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

Posted on Wednesday, July 5th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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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 Thursday, 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 Friday, 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 Thursday, 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 Monday, 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 Wednesday, June 7th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Long Term Thinking, Manual for Civilization, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

“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

 

Select Interval Talk Videos Now Online

Posted on Wednesday, June 7th, 02017 by Mikl Em
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Neal Stephenson at The Interval

As we mark the 3-year anniversary of the Conversations at The Interval lecture series, we’ve released video of more than a dozen Interval talks for the first time. HD video of fifteen select talks is now on The Interval website, free for everyone to enjoy.

Production of these talks was funded by donations from The Elkes Foundation, Because We Can, and Margaret & Will Hearst. Thanks to them and the ongoing support of Long Now members we can share these, and all our Long Now videos, free with the public.

Speakers featured include Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand; science fiction authors Neal Stephenson (shown above), Kim Stanley Robinson, and Andy Weir; artist Jonathon Keats; and internet archivist Jason Scott. Talk subjects range from interplanetary travel to the Internet of Things; digital preservation to the science of human taste; deep time art to the connection between genetics & ideology. You can see the full list of videos here.

Don’t know which to watch first? Here are a few suggestions:

Our first Interval speaker ever was Wired editor Adam Rogers who discussed the 10,000 year history of booze and the science behind it. You can see in the video and below how much The Interval has changed in 3 years.

Adam Rogers: Proof: The Science of Booze (May 02014)

Watch Adam Rogers at The Interval, May 02014

In the 01980s Jason Scott was an active participant in dial-up Bulletin Board Systems–one of the earliest networked communities. When he realized the content of the BBS era was in danger of disappearing he became, almost by accident, an archivist. Ever since, while some take the short-term view, Jason has stepped up to be a good ancestor for those who will inhabit the future networked world.

Jason Scott: The Web in an Eye Blink (February 02015).

Jason Scott at The Interval, "The Web in an Eyeblink" February 24, 02015

How does the frame of long-term thinking change the way we consider the present, past, and future of refugees and others migrating under duress? We assembled a panel of academics and experienced non-profit workers to discuss this important topic.

The Refugee Reality panel discussion (February 02016).

Watch Refugee Reality at The Interval, February 02016

If you enjoy Long Now’s long-running Seminar podcast and the videos of that series, we think you’ll enjoy these talks, too. An audio podcast of Interval talks will launch soon!

Our Interval series continues with new talks every month. Next up is our special daytime talk by authors Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland on Wednesday, June 14. And then on June 27, geologist Miles Traer discusses “The Geological Reveal” a deep time rock record history of the SF Bay Area.

June 14, 02017 at 12pm: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland at The Interval June 27, 02017: Miles Traer at The Interval " The Geological Reveal: How the Rock Record Shows Our Relationship to the Natural World"

 

If you can’t make The Interval talks in person we have a video livestream
exclusively for Long Now members. So you can watch live from anywhere.

We also have short clips from Interval talks on the Long Now YouTube and Facebook pages. We hope you enjoy them, and if so that you’ll share them with others. Here’s a clip of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 02016 talk:

Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland speak at The Interval: June 14, 02017

Posted on Tuesday, June 6th, 02017 by Mikl Em
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Authors Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland at The Interval on Wednesday, June 14

Next week is the 3-year anniversary of Long Now’s Interval cafe and bar opening to the public in San Francisco. Since 02014 we’ve produced sixty-six long-term thinking lectures at The Interval.

On this milestone week we’re pleased to welcome authors Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland on Wednesday, June 14, 02017 to discuss their novel The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. which debuts next week. This will be a special daytime event that starts at noon Pacific Time.

Tickets for this event sold out in less than an hour to Long Now members; one of our member benefits is early access to buy Interval event tickets. But, as we do for all our talks, we will host a live video stream of this event—starting at 12:30pm PT (UTC -7:00). The earlier time will we hope allow Long Now members and fans around the world will tune in, as it’s a more convenient hour in many time zones than our usual evening talks.

You do have to be a Long Now member to watch on the Long Now site. Membership starts at $8/month and comes with lots of benefits. So we hope you will consider joining if you are not yet a member; and if you are, we hope you will spread the word!

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. features time travel, ancient texts,
 19th century technology, 
a language expert as protagonist, and magic. Sounds like the perfect summer reading for imaginative long-term thinkers!

This is Neal’s second visit to The Interval. In 02015 he talked about his novel Seveneves with Stewart Brand. Video of that talk is now live on The Interval site. He and Nicole will be joined in conversation by Long Now’s Executive Director Alexander Rose.

Neal’s long-time connection with The Long Now Foundation goes back to 01998 when he offered some design ideas about the 10,000 Year Clock to our co-founder Danny Hillis. Those sketches became the basis for his novel Anathem, published a decade later, which Neal launched with a Long Now event in San Francisco. In 02014 he not only gave us a list of books for the Manual for Civilization project, but he personally donated to help us build The Interval.

All of this makes his and Nicole’s visit during The Interval anniversary week even more special. We’re excited to learn more about the book and to share this event live with our members everywhere. We hope you will join us! More about the June 14 event.

Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland at The Interval, June 14 02017

Göbekli Tepe and the Worst Day in History

Posted on Wednesday, May 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Technological advances are revolutionizing the field of archaeology, resulting in new discoveries that are upending our previous understanding of the birth of civilization. Many scholars believe that few will be as consequential as Göbekli Tepe.

The ruins of Göbekli Tepe. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi.


IN 01963, anthropologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Istanbul surveyed ruins atop of a hill in Southern Turkey that the locals called Göbekli Tepe (“potbelly hill” in Turkish). Examining the broken limestone slabs dotting the site, the anthropologists concluded that the mound was nothing more than a Byzantine cemetery—a dime a dozen in the ruin-rich Levant region.

Three decades later, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt made a startling claim: Göbekli Tepe was the site of the world’s oldest temple. Geomagnetic surveys of the site revealed circles of  limestone megaliths dating back 11,600 years—seven millennia before the construction of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, six millennia before the invention of writing, and five centuries before the development of agriculture.

Photograph by Vincent J. Musi.


The implications of Schmidt’s discoveries were profound, and called into question previous archaeological and scientific understandings about the Neolithic Revolution, the key event in human development pointed to as the birth of human civilization. “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later, to civilization,” journalist Charles Mann wrote in a 02011 National Geographic cover story on the site. “[Göbekli Tepe] suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” As Andrew Curry of The Smithsonian put it after a visit to Göbekli Tepe with Schmidt:

Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

Einkorn wheat was first domesticated near Göbekli Tepe—perhaps, posits Charles Mann, to feed those who came to worship. Photo by Vincent J. Musi.


Schmidt believed that humans made pilgrimages to Göbekli Tepe from as far away as 90 miles. But then there’s the question of what, exactly, these pilgrims were worshipping. As Curry mused after his visit to Göbekli Tepe:

What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe’s builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn’t speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean

In a March 02017 article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis proposed a bold theory: the pillars are telling the story of a comet hitting the earth and triggering an ice age some 13,000 years ago. The comet strike, known as the Younger Dryas Impact Event, is hypothesized to have set off a global cooling period that depleted hunter-gatherer resources and forced humans to settle into areas where they could cultivate crops.

On the left, an artistic rendering of the Younger Dryas Impact Event. On the right, the night sky around 10,950 BC when the impact hypothetically occurred. Image: Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis


Combining the approaches of astronomy and archaeology, Sweatman and Tsikritsis claim that the animals carved on the pillars depict constellations, with the famous vulture stone indicating a time stamp of the night sky at the time of the catastrophe. Using computer software, Sweatman and Tsikritsis matched the animal carving to patterns of the stars, yielding three possibilities that synced up to their astronomical interpretations, plus or minus 250 years: 02000, 4350 BCE, 10,950 BCE, and 18,000 BCE.

The date of 10,950 BCE aligns with the latest hypotheses as to when the Younger Dryas Impact Event occurred, lending credence to Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ interpretation that the Vulture Stone depicts what Sweatman calls “probably the worst day in history since the end of the Ice Age.”

The famous vulture stone, which Sweatman and Tsikritsis claim depicts the constellations of the night sky. Photo by Vincent J. Musi.


But, as Becky Ferreira of Motherboard reports, there’s reason to regard Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ claims with skepticism. For one, many scholars do not accept the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis that a comet strike served as the catalyst for the Ice Age that followed. Some have also criticized Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ study for omitting crucial information to make their case. Archaeologist Jens Notroff, a researcher at the Göbekli Tepe site, takes Sweatman and Tsikritsis to task for failing to mention that the headless man on the vulture stone, which they claim symbolizes the devastating loss of human life after the comet, also possesses an erect phallus—hardly a robust indicator of loss of life.

“There’s more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 B.C.] than from Sumer to today,” says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility.”

Perhaps. But if the recent archaeological discoveries are any indication, we are often mistaken in our assumptions about the complexity and historic trajectory of ancient civilizations. Time will tell. And technology will help.

FURTHER READING

As of this writing, Sweatman and Tsikritsis are working on a rebuttal to critiques of their paper.

Read Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ article in full.

Göbekli Tepe was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List five years ago and is expected to become a protected UNESCO Heritage site next year.

Read our February 02017 feature on how one historian is combining the approaches of comparative mythology of evolutionary biology with new computational modeling technologies to reconstruct some of humanity’s oldest myths.

Read Charles Mann’s National Geographic story in full. Mann also gave a Seminar for Long Now in April 02012.

Is Anything Original? The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Remediation

Posted on Friday, May 19th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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As PBS Newshour reports, modern-day renaissance workshop Factum Arte preserves art and historical works threatened by war, looting and the passage of time by creating high tech, full-scale reproductions of them. In so doing, the organization is challenging notions of what constitutes an original work of art.

Factum Arte is recreating works of art recently destroyed by ISIS and damaged in the Syrian Civil War. Via Factum Arte.