Posted on May 17th, 02013 by Austin Brown
Since the beginnings of civilization, humans have had reason to think carefully about where to grow food, where to sleep, where to put waste. We call it land use planning and for most of history it’s happened pretty haphazardly. Like other activities, though, we’ve gradually systematized the process, especially as we’ve come up against scarcity and competition. Until we can move significant portions of the population to a new planet, land will only get more scarce, of course, and how we make use of it in the future is an important conversation to have.
Patrick J. Kriger, writing for Urban Land, describes two visions for the next 50 years of American land use planning. One scenario extrapolates forward the trend-line of ever-increasing urbanization:
By 2063, the suburban tract house and the shopping mall will have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and a generation of workers in the knowledge-based economy will flock to high-density, walkable urban mixed-use neighborhoods. Some may live in “smart” apartment buildings with motorized walls designed to transform bedrooms and offices into dining rooms and home gyms, depending on the time of day, and travel in miniaturized robotic cars that are controlled by a wireless network to minimize congestion.
Another scenario imagines that innovation will allow certain benefits of city-life to be enjoyed in the countryside and that this compromise will shift the trend towards less concentration:
50 years from now, people increasingly will forsake the cities for the rural countryside. They will live in updated, technologically advanced, and economically self-sufficient versions of the 19th-century village. These lower-density “micro urban” communities will enable their inhabitants to own spacious houses and their own automobiles, but also will allow them to enjoy the same economic opportunities and cultural amenities of urban areas while savoring the pleasures of living close to nature.
He lists the core factors that will influence these trends as population growth and demographic shifts, advances in technology and design, climate change, scarcity and abundance (water in particular), and the decentralization of production.
Human population is both growing faster than ever and expected to level off in the next century (though exactly where remains open to debate). Alluding to these facts, Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, points out in his essay in The Atlantic that,
It is unlikely that city building on the scale to be seen through 2050 will happen ever again.
In other words, the population and urbanization explosion we are currently living through is an event, not a permanent reality.
As Kriger points out, the average lifespan of a residential building is 53 years; for commercial it’s 65. Decisions being made and designs being drafted now will have profound impacts on the quality of life, economic prospects, and environmental impact of the next 2 to 3 billion citizens of Earth. The approaches described in these two essays will determine how well we manage this event and they will establish how we utilize one of our most precious resources – the Earth’s surface – for generations to come.
Posted on May 15th, 02013 by Charlotte
We are social animals: it’s by connecting and communicating with others that we’ve managed to survive, thrive, and become “as gods” on planet Earth.
The development of communications technologies has dramatically expanded our ability to connect with the world around us. Wireless networks now allow us to communicate in real-time with people on the other side of the globe; and with the portability of tablets and smart phones, global connectedness has become integral to even the most mundane aspects of our daily lives. It’s no surprise, then, that we’re always on the lookout for new ways and places to log in to the world wide web.
Nevertheless, new research suggests that the use of technology does not always facilitate greater connectedness. In fact, it may occasionally be experienced as quite disruptive.
Several recent studies have shown that people consider the experience of overhearing a person talk on a cell phone far more annoying than listening to two people converse; more so, even, than being surrounded by white noise. These wireless “halfalogues” are so disruptive, researchers argue, because they awaken our innate tendency to make sense of communicative stimuli. Faced with a one-sided conversation, our brain is co-opted by the instinct to fill in the conversational gaps, and can no longer focus on anything else.
These findings recently led The Atlantic Cities to question whether we really want to expand wireless coverage on subways and other forms of public transportation. Though it may be nice to have access to an app that tells you when to expect the next train, we may not want to encourage our fellow passengers to disturb our commute with their cellular halfalogues.
This thought echoes some early skepticism about Google Glass, the tiny wearable computer that is currently being tested by developers. Worried that it will create dangerous distractions and eliminate the last remnants of our public privacy, the New York Times reports, several establishments and even states have sought to pre-emptively ban the device. These concerns suggest that there is a time and place for online communications – and that our pursuit of innovative communicative technology should perhaps involve a debate about whether, and where, we might impose boundaries on its use.
Posted on May 13th, 02013 by Charlotte
Our little Spaceship Earth is only eight thousand miles in diameter, which is almost a negligible dimension in the great vastness of space. Our nearest star – our energy-supplying mother-ship, the Sun – is ninety-two million miles away … Our little Spaceship Earth is right now travelling at sixty thousand miles an hour around the sun and is also spinning axially, which, at the latitude of Washington, D.C., adds approximately one thousand miles per hour to our motion. Each minute we both spin at one hundred miles and zip in orbit at one thousand miles. That is a whole lot of spin and zip. … Spaceship Earth was so extraordinarily well invented and designed that to our knowledge humans have been on board it for two million years not even knowing that they were on board a ship. And our spaceship is so superbly designed as to be able to keep life regenerating on board despite the phenomenon, entropy, by which all local physical systems lose energy.
Taking Fuller’s words to heart, Stewart Brand once argued that “we will never get civilization right” until we recognize ourselves as travelers aboard a spaceship, and famously claimed that a photograph of the whole vessel might do the trick.
Indeed, a new short film by Planetary Collective documents and celebrates the transformative power of what it calls the Overview Effect. Ever since the crew aboard Apollo 8 first turned its camera back toward our planet, space travelers and ordinary earth-bound citizens alike have been struck by the emotions elicited by images of the whole Earth, floating in the darkness of space. Bringing astronauts together with philosophers, the video attempts to put these reactions into words – and echoes Stewart Brand by suggesting that whole-earth consciousness can be the seed of long-term responsibility.
To have that experience of awe is to, at least for the moment, let go of yourself. To transcend the sense of separation. So it’s not just that they were experiencing something other than them, but that they were, at some very deep level, integrating, realizing, their interconnectedness with that beautiful, blue-green ball.
(Image credit: NASA)
Posted on May 10th, 02013 by Austin Brown
Humans have been telling stories about space for generations, but now space is starting to tell stories about us. By putting satellites into orbit pointed not out at the stars, but in at our selves, and simply letting the cameras roll, we can see ourselves in aggregate, growing and changing. NASA’s Landsat program has recorded millions of photographs of the Earth’s surface since 01972 and Google has recently marshaled its significant computational power to organize that massive dataset into watchable video of our planet’s surface.
These Timelapse pictures tell the pretty and not-so-pretty story of a finite planet and how its residents are treating it — razing even as we build, destroying even as we preserve. It takes a certain amount of courage to look at the videos, but once you start, it’s impossible to look away.
Posted on May 7th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
Tuesday May 21st, 02013 at the SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco
From promoting the publication of NASA’s first satellite images of the whole Earth to co-founding The Long Now Foundation, Stewart Brand has always sought to simultaneously humble and empower. Our planet, seen for the first time against the vastness of space, suddenly seemed finite and precious. Our society’s moment placed within The Long Now – the history and future of civilization – becomes tenuous and ephemeral. But, given this expanded awareness and “access to tools,” the biosphere and society’s lasting legacy are ours to sustain and cultivate.
It is difficult to give a cursory list of the projects that Stewart Brand has instigated over the years. Some of his notable accomplishments include founding the “Whole Earth Catalog”, starting the Hackers Conference, co-founding the first online community (The WELL), and co-founding The Long Now Foundation. On top of all of this, he has found the time to write several books, including: The Clock of the Long Now, How Buildings Learn, The Media Lab, and Whole Earth Discipline.
In this talk, Stewart Brand will discuss his newest project, Revive & Restore, which is seeking to de-extinct species with the help of genetic technologies. Over the past two years, Brand has been busy convening meetings that brought together the leading scholars working on the science of de-exintction, which culminated in March’s TEDx DeExtinction conference. Through these conferences, Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan have mapped a set of questions to determine whether a species should be brought back from de-exinction. The common ground for the top candidate species are that humans were partially (if not largely) responsible for making them going extinct, and that these species were keystone species, or species that somehow played an integral and mutually beneficial role in the ecosystems they called home. In this sense, Revive and Restore is a natural complement to conservation movements that seek to rehabilitate ecosystems that have declined with the rise of the anthropocene.
One of the first direct de-extinction efforts of Revive & Restore (a project of The Long Now Foundation) is to bring back the passenger pigeon. This iconic bird numbered in the billions in the 19th century, only to have the last specimen die in captivity in 01914. Revive & Restore has hired Ben Novak, a self-proclaimed passenger pigeon fanatic, to sequence the genome of the passenger pigeon and its closing living relative, the band-tailed pigeon. With the help of a loose consortium of genetic scientists, Stewart hopes that the passenger pigeon will successfully be brought back and re-wilded in America, allowing it to revitalize the forest it once called home. Although the genetic technology behind Revive & Restore is moving quite fast, the process of re-wilding will take generations–one of the reasons that the project is under the auspices of The Long Now Foundation. For example – since Woolly Mammoths take about 20 years to reach sexual maturity, even after scientists clone an individual (which may itself take many years), it would still be hundreds of years before re-wilded herds roam the tundra.
Come join us at the new SFJAZZ Center on May 21st to learn about de-extinction from the front lines of this new science. You can reserve tickets, get directions, and sign up for the podcast on the Seminar page. If you are a member, please check your email for special ticketing instructions.
Posted on May 6th, 02013 by Charlotte
Long Now’s Long Bets project is founded on the premise that we can improve our long-term thinking by holding ourselves accountable for the predictions we make about the future. By revisiting our forecasts as time goes by, we reveal the subtle mechanics of society’s evolution, and teach ourselves something about what kinds of visions might turn into reality.
Jerry Lockenour, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, has turned this premise into a lesson plan. Students in his Technology Development and Applications class are going back to the future: they are studying a 01988 issue of the Los Angeles Times’ Magazine, which offered a vision of the futuristic LA of 02013.
“In class we study emerging science and technology that can change the future,” he said. The magazine helps students see the relevance of the developments they are reading about in textbooks and professional journals, he said.
The 01988 feature offers a detailed description of a day in the life of a fictional family. Written in consultation with more than 30 futurists and experts, the article offers prospects for the technological innovations, environmental challenges, economic issues, and demographic shifts we might expect to deal with in 02013.
The LA Times itself recently interviewed Lockenour’s students to evaluate the quality of its 01988 predictions. “To their surprise, the students – some of whom weren’t even born when [the magazine’s] look into the future was published – found that many predictions have become reality.” Though robots have not quite become a staple in our households, we do indeed drive our cars with the aid of “electronic navigation systems,” schools have embraced the interactive learning potential of computers, and the population has indeed exploded.
To read the complete feature – and compare its vision of the unimaginable future to today’s present moment for yourself – please visit the LA Times’ website here.
Posted on May 2nd, 02013 by Austin Brown
Are completely self-driving cars feasible in the foreseeable future?
Debating this proposition are Long Now board member Paul Saffo and automotive R&D executive Andrew Bergbaum. Saffo is “for the proposition” – he argues that self-driving cars will be commercially available, and maybe even common, by 02030 – while Bergbaum is against, arguing that legislation and existing business models will hamper roll-out of the technology.
The debate is ongoing on The Economist’s site: opening arguments were posted on Tuesday 4/30, rebuttals will go up Friday 5/3 and closing remarks are to be made on Wednesday 5/8.
Readers are encouraged to participate as well, in comment-form or through voting. Results of the vote are tallied daily and there’s a clear trend over the first 3 days in the direction of Paul Saffo’s stance. Will it hold when the rebuttals are posted? Check in over the next week to see.
Posted on May 1st, 02013 by Austin Brown
Beginning on April 30th 2013, Artangel and the Longplayer Trust will be inviting thinkers and writers from a wide variety of disciplines to engage in a chain of written correspondence on the subject of long-term thinking. Unfolding slowly over time, the Artangel Longplayer Letters form a written conversation in which each conversant is both answering his or her predecessor and thinking toward his or her successor – it is a dialogical relay, very much in the spirit of the Long Conversations.
We’re all used to the idea that actions and thoughts take on different values when we expand the ‘picture’ within which we frame them. We realise that something which makes sense in a local frame may make less sense in a broader frame: dumping your waste in the river is fine as long as you don’t think too much about the people downriver. When you do, you might decide to stop dumping. Government ought to be the process by which such overlapping ‘bigger picture’ considerations are negotiated: good government should make empathy practical.
Indeed our geographical ‘circle of empathy’ grows decade on decade: a hundred years ago it would have been impossible to imagine millions of people raising hundreds of millions of pounds for tsunami victims on the other side of the world – people they didn’t know and would almost certainly never meet. In terms of geography, we inhabit a much bigger picture than we used to, and we sense our interconnectedness within it.
In terms of time, however, the picture seems to be narrowing. Public attention is increasingly focused on very near futures: businesses live in terror of the bottom line and the quarterly results, while politicians quake at tomorrow’s opinion polls and formulate policy in terms of them. We’ve heard tales of farmers planting olive trees or vineyards for their grandchildren to harvest, or of foresters cultivating groves of oaks to replace a chapel roof hundreds of years in the future, but by and large, we don’t do that anymore. We have less active engagement with our future than our ancestors did.
This diminishing future horizon is mirrored by an equally shrinking backwards view. We find ourselves left with prejudices and opinions that were hastily and emotionally formed at the time and not revisited and re-evaluated, drowned under a relentless stream of new stories and panics. We seem to be so thoroughly submerged by new impressions that we don’t have time to digest our own history.
To illustrate this, think about nuclear power. Start with FUKUSHIMA, that dread word. As a result of over-excited media reporting (‘great story!’ I heard one journalist say) that single word has probably condemned nuclear power for another generation, when in fact the accident produced no radiation-related deaths (and it’s doubtful that it will produce a discernable statistical blip in cancers in the future). In a conspiracy which seems almost dishonest, most Green groups failed to acknowledge this – it was too good as propaganda for them to let the facts get in the way – and of course the press never returned to the subject with any correctional follow-up. It became one of those little nuggets of received, and totally incorrect, wisdom: Nuclear=Fukushima=Catastrophe.
That received non-wisdom has persuaded Green Germany to begin decommissioning its nuclear reactors – which means more coal-fired plants. Japan too will probably turn back to coal. Coal is – even Greenpeace would agree – the worst option, though they’d claim that the gap can be filled by renewables. It can’t, not now and probably not for decades. In the meantime – and it may be a long, mean time – we’ll use coal. It’s cheap and very, very dirty.
So the real catastrophe of Fukushima is in the future, waiting for us in the form of vastly increased atmospheric CO2. An emotional over-reaction to a media storm has produced a thoroughly bad decision with longterm global consequences. It’s a classic ‘how not to’scenario. Is this how our future is going to be – lurching from one panic to another in a daze of ‘just coping’ and without the benefit of any long-picture wisdom within which to frame our actions? What would help us break out of that trap? Those olive farmers and church builders mentioned above had something we don’t: a sense that the future would quite likely be similar to the present. We, on the other hand, can be sure this won’t be the case. So the question is really this: how can we even think about designing for a future that we can’t imagine?
Where we have seriously addressed the long term at all, our efforts so far have tended towards ‘robust’ solutions: if we can’t predict the future we’ll defend against it by building super-robust structures. An example of this philosophy would be the now- abandoned megaproject for the storage of America’s nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. It was designed to resist anything the Universe could conceivably throw at it (or rather anything its designers could conceive, which is quite different). It had no adaptive capacity: it was a fortress, hardened, inert, requiring constant upkeep. But as you point out, ‘robust’ is not actually the opposite of fragile, but a point on the spectrum between ‘fragile’ and ‘anti-fragile’. The project was abandoned for political reasons and the problem of waste storage is still regarded as unsolved.
In the meantime, however, the waste is being stored: in huge drums beside the plants themselves. It’s intended as a temporary measure, but it might turn out to be a better one anyway. I think it offers a hint to the solution. Like this, the material is easily accessible should any better storage or recycling ideas appear in the next several millennia (quite likely, I should have thought…there must be Golden Swans as well as Black ones). It leaves open the possibility of easily adopting better solutions as they appear, and, because it is widely distributed rather than concentrated, it can be seen as dozens of separate experiments in waste storage being conducted simultaneously. Some of them will be better than others: evolution will take place. In that sense it seems to me a more antifragile solution. In a changing landscape what is needed is evolvability – the possibility of running a number of solutions at the same time and letting the better ones win out.
But there is a huge psychological appetite for robust solutions: it’s very natural to think that the best way to defend any system is by hardening it so it becomes unassailable. That looks like a good strategy partly because it entails more quantifiable activity on our part – and we tend to trust things if we think we’ve designed them (rather than if they’ve evolved by some process we don’t quite understand) and if we can attach lots of numbers to them. The problem is that ‘robust’ only works if the threats to the system are predictable – if you know what to harden against. The fact is, we don’t – and the hardening process itself reduces evolvability.
The nuclear issue – which I’ve used as an example in this letter – is only one of many I could have chosen. The fact is, we’re facing a lot of complex and interrelated problems which demand that we take positions now. To some extent, that position is going to have to be ‘let’s improvise’ because there’s a distinct limit to how well we can make predictions. The de facto nuclear storage arrangements currently in use in America are examples of ‘let’s improvise’ and in this case seem to be a not-too-bad arrangement. But ‘let’s improvise’ has its limitations: in fact it’s sort of what got us where we are now, in a place that’s both wondrous and problematic. We might need some other intellectual weapons in our arsenals, no matter how good we become at jamming.
Posted on April 30th, 02013 by Austin Brown
Wednesday April 17, 02013 – San Francisco
In education, Negroponte explained, there’s a fundamental distinction between “instructionism” and “constructionism.” “Constructionism is learning by discovery, by doing, by making. Instructionism is learning by being told.” Negroponte’s lifelong friend Seymour Papert noted early on that debugging computer code is a form of “learning about learning” and taught it to young children.
Thus in 2000 when Negroponte left the Media Lab he had founded in 1985, he set out upon the ultimate constructionist project, called “One Laptop per Child.” His target is the world’s 100 million kids who are not in school because no school is available. Three million of his laptops and tablets are now loose in the world. One experiment in an Ethiopian village showed that illiterate kids can take unexplained tablets, figure them out on their own, and begin to learn to read and even program.
In the “markets versus mission” perspective, Negroponte praised working through nonprofits because they are clearer and it is easier to partner widely with people and other organizations. He added that “start-up businesses are sucking people out of big thinking. So many minds that used to think big are now thinking small because their VCs tell them to ‘focus.’”
As the world goes digital, Negroponte noted, you see pathologies of left over “atoms thinking.” Thus newspapers imagine that paper is part of their essence, telecoms imagine that distance should cost more, and nations imagine that their physical boundaries matter. “Nationalism is the biggest disease on the planet,” Negroponte said. “Nations have the wrong granularity. They’re too small to be global and too big to be local, and all they can think about is competing.” He predicted that the world is well on the way to having one language, English.
Negroponte reflected on a recent visit to a start-up called Modern Meadow, where they print meat. “You get just the steak—no hooves and ears involved, using one percent of the water and half a percent of the land needed to get the steak from a cow.” In every field we obsess on the distinction between synthetic and natural, but in a hundred years “there will be no difference between them.”
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Posted on April 29th, 02013 by Charlotte
If you’ve ever wondered what the inventor of the telephone might have sounded like from the other end of a landline, you may finally have your answer: researchers have discovered and managed to restore a brief recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s own voice.
Famously – if controversially – credited for patenting the acoustic telegraph, Bell (01847-01922) dedicated his life to the science of creating, recording, and transmitting sound waves. He co-founded the Volta Laboratory in Washington, DC, where his team experimented with magnetic sound recording and worked on improvements to Edison’s phonograph. The Smithsonian Magazine writes:
Inside the lab, Bell and his associates bent over their pioneering audio apparatus, testing the potential of a variety of materials, including metal, wax, glass, paper, plaster, foil and cardboard, for recording sound, and then listening to what they had embedded on discs or cylinders.
The laboratory produced a considerable collection of recordings, and kept meticulous records of their proceedings. In the late 19th century, Bell donated a large amount of this to the Smithsonian Institution, where they have been carefully preserved. Sadly, however, Bell’s documentation included little information about the instruments he used to play his own recordings, and so the passing of time and evolution of technology reduced his discs to “mute artifacts.”
So when researchers at the Smithsonian discovered a piece of paper in a collection of the earliest audio recordings ever made that transcribed an 1885 recording ostensibly made by Bell, then matched that to an actual wax-on-cardboard disc sporting the initials “AGB” and the same date, April 15, 1885, they couldn’t just drop it into an old-school player and crank away. (Time)
Now, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have managed to bridge this technological divide: they have developed a way to “extract” sound from 19th century recordings. A high-resolution 3D camera allows them to create a topographical map of an audio disc without damaging its surface; a computer can then convert this map into sound waves. Using this technology, the Library of Congress brought the 1885 recording back to life, and found, indeed, a snippet of A.G. Bell’s own voice.
It is “a new invention in the service of invention,” says National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens. The Berkeley lab’s new disc-reading technology has succeeded in restoring a piece of its very own origins: it has revived the legacy – and the voice – of a pioneer in the science of audio transmission.
Ideas about Long-term Thinking.