Neal Stephenson’s Selected Books for the Manual for Civilization

Posted on April 17th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Best-selling author Neal Stephenson has added a couple dozen books to the Manual for Civilization. Long Now is assembling a corpus of 3,500 volumes that would help sustain or rebuild civilization. This collection will be featured at The Interval, our new public space, as a floor-to-ceiling library available to our visitors. The collection will comprise books suggested by Long Now members and charter donors to the Interval project. We’ve also invited a select group of eminent friends of Long Now, including archivists, artists, authors, educators, scientists and more, to submit lists of the books they believe are essential to Civilization.

Neal Stephenson is an author of speculative fiction whose ground-breaking novels include Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Anathem, a book based in a world of 10,000 Year Clocks inspired by our own Clock of the Long Now. In fact, Neal is both a Long Now member and a charter donor to The Interval. You can join him by making a tax-deductible gift before we open in May. Every donation helps now when we need it most, and we have some wonderful ways to thank you at every level. 

For thirty years Neal Stephenson’s writing has been distinguished by how he weaves minutely detailed historical and technical information into his complex stories, usually with a wicked sense of humor. Whether it’s fashion in Victorian England or World War II era cryptography, his dedication to detailed research is readily apparent. The Baroque Cycle novels perhaps most exemplify this, as they focus on key people and events in the development of science across many cultures in the 17th and 18th centuries. We knew his recommendations would be invaluable for this project.

Many of the research sources for his novels can be found in his home library. And it was an honor and privilege that Neal walked me through his library and thoughtfully selected the list of books below for the Manual for Civilization. You can see from his selections that he believes understanding history is essential to creating the best possible future.

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Many thanks to Neal Stephenson for taking the time and care to recommend these books for our collection. His list adds to suggestions from Kevin Kelly, Maria Popova, Violet Blue, Stewart Brand, Brian Eno and dozens of other Long Now members and supporters.

Starting in late May you can visit the Manual yourself at The Interval, Long Now’s new public venue in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. The Interval will also feature Long Now artifacts and prototypes, sound and light art installations by Brian Eno, a cocktail menu designed on the theme of time, fine coffee and tea, and small scale events on long-term thinking and related topics.

Check back for lists from Danny Hillis and Neil Gaiman, amongst others. And for details on The Interval’s May 02014 public opening, as well as pre-opening events for charter donors. Your gifts help us pay for construction, acquire the books for the Manual for Civilization, build the A/V system to present Brian Eno’s art, and everything else that will make The Interval a one-of-a-kind venue worthy of Long Now’s mission to inspire and extol long-term thinking. Thanks for considering a gift.

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Mariana Mazzucato Seminar Media

Posted on April 16th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Private vs. Public Sector Myths

Monday March 24, 02014 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Mazzucato Seminar page for Members.

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Audio is up on the Mazzucato Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.

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Government as radical, patient VC – a summary by Stewart Brand

The iPhone, Mazzucato pointed out, is held up as a classic example of world-changing innovation coming from business.

Yet every feature of the iPhone was created, originally, by multi-decade government-funded research. From DARPA came the microchip, the Internet, the micro hard drive, the DRAM cache, and Siri. From the Department of Defense came GPS, cellular technology, signal compression, and parts of the liquid crystal display and multi-touch screen (joining funding from the CIA, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy, which, by the way, developed the lithium-ion battery.) CERN in Europe created the Web. Steve Jobs’ contribution was to integrate all of them beautifully.

Venture Capitalists (VCs) in business expect a return in 3 to 5 years, and they count on no more than one in ten companies to succeed. The time frame for government research and investment embraces a whole innovation cycle of 15 to 20 years, supporting the full chain from basic research through to viable companies. That means they can develop entire new fields such as space technology, aviation technology, nanotechnology, and, hopefully, Green technology.

But compare the reward structure. Government takes the greater risk with no prospect of great reward, while VCs and businesses take less risk and can reap enormous rewards. “We socialize the risks and privatize the rewards.” Mazzucato proposes mechanisms for the eventual rewards of deep innovation to cycle back into a government “innovation fund”—perhaps by owning equity in the advantaged companies, or retaining a controlling “golden share” of intellectual property rights, or through income-contingent loans (such as are made to students). “After Google made billions in profits, shouldn’t a small percentage have gone back to fund the public agency (National Science Foundation) that funded its algorithm?” In Brazil, China, and Germany, state development banks get direct returns from their investments.

The standard narrative about government in the US is that it stifles innovation, whereas the truth is that it enables innovation at a depth that business cannot reach, and the entire society, including business, gains as a result. “We have to change the way we think about the state,” Mazzucato concludes.

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Explore Urban Infrastructure at the MacroCity Conference, May 30-31

Posted on April 15th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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We rarely see in full the cities that we live in. Focused on our daily lives, urban dwellers are often only dimly aware of the numerous, enmeshed layers of critical infrastructure that quietly hum in the background to make modern life possible.

Come and explore the amazing stories and surprising histories to be found lurking just below the surface of our cities at MacroCity, a two-day, whirlwind tour of this bigger picture of urban life. The event brings together a diverse set of panelists, speakers, and participants to explore the vast, often overlooked networks of infrastructure that surround us. The line-up includes rogue archivist and Lost Landscapes creator Rick Prelinger, as well as Laci Videmsky of the New California Water Atlas.

The schedule also includes a variety of field trips, offering an opportunity to explore first-hand some of the vast networks of infrastructure that sustain the Bay Area.

Organized by the Bay Area Infrastructure Observatory, the conference will take place on May 30-31 at SPUR and the Brava Theater in San Francisco. The Long Now Foundation is partnering with BAIO on the event, and Long Now members receive a 25% discount on tickets – please check your email for your discount code.

Field trips will take place on May 30th, with most of the speakers scheduled for May 31st. A basic pass to the talks can be reserved for $100; the deluxe pass for $150 includes access to a field trip, as well. Half-price tickets are available for members of the nonprofit community; please see the event registration page for more information.

Watermark: New Film by Edward Burtynsky

Posted on April 14th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Every living thing requires water. We humans interact with it in a myriad of ways, numerous times a day. But how often do we consider the complexity of that interaction?

Renowned photographer and former SALT speaker Edward Burtynsky explores these questions in a new film. Co-directed by Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal,

Watermark is a feature documentary film that brings together diverse stories from around the globe about our relationship with water: how we are drawn to it, what we learn from it, how we use it and the consequences of that use. … Shot in stunning 5K ultra high-definition video and full of soaring aerial perspectives, this film shows water as a terraforming element and the scale of its reach, as well as the magnitude of our need and use. This is balanced by forays into the particular: a haunting memory of a stolen river, a mysterious figure roaming ancient rice terraces, the crucial data hidden in a million year old piece of ice, a pilgrim’s private ritual among thousands of others at the water’s edge.

The film is part of Burtynsky’s larger Water project, which also includes a book and an exhibition of dramatic large-format photographs. Watermark will be playing at theaters throughout the United States this month and the next; you can find a list of screenings here.

In San Francisco, Watermark will be screened at the Opera Plaza Theater  for one week, starting this Friday, April 18. Come see the film on opening day for a chance to hear Burtynsky speak about the film: he will attend the 4.30 PM and 7.00 PM shows in person for a post-screening Q&A with the audience.

More information about the Water Project book can be found here, and the accompanying photographs will be on exhibit at the Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco through the end of the month.

 

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Esther Dyson writes to Carne Ross

Posted on April 10th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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dysonIn November, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand wrote a letter to Long Now board member Esther Dyson as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence: The first letter was written by Brian Eno to Taleb. Taleb then wrote to Stewart Brand, and Stewart wrote to Esther Dyson. Esther’s response is now addressed to Carne Ross, who will respond with a letter to a recipient of his choosing.

The discussion thus far has focused on how humanity can increase technological capacity to meet real global needs without incurring catastrophic unintended consequences. You can find the previous correspondences here.


Dear Carne,

Through a telescope, darkly.

I’ve been reading Stewart’s letter about science and technology and the long-term, but the thing that concerns me more – and that you, Carne, understand – is how society can work collectively to make long-term decisions in the first place. There are big issues that we need to address, but first we need to find the wisdom to address them together.

Right now, we are getting better and better at manipulating the world with finer and finer precision towards local optima, sacrificing longer-term gains we may discount or be unaware of. We think in examples rather than in statistics. We are intrigued by stories and narratives rather than structures and dynamics. We study techniques of manipulation to acquire power rather than to produce empowerment. The Internet lets us see the whole world across distances with greater precision, but – like a telescope – with a smaller field of vision.

How can we think and then act long-term ?

Government

In the last few months, we’ve seen a variety of big-deal political moves: revolutions (Ukraine), reversions to authoritarianism and censorship (Turkey), revolutionary backsliding (Egypt), civil war (Syria) and a variety of conflicts so messy they don’t have recognizable descriptions.

When things get too bad, there is a revolution or some kind of power change at the top, but neither generally does much good. Often the new leaders negotiate with the ousted incumbents for ruling roles, bargaining among themselves over the spoils, while the people who supposedly chose them to lead have little say in the process. The people have enough power to get rid of the old guys, but they don’t have the institutional capacity to head the government or to take over its body, its administrative institutions.

As Martin Wolf says in the Financial Times, liberal democracies need responsible citizens, disinterested guardians, open markets and just laws. But beyond that, they need to deliver effective services. They must provide schools, infrastructure (this now includes broadband internet), courts, police, garbage collection, health care and street lights. These bureaucracies work more or less, even though they are often corrupt, but you can’t clean them up and replace them from the center as easily as you can trade power from one autocrat to another. Indeed, in most places I see little hope of good, long-term-focused government emerging from within federal governments and national parties, which are too big, too ponderous and increasingly too distant from the daily lives of most people. National governments are not fertile ground for effective governance, nor are they close enough to the people to deliver services effectively.

Scale and Scalability

By contrast, cities are beginning to take on more of the task of delivering services that matter and are becoming increasingly accountable to their residents. They cannot fulfill all the functions of a central government, but perhaps cities can show us the way. It is in cities that a new set of trained, uncorrupted politicians and public servants can emerge, under the closer watch of each city’s residents.[1] Like entrepreneurs, cities can innovate, in a way that central governments (and large businesses) cannot.

I see lots of interesting initiatives being taken by cities and their mayors, who often don’t follow national party lines or interests: from former Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, trying to improve the city’s eating habits; to London’s congestion zones which charge fees for cars entering the city to Stockholm’s toll bridges (where polls taken before the toll was imposed showed a majority against the change, but I heard of one poll taken after the change reporting that a majority had supported the change from the start!).

There’s also a new interest in cities among good-government advocates, philanthropies and other long-term actors. From economist Paul Romer, with his Charter Cities project to the New Cities Foundation; from CodeforAmerica to CityMart and Urban.us, two online marketplaces for city services; from Michael Bloomberg to Ken Livingstone, practical idealists are focusing on building city governments rather than overthrowing national ones. When some future revolution comes, perhaps these city governments will scale up and create the systems that can both govern and deliver on a national scale.

Cities can make rules that would be intrusive if imposed by a national government, such as building codes, control of the provision and pricing of internet bandwidth, requirements for posting nutritional information and the like. Because people are free to move from city to city in a way that they may not be able to move from country to country, both legally and practically, cities are constrained by competitive forces that do not apply to national governments.

At the same time, locally or nationally, government activities and the behavior of government officials are both becoming increasingly visible with much help from the internet and social media. While national-scale data may seem irrelevant to many people, local data are endlessly fascinating, whether these relate to how much some politician paid for a particular piece of real estate – and amazingly, it just happens to be near a new transport hub – or the relative test scores of five local schools.

Whether longtime residents or a new generation of CodeforAmerica techies, city voters can check their phones to find out when the next bus will arrive and they can check a website to find out how many buses are late each month. They can pay for their monthly transit pass with a credit card, and they usuallly pay less than people from out of town who buy just one ticket at a time. They can find out what percentage of their neighbors consume more or less electricity than they do, and they can compare this year’s statistics with last year’s.

Transparency at this level is more meaningful than either national statistics or neighborhood gossip. It gives people the ability to see the present in context, both in the local context of one’s neighbors and also the larger context of the wider world. Ideally, it also gives them the ability to see the present in the context of the past and of the future.

Data that you can change – by how you behave or vote or agitate – may have more meaning yet. The moment people feel they have a finger on the scale – not the scale of justice, but the one that measures out the benefits they receive – they will take more interest.

With luck, people will develop a taste for government that is transparently responsive rather than corruption-driven. Civil servants will grow to become customer-driven, just as businesses are. That still leaves the challenge of getting those citizens to think long-term: to demand good schools rather than lower taxes, to favor public transit over parking lots.

In fact, it’s all about interactions of scale: The world has become overwhelmingly large while the data are becoming increasingly fine-grained. When the data are relevant, they make more sense to people. When the data are local, people see something that they could influence. But people also need to add the fourth dimension: If you can measure short-term performance too precisely, you may forget about long-term impacts.

The Way to Wellville: Health as an Example

As it happens, I’m using cities – or small towns, anyway – in a crazily ambitious experiment to get people to think and act long-term for the sake of their own health. After much thinking on how to encourage people to think long-term – which of course they all know they should do – I concluded that the best way to change the time scale of people’s thinking about their own health was to show the impact of health-producing measures. Ideally the data can work both as evidence, guiding society in the infrastructure and perhaps even regulations it creates, and also as inspiration to individuals struggling to resist temptations.

The basic mechanism is a contest, called The Way to Wellville and loosely modeled on the X Prize, of five places, with five metrics, over five years. It’s a cheesy publicity-seeking stunt designed for our short-attention culture, but with underlying long-term premises. The metrics on which the communities will compete include both ‘health’ measures such as health-care costs per capita, transitions to diabetes, measures of dental and mental health, and the impacts of health, such as high-school graduation rates and absenteeism.

The way to change, we believe, is not just with things like quantified-self tools, which let you examine your own health and activity levels, but with something closer to ‘quantified community’, examining and changing the role that a community plays in its members’ health. The contest, The Way to Wellville, will get the five communities to compete to improve their own health. We’re not telling them what to do; we’re just supplying a goal and managing the measurement process. We’ll help the communities track themselves – and their competitors – to see the impact of each community’s collective behavior.

Five years may sound pathetic in terms of long-term thinking, but it’s longer than the span most health-insurance companies use in their calculations, and my hope is that the improvements visible after a mere five years will encourage people to recognize the value of long-term thinking about health and therefore to think longer still.

It turns out that community affordances have a huge impact on individual outcomes, but until now most of that hasn’t been visible to the naked eye. Studies show that walking to a bus makes people healthier than driving a car, that children whose parents are afraid of crime tend to stay inside and get obese, that people who live in polluted areas get respiratory diseases or even cancer, and of course that people who live in ‘food swamps’ (with bad food, as opposed to ‘food deserts’ with no food) tend to be unhealthier in the long-term. Indeed, their medical care over time will cost more than good food would have cost in the first place.

On one of our field trips to Niagara Falls, we discovered that the smoking rate there is thirty-seven percent versus a United States average of around eighteen percent. Why? Because there’s a Native American casino nearby that benefits from a federal US tax exemption that allows them to sell cigarettes tax-free: A national policy that has horrible consequences locally! It proves, for better or worse, how closely behavior is connected with incentives.

Manipulation

As I noted, one of the big problems of the current age is our collective ability to manipulate people. I am not referring just to politicians: Advertisers and food manufacturers can influence our tastes and even use our body chemistry, evolved though millennia of shortages, to like foods that are not good for us in their present abundance. The fitness landscape has changed, and we are all stuck in local optima, consuming more than enough to survive in the short term and reducing our health prospects in the long-term.

Thinking long-term, we can understand how we’re manipulated. Thinking collectively, the people in the Wellville communities can decide to manipulate themselves positively rather than negatively.

This is not a process of surreptitiously manipulating people into healthy behavior, but instead doing so openly and with those people’s active engagement. Just as a dieter is advised to remove unhealthy foods from their house, we want people to remove unhealthy foods from their communities or at least to put them on the virtual top shelf, and to support and benefit from subsidies on the good stuff.

That means changing the food supply to make healthy food a default rather than a difficult choice. We’re not crazy enough to talk about taxing sugar, for example, but rather about subsidizing healthy food, spending on refrigeration rather than chemical preservatives, and so forth.

So, in practical terms, how am I hoping to get people to think and to act long-term without manipulating them?

Children are key. Most of us can probably agree that it’s okay to constrain what children eat and to educate them; that’s not an undue abridgement of their freedom. So many of Wellville’s suggested tactics – to be selected and implemented by the communities themselves, not by us – will start with children. School lunches will be healthy, and they’ll be supplemented by classes in nutrition and cooking and agriculture.

To be sure, there will be arguments over what is healthy and what those constraints should be. Different communities will probably impose different constraints, either communitywide or with subsets of people trying different diets or levels of exercise.

That’s okay: We know some of what works, but we don’t know the details. Learning is a major purpose of Wellville: to take the risks and time to find out what works in the real world so that in the future people can make better-informed choices. For example, not Does such-and-such a diet work? But, also, Can a normal group of people actually stick to such-and-such a diet? It may be that changing the timing of food consumption – the breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper approach – matters more than meticulous calorie counting, and is easier to do, especially if your neighbors do it with you. Let’s find out!

And finally, there’s education. Not brainwashing, education! My favorite idea is the mouse house: Every first-grade class should have its own set of four mice, kept separately. Two get a running wheel, and the other two are sedentary. Of each pair, one gets a healthy diet, while the other eats cookies, ice cream and hot dogs. The class gets to feed them and watch what happens to them. Of course, they’ll be reporting all this to their older siblings and their parents.

Fortunately for first graders, less so for mice, mice are not as long-term as people, so the effects should be visible in a couple of months. After, say, two months, the children can vote to ‘rescue’ the mice from mistreatment. Or if we get lucky, they’ll be sued by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals!

Wellville, in short, is not a thought exercise. It’s a practical, real-world attempt to make long-term impacts visible, both to television viewers and to data scientists.

Long-term thinking and collective action are two sides of the same coin. Each moves from the constrained center to a broader view of the impact of one’s behavior, on oneself over time, or on other people whom one can encompass in a broader sense of self.

Carne, can you help us spread Wellville outside the US? We’d love to see it copied worldwide, but long-term thinking starts at home.

 

Esther


1. Yes, this argument applies somewhat differently in smaller countries that are akin to cities with federal courts and foreign policy. Some behave more like national governments, others like accountable cities. Switzerland, for one example, has as little national policy as possible for a nation-state – and a fairly satisfied, mostly middle-class citizenry despite some flaws – and some financial help from foreign businesspeople paying local taxes for precisely that lack of political volatility.


Esther Dyson sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation, as well as the Eurasia Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy. She is chairman of EDventure Holdings and an investor in a number of start-ups concerned with health care, biotechnology and space travel. Originally a journalist, she wrote Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age in 1998 and trained as a backup cosmonaut in Russia from 2008 to 2009.

Carne Ross founded the world’s first not-for-profit diplomatic advisory group, Independent Diplomat. He writes on world affairs and the history of anarchism, recently publishing The Leaderless Revolution (2011), which looks into how, even in democratic nations, citizens feel a lack of agency and governments seem increasingly unable to tackle global issues.

33 Books on How to Live and a Russian Nesting Doll

Posted on April 9th, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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Photo by Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

Long Now Member Maria Popova is the mastermind behind the popular cultural blog of ideas known as Brain Pickings.  The blog was founded in 02006, where she has been reviewing books, writing multiple blog entries and tweeting 50 times a day, all while balancing on a wobble board. The lifelong bibliophile has also written for Wired UK, The New York Times, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. And now, she has compiled her own reading list of 33 books to add to the collection of the 3,500 volumes most essential to sustain and rebuild civilization.

When we launched the Manual for Civilization project, it was a natural fit with Popova’s interests and expertise. She reviewed Brian Eno’s selections for the Manual for Civilization and contemplated Stewart Brand’s 76-book list, noting that only 1.5 of the books Brand suggested were authored by women. Here is an excerpt of her thoughtful reflections when creating her own list:

In grappling with the challenge, 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.

Popova presents us with a set of books that have helped her learn “how to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it.” Many of her selected books have additional links to detailed reviews she previously wrote, providing a great deal of insight and context. So rather than listing the books here, you can find Popova’s reading list where it is best written: “33 Books on How to Live: My Reading List for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization.”

The Brooklyn-based editor will be speaking with author Caroline Paul at Hattery in San Francisco tomorrow, April 11, 02014. At the event titled “Brain Pickings: An Evening with Maria Popova,” (currently sold out) they will talk about “hunting and gathering on the internet, lessons on creativity, and musings such as the curious minds (and sleep habits) of famous writers past and present.”

Tony Hsieh Seminar Primer

Posted on April 8th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Tony Hsieh is perhaps best known as a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He founded and then sold LinkExchange in the late 01990s, before going on to become CEO of online retail giant Zappos. But what Hsieh really does is build communities. Corporate tech is, for him, primarily a way to bring people together and foster a culture of togetherness. Any business, Hsieh is known to argue, should be evaluated not (just) on its return on investment, but on its ROC – its return on community.

Growing up in the Bay Area, Hsieh revealed an entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. In elementary and high school, he experimented with a variety of money-making ventures – from failed attempts to start a profitable worm farm to a successful mail-order button-making business – and as a Harvard undergrad, he managed an on-campus pizzeria. After graduating with a degree in computer science, the founding of LinkExchange was a logical next step. The company, an online advertising cooperative, became wildly successful: two years after its launch, it sold to Microsoft for several hundreds of millions of dollars. Hsieh, however, hadn’t much cared for the corporate lifestyle and profits-oriented culture at LinkExchange. So when he became involved with Zappos – first as an early investor, soon after as CEO – he set out to do things differently.

imgres-1Hsieh puts a lot of heart and effort into the creation of a positive corporate culture. Not only is “service” the number one commandment in Zappos’ oft-cited code of conduct; other items encourage “open and honest relationships,” “family spirit,” and even “fun and a little weirdness.” The company’s quarterly all-hands meetings are reported to be celebratory events full of music performances, employee skits, and bold stunts. Instead of traditional job titles, what you’ll find at Zappos are ‘ninjas’ and ‘monkeys’. In fact, the company recently announced that it is doing away with traditional corporate hierarchy altogether: it’s transitioning into a holacracy, an organizational structure based on principles of self-governance and a democratic distribution of power.

Fortune Magazine consistently ranks Zappos among the nation’s best companies to work for, and Hsieh is eager to share the positivity. In 02010, he published Delivering Happiness, an autobiography-cum-manifesto in which he shows that a focus on company culture and community wellbeing can actually lead to greater profits. The book became so popular that Hsieh and his team soon launched a company and website dedicated entirely to spreading its message.

These days, Hsieh spends much of his time pursuing his mission of community happiness in a very particular location. In downtown Las Vegas, a neighborhood of struggling casinos and weekly hotels long forgotten in the dark shadow of the glittery Strip, he’s been working on a major urban revitalization project.

The Downtown Project was born in 02011, when it became clear that Zappos was growing out of its headquarters in Henderson, Nevada, and Hsieh began to think about building a new campus for his employees. He liked the sense of community created by companies like Nike, Apple, and Facebook, but wanted to avoid the insularity that often characterized their Silicon Valley compounds. As Hsieh explains,

We started brainstorming, what’s the dream campus we can create? And we decided, rather than take this very insular approach to building a campus, let’s actually take more of an NYU-type approach, where the campus kind of blends in with the city, and so rather than focus just on Zappos, focus on the community, and then over time that’ll become this kind of self-feeding thing that will ultimately help retain and attract more employees and be good for the city as well. It’s slightly different from most development projects, in that we’re not trying to master plan from the top down, we really want it to be organic and driven by the community, and part of the goal is for us at Zappos to learn from cities how to be more innovative and scale our culture, and scale our productivity. Once you have that, then the magic just kind of happens automatically.

800px-Fremont_East_view_from_ElCortezKey in Hsieh’s vision is the notion of collisions: the idea that innovation and creativity sprout from random, unplanned, and informal encounters between people. Hsieh ultimately tries to  build companies – and now, whole communities – that are designed to maximize those collisions.

“It’s the Downtown Project’s big bet,” Hsieh says [in Wired Magazine], “that a focus on collisions, com­munity, and colearning will lead to happiness, luckiness, innovation, and pro­ductivity. It’s not even so big a bet,” he adds. “Research has been done about this on the office level. It’s just never really been applied in a consolidated way to a city revitalization project.”

Big or not, it’s a bet with $350 million riding on it. Hsieh has invested $200 million in local real estate, and $50 million each in education, small businesses, and a tech start-up fund. He’s building schools, developing parks, establishing community work spaces, and organizing arts and music festivals. Inspired by Edward Glaeser’s theories of urban vitality, Hsieh envisions the city as a kind of incubator: by bringing in promising new business and creating spaces for its entrepreneurs to ‘collide’ with one another, he hopes to spur new life and creativity. For Hsieh, innovation and community go hand in hand.

In the end, Hsieh hopes his efforts will pay off in many ways. Beyond setting up shop in Las Vegas, which offered Zappos a more favorable tax treatment, he expects that by making the city more livable it will be good for business and help him attract and retain top-tier talent.

Tony Hsieh will talk about his Downtown Project and the importance of community vitality at the SF JAZZ Center on April 22. You can reserve tickets, get directions, and sign up for the podcast on our Seminars page.

George Dyson: No Time Is There – A Seminar Flashback

Posted on April 4th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In March 02013 George Dyson spoke for Long Now about the origins of the digital universe. Dyson, an author and science historian, gave a detailed explication of the dawn of the modern computer in the 1950s at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives.

SALT audio is free for everyone on our Seminar pages and via podcast. Long Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

No Time Is There: The Digital Universe and Why Things Appear To Be Speeding Up is a recent SALT talk (for a little longer). It will be free for public viewing until late April 02014.

Legends of science and mathematics like Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, and John von Neumann feature prominently in these stories. Dyson’s remarkable historical reporting also includes first-hand observances of von Neumann’s workspace and insights gleaned from his interviews with participants at these events. His father, the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, went to work at IAS in 1953–the same year George was born.

Much of the early digital work was closely intertwined with the post-WWII effort to engineer better bombs.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

In the few years they ran that machine, from 1951 to 1957, they worked on the most difficult problems of their time, five main problems that are on very different time scales—26 orders of magnitude in time—from the lifetime of a neutron in a bomb’s chain reaction measured in billionths of a second, to the behavior of shock waves on the scale of seconds, to weather prediction on a scale of days, to biological evolution on the scale of centuries, to the evolution of stars and galaxies over billions of years. And our lives, measured in days and years, is right in the middle of the scale of time. I still haven’t figured that out.

George Dyson, 02013 March Seminar: No Time is There

George Dyson is an author and science historian whose books include Baidarka the Kayak, Darwin Among the Machinesand Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. This was the third time he spoke on the Long Now Seminar stage, including the 02005 SALT Talk presented with his sister Esther and their father Freeman Dyson.

Here’s a short video excerpt of this talk:

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. The series is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars. That includes this Seminar video until late April 02014. Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits. You can join Long Now here.

The Interval at Long Now: Opening in May

Posted on April 3rd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Announcements, Long Now salon (Interval), The Interval   chat 0 Comments

The Interval is the name of Long Now's new salon space in San Francisco. Opening Spring 02014

We are excited to announce that we will be opening The Interval at Long Now in May. We have our first event scheduled for May 27th, but our doors will open prior to that. In June we’ll present Rachel Sussman, a previous Seminar speaker, at the Salon. We will announce that as soon as the date is finalized. Details on a series of opening events in May–including some member and donor-exclusive ones–will be forthcoming.

We are offering some special thank you gifts to charter supporters who give during this critical phase of the project, in the lead-up to opening. Everyone who donates prior to opening will be considered a charter Interval supporter.

Here are some of the benefits, besides the gifts you may have already received:

  • Special opening events in May
  • All (new) donors over $500 will receive a Long Now etched shot glass.
  • All charter supporters will be listed at the space on our donor wall.
  • Every donor ($10 or higher) will receive a digital copy of the Manual for Civilization book list with an exclusive forward written just for the charter supporters.

If you have been waiting for the right time, this is it – every donation counts. We really need your support now to finish this project: please spread the word. And if every one of our existing donors can inspire a friend to give at the same level, then we will exceed our goal.

At Long Now we have high standards for design, and we wanted to build a venue that we’d be proud to put our name on – a venue that would inspire and welcome both our members and the general public. We think we’ve done it. Here are some of the highlights of what we are all building together:

  • Ambient music and video installation by Brian Eno, played on a custom-designed Meyer Galileo sound system
  • The Manual for Civilization library: 3,500 essential texts, crowdsourced from our extended community
  • Chalkboard robot built by Swiss artist Jürg Lehni
  • Salon-style events to complement our Seminars About Long-term Thinking
  • A robot that makes bespoke gins from specially distilled botanicals
  • Tea list by Samovar tea lounge, including special aged Pu-erh tea
  • Coffee by Sightglass coffee
  • Specially distilled gin and whiskey by St George Spirits
  • Aged St George whiskey served from the barrel
  • Bar and beverage program designed by Jennifer Colliau (Small Hand Foods)
  • Mixologist-quality non-alcoholic concoctions (one of Jennifer’s specialties)

The Interval building also serves as Long Now’s headquarters. It is a place where anyone can come for some long-term thinking and conversation; a place to be inspired and surrounded by the long-term ideas that have sustained global civilization; and a place to hear (and talk) about new ideas coming from the fields of science, technology, art, and culture.

With that in mind, we ask you to take part in this project, whether at the $10 or $10,000 level. Every gift helps as we approach opening day. You’ll gets lots of benefits, including the Manual for Civilization master list, and your name will appear at this unique venue that you helped make a reality.

Thanks for your support of Long Now! We hope we continue to inform and inspire you.

Jem Finer Performs at the Exploratorium

Posted on April 1st, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
link   Categories: Long Term Art   chat 0 Comments

Jem Finer, composer of the 1,000 year long composition Longplayer and a founding member of the band The Pogues, will be performing at the Exploratorium on Thursday, April 10, 02014. The event will be the fourth installment of Resonance, a new music series that explores “distant realms of musical possibility.” The Exploratorium describes the upcoming performance as follows:

The evening will feature a conversation with Finer and host Sarah Cahill and performances of “Original Soundtrack #5″ and “Starfield.”  Finer’s “Original Soundtrack #5″ is an inversion of the usual supporting role of the soundtrack. Finer gathered sound using a video camera, then draws upon this raw material to compose improvisational films whose visual component is a byproduct of these sound juxtapositions. The Exploratorium performance of “Original Soundtrack #5″ will also include new material recorded in San Francisco. In addition, Finer will perform “Starfield.” Each star shines with a unique spectrum of light frequencies. By translating these into sound, Finer generated the raw material for this celestial composition.

The event will be held at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum, which features a Meyer sound system – similar to the one Long Now will have at The Interval. This performance is part of the After Dark series; tickets to Resonance can be purchased here and include admission to the main After Dark event after the performance is over. Seating in the Kanbar Forum is limited and on a first come first serve basis, so it is recommended to arrive before the show time of 7:00pm.

Previous performances can be viewed on the Resonance website; you can expect to see Jem Finer’s added here in a few weeks.

Long Now hosted a performance of Longplayer and a Long Conversation event in 02010 in San Francisco. Audio of Jem Finer’s conversation with Stewart Brand from that event is in our Seminar section (video available for members).


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