This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.
Tuesday January 21, 02014 – San Francisco
Make the next legal U-turn – a summary by Stewart Brand
“Bitching Betty,” they call the robotic voice of the car’s GPS guidance system. Eno and Hillis, on their road trips, always become so engrossed in conversation that they get lost—one time, driving to Monterey they wound up in Sacramento, 200 miles wrong. So they turn on GPS, and Betty joins the conversation with helpful advice about U-turns.
Hillis observed, “The GPS is very good at giving you instructions to get someplace. But Brian and I have no idea where we’re going; we just want some time together. What usually happens for us after a couple days of frustratingly looking at the tiny GPS map is that we stop and buy a big paper map. And the moment we open a map of Nevada or Arizona, it feels like we’re in a much bigger world. The big maps are not that useful to navigate by, but there’s a sense of relief of seeing the bigger context and all the possibilities of where we might go. That’s exactly what The Long Now Foundation is for.”
Culture is a long conversation, Eno proposed. “When I talk about the practice of art I often use the word “conversation” because I think that you never see a piece of art on its own. You look at a painting in relation to the whole conversation of paintings. Some things are completely meaningless outside of that kind of context. if you think about Kazimir Malevich’s “White on White” painting, it’s hardly a picture actually, but it’s an important picture in the history of painting up to that point.”
Hillis replied, “My plan for painting is to have my bones removed and replaced with titanium, and then I grind up my bones to make white pigment.” Eno: “That’s very old-fashioned.”
Hillis talked about the long-term stories we live by and how our expectations of the future shape the future, such as our hopes about space travel. Eno said that Mars is too difficult to live on, so what’s the point, and Hillis said, “That’s short-term thinking. There are three big game-changers going on: globalization, computers, and synthetic biology. (If I were a grad student now, I wouldn’t study computer science, I’d study synthetic biology.) I probably wouldn’t want to live on Mars in this body, but I could imagine adapting myself so I would want to live on Mars. To me it’s pretty inevitable that Earth is just our starting point.”
Eno remarked, “Sex, drugs, art, and religion—those are all activities in which you deliberately lose yourself. You stop being you and you let yourself become part of something else. You surrender control. I think surrendering is a great gift that human beings have. One of the experiences of art is relearning and rehearsing surrender properly. And one of the values perhaps of immersing yourself in very long periods of time is losing the sense of yourself as a single focus of the universe and seeing yourself as one small dot on this long line reaching out to the edges of time in each direction.”
Hillis described some elements of surrender designed in to the visitor experience of the 10,000-year Clock being built in the mountains of west Texas. “You’ll be away from your usual environment for days to travel to the remote site. Because of where it is on the mountain, you have to wake up before dawn, and there’s the physical exertion of climbing up the mountain. As you climb, there’s some points of confusion, where you’re not sure if you’re in the right place.
“For example, in the total darkness inside the mountain, as you go up the spiral stairs surrounding the Clock mechanism for hundreds of feet, you think you know where you’re going because there’s light at the top of the shaft that you’re climbing toward, but as you get up there, the stairs keep becoming narrower, and you see they’re tapering off to smaller than you could possibly walk on. And you realize, ‘My plan isn’t going to work.’
“You have to get away from the idea of direct progress and surrender that kind of control in order to find your way.”
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