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The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Manuel Arriaga writes to Giles Fraser

Posted on Wednesday, November 18th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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dysonIn May, John Burnside  wrote a letter to Manuel Arriga 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. Manuel’s response is now addressed to Giles Fraser, a priest, professor, and journalist who studies contemporary ethics, 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.

From: Manuel Arriaga, New York
To: Giles Fraser, London
16 November 2015

Dear Giles,

Reading the earlier letters in this exchange, it strikes me that the issue of long-term thinking is twofold. Its challenges make themselves felt at two very different levels: the individual and the collective.

As individuals we are notoriously prone to myopic decision-making. The work of cognitive psychologists such as Tversky and Kahneman, whom Stewart Brand quoted in his letter, abundantly documents the biases that plague each of us as we try to act “rationally”. When the temporal horizon expands and making a good decision today depends on properly weighing benefits and costs that are far into the future, we do a particularly poor job. It doesn’t help that, when we look into the more distant future, such consequences are probabilistic rather than certain.

A second, distinct problem has to do with collective decision making. How can we, as a society, adequately handle issues that have long-term consequences? Obviously, different people will list different concerns, but there is a widespread perception that our political life is too caught up in the ephemeral, all the while neglecting to pay proper attention to a number of looming structural challenges.

Why does this distinction between the individual and the collective matter? Because the pathologies that afflict us as a society are not simply the sum – nor the inevitable consequence – of our limitations as individuals. Instead, we have put in place specific procedures and collective decision-making mechanisms that ensure that our individual-level myopia will be amplified when we collectively make decisions. (It is in this sense that, as Esther Dyson wrote, “long-term thinking and collective action are two sides of the same coin.”) Our political system(s) almost seems designed to take our innate biases and ensure that, as a society, we act in a way that would make the most foolhardy and impulsive teenager seem wise by comparison.

Consider elections, perhaps one of the most celebrated institutions of modern times – the only widely-accepted way for the public to delegate power into the hands of a small number of politicians. This provides a way to hold those we elect accountable and gives (some measure of) protection against authoritarian abuses of power.

However, as is painfully evident in 2015, elections also foster shortsightedness in a myriad of ways. Politicians are immersed in the media and electoral cycles, unable to extend their vision beyond the dual horizons of the day’s media coverage and the forthcoming election. Citizens are invited to pick representatives (and occasionally to vote on ballot measures) with little to no serious reflection and on the basis of a wholly inadequate information diet. Finally, journalists find themselves working in an ever-accelerating environment, where they often feel that careful, in-depth coverage of policy issues no longer has a place and must be sacrificed at the altar of sensationalism, high ratings and social media buzz. To borrow Brian Eno’s phrase, the whole system seems geared towards “increasingly short nows”.

Needless to say, we should be doing the opposite. We should be devising collective governance mechanisms that bring out the best in our thinking, creating ways to make decisions that will help us, as a society, overcome our innate myopia and the biases that plague our reasoning. The good news is that I sincerely believe that we have at our disposal a concrete, albeit little known, way to do just that. Its wider adoption promises to make the collective more, rather than less, intelligent than the individual – in short, the kind of change of method that would, as Carne Ross put it, be “tantamount to changing the outcome” in matters of policy that require deep long-term political thinking.

One way to achieve this is through a practice known as citizen deliberation: the use of large panels of randomly selected people to carefully reflect and decide on complex policy matters. Unlike professional politicians, such a representative sample of ordinary citizens has all the incentives – and close to none of the disincentives – to properly think through the long-term consequences of different policy choices. Furthermore, if the deliberation process were rigorously conducted, these citizen panels would be able to see through the “ideology and ghost stories,” as Stewart Brand puts it, that typically plague such decisions.

Greater use of citizen deliberation in policy making could be a powerful antidote to many of the ills we have been identifying. However, in my short book Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics, a specific concern over our difficulty in making reasoned long-term choices prompted me to suggest a blueprint for a particular kind of institution. A “Long Now Citizens’ Assembly” (the name was meant as a not-so-subtle nod to the inspiring work of the Long Now Foundation) would be a large citizen panel that would convene every ten years. These citizens would be tasked with defining a collective political vision, thereby setting out some key choices in terms of the direction their nation, region or city should take, subject to approval in a referendum. The decade between meetings would make it unambiguously clear that the panel existed in a different temporal plane from that of electoral party politics.

Although citizen deliberation dates back to ancient Greece, the idea of involving ordinary citizens in real-world policy making invariably comes as a shock to many. However, skepticism dissipates as people come to understand how citizen deliberation works in practice. The citizen panel carries out an in-depth study and analysis of the issue(s) at hand, including consultations with policy makers, interest groups, scientific experts and others. They deliberate, at length and with the assistance of skilled facilitators, about the available policy choices and their possible impact. The process has nothing in common with the rowdy scenes and uninformed shouting matches that characterized, for example, the town hall meetings on healthcare reform in the United States back in 2009.

A commonly-voiced concern is whether ordinary citizens have what it takes – are they intelligent enough to address complex policy issues? Here, too, doubts prove unfounded. Stanford Professor James Fishkin, one of the world’s foremost experts on citizen deliberation, writes that “the public is very smart if you give them a chance. If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study, … ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70% change their minds in the process.” He assures us that “citizens can become better informed and master the most complex issues of state government if they are given the chance.”

The promise of citizen deliberation is that it could free policy making from the well-known biases that plague professional politicians. Ordinary citizens, chosen at random and for a single, non-renewable term, can act – just like a jury in court – in what they perceive to be the true long-term public interest, free from the pressures of facing reelection. They don’t have to worry about how necessary-but-unpopular measures will adversely impact their popularity ratings.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect is that none of this is idle, academic speculation. Recent experiences show how well citizen deliberation works in practice. In 2004, a randomly-chosen panel of 160 citizens was tasked by the government of the Canadian province of British Columbia with reforming the province’s electoral system. After drawing on the input of a wide variety of experts, consulting the public, and deliberating at length, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform ended up suggesting a type of electoral system that, in the words of Professor David Farrell, a renowned expert on electoral systems, “politicians, given a choice, would probably least like to see introduced but which voters, given a choice, should choose.” The assembly’s proposal was later approved by 58% of the popular vote in a referendum, yet regrettably failed to meet the strict requirements imposed by the provincial government for its results to be considered binding, and therefore has yet to be implemented.

Similarly encouraging results are reported from the U.S. state of Oregon. Since 2010, citizen deliberation has been used to assist Oregon voters in state-wide ballot initiatives. In a process known as the “Citizen Initiative Review,” a panel of about twenty-five randomly chosen Oregonians is tasked with carefully researching and deliberating on the ballot measure up for a vote. At the end of this process, an accessible and highly informative set of “key findings”, as well as an indication of how many panelists ultimately supported and opposed the proposed measure, are presented as a “citizens’ statement” in the pamphlet that voters receive in the mail before a ballot. Research confirms that this citizens’ statement not only makes voters better informed, but also has a substantial influence on the voting behavior of those who read it.

In his letter, John Burnside rightly wonders if – in light of the substantial social change that would be required just to bring rampant environmental destruction under control – it might be too optimistic to place that much faith in the abilities of our fellow citizens. When one pauses to consider what is at stake and how far we are from attaining that goal, it is impossible not to share his concern. Yet, I can think of no other collective decision making system better equipped to handle such a challenge. After all, the kind of major lifestyle changes that seem necessary are utterly indefensible by professional politicians seeking (re)election. We can also hope for the success of NGOs and other groups in civil society trying to promote greater environmental awareness, yet their odds of effecting major changes seem awfully limited as long as our so-called democracies remain deaf to voices other than those stemming from powerful economic interests (or, perhaps just as depressingly, focus groups). Our best hope perhaps lies in the abilities of ordinary citizens to collectively engage with these difficult issues and then share their findings with the broader public.

Giles, in this letter I deliberately adopted an “engineering” perspective – that of a self-confessed geek who asks himself how we might reform a system so that it can generate what I consider to be better outcomes. I did so aware of the violent oversimplification entailed in this process, any hopes of true change ultimately depending on our values and how they come to evolve over time.

As argued above, I believe that citizen deliberation offers us a powerful way to cut through the everyday froth, to reflect on and articulate what our values truly are and which reforms are needed so that, together, we can build a future that is true to those values. Yet, this is at best a tiny piece of the puzzle. I very much look forward to seeing where you will choose to take this conversation next.

All my best,


Manuel Arriaga is a visiting research professor at New York University and a fellow at the University of Cambridge. In 2014, he published Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics, which, by the end of the same year, had become the #1 best-selling book on democracy on Amazon UK. He is currently working on a film project on democratic innovations. More information about his work can be found at

Giles Fraser is a priest of the Church of England and a journalist. He is currently the parish priest at St Mary’s, Newington, near the Elephant and Castle, London, and writes a weekly Saturday column Loose Canon for The Guardian, as well as appearing frequently on BBC Radio 4. He is a regular contributor on Thought for the Day and a panellist on The Moral Maze. He is visiting professor in the anthropology department at the London School of Economics. He was previously Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and director of the St Paul’s Institute from 2009 until his resignation in October 2011. As Canon Chancellor, Fraser was a residentiary canon with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre.

Steven Johnson takes a Long Now Perspective on the Superintelligence Threat

Posted on Thursday, November 12th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Steven Johnson, former Seminar speaker & author of How We Got to Now, recently wrote on the dangers of A.I. on his blog “How We Got To Next“. He discusses evolutionary software, the existential threat of A.I., before concluding with a meditation of long-term thinking and The Long Now Foundation:

One of the hallmarks of human intelligence is our long-term planning; our ability to make short-term sacrifices in the service of more distant goals. But that planning has almost never extended beyond the range of months or, at best, a few years. Wherever each of us individually happens to reside on Mount Einstein, as a species we are brilliant problem-solvers. But we have never used our intelligence to solve a genuinely novel problem that doesn’t exist yet, a problem we anticipate arising in the distant future based on our examination of current trends.

“This is the function of science fiction. To parse, debate, rehearse, question, and prepare us for the future of new.”

To be clear, humans have engineered many ingenious projects with the explicit aim of ensuring that they last for centuries: pyramids, dynasties, monuments, democracies. Some of these creations, like democratic governance, have been explicitly designed to solve as-of-yet-undiscovered problems by engineering resilience and flexibility into their codes and conventions. But mostly those exercises in long-term planning have been all about preserving the current order, not making a preemptive move against threats that might erupt three generations later. In a way, the closest analogue to the current interventions on climate (and the growing AI discussion) are eschatological: in religious traditions that encourage us to make present-day decisions based on an anticipated Judgement Day that may not arrive for decades, or millennia.

No institution in my knowledge has thought more about the history and future of genuinely long-term planning than the Long Now Foundation, and so I sent an email to a few of its founders asking if there were comparable examples of collective foresight in the historical record. “The Dutch in planning their dykes may have been planning for 100-year flood levels, and the Japanese apparently had generational tsunami levels for village buildings. However, both of these expectations are more cyclical than emergent,” Kevin Kelly wrote back. He went on to say:

I think you are right that this kind of exercise is generally new, because we all now accept that the world of our grandchildren will be markedly different than our world — which was not true before.

I believe this is the function of science fiction. To parse, debate, rehearse, question, and prepare us for the future of new. For at least a century, science fiction has served to anticipate the future. I think you are suggesting that we have gone beyond science fiction by crafting laws, social manners, regulations, etc., that anticipate the future in more concrete ways. In the past there have been many laws prohibiting new inventions as they appeared. But I am unaware of any that prohibited inventions before they appeared.

I read this as a cultural shift from science fiction as entertainment to science fiction as infrastructure — a necessary method of anticipation.

Stewart Brand sounded a note of caution. “Defining potential, long-term problems is a great public service,” he wrote. “Over-defining solutions early on is not. Some problems just go away on their own. For others, eventual solutions that emerge are not at all imaginable from the start.”

Read the full article on Steven Johnson’s blog

James Fallows gives update to his “Civilization’s Infrastructure” Seminar

Posted on Thursday, November 5th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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We under-imagine benefits and over-imagine problems with civilian infrastructure projects, yet we do the opposite with military infrastructure-scale weapons systems.  Both behaviors defy reason and cause harm.

– Stewart Brand

James Fallows recently wrote a piece for the Atlantic describing common bias in dealing with military infrastructure vs. public infrastructure, expanding on the themes he talked through at last month’s Seminar, “Civilization’s Infrastructure“.

10,000 Years of Oral Narrative

Posted on Thursday, October 29th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Just off the coast of Australia, a few miles west of Perth, lie three small limestone islands. Today they’re a popular destination for boat trips and air taxis, but a local Aboriginal tribe tells stories of a time when these three isles were connected to the mainland by lush forest. One day, the stories recount, those trees caught fire. They burned “with such intensity that the ground split asunder with a great noise, and the sea rushed in between, cutting off these islands from the mainland.”

Along Australia’s Southern coast, another Aboriginal community tells an old story about marital strife, in which an angry ancestral figure called Ngurunderi chased his wives across the tribe’s territory until they sought refuge on a piece of land known today as Kangaroo Island. To punish his wives, Ngurunderi caused the seas to rise and turned his wives into large coastal rocks. The last time anyone would have been able to travel to Kangaroo Island on foot was about 10,000 years ago, when sea levels were about 100 feet lower than they are today.

That time span begins to enter the realm of the mythic. Few, if any, man-made things survive that long, let alone an oral anecdote about the environment. Does that mean, then, that these stories are just that – fairy tales of the kind we all grow up with? Nicholas Reid and Patrick Nunn think not. A linguist and geologist, respectively, Reid and Nunn collected similar stories from all over Australia. Matching each of them successfully to actual historical changes in the continent’s shoreline, they argue that these narratives originate in fact – and that they must, therefore, have been passed from generation to generation for many thousands of years, all without the aid of being written down.

Throughout human history, oral narratives have been an important way for communities to pass knowledge from generation to generation. Many of the oldest epics known to us today – that of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, or the Mahabharata, to name just a few – lived long lives as oral poems before they were ever committed to paper. The blend of flowery language, rhyme, and meter so typical of these stories helped narrators commit them to memory, and brought them to life for communities with every telling. In this way, oral poetry long served as a central repository of shared beliefs, values, and knowledge for pre-literate societies around the world. They offered a sense of intergenerational continuity, and helped communities understand their history and their world.

The oldest epics known today are a few millennia old, but none come close to the age Reid and Nunn suggest for these Aboriginal tales – the team estimates most of them to be between 8,000 and 12,000 years old, to match the sea level changes they purportedly recount. This stretch of time would be unprecedented, but not necessarily impossible. If the knowledge conveyed in a story is considered important enough to a community’s sense of identity, for example, its narrative is likely to keep being told and retold from generation to generation. And if a society places more value on accuracy than on creative innovation, its tales are less likely to evolve much in their content. Reid and Nunn argue that both are true of Aboriginal cultures:

Reid says clans have very specific mechanisms for teaching people to tell oral histories, as well as tasking others to ensure the orator tells stories accurately. For instance, when children are told tales by their parents, they are tasked with quizzing the details and cross-checking them with their grandparents. “People take these relationships very seriously,” says Reid. “The beauty of the relationship is that it is cross-generational and that provides a kind of scaffolding that’s very successful at keeping stories accurate, not succumbing to a [game of telephone] effect.” This feature of oral tradition appears to be specific to Australia.

The possibility that these stories are truly as much as 12,000 years old does not yet prove their factuality. Investigating whether these tales originate in truth will involve analyzing the likelihood that disparate Aboriginal tribes across Australia would have all simply conjured mythic stories about rising sea levels – or that a single story would have been shared and adapted by societies across the continent. Reid and Nunn believe it’s more plausible that each community would have witnessed such flooding in their own territory and considered it momentous enough to pass the experience on to their descendants. They argue that the narratives are too similar across groups who are unlikely to have exchanged tales with one another; and too specific to local contexts to have been borrowed from elsewhere.

How do we know that these stories are authentic? We suggest that because they all say essentially the same thing, it is more likely that they are based on observation. All tell of the ocean rising over areas that had previously been dry. None tell stories running the other way – of seas falling to expose land. The huge distances separating the places from which the stories were collected – as well as their unique, local contexts – makes it unlikely that they derived from a common source that was invented.

In the end, the factuality of stories like these may be impossible to determine, and the definition of ‘authenticity’ may be up for debate. With narratives this old, the distinction between ‘myth’ and ‘fact’ may have simply faded, or disappeared altogether. Myth can become a means to convey the emotional force of long-ago experiences, events witnessed by ancestors so old that they’ve become more abstract than real. In turn, historical snippets or location-specific details may be woven into mythic stories to aid their resonance with listeners. But whether you choose to class these tales as fact or fiction, the research done by Reid and Nunn does suggest that oral narratives should never be dismissed as irrelevant to our understanding of local histories. However you define “truth,” such stories can be repositories for cultural knowledge, beliefs, and shared experiences across massive stretches of time – they become the stuff of a community’s long-term continuity.

This paper makes the case that endangered Indigenous languages can be repositories for factual knowledge across time depths far greater than previously imagined … forcing a rethink of the ways in which such traditions have been dismissed.

Ancient Venture Capitalism and its Lessons for the Modern Economy

Posted on Thursday, September 24th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Our understanding of ancient civilizations can be spotty. Because not all cultural artifacts withstand the test of time, we have to piece together our portraits of these societies with partial clues, making inferences where needed to cover gaps in the archaeological record.

But one of these clues offers a remarkably detailed picture of economic life in an Assyrian market town. As a recent feature in the New York times explains, archaeologists have discovered an uncharacteristically complete set of records kept by businessmen who ran importing enterprises in Kanesh, an ancient trading hub in what is now Turkey.

Dating back to the 19th century BC, these records have allowed Assyriologists to construct an intimate and detailed portrait of the lives these traders led, and the socio-economic policies that shaped their businesses.

The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds, and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.

It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods – silver, tin, textiles – transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable … The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.

But as the quote above implies, these records – as does much of history – also contain lessons for the present. The comparison of this ancient market to our modern-day economy offers a rare opportunity to assess what features are inherent to the nature of trading systems, and what is the product of specific cultural or political forces.

The remarkable similarities between this ancient market and the contemporary global economy suggest that most attempts at trade regulation may be ineffective: fluctuations in things like the volume of trade, or the distribution of profits, may ultimately be part of the nature of trading systems. But what we can do is anticipate and regulate the impact of global trade on our local economy.

That, in fact, is what the [Assyrians] did, 4,000 years ago … Trade brought enormous wealth to a dozen or so families. But rather than hold all of it for themselves, the wealthy were made to redistribute a high percentage of their earnings through taxes and religious foundations that used the money for the public good. This way, the wealth created by trading with Kanesh made nearly everybody – at least every free citizen – better off.

Paul Saffo Featured on Singularity Hub’s Ask An Expert Series

Posted on Monday, August 17th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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This week’s episode of Singularity Hub’s Ask an Expert features Long Now Board member Paul Saffo.

Ask an Expert is a new web series in which, well, experts answer tweeted questions about the future of technology. In this episode, Paul discusses virtual reality, weighs in on the word ‘disrupt’, and considers the possibility of having a wooly mammoth for a pet – with a quick shout-out to Long Now’s Revive & Restore project.

To see more videos in the Ask an Expert series, you can visit this page. And if you have a question of your own, you can tweet it to @singularityu with the hashtag #AskSU.

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: John Burnside writes to Manuel Arriaga

Posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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dysonIn April, Carne Ross wrote a letter to John Burnside 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. John’s response is now addressed to Manuel Arriaga, a writer & professor who studies Political Science, 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.

From: John Burnside, Berlin
To: Manuel Arriaga, New York
7 April 2015

Dear Manuel,

When Carne Ross posted his letter in this series to me, I was just re-reading your marvellous, thoughtful, inspiring book, Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics. For some time now, Carne and I have been discussing the question of how we might move from so-called ‘representative democracy’ (which, in our time, is highly unrepresentative and far from democratic) towards, not so much a fairer model, but the only possible political model that could be considered just. For my entire adult life, I have used the terms ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchism’ when referring to that model, and I have considered myself an ‘anarchist’, but for mainly historical reasons, Carne and I (and many others) have debated whether or not this is still a useful appellation when it is used in dialogue with a broad community for whom the word anarchist has been tarred and very thoroughly feathered with a whole series of deliberately misleading associations with everything from bombs to bad hygiene. I will come back to this semantic problem later, but first I’d like to say a little in response to Carne’s letter.

“We are bidden to consider the future,” he says – though how immediate, and what manner of future this might be has varied across the letters in this series. Carne thought it worthwhile to fantasise about an ideal in his letter, a world in which all people would be well fed, well housed, healthy, free to die as they chose, but until that time would live in peace, free of hatred and resentment. Then, given these basics, we would all be able to pursue the expression and enactment of art, love, pleasure – in short, a rich and diverse culture. He continues by saying that he feels sad and a little desperate, at times, when he sees how far our own, ostensibly rich society stands from that ideal, though he finds grounds for hope in the ways that some groups and individuals have tried to build real democracy and economic models that would not only reward and enrich all those involved in production, but also produce better quality goods and services.

If I was asked to propose an ideal world, I suspect I would not depart very much from the vision Carne outlines. What I want to do in this letter, though, is to propose an outline model of governance that might bring us closer to that ideal and, to do so, I have to take issue with my friend’s note: “I have long doubted the idea of living in harmony with heartless, brutal nature”, not because I think ‘nature’ is kindly, or human oriented, (as James P. Carse says, in Finite and Infinite Games, “Nature offers no home”) but because I believe that careful observation of natural actions and patterns is the basis of true anarchism.

It appears that there are – in the broadest terms – three ways in which human societies are governed: one, by force, that is, by sheer weight of money, physical prowess or numbers, ‘traditional’ privileges and superstition; two, by an ideology of some kind (this includes religions, of course, and even where it does not, it is always enforced by a priestly elite of some kind; I would include ‘community’, so called, i.e. in its usual forms in capitalist societies, as an ideology here, as communities all too rapidly become hierarchical in such a society); three, by representative democracy. What anarchism proposes is, first, a critique of all the above and, second, a means by which the ideal model of self-governance can be brought about. In this model, the group, guided by certain principles, (drawn from nature), spontaneously arrives at decisions and acts to promote the greatest possible good, not just for that group, or for humankind, but for the land, the waters, the skies, the other creatures with whom we live and the creatures of all species yet unborn. The word ‘spontaneously’ is important here: anarchism is closely allied to emergence as a natural, organic model of order and, in its most achieved form, an anarchic society (or individual) does not think, then do, it simply is, responding to circumstances spontaneously, and only where necessary. (I’d note in passing, however, that it takes years of practice and discipline to become spontaneous.)

No doubt this really will sound like an ideal, perhaps an impossible one. But does it need to be possible? As it works on the individual level, then so might it work for the group and it is clear that when, as individuals, we pursue the discipline of spontaneity, responsiveness to natural order and avoidance of action for its own sake (Taoists calls this wu-wei) certain principles emerge. By principles, I mean something different from the bases of ideology in that an ideology is a set of beliefs, whereas a principle is founded in observation of how things work in the world around us. Observations about the basic ground of being: place, time, matter, the elements, other creatures and – by your leave for now, and not seeking at all to get mystical – whatever we think of as ‘the angels’. There are two kinds of principles: universal and temporal; the universal are based on universal conditions such as the conservation of energy, the understanding that any action causes an equal and opposite (or complementary) action, that is central not just to Newton, but also to the Dialectic and Chinese wuji philosophy, (yin and yang in constant play as the whole tends towards an ever shifting, greater or lesser equilibrium). As I say, I don’t wish to be mystical here – and in fact, Taoist thought eschews mysticism by saying that we cannot know, or even name the ‘way’ that governs things; we can, however, see it in action, constantly, by carefully observing the world around us. For centuries now, human observers – supposedly ‘objective’ ones included – have imposed our own, often fantasised values and patterns on the world – that bee colonies are hierarchical, governed by a ‘queen’ for example – instead of paying attention to things as they are. Tao Te Ching and other Chinese classics show us that, if we can only observe with detachment, we will see that the natural world is spontaneous, emergent and self ordering. When we apply force to get what we want, that force is eventually cancelled out and we lose what we gained and more. When we cling to passing ideas, possessions or conditions, we lose everything. This is important, politically: when we observe the real world, we begin to see that what we have been persuaded to think of as necessary power structures are neither natural nor necessary at all, and in fact, because they are susceptible to attachment, excess and imbalance, are the most susceptible to corruption.

These principles are shared by an-archism which acknowledges the need for order but refuses to accept an imposed order. Instead, anarchists, like Taoists and true students of the Dialectic, suggest that, if we would only wake up and pay attention, we would see that order is steadily and spontaneously emergent, and we can shape human activities, including self-governance, to that order. Then, by observing nature, we see how emergent order happens and so let go of the temptations that plague us: to force the issue, to push our theses with no regard for their antitheses, to assume power. As I said, the word anarchism has been besmirched, as we know, by the powers that be. Time to abandon it? Paul Feyerabend seemed to think so, calling himself a ‘Dadaist’ instead, and he is only one of many who feel that, by using the term anarchism, we risk being dragged off into pointless side arguments that add nothing to the central debate about self-governance. As it happens, I think Dadaist carries its own baggage but, semantics aside, I fear we may be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I have gone on long enough, but I do want to throw in some random final thoughts for your consideration. Why I do so is this: having admired Rebooting Democracy, and while I feel it has much to offer the debate, I wonder if we can really reach a state of real, just self-governance (which would have to be universal to be truly just; it would also have to hold to the central principle of respect for organic order above all things) by working with the present system? You are right, I think, to trust to the intelligence and goodwill of informed citizens and community groups – but I think we are far from having an informed citizenry, other than in pockets here and there (something Carne also seemed to be pointing to in his letter). Can we tinker with this vile system and so fix it? Or do we need to find principles that will help guide capitalist-consumer society out of its attachments to comfort and relative power?

I hope my saying this will not lead you to see me as one of those you so rightly criticise in Rebooting Democracy for thinking that “the people” are too dumb, or too selfish, to govern themselves. I certainly agree that this is not so, and I also would vehemently support the notion that nobody else should govern us. However, having seen, even in my own lifetime, a history of massive environmental degradation, I feel that many of us will need time to recover from the assumptions, lifestyle and comforts of a Big Capitalist-Big Consumer society. Some of us will need time to overcome our desire for unnecessary goods, services and ‘developments’; others, though, will need time to shift away from an ideology that, having started out to look for alternatives to the Big CCs, have all too often compromised, or even strayed into the enemy’s ranks. Not long ago, for instance, I asked the opinion of a fairly well known nature writer about the proposed erection of wind turbines on an estuary famed for its birdlife; the response was “sacrifices have to be made.” I have had similar responses from people who should know better, when protesting wind turbine developments on Shetland (103 turbines on precious peatland) and in Scotland’s flow country. Fossil fuels bad, any renewable anywhere good, is the slogan, Animal Farm style. But all common sense and fidelity to natural principles cries out that it is a ridiculous and tragic policy to destroy peatland (which sequesters carbon, amongst other things) and raise massive structures within shouting distance of rare bird colonies. If you want them, put them elsewhere – and if you are as green as you claim to be, defend the birds, the land and the future from all inappropriate developments and not just some.

I am reminded, often, of the conclusion to David Owen’s book, The Conundrum. He says:

It’s easy for wealthy people to look busy on energy, climate, and the environment: all we have to do is drive a hybrid, eat local food (while granting ourselves exemptions for anything we like to eat that doesn’t grow where we live), remember to unplug our cell-phone chargers, and divide our trash into two piles. What’s proven impossible, at least so far, is to commit to taking steps that would actually make a large, permanent difference on a global scale. Do we honestly care? That’s the conundrum.

I feel the same could be said about other things, including justice, prosperity and self-governance – if I have these things, do I really care if others have them? The paradox is that if others are not free, then neither am I. What freedom I think I have is short term, and mostly illusory.

By observing natural principles – and by, most importantly, placing deep ecology principles at the heart of all our governance – we may make it to a genuinely self-governing world. First, though, we have to learn how the world really works. We have the key texts, images and narratives to help us do so, from the Tao Te Ching to the work of Félix Guattari, André Gorz, Aldo Leopold and many others – I hope I have not suggested at any time that anything I am saying here is original – what we must do is formulate, abide by and, where necessary, uphold those principles. The central one, for the moment, must be that, where sacrifices must be made, we in Big CC land must be the ones making them. As we do, we will begin to recover from our sickness, and at the same time, exert less pressure on other societies and the natural world. But the principles are key to that shift. I’ll close with some advice from Ruskin, who may have been talking about art, but was also talking about how to live well:

go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remembering her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.

Over to you, my friend,


John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.

Manuel Arriaga is a visiting research professor at New York University and a fellow at the University of Cambridge. In 2014, he published Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics, which, by the end of the same year, had become the #1 best-selling book on democracy on Amazon UK. He is currently working on a film project on democratic innovations. More information about his work can be found at

New Horizons Probe to Send Message to Interstellar Space

Posted on Tuesday, April 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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If you could tell the universe about planet Earth, what would you say?

The One Earth Message Initiative is sending a missive to the stars, and they want your input.

The initiative’s goal is to create a message that will be digitally uploaded to a spacecraft currently making its way to the outer reaches of our solar system. Launched in 02006, the New Horizons probe will fly by Pluto, its primary target, later this summer. Once it completes this mission and sends its data back to Earth, the One Earth Message team hopes to use the space thus freed up on the probe’s on-board computer for a message that intelligent extraterrestrial life may one day intercept. They’ve petitioned NASA with more than 10,000 signatures of support from people all over the world, and received the agency’s encouragement to move forward with the project.

The effort is headed by Jon Lomberg, a long-time collaborator of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who has decades of experience in the aesthetic design of communications both to and about the distant reaches of our universe. He was design director for the Golden Records that have been traveling aboard the Voyager crafts since the late 01970s, and has collaborated on numerous documentaries, films, and blogs about space exploration.

This new project unites his interest in outreach to the earthbound public with his passion for communicating with the universe. The One Earth Message team hopes to crowd-source their message to the furthest extent possible. They intend to create an internet platform where people from all over the globe can submit images for inclusion in the message and review submissions sent in by others. An advisory board of 86 specialists in a variety of fields – among them Long Now’s own Laura Welcher – will help curate submissions to help put together a message that represents the diversity of our global community.

People from every country will have the opportunity to submit photos and other content. Everyone will have the chance to view and vote online for the ones they think should be sent. It will be a global project that brings the people of the world together to speak as one. Who will speak for Earth? YOU WILL! So we are asking for your support to make it so. (Fiat Physica Campaign page)

The team is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign to build the message website and spread word of the project around the globe. If the campaign is successful, stretch goals include the development of educational material to encourage creative engagement with One Earth Message, and expeditions to the remotest corners of Earth to make sure even the voices living there are included in the New Horizons message.

While there is a possibility that the message could one day reach alien recipients, The One Earth Message organization sees its project primarily as a way to inspire a sense of global unity, much like the Golden Records did – and like Stewart Brand once thought a picture of Earth from space might do.

For almost 40 years, people have been inspired by the Voyager record, a portrait of the Earth in 1977 … The world is very different now, and this new message will reflect the hopes and dreams of the second decade in the 21st century. It will inspire young people’s interest in science and ignite the imagination of all ages. We hope it will be an example of global creativity and cooperation, something that the entire planet can share as a cooperative venture … (

Artist's impression of the Rosetta spacecraft flying past an asteroid

In other words, the New Horizons message is a way to start a conversation – with alien life, but also with ourselves. Aside from a form of communication, we might also think of it as a self-portrait. Like the Rosetta Disk aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe, the New Horizons message will be a record of who we are as a global community. As Laura Welcher said of the Rosetta mission,

It’s interesting to think why people do this, why we send messages into space. I think partly we’re trying to commemorate special events … partly we’re also trying to communicate with ourselves; our current selves, and perhaps our future selves. … These messages that we’re sending into space are proxies for us. They are our ambassadors, and they go where we physically cannot go.

The creation of a self-portrait requires reflection on who we are, and who we want to be. It holds us accountable to the image we present to the world. Like any self-portrait, the One Earth Message is at least partly aspirational – it’s meant to compel continual engagement with ourselves and our own betterment; to inspire us always to strive to be our best selves.

To learn more about One Earth Message and ways to contribute, please visit the project’s fundraising page, or follow the project on Twitter.

Keeping The Net’s Long Memory Stocked: Jason Scott @ The Interval— February 24, 02015

Posted on Wednesday, February 18th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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Jason Scott of Archive Team and

February 24, 02015
Jason Scott (archivist, historian, filmmaker)
The Web in an Eyeblink at The Interval

Tickets are now on sale: space is limited and we expect this talk to sell out

If you are reading this then Jason Scott has probably backed up bits that matter to you–whether you are an ex-SysOp or only use the Web to read this blog. Jason works on no less than three important online archives, each of which is invaluable in preserving our digital history. He’s also made two documentaries about pre-Web networked-computer culture The BBS Documentary and Get Lamp.

Jason Scott with Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle at ROFLCon Summit

Jason created in 01998 to make thousands of files once found on online bulletin board systems (BBSs) available again after they had become scarce in the era of the World Wide Web. He founded Archive Team in 02009 to rescue user data from popular sites that shut down with little notice; this loose collective has launched “Distributed Preservation of Service Attacks” to save content from Friendster, GeoCities and Google Reader amongst others. In 02011 Jason began curating the Internet Archive‘s software collection: the largest online library of vintage and historical software in the world.

Long Now welcomes Jason Scott to our Conversations at The Interval series:
“The Web in an Eye Blink” on Tuesday, February 24, 02015

The Internet is a network of networks that has the ability to bring the far reaches of the world closer, seemingly in real time. A Big Here in a short Now. But there’s a Long Now of the Internet also in that it connects us through time: a shared memory of readily accessible information. Accessible as long as the resource exists somewhere on the system. So the Internet should give worldwide access to our long memory, all the content we’ve ever put online, right? Unfortunately there are some challenges. But happily we have allies.

The network path to a specific document is a technological chain. And it can be a brittle one. The chain’s components include servers, cables, protocols, programming code, and even human decisions. If one connection in the chain fails–whether it’s the hardware, software, or just a hyperlink–the information becomes inaccessible. And perhaps it’s lost forever. This problem is an aspect of what we call the Digital Dark Age.

The Dilemma of Modern Media

The “High technology” industry is innovation/obsolescence driven by its nature; so new models and software updates often undermine that network-chain in the name of progress. But the tech industry’s competitive business environment causes another threat to our online memory. Mergers and acquisitions shift product offerings irregardless of customer sentiment, let alone the historical importance of a site or service. Users who have invested time and effort in creating content and customizing their accounts will often get little notice about a site’s impending demise. And it’s rare that companies provide tools or guidance to enable customers to preserve their own data. That’s why Jason started Archive Team: to save digital assets for users not empowered to do so themselves. Initially reactive they now keep a “Death Watch” to warn users and keep their own team alert ahead of time about sites that don’t look long for this world.

There is no FDIC for user data. Jason Scott and the Archive Team are all we’ve got.

Jason Scott at ROFLCon II -- Photo by Scott Beale photo by Scott Beale

Jason’s advice is to help ourselves. As he said about the strange case of

Assuming that your photographs, writing, email, or other data is important to you … you should always be looking for an export function or a way to save a local backup. If a company claims it’s too hard, they are lying. If they claim that they have everything under control, ignore that and demand your export and local backup again.

The broken link may be the most pernicious of the many breaks that can occur in the network chain. When a linked file is removed or renamed, even if it’s been available for years, all access is instantly cut off. The Wayback Machine, a database of 452 Billion previously downloaded web pages, is a solution to that problem and it’s the main feature of that most people use today.

But the Internet Archive is much more than a database of web pages. It is a non-profit library with an ever-growing collection of books, movies, software, music, and more is available online for free. The archive preserves and expands our collective memory. And Jason’s work with archiving vintage software is especially groundbreaking.

Thousands of computer and arcade games have been added to the Archive in the last year. Many games have been saved from complete extinction in the process. But Jason and team have done more than that. They have built a website on which this code can run, so that the games are playable again. They did it with JSMESS, Javascript code that can emulate nearly 1000 vintage computing and gaming platforms. So the fact that physical components once requisite for these programs to be accessed will never be manufactured again has ceased to be a limitation. Hardware (computers, gaming consoles, disk drives) is no longer, or much less of, a weak link in the technological chain.

And these games which ran on Apple II’s, TRS-80s, Atari 2600′s, etc, from the historically important and nostalgia-rich era of the 01980s and 01990s will now run in many 21st Century web browsers.

Which browsers? Maybe your browser. Can you see a black box below? If so click the button and you’ll have a chance to play Apple’s 01979 “Apple ][” game Lemonade Stand. Have fun. And be patient. Things were slower then.

You can thank Jason Scott for uploading this and thousands of other fun, useful, or just old pieces of software.

In fact, you can thank him in person when he speaks at The Interval at Long Now this Tuesday, February 24, 02015: “The Web in an Eye Blink”. Jason will talk about his work in the frame of the Long Now.

Get your tickets soon, we expect this talk to sell out.

See Andy Baio’s piece on Medium for more thoughts on Jason’s work and the implications of the Archive’s software collection.

Photos by Jason Scott unless otherwise noted

Pace Layer Thinkers: Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo’s Conversation at The Interval, Recap and Full Audio

Posted on Sunday, February 8th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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Stewart Brand talks Pace Layers Thinking at The Interval
Photo by Julie Momméja

Stewart Brand: Pace Layers Thinking at The Interval January 02015Paul Saffo: Pace Layers Thinking at The Interval, January 02015

On January 27, 02015 Long Now Foundation founding Board members Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo spoke at Long Now’s San Francisco venue The Interval about Pace Layers Thinking to a sold out crowd.

This was the 17th event in our Conversations at The Interval series since it began in May 02014. We informally call these “salon talks” due to their small size (relative to our SALT series) which allows our speakers and audience to meet and continue the discussion after the microphones are turned off.

It’s only the second time we’ve posted audio from an Interval talk. We’re proud to share this talk by two of our founding Board members.

Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo — photos by Ian Kennedy

Paul Saffo and Stewart Brand at The Interval, January 02015
Photo by Mikl Em

Stewart introduced pace layers in The Clock of Long Now (01999). In the book he credits Freeman Dyson and Brian Eno, amongst others, for influencing his thinking on intra-societal tiers that move at differing speeds. At The Interval he went deeper into the origins of the idea, citing the concept of “Shearing Layers” by architect Frank Duffy as a precursor to pace layers. Stewart featured Duffy’s idea in his 01994 book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built.

Frank Duffy - Shearing Layers; Pace Layers at The Interval Jan 02015

The beginnings of the concept can be found in this excerpt from How Buildings Learn:

To change is to lose identity; yet to change is to be alive. Buildings partially resolve the paradox by offering the hierarchy of pace – you can fiddle with the Stuff and Space Plan all you want, while the Structure and Site remain solid and reliable.

How Buildings Learn was influential in surprising ways. It was embraced for its applicability to systems thinking and software design amongst other things. And pace layers continues to be utilized as a framework for understanding many different kinds of complex, overlapping systems. Here’s a recent example:

Pace Layers applied to software; Pace Layers at The Interval Jan 02015

Stewart shared an amazing artifact: a preliminary sketch of the pace layers diagram dating to December 01996. He drew it after discussions with Brian Eno. It includes a couple of the final edits which he mentions in his talk: the top layer was changed to Fashion from “Art”, at Eno’s insistence. And  “Government” is here annotated with “Governance” which it would become in the final version.

How to represent the Pace Layers - Stewart Brand and Brian Eno

In The Clock of the Long Now Stewart presents the diagram and lays out the pace layers concept in a 6-page chapter. He draws parallels to natural systems. He cites numerous sources that have informed his thinking. It’s remarkably efficient in presenting this idea, managing to be dense and readable at the same time.

While this Interval talk is a great introduction, if you are intrigued by pace layers then you should read the book. It is 200 pages long and is also a history of The Long Now Foundation and our signature project the 10,000 Year Clock. The book also features probably the most entertaining correspondence with the Interval Revenue Service that you will ever read.

In Pace Layers the relationship between layers is key to the health of the system. More specifically, as both Stewart and Paul point out, the conflicts caused by layers moving at different speeds actually keeps thing balanced and resilient. Paul calls this “constructive turbulence.” Stewart’s slide details how fast (upper) and slow (descending) layers interact.

Fast and Slow Layers contrasted; Pace Layers at The Interval Jan 02015

Paul Saffo teaches pace layers in his forecasting classes at Stanford. He compared the speed of change in Silicon Valley to the slow shifting of the San Andreas Fault below. In fact he sees the Valley as having its own particular ecosystem of pace layers forming a standing vortex (akin to the eye of Jupiter). For those of us here in the Bay Area: “We all live on von Kármán vortex street.”

Paul Saffo talks Pace Layers Thinking at The Interval

Paul called on a couple people in the audience to speak about how they use pace layers. Customer feedback, as it were. First up was Andrea Saveri who uses pace layers in futures education. For the 14 to 21 year-old students she works with, it provides a concrete way to think about time horizons, abstract thinking and the long-term future.

Peter Leyden was a colleague of Stewart’s at Global Business Network (GBN) around the time pace layers was published. Today, he noted, Culture and Nature are accelerating (driven by technology and climate change, respectively) but Governance isn’t responding. Even as the layers move below it, it’s not innovating.

Stewart had an answer for that. Look to cities and city-states (Singapore) which are less ideological and may be the change agents in Governance that are needed.

Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo talk Pace Layers Thinking at The Interval
Paul Saffo closed his presentation with another take on Earth’s pace layers: Anthros ( Bios ( Lithos ( Cosmos

“This is a data free document” Stewart replied to a data-specific audience question. And maybe that lack of hard data has aided its longevity and versatility. It’s a framework, a way to look at issues in a society; or it can be projected on other systems. The lines are not hard lines; borders between layers are turbulent zones “where the action is”. But it’s not tied to “facts” which may turn out to have expiration dates.

Pace layering from "The Clock of the Long Now" by Stewart Brand

Here’s how Stewart introduced pace layers back in 01999:

I propose six significant levels of pace and size in the working structure of a robust and adaptable civilization. [...] In a healthy society each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, safely sustained by the slower levels below and kept invigorated by the livelier levels above.

He put forward pace layers as an ideal model, knowing that no society made of humans will operate perfectly to plan. After a decade and a half of continued use, the model seems to have garnered overwhelmingly positive feedback. It continues to be a useful bridge to long-term thinking. Its conceptual outline has been applied successfully to many areas of human activity. Maybe we should no longer call it “an idea.” And call it wisdom instead.

Paul Saffo and Stewart Brand at The Interval, January 02015
Photo by Mikl Em

We hope you’ll listen to this talk in full and tell us what you think of the Conversations series. We’d like to make more audio and video of these events available in the future. Long Now is looking for grants and sponsorships to underwrite the production and distribution of these talks on a wider scale. Please let us know if you have ideas on that.

Conversations after Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo's Pace Layers Thinking at The IntervalPhotos by Julie Momméja unless otherwise noted
Thanks to Rhonda Evans (Monitor Institute) for her notes