Why Do Some Forms of Knowledge Go Extinct?

Posted on July 26th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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The History of Art and Architecture slide library at Trinity College, Dublin. Via the Department of Ultimology.


Fiona Hallinan is an artist and researcher based at Trinity College, Dublin. She’s co-founder of a project along with curator Kate Strain called the Department of Ultimology. Ultimology is the study of that which is dead or dying in a series or process. When applied to academic disciplines, it becomes the study of extinct or endangered subjects, theories, and tools of learning. Long Now recently spoke with Hallinan when she visited The Interval. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

LONG NOW: What was the inspiration for a department studying extinct or endangered subjects and theories?

Fiona Hallinan: It began back when Kate and I were both alumni of the History of Art and Architecture Department at Trinity University College, Dublin. We learned everything we studied from a rather limited slide library. And we were speculating how in the last ten years those slides probably had been digitized, and students now probably had access to an infinite number of images compared to our limited selection. We wondered how that had impacted how people learned the discipline, and therefore how that had actually evolved the discipline of art history itself. So we came up with an idea for a department within the university that would examine all the other disciplines and departments from that perspective.

Via the Department of Ultimology.


We had encountered the term “ultimology” in the context of the study of endangered languages and thought that that could be expanded to become a general discipline across the university that looked at that which was dead or dying. In 02014 we applied for and won the Trinity Creative Challenge, which was a provost’s award for artistic projects that would explore the university and present the knowledge being produced there to the general public. We spent the next year conducting interviews with different heads of departments and disciplines about what was ultimological in their disciplines. Based off of our findings, we organized the First International Conference of Ultimology, a public event that presented a mix of artistic commissions, presentations and real academic papers. Through that we were invited to be hosted as the Department of Ultimology in residence at CONNECT, which is the center for future networks at Trinity.

LN: What is your methodology when approaching a given academic discipline? Are you reaching out to specific fields and subjects that you suspect as having ultimological potential?

FH: At the beginning we just wanted to get as wide as scope as possible; we had a particular narrative that we expected to encounter, namely, that there was an increasing commercialization of the university because certain disciplines could receive funding that perhaps other modes of knowledge production could not on account of phasing out of interest and activity. We thought that a subject like, say, medieval architecture might be virtually impossible to get funding for nowadays versus something like computational linguistics. And as a result, this was causing a shift or change in the structure of the university.

The Illusion of Infinite Resources,” by the Department of Ultimology.


While we did find that that was true to an extent, we also found that as a term, “ultimology” was really exciting for lots of the academics that we spoke to, and there was a sense of relief that finally there was somewhere they could put all of this endangered or extinct knowledge. Often, we would go into a meeting and people would be prepared with heaps of examples, whereas other times people would be interested but say that ultimology wasn’t really that relevant to their discipline, only to realize through inquiry that it was.

One example of that was in Trinity’s Department of Psychology, where the department head, Dr. Jean Quigley, said that psychology didn’t really have anything ultimological because ideas and tools were added all the time instead of being taken away. We asked her for an example of something that had been recently added, and she described the concept of personality. From that, we asked what would the set of qualities we call “personality” been described as before. And she said that people would have spoken about the soul. So from that conversation we started to think about different methodologies, and we described that methodology as negative space—the space that the concept would have occupied before.

A second methodology we developed was the idea of ultimology as a service. We hold clinics where academics come to us and speak to us, and the ultimological becomes a service akin to therapy where people can get things off their chest or they can talk about their research papers that didn’t go anywhere. It becomes a repository for the burden of the recent past.

Another methodology we began to utilize was the idea of embodiment, where we embody the Department of Ultimology through commissioning artists to make us the accessories or trappings of a real department, like bureaucratic forms.

Lanyards designed by Dennis McNulty for the First International Conference of Ultimology. Via the Department of Ultimology.


For our conference, we found a company in Dublin that had a hundred remaining lanyards with mobile phone loops on them, which would have been used in the pre-smartphone age. We commissioned an artist, Dennis McNulty, to riff on these lanyards with a poetic piece of text on them about the designer of the iPhone. The lanyard itself looked like an iPhone. And so there was this potential in an object like a lanyard that connoted a certain context and space of knowledge production, and I think there’s scope there to work with artists to consider those objects and what they mean and what their associations are for us. The bureaucratic questionnaire fulfills a similar function: it asks what research is, and talks about the idea of a person’s practice. While it looks very bureaucratic, its purpose is to get people to go deeply into reflecting on what they actually do.

The performativity of being a “department”  is essential. By doing it, it becomes real. While the Department of Ultimology is technically an art project, it’s not about just a specific outcome or a specific object coming out of it;  it’s more about using an artistic process to re-evaluate everything critically.

LN: What role does nostalgia play in the Department of Ultimology? Do the academics you interview bemoan a lost discipline or practice?  

FH: We try to be careful to avoid nostalgia, to avoid people being sad for something just because of a kind of fondness for it. While I’m not against nostalgia personally, I think it’s less interesting to fetishize the past, and more interesting to look at how these things actually affect the future.

Glassware blown by Trinity’s resident glassblower John Kelly.


For example, we met with Dr. Sylvia Draper, Head of the School of Chemistry at Trinity, and asked her what had changed in the discipline of Chemistry. She spoke about how glassware used to be an essential part of research. If you were a student of chemistry, you might actually design a piece of glassware that goes with your research. Draper told us that Trinity College had a glassblowing workshop on site with a glassblower named John Kelly, but that he was going to retire in two years and would not be replaced. It ties back to the commercialization of the university: the reason he’s not being replaced is because he’s salaried and a salaried employee is a high cost for the university. And so he and his work become expendable because in theory the department can just bring in cheaper, standard glassware from abroad.

However, if you’re a student and you’re planning your experiment and it requires an intricate, strange, unique piece of glass, it might now be much more expensive for you to get it, which might impact how you look at your research. You might be less willing or able to do something weirder, essentially. I picture it like these tiny little cracks that maybe can’t be explored in a discipline as people are funnelled down into a more particular standard route.

John Kelly at work in his lab at Trinity College, Dublin. Via the Department of Ultimology.


So while there’s a sense of nostalgia thinking about John Kelly in his lab and his beautiful glassware, it’s less about trying to preserve what he’s doing for the sake of it; there’s an actual reason behind it that’s important to know about. It’s also very short-term thinking. Say his salary is 50,000 Euro a year, and a piece of special glassware costs 1,000 Euro to ship in. it’s really quickly not going to add up, and is a short-sighted view of saving money now without much thought to the future.

LN: Looking to the future, what’s next for the Department of Ultimology?

Kate Strain and Fiona Hallinan, founders of the Department of Ultimology.


We’re hoping to publish a journal in December. We’re treating the journey of making it all as part of the project as well. So it won’t be a roll-out of a finished product, and I think that we might think of the field of peer review as potential for a public event.  

Ultimately, we would like to start a Department of Ultimology in every time zone. We say “time zones” because  it’s a way of dividing the world that is perhaps more timeless than countries or nation-states. There’s an instability to those, particularly at the moment, whereas time zones have a celestial, larger-than-us quality.

Keep up with the Department of Ultimology by heading to its website or following it on Twitter.

Interview: Alexander Rose and Phil Libin on Long-Term Thinking

Posted on July 19th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Term Thinking, Rosetta   chat 0 Comments

Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose and former Evernote CEO Phil Libin recently spoke with the design agency Dialogue about the layers of civilization, the future of products, and the Clock of the Long Now.

The interview is wide-ranging, covering everything from the early tech, design and science fiction influences in Rose and Libin’s childhoods to how Long Now’s pace layers theory helps reconcile the tension between long-term planning and Silicon Valley’s fast-paced approach to entrepreneurship and product innovation.

The interview also provides a look at a little-known chapter in Long Now’s history, namely, how Alexander Rose left a career in video games and virtual world design after hearing about The Clock Project:

Stewart told me about The Clock Project. Back then the project was just a conversation between Danny Hillis, Brian Eno, and Stewart, but I just couldn’t get it out of my head when I heard about it. By strange luck, there was a Board meeting a week after where I met Danny for the first time. It was then that he told me he had a funder for the first prototype of the Clock and asked if I wanted to help build it. I immediately said, “Yes, this is what I want to do. I don’t want to work on video games anymore.”

Read Dialogue’s interview with Alexander Rose and Phil Libin in full (LINK).

Watch Stewart Brand and Long Now board member Paul Saffo discuss the Pace Layers of Civilization in a 02015 Conversation at The Interval (LINK).

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Alan Moore writes to Stewart Lee

Posted on July 12th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Alan Moore (left) chose comedian Stewart Lee as the recipient of his Longplayer letter.


In January 02017, Iain Sinclair, a writer and filmmaker whose recent work focuses on the psychogeography of London, wrote a letter to writer Alan Moore as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence, with the recipient of the letter responding with a letter to a different recipient of his choosing. Iain Sinclair wrote to Alan Moore. Now, Alan Moore has written a letter to standup comedian Stewart Lee.

The first series of correspondence in the Longplayer Letters, lasting from 02013-02015 and including correspondence with Long Now board members Stewart Brand, Esther Dyson, and Brian Eno, ended when a letter from Manuel Arriga to Giles Fraser went unanswered. You can find the previous correspondences here.


From: Alan Moore, Phippsville, Northampton

To: Stewart Lee, London

2 February 2017

Dear Stewart,

I’ll hopefully have spoken to you before you receive this and filled you in on what our bleeding game is. Iain Sinclair kicked off by writing a letter to me, and the idea is that I should kind-of-reply to Iain’s letter in the form of a letter to a person of my choosing. The main criteria seems to be that this person be anybody other than Iain, so you’re probably beginning to see how perfectly you fit the bill. Also, since your comedy often consists of repeating the same phrase, potentially dozens of times in the space of a couple of minutes, I thought you’d bring a contrasting, if not jarring, point of view to the whole Longplayer process.

As you’ve no doubt realised, this is actually a chain letter. In 2016, dozens of the world’s most beloved celebrities, the pro-European British public and the population of the USA all broke the chain, as did my first choice as a recipient of this letter, Kim Jong-nam. I’m just saying.

In his letter, Iain raised the point of what a problematic concept ‘long-term’ is for those of us at this far end of our character-arc; little more than apprentice corpses, really. Mind you – with the current resident of the White House – I suppose this is currently a problem whatever age we are. In terms of existential unease, eleven is the new eighty.

Iain also talks about “having tried, for too many years, to muddy the waters with untrustworthy fictions and ‘alternative truths’, books that detoured into other books, I am now colonised by longplaying images and private obsessions, vinyl ghost in an unmapped digital multiverse”, quoting Sebald with “And now, I am living the wrong life.”

I have to admit, that resonated with me. I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between art and the artist, and I keep coming back to that Escher image of two hands, each holding a pencil, each sketching and creating the other (EscherSketch?). Yes, on a straightforward material level we are creating our art – our writing, our music, our comedy – but at the same time, in that a creator is modified by any significant work that they bring into being, the art is also altering and creating us. And when we embark upon our projects, it’s generally on little more than an inspired whim and with no idea at all about the person that we’ll be at the end of the process. Inevitably, we fictionalise ourselves. In terms of our personal psychology, we clearly don’t have what you’d call a plan, do we? Thus we actually have little say in the person that we end up as. Nobody could be this deliberately.

Adding to the problem for some of us is that, as artists, we tend to cultivate multiplying identities. The person that I am when I’m writing an introduction to William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland is different to my everyday persona as someone who is continually worshipping a snake and being angry about Batman. My persona when writing introductions is wearing an Edwardian smoking jacket and puffing smugly on a Meerschaum. I know that my recent infatuation with David Foster Wallace stemmed from an awareness that the persona he adopted for many of his essays and the various fictionalised versions of David Foster Wallace that appear in his novels and short stories were different entities to him-in-himself. I wonder how you, and also how the Comedian Stewart Lee, feels about this? I suppose at the end of the day this applies to everybody, doesn’t it? I mean you don’t have to be an artist to present yourself differently according to who you’re presenting yourself to, and in what role. We don’t talk to our parents the way that we do to our sexual partners, and we don’t talk to our sexual partners how we do to our houseplants. With good reason. The upshot of this is that all human identity is probably consciously or unconsciously constructed, and that for this reason its default position is shifting and fluid. What I’m saying is we may be normal.

Iain Sinclair quotes the verdict on George Michael’s death, “Unexplained but not suspicious”, as a fair assessment of all human lives, before going on to mention Jeremy Prynne’s offended response to a request for an example of his thought, “Like a lump of basalt.” The idea being that any thought is really part of a field of awareness; part of a cerebral weather condition that can’t be hacked out of its context without being “as horrifying as that morning radio interlude when listeners channel-hop and make their cups of tea: Thought for the Day.” I know what he means, but of course couldn’t help thinking about your New Year’s Day curatorship of the Today program, where you impishly got me to contribute to the religiously-inclined Thought for the Day section, broadcast at an unearthly hour of the morning, with an unfathomable diatribe about my sock-puppet snake deity, Glycon. Of course, I’m not saying that this is the specific edition of the show that Iain tuned into and found horrifying, but we have no indication that it wasn’t. Thinking about it, assuming that Thought for the Day is archived, then thanks to your clever inclusion of the world’s sole Glycon worshipper in amongst a fairly uniform rota of rabbis, imams and vicars, future social historians are going to have a drastically skewed and disproportionate view regarding early 21st-century spiritual beliefs. Actually, that’s a halfway decent call back to the idea of long-term thinking.

After circling around like an unusually keen-eyed intellectual buzzard for a couple of pages, Iain alights on the ‘time as solid’ premise of Jerusalem, which he likens to “a form of discontinued public housing in which pastpresentfuture coexist” (and yes, I am going to continue quoting his letter in an effort to bring some quality prose to my stretch of this serial epistle). He talks about that central idea of a muttering community of the living, the dead and the unborn, all existing in their different reaches of an eternal Now, referencing Yeats with “the living can assist the imagination of the dead” and remarking how much these words have defined his literary project since he first started writing about London. In light of what I was saying about identity earlier, I was reading in New Scientist that what we think of as ‘our’ consciousness is actually partly infiltrated by and composed of the consciousnesses that surround us. This of course includes the consciousness of a deceased person that we may be considering, as well as that of any imaginary person we may be projecting on the present or the future. I would be a slightly different creator and a slightly different person, for example, had I never entered into a consideration of the work and the consciousness of Flann O’Brien, or Mervyn Peake, or Angela Carter, or Kathy Acker, or William Burroughs, or a thousand other creators. Looked at like that, it’s as if we take on elements of other people’s consciousness, living or dead or imaginary, almost as a way of building up our psychological immune system. This makes us all fluctuating composites, feeding into and out of each other, and perhaps suggests a long-term possibility that goes beyond our mortal lifespan or status as individuals. If this were the case, if identity were a fluid commodity and we all flowed in and out of each other, then you’d have to see someone like John Clare as an instance where the levees had been overwhelmed and he was pretty much drowning in everybody.

Mentioning Clare’s asylum-mate Lucia Joyce and my rather brave stab at approximating her dad’s language, Iain introduced a notion of William Burroughs’ manufacture that I hadn’t come across before, that of the ‘word vine’: write a word, and the next word will suggest itself, and so on. I have to say, that is how the writing process seems to work with me. Perhaps people assume that writers have an idea and then they write it down fully formed, but that isn’t how it works in practice, or at least not for me. I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but for me most of the writing is generated by the act of writing itself. An average idea, if properly examined, may turn out to have strong neural threads of association or speculation that link it to an absolutely brilliant idea. I’m sure you must have found this with comedy routines; that a minor commonplace absurdity will open up logic gates on a string of increasingly striking or funny ideas, like finding a nugget that leads to a small but profitable gold seam. I don’t think creative people have ideas like a hen lays eggs; more that they arise by a scarcely-definable action from largely involuntary mental processes.

Still talking about Burroughs, Iain then moved on to a discussion of dreams via Burroughs’ My Education – “Couldn’t find my room as usual in the Land of the Dead. Followed by bounty hunters.” On Jerusalem’s pet subject of Eternalism, Iain took a position that sees our real eternity as residing in dreams, “in residues of sleep, in the community of sleepers, between worlds, beyond mortality.” While I’m not sure about that, it does admittedly feel right, perhaps because of the classical world’s equivalence between the world of dreams and the world of the dead, dreams being the only place you reliably met dead people.

I’ve become much more interested in dreams since Steve Moore’s death in 2014. Realising how much I missed reading through the last couple of weeks of Steve’s methodically recorded dreams on visits up to Shooters Hill, I’ve even started a much sparser and more impoverished dream-record of my own. I just really love the flavour of dreams, whether mine or other people’s. Iain reports a dream where me and him were ascending the stairs of the Princelet Street synagogue, the one featured in Rodinsky’s Room, in what seemed to him almost like an out-take from Chris Petit’s The Cardinal and the Corpse. After a ritual exchange of velvet cricket caps between us, the vista outside the synagogue window began to strobe like the climactic vision in Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland. Martin Stone – Pink Fairies, Mighty Baby – was laying out a pattern of white lines on a black case, and explained that he’d recently found a first edition of Hodgson’s book in an abandoned villa, lavishly inscribed and previously owned by Aleister Crowley. Isn’t that fantastic? Knowing that I was there in the dream gives me a sort of pseudo-memory of actually having been present at this unlikely event.

While I’m not sure about the connection between dreams and Eternalism, Iain is probably right. I very recently stumbled across – in a fascinating collection of outré individuals from David Bramwell entitled The Odditorium – the peculiar scientific theories of J.W. Dunne. Dunne proposed a kind of solid time similar to the Einsteinian state of affairs posited in Jerusalem, which I found mildly pleasing just as a supporting argument from another source, but I was taken aback by Dunne’s reasoning, in which he suggests that the accreted ‘substance’ of our dreams is somehow crucial to the phenomenon. This is so like the idea in Jerusalem of the timeless higher dimension of Mansoul being made from accumulated dream-stuff and chimes so well with Iain’s comment about eternity being located “in residues of sleep” that I should probably chew these notions over a bit more before coming to any conclusions.

Dreams certainly seem to be in the air at the moment, with dreams being the theme of our next-but-one Arts Lab magazine to be released, and Iain winding up his letter by referring to Steve Moore’s dream-centred rehearsals for eternity up there on Shooters Hill. For the anniversary of Steve’s death, I’ve decided to pay a long-postponed visit to his house, or rather to the structure that’s replaced it since the place was sold and rebuilt. I’ll hopefully get a chance to visit the Shrewsbury Lane burial mound where we scattered Steve’s ashes by the light of the supermoon following tropical storm Bertha in August 2014. Around a month or so ago I noticed an article in The Guardian about the classification of various places as World Heritage sites by English History, and was ridiculously pleased to find that the Shrewsbury Mound, the last surviving Bronze Age burial mound of several on Shooters Hill with the others having all been bulldozed in the early 1930s, was to be included. Steve’s instructions that his final resting place should be his favourite local landmark seems to me to be a way of fusing with the landscape and its history, its dreamtime if you like, which is perhaps as close to a genuine long-term strategy as its possible for a human being to get.

Anyway, it’s late – the moon tonight is a beautiful first-quarter crescent – and I should probably wrap this up. I’d like to leave you with the ‘Brexit Poem’ that I jotted down in an idle moment a month or two ago:

“I wrote this verse the moment that I heard/ the good news that we’d got our language back/ whence I, in a misjudged racial attack,/ kicked out French, German and Italian words/ and then I ”

With massive love and respect, as ever –-

Alan


Alan Moore was born in Northampton in 1953 and is a writer, performer, recording artist, activist and magician.
His comic-book work includes Lost Girls with Melinda Gebbie, From Hell with Eddie Campbell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Kevin O’Neill. He has worked with director Mitch Jenkins on the Showpieces cycle of short films and on forthcoming feature film The Show, while his novels include Voice of the Fire (1996) and his current epic Jerusalem (2016). Only about half as frightening as he looks, he lives in Northampton with his wife and collaborator Melinda Gebbie.

Stewart Lee was born in 1968 in Shropshire but grew up in Solihull. He started out on the stand-up comedy circuit in London in 1989, and started to work out whatever it was he was trying to do zoo after the turn of the century. He has written and performed four series of his own stand-up show on BBC2, had shows on at the Edinburgh fringe for 28 of the last 30 years, and has the last six of his full length stand-up shows out on DVD/download/whatever. He is the writer or co-writer of five theatre pieces and two art installations, a number of radio series, three books about comedy and a bad novel. He lives in Stoke Newington, North London with his wife, also a comedian, and two children. He was enrolled in the literary society The Friends of Arthur Machen by Alan Moore, and is a regular, if disguised, presence on London’s volunteer-fronted arts radio station Resonance 104.4 fm. His favourite comics book characters are Deathlok The Demolisher, Howard The Duck, Conan The Barbarian, Concrete and The Thing. His favourite bands/musicians are The Fall, Giant Sand, Dave Graney, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Bob Dylan, The Byrds and Shirley Collins. His favourite filmmakers are Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Andrew Kotting, Hal Hartley, and Akira Kurowsa. His favourite writers are Arthur Machen, William Blake, Ian Sinclair, Alan Moore, Stan Lee, Ray Bradbury, DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, Richard Brautigan, Geoff Dyer, Neil M Gunn, Francis Brett Young, and Eric Linklater and Robert E Howard.

The Hermit Who Inadvertently Shaped Climate-Change Science

Posted on July 6th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Billy Barr was just trying to get away from it all when he went to live at the base of Gothic Mountain in the Colorado wilderness in 1973. He wound up creating an invaluable historical record of climate change. His motivation for meticulously logging the changing temperatures, snow levels, weather, and wildlife sightings? Simple boredom.

Morgan Heim / Day’s Edge Production

Now, the Rocky Mountain Biological Observatory is using his 44 years of data to understand how climate change affects Gothic Mountain’s ecology, and scaling those learnings to high alpine environments around the world.

Read The Atlantic’s profile on Billy Barr in full (LINK). 

The AI Cargo Cult: The Myth of a Superhuman Artificial Intelligence

Posted on July 5th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Technology   chat 0 Comments

In a widely-shared essay first published in Backchannel, Kevin Kelly, a Long Now co-founder and Founding Editor of Wired Magazine, argues that the inevitable rise of superhuman artificial intelligence—long predicted by leaders in science and technology—is a myth based on misperceptions without evidence.

Kevin is now Editor at Large at Wired and has spoken in the Seminar and Interval speaking series several times, including on his most recent book, The Inevitable—sharing his ideas on the future of technology and how our culture responds to it. Kevin was part of the team that developed the idea of the Manual for Civilization, making a series of selections for it, and has also put forth a similar idea called the Library of Utility.

Read Kevin Kelly’s essay in full (LINK).

10 Years Ago: Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings in San Francisco, 02007

Posted on June 29th, 02017 by Mikl Em
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Long Now co-founders Stewart Brand (center)
and Brian Eno (right) in San Francisco, 02007

Exactly a decade ago today, in June 02007, Long Now hosted the North American Premiere of Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings. It was a celebration of Eno’s unique generative art work, as well as the inaugural event of our newly launched Long Now Membership program.

Here’s how we described the large scale art work at the time:

Conceived by Brian Eno as “visual music”, his latest artwork 77 Million Paintings is a constantly evolving sound and imagescape which continues his exploration into light as an artist’s medium and the aesthetic possibilities of “generative software”.

We presented 77 Million Paintings over three nights at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) on June 29 & 30 and July 1, 02007.

The Friday and Saturday shows were packed with about 900 attendees each. On Sunday we hosted a special Long Now members night. The crowd was smaller with only our newly joined charter members plus Long Now staff and Board, including the artist himself.

Long Now co-founder Brian Eno at his 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Scott Beale

Brian Eno came in from London for the event. While he’d shown this work at the Venice Bienniale, the Milan Triennale, Tokyo, London and South Africa; this was its first showing in the U.S. (or anywhere in North America). The actual presentation was a unique large scale projection created collaboratively with San Francisco’s Obscura Digital creative studio.

The installation was in a large, dark room accompanied by generative ambient Eno music. The audience could sit in chairs at the back of the room, sink into bean bags, or lie down on rugs or the floor closer to the screens. Like the Ambient Painting at The Interval or other examples of Eno’s generative visual art, a series of high resolution images slowly fade in and over each other and out again at a glacial pace. In brilliant colors, constantly transforming at a rate so slow it is difficult to track. Until you notice it’s completely different.

Close up of 77 Million Paintings at the opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Robin Rupe

Close up of 77 Million Paintings at the opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Robin Rupe

Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose also spoke:

About the work: Brian Eno discusses 77 Million Paintings with Wired News (excerpt):

Eno: The pieces surprise me. I have 77 Million Paintings running in my studio a lot of the time. Occasionally I’ll look up from what I’m doing and I think, “God, I’ve never seen anything like that before!” And that’s a real thrill.
Wired News: When you look at it, do you feel like it’s something that you had a hand in creating?
Eno: Well, I know I did, but it’s a little bit like if you are dealing hands of cards and suddenly you deal four aces. You know it’s only another combination that’s no more or less likely than any of the other combinations of four cards you could deal. Nonetheless, some of the combinations are really striking. You think, “Wow — look at that one.” Sometimes some combination comes up and I know it’s some result of this system that I invented, but nonetheless I didn’t imagine such a thing could be produced by it.

The exterior of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) has its own beautiful illumination:

There was a simultaneous virtual version of 77 Million Paintings ongoing in Second Life:

Here’s video of the Second Life version of 77 Million Paintings. Looking at it today gives you some sense of what the 02007 installation was like in person:

We brought the prototype of the 10,000 Year Clock’s Chime Generator to YBCA (this was 7 years before it was converted into a table for the opening of The Interval):

The Chime Generator was outfitted with tubular bells at the time:

10,000 Year Clock Chime Generator prototype at 77 Million Paintings in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Scott Beale

After two days open to the public, the closing night event was a performance and a party exclusively for Long Now members. Our membership program was brand new then, and many charter members joined just in time to attend the event. So a happy anniversary to all of you who are celebrating a decade as a Long Now member!

Brian Eno, 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Robin Rupe

Members flew in from around the country for the event. Long Now’s Founders were all there. This began a tradition of Long Now special events with members which have included Longplayer / Long Conversation which was also at YBCA and our two Mechanicrawl events which explored of San Francisco’s mechanical wonders.

Here are a few more photos of Long Now staff and friends who attended:

Long Now co-founder Danny Hillis, 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Robin Rupe

Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey and Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand at 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco; photo by Scott Beale

Kevin Kelly and Louis Rosetto, 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Robin Rupe

Lori Dorn and Jeffrey & Jillian of Because We Can at the 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Scott Beale

Long Now staff Mikl-em & Danielle Engelman at the 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Scott Beale

Thanks to Scott Beale / Laughing Squid, Robin Rupe, and myself for the photos used above. Please mouse over each to see the photo credit.

Brian Eno at 77 Million Paintings opening in San Francisco, 02007; photo by Robin Rupe

More photos from Scott Beale. More photos of the event by Mikl Em.

More on the production from Obscura Digital.

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Iain Sinclair writes to Alan Moore

Posted on June 23rd, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Iain Sinclair (left) chose Alan Moore as the recipient of his Longplayer letter.


In November 02015, Manuel Arriga  wrote a letter to Giles Fraser as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence: The first letter was written by Brian Eno to Nassim Taleb. Nassim Taleb then wrote to Stewart Brand, and Stewart wrote to Esther Dyson, who wrote to Carne Ross, who wrote to John Burnside, who wrote to Manuel Arriaga, who wrote to Giles Fraser, which remains unanswered.

In June 02017, the Longplayer Trust initiated a new correspondence, beginning with Iain Sinclair, a writer and filmmaker whose recent work focuses on the psychogeography of London, writing to graphic novel writer Alan Moore, who will respond with a letter to a recipient of his choosing.

The discussion thus far has focused on the extent and ways government and technology can foster long-term thinking. You can find the previous correspondences here.


Hackney: 30 January 2017

Dear Alan,

We are being invited, by means of predatory technologies neither of us advocate or employ, to consider ‘long-term thinking’. But already I’m coughing up the fishbone of that hyphen and going into electroconvulsive spasms over this requirement to think about thinking – and at a late stage in my own terrestrial transit when I know all too well that there is no longterm. The diminishing future, protected by a feeble envelope of identity, has already been used up, wantonly. And the past was always a looped mistake plaguing us with repeated flares of shame. Those smells and textures, wet and warm, cabbage and custard, get sharper even as our faculties fail. I pick them up very easily by fingering the close-planted acres of your Jerusalem. The first great English scratch-and-sniff epic.

“And now,” as Sebald said, “I am living the wrong life.” Having tried, for too many years, to muddy the waters with untrustworthy fictions and ‘alternative truths’, books that detoured into other books, I am now colonised by longplaying images and private obsessions, vinyl ghosts in an unmapped digital multiverse. This is the fate we must accept, some more gratefully than others, before we let the whole slithery viscous mess go and sink into nothingness.

“Unexplained but not suspicious,” they concluded about the premature death of George Michael. They could, just as easily, have been talking about his life. About all our lives.

I remember Jeremy Prynne, when I first came across him, being affronted (and amused) by a request from a Canadian academic/poet for: ‘an example of your thought’. ‘Like a lump of basalt,’ he snorted. Reaching for his geological toffee-hammer. Thinking was something else: an energy field, a process that happened outside and beyond the will of the thinker. Like snow. Or waves. Or television. And with the unstated aim of eliminating egoic interference. A solitary amputated ‘thought’, framed for display, would be as horrifying as that morning radio interlude when listeners channel-hop or make their cups of tea: Thought for the Day. Hospital homilies with ecumenical bent for an immobile and chemically-coshed constituency.

But I do think (misrepresent, subvert) about a notion you once expressed: time as a solid. ‘Eternalism’ as a sort of Swedenborgian block – like a form of discontinued public housing in which pastpresentfuture coexist, shoulder-to-shoulder: legions of the persistent and half-erased dead, fictional avatars more real now than their creators, the unborn, aborted and nearly-born, and the vegetative buddhas on hard benches, all whispering and jabbering and going about their meaningless business. Each of them invisible to the others. Probably in Northampton. Probably in a few streets of Northampton. Your beloved Boroughs. Which are also burrows (and Burroughs). They are hidden in plain sight in that narcoleptic trance between slow-waking and swift-dying, adrift in the nuclear fusion of dusk and dawn. In moving meadows by some unmoving river. They sweat uphill on arterial roads: tramps, pilgrims, levellers, ranters, bootmakers, working mothers festooned with infants, prostitutes, immigrants, damaged seers and local artists, incarcerated poets and skewed uncles around a snooker table in some defunct and cobwebby Labour Club. And all the ones who are still waiting to become Alan Moore.

“The living can assist the imagination of the dead,” Yeats wrote in A Vision. I started my journey through London with that sentence and I’ve never got beyond it. The ambition remains: to be ventriloquised, tapped, channelled. “Life rewritten by life,” as Brian Catling puts it. Longterm is a deranged Xerox printer spewing out copies of copies, until the image is bleached to snowblind illegibility. Examine any seriously popular production, any universally endorsed philosophy, and you can peel it back, layer by layer, to some obscure and unheralded madman in a cluttered cabin, muttering to himself and sketching occulted diagrams of influences and interconnections. Successive reboots bring the unspeakable (better left in silence) closer to the ear, a process infinitely accommodated now by the speed of the digital web. Where nothing is true and none of it matters. And you finish with Donald Trump. Ubu of the internet.

“The illusion of mortality, post-Einstein,” you say. The neighbourly undead patrol their limitless limits: “soiled simultaneity.” That pregnant now in which the past is struggling to suppress its dreadful future. To escape the cull of gravity.  I have never been able to deal in abstractions. I like detail, glinting particulars. Anecdotes.

After noticing uniformed kids tramping, every morning, to their flatpack Academy by the canal, infested with hissing earworms, Nuremberg headphones, tablets held out in front of them like tiny trays of cocktail sausages, I registered a boy and a girl talking very quietly, not wanting to break the concentration of an older girl – who is reading as she walks: James Joyce. And, at the same time, under a Shoreditch railway bridge, there appeared, above a set of recycling bins (‘Trade Mixed Glass’), a portrait of the Ulysses author, with one blackened lens and an unnecessary title: REBEL. Which set me ‘thinking’ about your Jerusalem and the way you tap Lucia Joyce, or recover the aftershock of her Northampton confinement by total immersion in the Babel of Finnegans Wake. Your speculative punt calls up the Burroughs notion of the ‘image vine’: once you have committed to a single image (or word), the next one is fated to follow. By the time of those methadone-managed twilight years in Kansas, Burroughs had exorcised the demons that made him write, the karma of shooting his wife in Mexico City. He used up the days that were left in attending to his cats, making splat-art with his guns and recording his dreams.

“Couldn’t find my room as usual in the Land of the Dead. Followed by bounty hunters.” Postmortem, Bill is still looking for trigger episodes. “It seems that cities are being moved from one place to another.” The Place of Dead Roads, he calls it. And in Jerusalem, you catch very well those freaks of random, punctured illumination. “Each vital second of her life was there as an exquisite moving miniature, filled with the most intense significance and limned in colours so profound they blazed, yet not set in any noticeable order.”

My hunch is this: that Eternalism, the long-player’s ultimate longplay, is located in residues of sleep, in the community of sleepers, between worlds, beyond mortality. I dreamed my genesis in sweat of sleep. There was a dream, one of a series, that I failed to record, but which felt like a reprise of aspects of that film with which we were both involved, The Cardinal and the Corpse. So many of the cast are now dead, locked up, disappeared, but still in play, their voices, their persons, that they secure territory (and time), a privileged past. We were in the Princelet Street synagogue, climbing the stairs (as you did in that house with the peeling pink door), towards an attic chamber that was also a curtained confessional box. With Chris Petit, obviously, as the hovering cardinal (actually a madhouse keeper from Sligo). We managed a ritual exchange of velvet cricket caps before the world outside the window started to spin, day to night, years to centuries, stars going out, suns born, like The House on the Borderland. Martin Stone, laying out a pattern of white lines on his black case, told us that he had just found, in an abandoned villa outside Nice, a lavishly inscribed copy of the first edition that once belonged to Aleister Crowley. But he had decided it to keep it.

If the integrity of time breaks down, place is confirmed. I’m thinking about the Northampton Boroughs, about your friend and mentor, Steve Moore, on Shooter’s Hill. And how Steve sourced the dream of what would happen, his abrupt transference, while sticking around, polishing the Japanese energy shield, long enough to confirm his own predictions, and to allow others to appreciate the narrative arc of his death. That long, long preparation – in vision and domestic reality – you describe in City of Disappearances.

The trick then, the quest we’re all on, is to identify and honour those neural pathways: the trench you print out in Jerusalem, worn by steel-shod boots, between Northampton and Lambeth. The fugue of movement. A man who is here. Who vanishes. And reappears. Is he the same? Are you? Something carries this walker, like John Clare, out on an English road: foot-foundered, gobbling at verges, sleeping in ditches. In the expectation of reconnecting with an extinguished muse: youth, innocence, desire. That is the only longplay I have encountered: one journey fading into the next. No thought. No thinking. Drift. Reverie. As you say, ‘Panoramic portrait over lofty landscape.’ Every time.


Iain Sinclair was born in Cardiff. He left almost immediately. He has lived and worked around Hackney for almost 50 years, but the local terrain is a strange and enticing as ever. Books – including Lud HeatDownriverLondon OrbitalAmerican Smoke – have been published. And there have been filmic collaborations with Chris Petit and Andrew Kötting, among others. Sinclair has recently completed The Last London, the final volume in a long sequence.

Alan Moore was born in Northampton in 1953 and is a writer, performer, recording artist, activist and magician.His comic-book work includes Lost Girls with Melinda Gebbie, From Hell with Eddie Campbell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Kevin O’Neill. He has worked with director Mitch Jenkins on the Showpieces cycle of short films and on forthcoming feature film The Show, while his novels include Voice of the Fire (1996) and his current epic Jerusalem (2016). Only about half as frightening as he looks, he lives in Northampton with his wife and collaborator Melinda Gebbie.

The Nuclear Bunker Preserving Movie History

Posted on June 22nd, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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During the Cold War, this underground bunker in Culpeper, Virginia was where the government would have taken the president if a nuclear war broke out. Now, the Library of Congress is using it to preserve all manner of films, from Casablanca to Harry Potter. The oldest films were made on nitrate, a fragile and highly combustible film base that shares the same chemical compound as gunpowder. Great Big Story takes us inside the vault, and introduces us to archivist George Willeman, the man in charge of restoring and preserving the earliest (and most incendiary) motion pictures.

The Industrial Sublime: Edward Burtynsky Takes the Long View

Posted on June 19th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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“Oil Bunkering #1, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

The New Yorker recently profiled photographer, former SALT speaker, and 02016 sponsor of the Conversations at the Interval livestream Edward Burtynsky and his quest to document a changing planet in the anthropocene age.

“What I am interested in is how to describe large-scale human systems that impress themselves upon the land,” Burtynsky told New Yorker staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian as they surveyed the decimated, oil-covered landscapes of Lagos, Nigeria from a helicopter.

“Saw Mills #1, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

For over three decades, Edward Burtynsky has been taking large-format photographs of industrial landscapes which include mining locations around the globe and the building of Three Gorges Dam in China. His work has been noted for beautiful images which are often at odds with their subject’s negative environmental impacts.

Photograph by Benedicte Kurzen / Noor for The New Yorker

“This is the sublime of our time,” said Burtynsky in his 02008 SALT Talk, which included a formal proposal for a permanent art gallery in the chamber that encloses the 10,000-year Clock, as well as the results of his research into methods of capturing images that might have the best chance to survive in the long-term.

“Oil Bunkering #4, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

As the Khatchadourian notes, Burtynsky’s approach has at times attracted controversy:

Over the years, greater skepticism has been voiced about […] Burtynsky’s inclination to depict toxic landscapes in visually arresting terms. A critic responding to “Oil” wondered whether the fusing of beauty with monumentalism, of extreme photographic detachment with extreme ecological damage, could trigger only apathy as a response. [Curator] Paul Roth had a different view: “Maybe these people are a bit immune to the sublime—being terribly anxious while also being attracted to the beauty of an image.”

“Oil Bunkering #2, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

Burtynsky does not seek to be heavy-handed or pedantic in his work, but neither does he seek to be amoral. The environmental and human rights issues are directly shown, rather than explicitly proclaimed.

“Oil Bunkering #5, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

In recent years Burtynsky’s work has focused on water, including oil spills around the world, like the ones he was documenting in Lagos, a city he calls a “hyper crucible of globalism.”

As the global consequences of human activity have become unmistakably pressing, Burtynsky has connected his photography more directly with environmentalism. “There has been a discussion for a long time about climate change, but we don’t seem to be ceasing anything,” he says. “That has begun to bring a sense of urgency to me.”

Burtynsky is currently working on the film Anthropocene, which documents unprecedented human impact on the natural world.

Read The New Yorker profile of Burtynsky in full.

How Can We Create a Manual For Civilization?

Posted on June 7th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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“WHAT BOOKS would you want to restart civilization from scratch?”

The Long Now Foundation has been involved in and inspired by projects centered on that question since launching in 01996. (See, for example, The Rosetta Project, Westinghouse Time Capsules, The Human Document Project, The Survivor Library, The Toaster Project, The Crypt of Civilization, and the Voyager Record.) For years, Executive Director Alexander Rose has been in discussions on how to create a record of humanity and technology for our descendants. In 02014, Long Now began building it.

The Manual For Civilization is working toward a living, crowd-curated library of 3,500 books put forward by the Long Now community and on display at The Interval. To stack the shelves, we solicited book recommendations from Long Now members and supporters, special guest curators like Long Now founders Stewart Brand and Brian Eno, past Seminar speakers like George Dyson and Neal Stephenson, subject experts Maria Popova and Violet Blue, and volunteer curators like Alan Beatts, Michael Pujals, and Heath Rezabek.

Neal Stephenson selecting books for The Manual For Civilization


The physical collection in The Interval grounds the catalog, and also provided the size constraint of the number of books. But the Long Now community is global, and the reality is that few Long Now members have had the opportunity to peruse our Bay Area-bound library.

Today, we’re getting ready to digitalize the Manual so that the library can be shared with the world. We are partnering with the Internet Archive, who have created a special collection for the Manual, and, for the first time, we are sharing a selection of the titles in our collection as a temporary browse-only catalog on Libib (currently showing about 800 of the currently 1400 selections). To help make this digitalization effort happen, we will need to raise approximately $100,000 to scan all the books and post them online making the library accessible to everyone. If you are interested in helping support this effort, please contact nick@longnow.org.

The Origins of the Manual (01751-02014)

“Final Steps in Shaping a Goblet,” from Diderot’s Encyclopedie.


Framing the library’s focus as “restarting civilization” may seem apocalyptic or predictive on its face, but that is not the intention. Rather, the hope is to create a curatorial principle that inspires valuable conversation that reframes how we think about where civilization has come so far, where it might go in the future, and what tools are necessary to get it there.

In that sense, The Manual For Civilization is the latest in a centuries-long genealogy of ambitious projects to catalog and, crucially, democratize the most essential human knowledge. Inherent in each project—from Denis Diderot’s famous Encyclopedie to Long Now Co-Founder Stewart Brand’s countercultural bible Whole Earth Catalog to The Manual—is a theory of civilization. There is also, as will be discussed further below, a bias depending on which curatorial principle is emphasized and of course, who does that curation.

“Figurative system of human knowledge” from the Encyclopedie. Knowledge was divided into branches of memory, reason and imagination.


When Diderot began editing the Encyclopedie in 01751, the ideas of the Enlightenment held sway only amongst learned philosophes. Power rested in the hands of the clerics. Diderot considered the Encyclopedie as a deliberate attempt to “change the way people think” by democratizing the ideals of the Enlightenment. Controversially, the Encyclopedie’s central organizing principle was based on reason, rather than the authority of the church. In the entry for encyclopedia, he wrote:

The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.

Diderot would continue editing the Encyclopedie over the next fifteen years, amassing thousands of entries and enlisting the help of some of the Enlightenment’s most brilliant minds as contributors, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Diderot’s 35 volumes constituted a:

tremendous storehouse of fact and propaganda that swept Europe and taught it what ‘reason,’ rights,’ ‘authority,’ ‘government,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘equality,’ and related social principles are or should be. The work was subversive in its tendency, not in its advocacy: it took for granted toleration, the march of mind exemplified by science, and the the good of the whole people….The eleven volumes of plates were in themselves a revolutionary force, for they made public what had  previously been kept secret by the guilds, and they supported the philosophe doctrine that the dissemination of knowledge was the high road to emancipation.

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog divided knowledge into sections based on whole systems thinking.


Two hundred years later, while reflecting on the legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog (01968), Stewart Brand wrote that the Catalog and the Encyclopedie shared a similar aim: to hand “the tools of a whole civilization to its citizens.” Like the Encyclopedie, Brand wrote, the Whole Earth Catalog sought to decentralize authority and redistribute it to individuals through access to knowledge, or tools. Diderot’s Encyclopedie, wrote Brand, “was the leading tool of the Enlightenment.”

Though the first commune-bound readers of the Whole Earth Catalog— those “bands of adventurous malcontents who were setting out to reinvent civilization”— did not exactly restart civilization, their process held “surprising value.” Brand wrote that as the decades passed, the Catalog’s true legacy was glimpsed in the personal computer revolution that followed, which was informed by the same process:

The personal-computer revolution was a direct result of that value system. It was initiated and carried to fruition by youthful longhairs, on purpose, with striking consistency between what was intended and what was accomplished. The impulse was to decentralize authority—to undermine the high priests and air-conditioned mainframes of information technology and hand their power to absolutely everybody.

“Here are the tools to make your life better. And to make the world better,” Brand wrote in his foreword to the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (01994)—the last edition published. “That they’re the same tools is our theory of civilization.”

A Merry Prankster tarot card of Stewart Brand linking the curatorial principles of the Catalog to the formation of the World Wide Web.


In the inaugural Whole Earth Catalog, Brand declared that “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” But we are as gods only because of our ancestors’ diligence. The promise of a technologically advancing future is predicated on millennia of accumulated knowledge. Civilization has taken a lot of work to build, and it demands a great deal of know-how to sustain. And as modern life increasingly encourages specialization, familiarity across that accumulated knowledge’s breadth can wane. Our ability to collaborate is a strength, but beyond a point we risk losing comprehension of the infrastructure—both physical and intellectual—that supports our modern lives. How can we retain that knowledge?

Stewart Brand at The Interval as the Manual For Civilization is constructed.


These questions inspired Long Now to build The Manual For Civilization. In developing the experience of The Interval, we integrated the Manual of Civilization book collection into the design layout as two floors of bookshelves that would face outward in The Interval space. The first floor shelves would be open and accessible for browsing, and the upper shelves would be accessible by staff, reached from the front by a tall ladder, or from the opposite side, since the shelves are open to the Long Now office above.

The Interval at Long Now in San Francisco.


As the opening date of The Interval approached in the summer of 02014, we knew we had a lot of empty shelves to fill, but had already started assembling the catalog as well as physical copies of books. In one pre-opening party, we had a bucket brigade of supporters passing physical books in the door, up the spiral staircase, to people on ladders who arranged the books on shelves, about 1,000 volumes that evening!

Kevin Kelly, with Alexander Rose, selects books from his personal library for The Manual For Civilization


We’ve had over 2,500 submissions and recommendations to the collection so far, with approximately 1,400 approved for inclusion in The Manual by our director Alexander Rose. Currently, 1,007 physical books reside in the Manual’s bookshelves. 861 titles from the collection are available to view on Libib.

Our plan is to solicit more book lists and recommendations until the list grows to about 5,000 from which we will edit the collection down to the 3,500 or so volumes that can fit on the shelves. We began the collection by using four broad categories to structure the collection:

  • Long-term Thinking, Past and Future: these include books on history as well as futurism and many books by Long Now speakers.
  • Rigorous Science Fiction: especially works that build richly imagined possible worlds to help us think about the future.
  • The Cultural Canon: great works of literature, poetry, philosophy, religion.
  • Mechanics of Civilization: “how-to” books for critical skills and technology, for example books on navigation, growing and gathering food, midwifery, forging tools.

Beyond these categories, we are exploring other ways to organize and catalog the collection, and to locate books on shelves. With any scheme though, we want to preserve the experience and delight of serendipitous discovery, of going to the bookshelf to look for one thing, and discovering three or four other things you are curious about.

Via humorous webcomic XKCD. 


We also hope to open up the discussion so that we can have an ongoing conversation about which books are in and out of the collection at any point in time, and why. With any curatorial principle comes a bias. This bias is problematic, but can be mitigated in a variety of ways. Wikipedia, for example, makes it possible for anybody to edit and contribute to its catalog. In the case of the Manual, we are committed to evolving our curatorial principle over time, the hope being that as we move through the Long Now, this living collection is responsive, adaptive and open.

We’ve already had a few valuable learning experiences. When the Manual launched, Long Now member and Brainpickings founder Maria Popova contemplated Stewart Brand’s selections for the Manual, and had “only one lament:”

One would’ve hoped that a lens on rebuilding human civilization would transcend the hegemony of the white male slant and would, at minimum, include a more equal gender balance of perspectives — of Brand’s 76 books, only one is written by a woman, one features a female co-author, and one is edited by a woman. It’s rather heartbreaking to see that someone as visionary as Brand doesn’t consider literature by women worthy of representing humanity in the long run. Let’s hope the Long Now balances the equation a bit more fairly as they move forward with the remaining entries in their 3,500-book collaborative library.

Long Now member Maria Popova.


Long Now immediately reached out to Popova and invited her to contribute her own list for the Manual. In selecting it, she found it especially challenging to reconcile the curatorial constraints of the Manual with her desire to offer a diverse and balanced representation of essential human knowledge:

I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll — once we crack one layer, there’s always another, a fractal-like subdivision that begins at the infinite and approaches the infinitesimal, getting exponentially granular with each layer, but can never be fully finished. If we take, for instance, the “women problem” — to paraphrase Margaret Atwood — then what about Black women? Black queer women? Non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women of Jewish descent? And on and on. Due to that infinite fractal progression, no attempt to “solve” diversity — especially no thirty-item list — could ever hope to be complete. The same goes for other variables like genre or subject: For every aficionado of fiction, there’s one of drama, then 17th-century drama, then 17th-century Italian drama, and so on.

The inherent biases in catalogs like the Manual must be acknowledged, and ideally mitigated through open conversation, if such catalogs are to persist over the long term. Over time, we believe that the conversation about what goes into Manual will become as rich and interesting as the collection in the Manual itself.

FURTHER READING

Watch Jimmy Wales’ 02006 SALT Talk on Wikipedia and the future of free culture.

Watch Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle’s 02011 SALT Talk on universal access to all knowledge.

Selections for The Manual For Civilization from members of the Long Now community:

Projects that inspired the Manual For Civilization:

  • The Rosetta Project: A multi-millennial micro-etched disk with a record of thousands of the world’s languages.
  • Westinghouse Time Capsules: Two time capsules (they actually coined the term for this project) by Westinghouse buried at Worlds Fair sites, one in 01939 and the other 01965 to be recovered in 5000 years.  They also did the very smart thing of making a “Book of Record” and an above ground duplicate of the contents on display.
  • The Human Document Project: A German project to create a record of humanity that will last one million years.
  • Crypt of Civilization: An airtight chamber located at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. The crypt consists of preserved artifacts scheduled to be opened in the year 8113 AD.
  • The Voyager Record: The Voyager Golden Records are phonograph records that were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or far future humans, who may find them.
  • Georgia Guidestones: The four granite Guidestones are covered in inscriptions written in 8 major languages that describe the tenets of their imagined Age of Reason.
  • Doomsday Chests by Noah Raford
  • The Forever Book an idea by Kevin Kelly
  • Global Village Construction Set
  • History of Humanity” project
  • The Library of Utility
  • The Memory of Mankind project
  • The Great Pyramid project
  • Digital Clay Tablets
  • Arnano sapphire and glass data storage

Content that has been discussed to be used for these projects:

  • The Gingery books are great first pass on how to re-start manufacturing technology
  • wikiHow has a lot of great info and it is continuously updated.  The entry on how to deliver a baby seems like a particularly handy one…
  • The Foxfire Books on homespun technology seem to have a slightly less industrial take than the Gingery books, and are pretty comprehensive
  • The Let’s Say You’ve Gone Back in Time poster to help you restart civilization by Ryan North the creator of the awesome Dinosaur Comics
  • The Way Things Work by David Macaulay.  This is a fantastic book, but it might leave people thinking that all technology is powered by woolly mammoths and angels.
  • The Harvard Classics originally known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf are often referred to as an item that should go into a record like this.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica People often suggest using the latest version that is now out of copyright.  I believe this is the 13th edition but so far I have only found digital copies of the 11th.
  • The Domesday book: The Domesday Book is the record of the great survey of England completed in 1086.  It would be interesting to find surveys and census’ from around the world
  • The Mormon Genealogical Data:  This is also held in a bunker outside Salt Lake City Utah, but it might be nice to have a record of gene lines for a future civilization to better understand its past.
  • The Top 100 Project Gutenberg books: If you are concerned with archiving works in copyright this is a great source to find texts that are free to use.
  • The Internet Archive: An archive of complete snapshots of the web as well as thousands of books and videos.  Incidentally you would also get all of our scanned page content from the Rosetta Project with this.
  • Wikipedia: The text only version of this is actually not that large, and could be archived fairly easily.  Also one of the few sources that is beginning to get filled out in many languages and is also not held under a copyright.
  • How to field dress a deer: PDF pocket version from Penn State College of Agricultural Science (living in Northern California, I think this one will be especially handy).
  • The Toaster Project
  • The Panlex Project of cross linked language dictionaries
  • The Survivor Library

 


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