The Fourth Civilization--
Technology Society and Ethics

Fourth (2002-2003) Edition

Richard J. Sutcliffe



This book is intended to stimulate its readers to think about the ethical and societal consequences of some of the technology that they use already, or that may about to become important. It attempts to lay a foundation for the study of such issues in a fashion that integrates history, ethical and religious beliefs with technique.

It has been clear to many people for some time that fundamental social changes are taking place as a result of the introduction of new and sophisticated technologies. Most discussions of this concentrate on the transitions themselves, but this book is an attempt to outline what will become the chief operating assumptions of society once the turmoil of transition is largely past. One of these assumptions is that far more of its citizens will need a basis for ethical decision making and, as a consequence, will need to have considered such issues before they face them as decision makers. Another is that specialization will be replaced by integration.

Thus, this book is idea rather than fact oriented. This may cause some difficulty for its readers, for such discussions are no longer common. However, its thesis is that they will become both necessary and routine, and the book can therefore be viewed as an attempt to practice what it preaches‹to be itself a part of the new Renaissance literature.

Likewise, the vocabulary level is at a higher level than that often used in books intended for either university or general audiences. This is deliberate, and is intended not simply to expand the readers' word list, but to require them to work at the book, rather than just to skim it.

The idea is not merely to discuss difficult issues at a level accessible to second and third year students, but to provide some experiences that will serve as a means of helping decision makers think about the broad consequences of high technology and begin to culturally relate their decision making so that it is not done in a vacuum.


The original intention was to direct this book to technically literate students of science, computing, engineering, or technology. In the case of technical schools or institutes, such students would normally be in their second term or second year. If university students, they would be in their third or fourth year. However, since the only prerequisite for the study of the topics here is the willingness to think, students in all other disciplines and the public as a whole ought also to find this work to be of interest. Indeed, what is being encouraged here is not just a tentative cross-over by arts, humanities, or science students, so that they peek gingerly into the other's territory. Rather, the readers are being asked to make a radical integration of the hitherto separate compartments of their lives and thinking.

In any case, the audience consists of potential professionals or technicians who need a foundation for making decisions with ethical and societal consequences. Since another of the assumptions being made here is that term "professional" will aptly describe most workers in the next civilization, this is a broad audience indeed.


The book consists of three major parts and a concluding section.

PART I lays the groundwork by considering the historical and foundational perspectives in technological and societal change, and attempts to provide an understanding of the basis for ethics and ethical decision making. Here, the case is made that history, technology, and ethical decision making are linked. They must be studied together because they act together and are used together.

PART II concentrates on describing the current technological changes taking place and makes some extrapolations and speculations about the future. It deals with the major trends and forces that are shaping the new civilization. Some of the notions here are pushed rather far; this is done intentionally so as to highlight the potential dangers of taking certain technologies to their ultimate conclusions. Readers are invited to decide for themselves whether some of the suggested future technologies are possible or even plausible, but to keep in mind that many things considered to be neither by past generations are now a fact.

PART III deals with technological issues relating to society and certain of its key institutions. The potential responses of those involved in law, government, business, and education are considered in detail.

Part IV concentrates on individuals and their lives in the new society, and also constitutes the concluding Chapter. It represents an attempt to collect up the fragments of the closing days of the industrial age and suggest some ways in which they can be integrated in the next civilization.

Each Chapter, and some additional sections, is introduced with a "set piece." These are seminar conversations among a small class of university students taking a course based on this book. In keeping with an old tradition in Philosophy, these dialogues feature a regular cast of characters along with a few visitors.

The regulars include:

Dorcas - a New Testament era figure who is innocent of modern history or technology;

Ellen Westlake - a modern feminist skeptic, law student, and socialist;

Nellie Hacker - a computing student with an impatient desire for truth;

Johanna Lud, a sensitive sculptor and poet whose secret passion it is to smash all machines, and

Alicia - whose real identity is hidden behind a microphone and speaker until later in the book.

Their arguments are refereed by the Professor - a somewhat bemused individual whose function it is to keep its participants on track. Frequent guests are:

Lucas Dominic‹a powerfully built, precocious local high school student, and

Eider, Mara - from Earths with different histories, technologies and societies than ours.

Mother Goose makes a cameo appearance, at least partly to assure the reader that all these characters are fictional.

These set pieces cover a wide range of topics, but are more specific than the Chapter material and quite informal. The idea is to provoke (engage, startle) the reader to thought on at least a few of the issues before settling in to a more systematic consideration. Even the main body of each Chapter is written somewhat more conversationally than most books at this level; because a formal style would mitigate against achieving the goals of the book.

To facilitate additional discussion by the readers, there are questions at the end of each Chapter asking for a more detailed consideration of points either made in the Chapter or connected with it. Some of these may suggest major projects All of this will be found under the heading of "Further Discussion", rather than "Exercises"‹a slight but deliberate blurring of the textbook mystique.

A modest bibliography of articles and books accessible to students at these levels and to casual readers is provided at the end of each Chapter.

Instructors making use of this book may feel free to condense material that is very familiar to their students, depending on their backgrounds. It is not recommended that any Chapters be left out in entirety; rather, selected ones should be supplemented with related materials according to student interests.


In another departure from modern dogma, the book is not sanitized of religious thought and ideas; but these are an integral part of it, where such references are appropriate. A discussion of ethical issues in the Western version of modern civilization would be hopelessly incomplete if shorn of any reference to the Judeo-Christian influence that has shaped this culture's institutions over the centuries, particularly in view of the resurgence of such ideas in the last few years. Chapter eleven, on the role of religion in society, is critical to the book, and is presented with the hope that it adds some insights that are usually missing in modern works.

The material here is not presented at what is usually termed "scholarly depth", and this will disturb some traditionalists. This book makes an attempt at breadth, partly as a countervail to industrial age specialization, and partly because of the belief that breadth will be a prerequisite for every citizen of the fourth civilization. This is a controversial assumption, and as reviewers have already indicated, each Chapter of this book is separately vulnerable to criticism for that lack of scholarly depth by the specialists in the topic of that chapter. The fact that each such specialist also thought the content of other chapters to be profound may be an indication that the book has achieved the necessary breadth in a limited number of pages without becoming too superficial.

Because of the interdisciplinary and survey nature of this work, there is little here for which startling originality can be claimed. Even portions of the Metalibrary concept have been thought of and partially implemented by several others (using different names, such as "hypermedia" and the "world wide web") since the first draft of this manuscript was created. Only the name is original. The models for personhood in the context of education and religion that are provided in Chapters ten and eleven represent modest attempts to improve on many previous abstractions of similar types. The model for ethical theories presented in Chapter three is a modification of that devised by Carl Henry, and the framework for the creation/evolution debate is largely that to be found in the works of the protagonists themselves.

What may be original is the assembly of material from so many disciplines into a single book, and the call for a new integration of it all‹even a prediction that it must be so integrated. The term "new Renaissance" to describe some of the opening years of the fourth civilization has, not, to the author's knowledge, been used previously by others prior to this author's coining of it about 1980, and the examination of the prospects for a new reformation of religion may also be unique.

However, even though the author owes obvious debts to many others, herein will not be found the usual assembly of quotations in support of the book's theses. Except in the section on creation and evolution, where the protagonists present their own cases, the discussions are based partly on reading, and partly on experience and observation. That is, while this book necessarily exists as part of a whole stream of thought and literature, the reader is asked to evaluate its content for itself, not for the weight of quotations the author could have assembled in an effort to add force to its arguments.

One early reviewer commented (apparently negatively) that this book mixes descriptive and evaluative comments. This may not be conventional wisdom today, but one of its major premises is that every description is necessarily evaluative. The students's task is not to separate the two, but to assume that every statement, having been filtered through the maker's world view, assumes an evaluation in its making, and requires another one for its understanding. This is true of every book, even when the works of others are referenced, and especially when they are quoted, for such apparent support for the author's theses masks the fact that all such references have been filtered by the one selecting them, and cannot be taken at face value out of their entire context. Even bibliographies reflect such selection; there are hundreds of additional books that could have been a part of every such list. In this case, they represent a few possible starting points for further exploration. Any instructor using this book for a course will have another such reading list, and its intersection with the one here may be rather small. In addition, the assignments point out many of the controversial issues by inviting the reader to refute either the author's contentions, or those of the sources cited.

Thus, some parts are polemical, because some issues are more important than others, and they become major theses of the book by being argued for. Other topics are "only" described, but in such description there are numerous assumptions. It is when the assumptions are less obvious that there may be the most danger in blithely and uncritically accepting them; one need be much less concerned in this respect with the obviously controversial. The reader should therefore take to heart a warning that the contents of this book are presented by the author as a true expression of individual belief and sum of experience. The words "mere opinion" may be used to dismiss the entire work, but this expression is itself overworked and conveys little meaningful information.

Related Literature

Many books have been written to explain technology, particularly since the 1970s, and there have recently been some specific works on ethical issues related to business or computing, but the author knows of no directly competing book. Again, the assumption here is that such interdisciplinary and integrative studies will become routine in the fourth civilization; that such a blend is therefore essential to understand the society now emerging. No doubt this will shortly become just one in a long list of similar books, and many of them will no doubt improve on the treatment given the themes here.


Every writer owes a debt to others who have gone before. Some of those whose influence may be detected here are: Carl Henry, C.S. Lewis, John Warwick Montgomery, Francis Shaeffer, Eric Drexler, Edward O. Wilson, the contributors to and editors of such publications as Analog and Popular Science, Henry Morris, Isaac Asimov, and a host of others‹some mentioned in the bibliographies, and some not. Bible quotations are taken from the masterful and scholarly New International Version (NIV), whose copyright is held by Zondervan Publishing.

Much of the original version of this manuscript was typed by Miss Nancy Tiffin, a student of Trinity Western University. Portions have also been read and commented on by Dr. John Klassen, Professor of history at TWU, and much encouragement for work of this type has been provided by the (now retired) academic dean and vice-president of TWU, Dr. Ken Davis‹the epitome of a Christian scholar and gentleman to all who know him.

In addition, the efforts of various reviewers of the original version are greatly appreciated. Not only did they correct many errors, but they also pointed out many places where the writing was unclear, jumped too hastily to conclusions, or incorrectly stated the points being made. It was heartening to see several of them drawn into the discussion sufficiently to argue specific points all over the draft pages. If other readers receive this book in the same spirit, it will have been a success, even if nearly everyone disagrees with nearly everything in it.

On a more personal note, my wife Joyce, and my two sons, Nathan and Joel, also suffered patiently through much neglect when the final draft was being prepared, and I deeply appreciate their encouragement to go on, even at times when the task seemed too great.

I offer this book with the typically Canadian hope that it will assist in the pulling together of diverse threads and that it will promote peace and unity between peoples of different national and cultural backgrounds, and having differing world views.

-- Aldergrove, 1988 08 03 (with revisions 1998 11 03, 2000 08 06, and 2002 06 30)

Further Comments on the 1998 revision

This book was initially commissioned by a commercial publisher and had reached the stage of advertising when two successive events killed the commercial project.

First, some members of the editing staff raised objections about (a) the Christian orientation of the writing, and (b) the "Science-Fiction" aspects of some of the predictions‹most notably those of the Metalibrary, the fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of the Germanies. No apology is needed for the former; there are plenty of books with other biases they don't mind publishing; at least this one has its predispositions clearly displayed. As for the latter, I can only say that time proved me right.

Second, the would-be publisher was bought out by a huge conglomerate, closed, and all the copyrights returned to the respective authors. Thus, following its use as a course book at Trinity Western University in the early 1990s, the materials languished on the shelf for nearly a decade.

A lot has happened in ten years, and the number of minor changes in this text are too numerous to list. Perhaps more interesting is what remains the same. The main thesis of the book, its logical organization, and conclusions remain unchanged. If anything, the support in actual events is stronger than ever, and my conviction of the necessity for a comprehensive integration of knowledge with other aspects of what make us human has increased. Of course, some forecasts had to be switched to the past tense. Others may be by the next edition.

Meanwhile, a number of students have suffered through the use of this book, and so have conference attendees and others who have heard portions of it expounded, so there have been many new critics, and almost all of them have forced me to make changes. Perhaps the most important of these is an extensive re-writing of the last three chapters, where much material has been added. Some that was removed at the request of the publisher is back in, some scientific and other errors introduced by the publisher's overzealous copy editor removed, and certain of the discussions now have a more obvious Christian bias. Readers are even more encouraged to disagree. Teachers of this material are encouraged to have students present those disagreements to the class, and to hold formal debates on some of the issues raised. The course based on this book at Trinity Western University employs outside speakers, an intersection with interdisciplinary courses offered by other departments, debates, and student presentations to ensure other views are considered.

This time, let me express the additional hope that the book will provoke my fellow workers in the scientific community to a comprehensive dialogue among all the disciplines of the modern university, and in particular with my fellow Christian intellectuals.

-- Bradner, 1998 11 03, revised 2000 08 06, and 2002 06 30

Further Comments on the 2000 WWW revisions

The Summer of 2000 saw the decision to put the entire book on the World Wide Web as shareware. This was done for two reasons. First, conventional publishers seemed little interested. Mainstream houses do not publish much with Christian content, and Christian houses lack expertise in technical areas. Neither are interested in interdisciplinary tomes. Second, it's time to practice what I've preached for years. The Metalibrary is being formed and this book might as well be an early part of it. Besides, my programming text has sold better in self-published form on the Internet than it ever did with a conventional publisher, and my fiction also became available there this year. Since this text gave rise to the fiction, it seems appropriate it be web-ified as well. More extensive revisions may be undertaken in two years time, and input is welcomed.

In the course of preparation for the web, a few typos were removed and an index prepared. The latter work provoked other minor changes and clarifications, especially in newer material. The reader might notice some inconsistencies in spelling, the use of parentheses, and the use of hyphens in compound adjectives. These arise because the original publisher edited away Canadian spellings and I have not thought it practical to restore them, but the newer material is spelled Canadian, eh?

-- Bradner, 2000 08 06

Comments on the 2002 revisions

The text underwent a careful editing, changes back to consistent Canadian orthography, and saw numerous clarifications and updatings, perhaps several thousand changes in all. Some arguments were sharpened, and a small amount of outdated material was removed. Interestingly, most of the book has continued to stand the test of time well. One of my worries, that in a sufficiently advanced technological society, individuals could too easily gather into their hands the means of mass destruction, has proven all too prescient with the September 11, 2001 World Trade Centre attacks. Indeed, this concern provoked my excursion into fiction, where I explore the ideas of this book in the context of an alternate society, one with different priorities and problems. Many of the characters who conduct the dialogues have made their way into this fiction, some of it already published, some yet to appear. For this edition, I owe a special and large debt to I.K. Romero, who undertook to read and comment on the entire text and who discovered numerous small flaws that had escaped all previous editors.

-- Bradner, 2002 07 10

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises