The Dance of Civilization

Re-examining Steward Brand’s Pace Layers

In 1999, Stewart Brand developed the idea of civilization as a system of layers that operate at different speeds. It’s a simple model for interactions between elements of society. But out of these basic principles, complex behavior and relationships can emerge that can help us consider events both present and past. It shouldn’t be taken for a complete explanation for historical events. There are many more factors at work. But it can give us warnings of potential hazards ahead if we spot the signs.

In the pace layers idea, there are 6 layers in which civilization evolves, Fashion, Commerce, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture, and Nature. Each layer operates at a different pace. Fashion is at the top moving the fastest and nature at the bottom moving the slowest. The pace of a layer also corresponds to age. Fashion is always new, constantly feeding back on itself. Government and culture, evolve slowly, reflecting the results of thought which happened years or generations earlier. Nature, of course, moves the slowest. When each layer moves at its natural pace, civilization is stable.

Layer dynamics

Things get interesting at the interaction between layers. Major events can be seen through this framework as the result of one layer driving another or layers moving at an unnatural pace. In one of Stewart’s examples, commerce driving governance results in resource over-utilization like deforestation or over-fishing.

Anytime a layer moves at an unnatural pace there is potential for disruption. Governance is traditionally too slow to provide appropriate direction for commerce which relies on feedback from markets to make decisions and allocate resources appropriately. We can see this in the failure of the Soviet Union’s economy especially when contrasted with China’s where there is a mix of market and governance influence.


If the system is in balance, it can act collectively to respond to change. The fast layers absorb shocks, adjusting quickly to disturbances and acting to pull civilization forward. The slow layers temper the faster layers responding gradually and checking the direction of faster layers.

Within each layer, some parts move faster than others. Technology companies are faster than other industries and cities are faster than national governments. The leaders of cities are closer to the problems than the leaders of countries and their feedback loops are swifter. Because they’re smaller, [ … ]

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