It’s been an annual tradition since 01998: with a new year comes a new Edge question.
Every January, John Brockman presents the members of his online salon with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time. Previous iterations have included prompts such as “What should we be worried about?” or “What do you think about machines that think?” The essay responses – in excess of a hundred each year – offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.
This year, Brockman asks:
George Dyson, who spoke at Long Now in 02013, says the Reynolds Number from fluid dynamics can be applied to non-traditional domains to understand why things might go smoothly for a while, and then all of a sudden don’t.
Long Now Board Member Stewart Brand says genetic rescue can help threatened wildlife populations by restoring genetic diversity.
Priyamvada Natarajan, who spoke at Long Now in 02016, describes how the bending of light, or gravitational lensing, is a consequence of Einstein’s re-conceptualization of gravity in his theory of relativity.
Samuel Arbesman, who spoke at the Interval in 02016, says “magical” self-replicating computer programs known as quines underscore the limits of mathematics and computer science while demonstrating that reproduction isn’t limited to the domain of the biological.
Michael Shermer, who spoke at Long Now in 02015, says the very human tendency to be “preternaturally pessimistic” has an evolutionary basis. Negativity bias, which can be observed across all domains of life, is a holdover from an evolutionary past where existence was more dangerous, so over-reacting to threats offered more of a pay-off than under-reacting.
Long Now Board Member Brian Eno sets his sights on confirmation bias after a particularly divisive election season playing out on social media revealed that more information does not necessarily equal better decisions.
George Church of Long Now’s Revive and Restore says that while DNA may be one of the most widely known scientific terms, far too few people understand the DNA in their own bodies. With DNA tests as low as $499, Church says there’s no reason not to get your DNA tested, especially when it could allow for preventative measures when it comes to genetic diseases.
Long Now Board Member Kevin Kelly argues that the best way to steer clear of failure is by letting go of success once it is achieved, thereby avoiding premature optimization.
Long Now Board Member Danny Hillis unpacks impedance matching, or adding elements to a system so that it accepts energy more efficiently. He predicts a future where impedance matching could help cool the earth by adding tiny particles of dust to our stratosphere that would reflect away the sun’s infrared waves.
Steven Pinker, who spoke at Long Now in 02012, argues that the meaning of life and human purpose lies in the second law of thermodynamics. Pinker believes our deeply-engrained habit of under-appreciating the universe’s tendency towards disorder is “a major source of human folly.”
Long Now Board Member Paul Saffo says that at the heart of today’s biggest challenges, from sustaining mega-cities to overpopulation to information overload, are hidden laws of scale described by Haldane’s Rule of the Right Size.
These are just a few of this year’s thought-provoking answers; you can read the full collection here.
Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and Executive Director of Code for America. She served as the US Deputy Chief Technology Officer from June 02013 to 02014 and ran the Game Developers Conference, Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Independent Games Festival for many years. Previously, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb, in conjunction with O’Reilly Media.
I was reading, in a recent issue of Discover, about the Clock of the Long Now. Have you heard of this thing? It is going to be a kind of gigantic mechanical computer, slow, simple and ingenious, marking the hour, the day, the year, the century, the millennium, and the precession of the equinoxes, with a huge orrery to keep track of the immense ticking of the six naked-eye planets on their great orbital mainspring. The Clock of the Long Now will stand sixty feet tall, cost tens of millions of dollars, and when completed its designers and supporters, among them visionary engineer Danny Hillis, a pioneer in the concept of massively parallel processing; Whole Earth mahatma Stewart Brand; and British composer Brian Eno (one of my household gods), plan to hide it in a cave in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada [now in West Texas], a day’s hard walking from anywhere. Oh, and it’s going to run for ten thousand years. That is about as long a span as separates us from the first makers of pottery, which is among the oldest technologies we have. Ten thousand years is twice as old as the pyramid of Cheops, twice as old as that mummified body found preserved in the Swiss Alps, which is one of the oldest mummies ever discovered. The Clock of the Long Now is being designed to thrive under regular human maintenance along the whole of that long span, though during periods when no one is around to tune it, the giant clock will contrive to adjust itself. But even if the Clock of the Long Now fails to last ten thousand years, even if it breaks down after half or a quarter or a tenth that span, this mad contraption will already have long since fulfilled its purpose. Indeed the Clock may have accomplished its greatest task before it is ever finished, perhaps without ever being built at all. The point of the Clock of the Long Now is not to measure out the passage, into their unknown future, of the race of creatures that built it. The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and to reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future—though we do, whether we think about it or not. We also, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.
The Sex Pistols, strictly speaking, were right: there is no future, for you or for me. The future, by definition, does not exist. “The Future,” whether you capitalize it or not, is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, a sketch for a mad contraption that may or may not work. “The Future” is a story we tell, a narrative of hope, dread or wonder. And it’s a story that, for a while now, we’ve been pretty much living without.
Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the Future” is going to happen? If the Clock works the way that it’s supposed to do—if it lasts—do you believe there will be a human being around to witness, let alone mourn its passing, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?
I was surprised, when I read about the Clock of the Long Now, at just how long it had been since I had given any thought to the state of the world ten thousand years hence. At one time I was a frequent visitor to that imaginary mental locale. And I don’t mean merely that I regularly encountered “the Future” in the pages of science fiction novels or comic books, or when watching a TV show like The Jetsons (1962) or a movie like Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). The story of the Future was told to me, when I was growing up, not just by popular art and media but by public and domestic architecture, industrial design, school textbooks, theme parks, and by public institutions from museums to government agencies. I heard the story of the Future when I looked at the space-ranger profile of the Studebaker Avanti, at Tomorrowland through the portholes of the Disneyland monorail, in the tumbling plastic counters of my father’s Seth Thomas Speed Read clock. I can remember writing a report in sixth grade on hydroponics; if you had tried to tell me then that by 2005 we would still be growing our vegetables in dirt, you would have broken my heart.
Even thirty years after its purest expression on the covers of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and, supremely, at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the collective cultural narrative of the Future remained largely an optimistic one of the impending blessings of technology and the benevolent, computer-assisted meritocracy of Donald Fagen’s “fellows with compassion and vision.” But by the early seventies—indeed from early in the history of the Future—it was not all farms under the sea and family vacations on Titan. Sometimes the Future could be a total downer. If nuclear holocaust didn’t wipe everything out, then humanity would be enslaved to computers, by the ineluctable syllogisms of “the Machine.” My childhood dished up a series of grim cinematic prognostications best exemplified by the Hestonian trilogy that began with the first Planet of the Apes (1968) and continued through The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). Images of future dystopia were rife in rock albums of the day, as on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) and Rush’s 2112 (1976), and the futures presented by seventies writers of science fiction such as John Brunner tended to be unremittingly or wryly bleak.
In the aggregate, then, stories of the Future presented an enchanting ambiguity. The other side of the marvelous Jetsons future might be a story of worldwide corporate-authoritarian technotyranny, but the other side of a post-apocalyptic mutational nightmare landscape like that depicted in The Omega Man was a landscape of semi-barbaric splendor and unfettered (if dangerous) freedom to roam, such as I found in the pages of Jack Kirby’s classic adventure comic book Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth (1972-76). That ambiguity and its enchantment, the shifting tension between the bright promise and the bleak menace of the Future, was in itself a kind of story about the ways, however freakish or tragic, in which humanity (and by implication American culture and its values however freakish and tragic) would, in spite of it all, continue. Eed plebnista, intoned the devolved Yankees, in the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” who had somehow managed to hold on to and venerate as sacred gobbledygook the Preamble to the Constitution, norkon forden perfectunun. All they needed was a Captain Kirk to come and add a little interpretive water to the freeze-dried document, and the American way of life would flourish again.
I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it. Meanwhile, the dwindling number of items remaining on that list—interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened)—have been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.
This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our loss of belief or interest in the Future, which has in turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future, any Future, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The Future was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and characteristic styles of so many historical periods from, say, Jules Verne forward, that at some point the idea of the Future—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.
If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now. The kid is more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, his tenth birthday. It’s only the world a hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank. My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation, for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book. If you had told me, when I was eight, that a little kid of the future would feel that way—and that what’s more, he would see a certain justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better off without human beings in it—that would have been even worse than hearing that in 2006 there are no hydroponic megafarms, no human colonies on Mars, no personal jetpacks for everyone. That would truly have broken my heart.
When I told my son about the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully, and we looked at the pictures on the Long Now Foundation’s website. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free. And I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.
Our annual Lost Landscapes of San Francisco show with Rick Prelinger will run for 2 nights this year and a portion of the proceeds are going directly to support the Prelinger Library!
Members can reserve tickets on either Tuesday December 6 or Wednesday December 7, 02016; the show is at 7:30pm at the Castro Theater (doors are at 6:30pm) on both nights.
Tuesday 12/6/16: On Tuesday night, we’ll be having our Long Now Winter Party for members and their guests after the show on the Mezzanine of the Castro Theater, with wine, beer and holiday snacks. Please join us to celebrate another year of thought-provoking Seminars and other Long Now achievements!
Wednesday 12/7/16: The Wednesday showing will also feature a presentation on the Prelinger Library. On both evenings you can purchase $50 Prelinger Library Patron Tickets, which include reserved seating in the theater. 100% of proceeds from the sale of these tickets go directly to the library!
The eleventh year of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, the annual archival film program that celebrates San Francisco’s past and looks towards its future.
This year’s program features new scenes of San Franciscans working, playing, marching and partying during the Great Depression; unseen footage of Seals Stadium and the Cow Palace in the late 1930s; the reconstruction of Market Street and Embarcadero Plaza in the 1970s; rare footage of southeastern San Francisco and the Hunters Point drydock; the 1975 Gay Freedom Day parade; a 1940s-era ode to our fog; many more newly discovered gems; and greatest hits from past programs.
As always, the audience makes the soundtrack at the glorious Castro Theatre! Come prepared to identify places, people and events; to ask questions; and to engage in spirited real-time repartee with fellow audience members.
Part of your Lost Landscapes ticket price this year benefits Prelinger Library, San Francisco’s famed experimental research library that supports artists, historians, community members, and researchers of all kinds. Your purchase of a Patron Ticket directly benefits the library.
Founded by Megan & Rick Prelinger in 02004, the Library contains over 60,000 books, periodicals, maps and ephemeral print items available for research and reuse. Prelinger Library is a community-supported resource open to the public, keeping regular hours in the South of Market neighborhood; details and hours at http://www.prelingerlibrary.org.
Douglas Coupland has done so much more than name a generation (“Generation X”—post-Boomer, pre-Millennial, from his novel of that name). He is a prolific writer (22 books, including nonfiction such as his biography of Marshall McLuhan) and a brilliant visual artist with installations at a variety of museums and public sites. His 1995 novel Microserfs nailed the contrast between corporate and startup cultures in software and Web design.
Coupland is fascinated by time. For Long Now he plans to deploy ideas and graphics “all dealing on some level with time and how we perceive it, how we used to perceive it, and where our perception of it may be going.” A time series about time.
On Thursday October 13th at the SFJAZZ Center, the digital news outlet Quartz is producing a one day conference called “The Next Billion“, and have offered Long Now Members a 40% discount.
The Next Billion is a metaphor for the future of the internet — mobile, global, exponential growth in emerging markets, as well as the growth of next level tech in more mature markets. At The Next Billion conference, they’ll explore how networked innovation in every sector is transforming business, society and opportunity across the globe.
If you are interested in purchasing a ticket and would like the discount code, please write into email@example.com with your member number and we’ll be happy to help you.
In 01996: The Long Now Foundation was established to foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.
In 02007: The Long Now Foundation’s Membership program was launched. The list of our 1,000 Charter Members is here.
In celebration of Long Now’s 20th anniversary our Member Summit will be a day dedicated to long-term thinking. We will have components of the 10,000 Year Clock on display–which will later be installed in West Texas.
Our staff will give updates on our projects (including the Clock). Long Now founders and Board will be on stage, but we’ll also have talks & discussions led by Long Now members, hundreds of whom will travel to San Francisco for this event.
The Interval at Long Now, our bar/cafe/museum, will be at the center of the Summit. The Interval is full of Long Now-related information & artifacts, including Clock of the Long Now prototypes, passenger pigeons, thousands of books, and the art of Brian Eno.
There’s much more–dinner from Off The Grid food trucks, drinks from The Interval menu, a festival of short films about long-term thinking co-curated by our members, and more. Tickets are still available.
Join us at the Summit and help celebrate the first 20 years of Long Now!
Cities and urban regions can make coherent sense, can metabolize efficiently, can use their very complexity to solve problems, and can become so resilient they “bounce forward” when stressed.
In this urbanizing century ever more of us live in cities (a majority now; 80% expected by 2100), and cities all over the world are learning from each other how pragmatic governance can work best. Jonathan Rose argues that the emerging best methods focus on deftly managing “cognition, cooperation, culture, calories, connectivity, commerce, control, complexity, and concentration.”
Unlike most urban theorists and scholars, Rose is a player. A third-generation Manhattan real estate developer, in 1989 he founded and heads the Jonathan Rose Company, which does world-wide city planning and investment along with its real estate projects–half of the work for nonprofit clients. He is the author of the new book, THE WELL-TEMPERED CITY: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life.
We have received an email from Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI research, on a new outreach on behalf of the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. They want to hear from the general public on their ideas for new approaches for finding evidence of extraterrestrial technological civilizations. They are looking for 1 page descriptions, with specific attention paid to:
Descriptions that reach Jill Tarter by 15 August, 2016 will be incorporated into the subcommittee’s deliberations later that week. Please send your approach to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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