big-volume set on tropical diseases of pigs? And then what about applied genetics of soybeans?)

  8. Grasspunk says:

    A lot of that has done before by people that are more practical, e.g. cd3wd.

  9. Grasspunk says:

    Kelly, Brand, and Eno are all old Global Business Network folks from the 90s.

    I was going to have a rant about how these folk are kinda like the B-Ark, but I started reading the comment thread on the “evolved” link above and now I’m laughing too much to get grumpy.

  10. Bongstar420 says:

    Ironically, if Empiricism and Naturalism are not maintained, the Manual of Civilization will have little use, since no one would understand how to understand and the knowledge would degenerate into a religion. These are philosophies.

  11. Tim says:

    I agree with T.Greer above. We have a recent example of an economy established from “nothing” in Taiwan.

    When the Nationalists fled China their focus for the new economy was light industry and agriculture. Got to eat, got to build things. Survival depends on these two things since it allows you to move on to most any other area.

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