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The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Esther Dyson writes to Carne Ross

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

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


Dear Carne,

Through a telescope, darkly.

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

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

How can we think and then act long-term ?

Government

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

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

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

Scale and Scalability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way to Wellville: Health as an Example

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manipulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Esther


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


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

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

The New California Water Atlas

Posted on Saturday, February 1st, 02014 by Austin Brown
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California_Water_Rights

Almost forty years ago, California’s young new governor faced the challenge of leading his state through one of its worst droughts ever. Around that time, a group of cartographers had been hoping to develop a comprehensive and definitive atlas of the state and one of them suggested the idea to an advisor to the governor’s office, Stewart Brand. In light of the crisis, a scaled-back, more focused atlas detailing California’s water systems garnered support from members of the administration and governor Jerry Brown.

Several years later, in 01979, California’s Office of Planning and Research published the California Water Atlas, an attempt at “providing the average citizen with a single-volume point of access to understanding how water works in the State of California,” as the volume’s foreword, written by Project Director and Editor William L. Karhl, put it.

Several decades later, California is once again governed by Jerry Brown. Drought has returned and so, coincidentally, has the water atlas. The New California Water Atlas seeks to revive and update the original’s citizen-serving, data-sharing approach by offering online, interactive maps.

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Headed up by Laci Videmsky, a project director at the Resource Renewal Institute, The New California Water Atlas operates as a non-profit project, rather than directly out of the Governor’s office. Now moved to the web, it also seeks to publish not a single volume, but a growing body of tools and interactive visualizations with regularly updated data.

Videmsky spoke with me about the project from Berkeley, where he also lectures for the College of Environmental Design at the University of California. He described at length how the original Water Atlas inspired this new project and about what’s in store.

Videmsky first encountered the original Atlas when his wife brought it home from UC Berkeley’s library. “Both of us were in awe,” he says.

Around this time, Videmsky explains, he’d been exploring the world of web mapping, open data and open government:

I was really interested in the ethos of open government and how people were using data, thinking about transparency and accountability, and how their systems communicate with government and the kinds of technologies they were using to connect people. And most of this work was being done at the city level and then at the federal level and also most of it was related to various amenities and services that were often not natural resources, so I wondered, why don’t we take this open government and open data to natural resources agencies? They are civic institutions and they could benefit from this.

One area he began researching was California’s system of granting water rights.

I was learning how to do web mapping and I called the state water board to download their data from their site. They had kind of an older application that they’d built a while back that kind of half works and doesn’t have an easy way to search or to download data, and they were actually nice enough to just give me their whole data set.

The_California_Water_Atlas

Not long after these extracurricular efforts, he walked into the office of Huey Johnson, founder and president of the Resource Renewal Institute (and a former SALT speaker), and noticed a copy of the Water Atlas. Johnson had been the Secretary for Resources in Jerry Brown’s first administration and served on the Water Atlas’s advisory board along with Stewart Brand. They got to talking about the original Atlas, as well as some of Videmky’s efforts to visualize water data.

I showed him this interactive map that I’d made with the water board data and the lightbulb went off and we started having conversations about open government and how open data’s kind of changing the way government works and how we can maybe do that for California water.

It was out of that conversation that the New California Water Atlas was born and from that early prototype map that the site’s first big visualization would eventually grow. Videmsky and others are currently working on two more interactives for the site, with hopes of many more being developed as the project grows. The first focuses on groundwater levels:

We’re working on groundwater – so another state agency called the Department of Water Resources, which actually funded the first atlas, they have a data set of all the water levels in the ground of about 15,000 groundwater elevation monitoring wells. We downloaded from their water elevation monitoring system about 500,000 records which represents about 30 years of data for the whole state. It was very laborious – it took us a month to get 30 years.

Using the final product, Californians will be able to zoom into an area of the state on a map and move a slider to view the last 30 years of fluctuations in groundwater levels.

Another interactive in the pipeline will track water prices across the state:

I’m starting a collaboration with the California Public Utilities Commission to make data available to visualize water prices. Water isn’t priced according to scarcity, it’s priced according to the price of delivering the water. So I think it’d be really, really interesting for people to be able to compare what they paid for water.

Something Videmsky has found to be consistent with the original Atlas is the eagerness of state agencies to share their data, despite budgetary and technical challenges. Stewart Brand wrote in the original’s afterword:

Some of it was easier than expected. The state government probably has more information on water than any other subject, but early fears that the information would be jealously guarded by the agencies turned out to be incorrect. At every level, from local to state to federal, people were generous with their data and their time.

As Videmsky put it:

A lot of state agencies don’t have the resources either in staff or money to improve the way they make water understandable and water data available to the public. And so there’s definitely a need for private-public partnerships and that’s actually happening in many different sectors. We get a lot of moral support from the agencies. They’re very excited about this. We’re making something that’s very visible, highly accessible and so they’re really eager to participate.

Beyond helping the state’s agencies tell their stories, Videmsky is also exploring the idea of making a platform for citizens to tell theirs as well.

One idea – this is not implemented – but one idea is to allow for, almost a site within a site so a user would be able to create a blog around a certain geographic area. They’re dealing with issues locally that are important to them, like groundwater contamination, so it’d almost be like a citizen atlas, where citizens’ science sits alongside authoritative data. There are a lot of stories to tell that are not necessarily data stories but personal stories.

Additionally, they’re looking for help from programmers, translators (they want the site to be in both English and Spanish), designers and data-wranglers. Much of their work is open-sourced on GitHub, where they’d be happy for help building part of the visualizations or cleaning up the data.

Keeping the project open-source isn’t just a collaborative choice, though. Videmsky sees it as a way to help the project bear long-term fruit. While the original Atlas was a single volume, the web will allow the new Atlas to live and grow along with the state and possibly to be adopted by other states or for analyzing other natural resources. Along other long-term lines, Videmsky said they’re looking for a good institutional partner to help support and archive the data so that the database of California’s water system they hope to build can continue to grow and inform the state’s citizens for generations to come.

Nature, Cities, and Long-term Thinking

Posted on Tuesday, January 21st, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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concreteleafphoto by Tanya Hart

In 01995, Brian Eno surmised that the fast-paced uncertainty of life in New York City led people to retreat into the immediacy of their own private worlds. As a counterweight to this preoccupation with the “short now,” he posited the idea of “The Long Now” – and thus the name of our Foundation was born.

Now, nearly twenty years later, a group of researchers from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam argues that urban environments may indeed directly impede our capacity for long-term thinking.

Their work is predicated on evolutionary theories of competition. In an environment with scarce resources for nutrition and reproduction, their paper explains, life is uncertain and survival depends on an organism’s success in securing as many of those resources as he can, as fast as he can. When surrounded by abundance, on the other hand, the need to compete is less acute. Organisms can afford to take it easy: there will still be apples in that tree tomorrow, and there’s no risk that that nearby stream will run dry any time soon. In other words: a lush environment creates the probability of a future. It allows species the opportunity to maximize their evolutionary success by weighing short-term gains against long-term rewards.

This team of Dutch social psychologists hypothesized that urban environments will trigger a perception of scarcity and uncertainty in the human brain, whereas natural surroundings will elicit a sense of abundance and stability:

Urban landscapes are inherently unpredictable as they convey intense social competition for status, goods and mates, and so they may entice people – either consciously or subconsciously – to adopt a faster life history. By contrast, nature exposure may encourage individuals to adopt a slower life-history strategy, perhaps because natural environments convey an abundance of natural resources, and hence less competition.

Indeed, their series of three experiments has confirmed that people who have been exposed to a natural environment are more inclined to consider the future than those who have been immersed in an urban setting. In the first two of these tests, research participants were shown a selection of photographs that depicted either an urban or natural landscape; in the third, subjects were actually taken to a high-rise neighborhood or local forest. Following this ‘exposure’, all participants were asked to choose between an immediate reward of €100, or a larger reward – anywhere between €110 and €170 – to be paid out in ninety days. Those who had been exposed to natural settings were systematically more likely to choose the delayed reward – and to do so when the reward was set at a lower amount, suggesting a greater propensity to consider the future – than those who had been exposed to urban environments.

As the authors conclude, these findings have profound implications for global society – especially given today’s rate of urbanization. But there is cause for optimism: these studies also suggest that fostering long-term thinking may simply start by encouraging people to take a walk in the woods.

Edge Question 02014

Posted on Thursday, January 16th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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white_peony.640

With a new year, of course, comes a new Edge question.

Every January since 01998, John Brockman has presented the members of his online salon with a question that elicits some thinking about the biggest social and intellectual issues of our time. Previous iterations have included prompts such as “What will change everything?” and “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” The essay responses – in excess of a hundred each year – offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.

This year, Brockman asks:

What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long? … Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?

The extensive collection of answers is sure to prompt debate – and, as usual, includes contributions by several Long Now Board members and former SALT speakers:

Paul Saffo suggests we let go of the idea that the expansion of human knowledge diminishes our collective ignorance.

Danny Hillis urges us to recognize that the world is far more complicated than simple cause-and-effect relationships would suggest.

Stewart Brand argues that our current guidelines for radiation exposure are based on no knowledge whatsoever.

Kevin Kelly writes that “random mutation” really isn’t random at all.

Martin Rees suggests we give up the optimistic idea that we’ll never hit the limits of our capacity for understanding.

Mary Catherine Bateson, meanwhile, urges us to shed the notion that knowledge must be absolute and irrefutable in order to be authoritative and significant.

Nassim Taleb proposes that we retire the concept of standard deviation and replace it with that of mean deviation.

Matt Ridley takes an optimistic perspective, and asks us to reject the Malthusian idea that population growth will outpace the development of food supply and depletion of global resources.

Sam Harris urges us to expand our definition of “science” to include any intellectual discipline that “attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic.”

Freeman Dyson reminds us that the wave function which describes the motion of particles is merely a description of probability.

Jared Diamond argues that the foundation of this year’s Edge question needs to be retired: many scientific theories do not rise to prominence by replacing an old one.

Steven Pinker argues that we should revisit the simplistic theory that behavior is explained by an interaction of genes and environment.

Daniel Everett, meanwhile, suggests that the notions of “innate” and “instinct” are not very useful in explaining human behavior, either.

George Dyson argues that we should stop thinking of science and technology as inseparable.

These are just a few of 176 compelling responses; you can read the full collection here.

Long Now Years: Five-digit Dates and 10K-compliance at Home

Posted on Tuesday, December 31st, 02013 by Mikl Em
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Long Now 10-second Intro animation Conceived by Alexander Rose, James Anderson and Chris Baldwin | Sound by Brian Eno

The Long Now Foundation uses five-digit dates to guard against the deca-millennium bug (the “Y10K” problem) which will come into effect in about 8,000 years. As you may have noticed any reference we make to a year begins with a zero: 01977, 03012, 02000, 00521, 01215, etc.

It’s an idiosyncrasy to which we are dedicated. It’s nerdy fun, but it has a serious point, too. As our co-founder Stewart Brand points out: the present moment used to be the unimaginable future.

Long Now is fond of metaphors. Our 10,000 year Clock will begin to keep time at some point in the future, but it functions today as a viral idea carrying a long-term thinking payload. Once you are aware of the effort to build a clock that will last for 10 millennia you can’t unthink the flood of details that come to mind about that endeavor. “Big Time” becomes more tangible and hopefully you gain perspective on the small chronological units we typically give such weight to in our daily lives.

Our zero is for optimism. The notion that the externalized thoughts we write today may survive myriad years to a time when that fifth digit becomes significant. If we hope to grasp anywhere near that ambitious reach, it will require some forethought. Our five-digit dates represent that.

In the 01998 essay Written on the Wind (published in Civilization magazine) Stewart wrote this about the larger problem of digital obsolescence:

How can we invest in a future we know is structurally incapable of keeping faith with its past? The digital industries must shift from being the main source of society’s ever-shortening attention span to becoming a reliable guarantor of long-term perspective. We’ll know that shift has happened when programmers begin to anticipate the Year 10,000 Problem, and assign five digits instead of four to year dates. 01998 they’ll write, at first frivolously, then seriously.

A sense of humor can be a useful sweetener for novel ideas. We hope the five-place-date draws attention to a larger view of time. And if it inspires a grin in the process that’s perhaps even better.

Our technology has come in layers. You are able to read this sentence because generations of programming has built upon binary foundations. Today’s engineers stand on the shoulders of giants and construct protocols, operating systems, programming languages, data formats… so those who follow can continue the process. And that might suggest there’s an inherent awareness of the future. But if the long view and big picture aren’t considered this chain of code can be its own trap.

Technology has blind spots. Hard code can be brittle. The “Y2K bug” demonstrated this. While that experience may seem fresh, there are already people writing code who were too young to take that lesson first hand.

So think of the extra digit as presupposing the future with a view to realizing our best potential. And underlining the need for considered preparation at an appropriate scale: The Big Here and Long Now (Brian Eno).

We invite you to join us in using 5-digit dates, frivolously or not, to inspire yourself and others to keep thinking in the Long Now. And here’s one way you can play along at home…

10k-compliance at home
Image courtesy of Michael Hohl

At the cusp of a new year, it’s a great time to tweak your Mac’s clock display for 5-digit dates. In 02007 we first noted this post by a Long Now fan which itself dates to 02005. We haven’t heard about hacks for displaying leading 0′s on other OS’s, but let us know if you’ve got one.

Apple has changed the preference controls with different versions, but here’s the basic gist:

  • Open “Date & Time” in System Preferences
  • At the bottom of the window, click “Open Language & Text Preferences”
  • Click on “Region”
  • Under “Dates,” click “Customize”
  • From there you can follow the 02007 instructions

You’ll notice that since we’ve originally posted this we’ve figured out a way to use 5-digit dates on our WordPress blog. Kudos to WordPress for making this easy: just add a zero to the URL pattern in the admin panel. If you’re interested here are more geeky details about how we implemented it. Feel free to fork and improve it!

Happy New Year, and here is to a wonderful 02014!

A Whole New Catalog

Posted on Thursday, December 12th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Openbok2

Amidst a rising, churning sea of gadget blogs, device reviews, and un-boxing videos, Long Now board member Kevin Kelly’s new book takes a step back from the latest release. Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities is actually a group effort – or “crowdsourced” as the (waning?) buzzword would have it – pulled together from 10 years’ worth of exclusively positive reviews on the Cool Tools blog for uniquely useful objects.

It lists and describes tried and true tools for making things like a house, yourself, or the world you want to see.

With the right tool you can invent new things.

3,700-Year Old Palatial Wine

Posted on Wednesday, December 11th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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The history of wine spans millennia: the ancient Romans considered the beverage a daily necessity, Phoenicians wrote the first textbooks on viticulture, and Egyptian pharaohs had wine cellars built into their burial tombs.

Now, recent archaeological findings from Israel promise to add new insights to our knowledge of wine drinking practices throughout the ages.

A team of researchers from George Washington University and Tel Aviv University have discovered what they believe to be an ancient wine cellar in the Northern Israeli city of Tel Kabri. Part of a buried Canaanite palace, the site is estimated to be about 3,700 years old.

Excavations of the space revealed forty large jugs – enough to hold about 2,000 liters (or more than 528 gallons) of liquid. Of course, their contents are long gone. But chemical analysis of the jugs’ inside lining revealed traces of tartaric and syringic acids: telltale signs of wine made from grapes. The analysis also revealed the use of several flavor additives such as honey, mint, cinnamon, and tree resin.

“Some of it was red and some of it was white, and with these additives, I imagine it would have a bit of a cough syrup taste,” said Assaf Yassur-Landau, of the University of Haifa, who helped discover the cellar. (LA Times)

The wine may not have appealed to a modern palate – but still, the research team suggests that it must have been the product of a sophisticated recipe: the composition appears to be uniform across all 40 jugs.

“This wasn’t moonshine that someone was brewing in their basement, eyeballing the measurements,” said Andrew Koh, a professor at Brandeis University, who did the organic residue analysis, in a statement. “The wine’s recipe was strictly followed in each and every jar.” (LA Times)

In fact, scholars believe that the Canaanite winemaking industry was already well-established by the time this cellar was put to use: they estimate that wine was made here as early as 05,000 BC. But while this cellar might therefore not be the oldest one around, the site still has plenty to tell us about the culture of wine drinking in this ancient town. For example, both the use of herbal infusions and the relatively limited quantity of jugs suggests that this was a special wine, intended for use at the palace. Further chemical analysis may tell us more about the wine’s composition, allowing us to learn something about the flavor preferences and wine-making techniques of 01,700 BC.

And who knows – we might even be able to recreate this ancient recipe and get an actual taste of what the upper classes drank all those centuries ago.

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Stewart Brand writes to Esther Dyson

Posted on Friday, November 29th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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In July, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a letter to Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence: The first letter was written by Brian Eno to Taleb. Taleb then wrote to Stewart Brand. Brand’s response is now addressed to Esther Dyson, who will respond with a letter to a recipient of her choosing.

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

Dear Esther,

Ghosts don’t exist, but ghost stories sure do. We love frightening ourselves with narratives built around a horrifying logic that emerges with the telling of the tale, ideally capped with a moral lesson.

“The Monkey’s Paw” is a three-wishes fable where innocent-seeming wishes go hideously astray. A mother mad with grief wishes her dead son alive again. When the knock comes at the door, the father realizes that the thing knocking is horribly mangled and rotted, and he uses the third wish to destroy it. Powers that appear benign, we learn, can have unintended consequences.

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Reinventors Roundtable on Longpath Thinking

Posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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On November 20th, Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose took part in a Reinventors Roundtable discussion called “Reinvent Longpath Thinking.” Another participant in the discussion, Ari Wallach, coined the term Longpath as a framework for thinking long-term and in his consultancy work, encourages clients to imagine where they want to be a decade or more into the future.

The discussion centered on a topic near and dear to Long Now – making longer-term thinking more common. All the participants brought great questions and perspectives. Below are some highlights, but you can watch the whole thing at Revinventors.net.

The Evolution of Little Red Riding Hood

Posted on Wednesday, November 20th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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We in the Western world are not the only ones who grow up with the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood.

Stories about young children who face off with a trickster wild animal are told around the world. In East Asia, for example, there is the tale of a tiger who masquerades as an old woman to lure her grandchildren into bed with him. And in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the evil beast is an ogre who ensnares a young girl by imitating the voice of her brother.

Oral folk tales like these change easily as they are told and retold through generations. They’re fluid, ever-morphing cultural artifacts – and as such, their history and cross-cultural relatedness can be difficult to trace. Nevertheless, an anthropologist at Durham University in the UK has recently shown that it can be done. Borrowing methods that are commonly used in biology to establish evolutionary relationships between species, an analysis conducted by Jamshid Tehrani reveals that these varying narratives are related to one another much like humans are to the Great Apes: they all, ultimately, descend from the same ancestor.

That ancestor, in this case, is a story called “The Wolf and the Kids:” an ancient folktale with European roots, in which a wolf pretends to be a mother goat in order to eat her babies. The Daily Mail quotes Tehrani:

My research cracks a long-standing mystery. The African tales turn out to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids but over time, they have evolved to become more like Little Red Riding Hood, which is also likely to be descended from The Wolf and the Kids. This exemplifies a process biologists call convergent evolution, in which species independently evolve similar adaptations. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood evolved twice from the same starting point suggests it holds a powerful appeal that attracts our imaginations.

Tehrani’s work also contradicts the long-held theory that both Little Red Riding Hood and The Wolf And the Kids originated in East Asia – in fact, he shows, it was the other way around. “Specifically,” the anthropologist says, “the Chinese blended together Little Red Riding Hood, The Wolf and the Kids, and local folk tales to create a new, hybrid story.”

Fairy tales and other stories serve a purpose. They help us make sense of the world and of ourselves, and give us a way to transmit our knowledge and beliefs from generation to generation. As such, Tehrani’s study does more than show that societies around the world and across time have shared their stories with one another: it suggests a certain unity of human psychosocial experience. There must be, out in the world, some real or prospective experience that we are all faced with at some point or other – an experience in which we all seem to find ourselves supported by the narrative theme of young children confronted by a wily wolf.