Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Thinking’ Category

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How We Got To Now: new PBS show starring Steven Johnson

Posted on Wednesday, October 15th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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Tonight, October 15th 02014, former SALT Speaker Steven Johnson’s new TV series premieres on PBS. The show, “How We Got To Now”, is co-produced by PBS and BBC, and focuses on different themes showing how long cumulative efforts can result in massive systemic change. The first of the six episodes, “Clean”, focuses on how sanitary conditions evolved from concept to reality, and how this reality affects public health and entire industries.

9781846148606Steven Johnson has worked on many different topics throughout his career, and he draws on all of these topics in this series. However, it is his study of the history of technology that anchors the show. One of Steven’s major contributions to this field is popularizing network-based approaches to understanding history and new technologies. For example, to understand the lightbulb, one needs to look beyond Thomas Edison and understand the environmental conditions, contemporaneous technologies, and networks of scientists corresponding across the globe. Once these factors are taken into account, innovation stops looking like “eureka moments” and instead becomes anchored in effective networks, collaborations, and the slow incubation of ideas. In the following animation, Steven Johnson explains this process and how it can help us think about technology and innovation now:

Check your local listings to watch “How We Got To Now”, and keep a look out for some Long Now references throughout the series.

What Nuclear Waste Management Can Teach Us About Deep Time

Posted on Saturday, October 4th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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courtesy of Vincent Ialenti

Many suggest we have entered the Anthropocene – a new geologic epoch ushered in by humanity’s own transformations of Earth’s climate, erosion patterns, extinctions, atmosphere and rock record. In such circumstances, we are challenged to adopt new ways of living, thinking and understanding our relationships with our planetary environment. To do so, anthropologist Richard Irvine has argued, we must first “be open to deep time.” We must, as Stewart Brand has urged, inhabit a longer “now.”

So I wonder: could it be that nuclear waste repository projects – long approached by environmentalists and critical intellectuals with skepticism – are developing among the best tools for re-thinking humanity’s place within the deeper history of our environment? Could opening ourselves … to deep, geologic, planetary timescales inspire positive change in our ways of living on a damaged planet?

Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti conducted two years of fieldwork among a Finnish team of experts in the process of developing a long-term geological repository for high-level nuclear waste. In a triptych of posts on NPR’s 13.7 blog, he reflects on the state of mind that is prompted when you begin asking the kinds of questions that nuclear waste experts confront in their work.

Describing the way an awareness of deep time scales began to seep into his own thinking as he immersed himself in the world these nuclear waste experts inhabit, Ialenti suggests that this kind of ‘attunement’ to long-term geologic processes may broaden and deepen our experience of our world.

In fact, Ialenti writes, this consideration of the long term is crucial in this Anthropocene age. In light of the irreversible impact we humans make and have made on our planet, we must begin to think about how that impact will reverberate throughout the millennia to come. This does not entail turning a blind eye to the concerns of the present moment, Ialenti cautions. But

What it does mean, though, is that we must have the backbone to look these enormous spans of time in the eye. We must have the courage to accept our responsibility as our planet’s – and our descendants’ – caretakers, millennium in and millennium out, without cowering before the magnitude of our challenge.

For more, you can read Ialenti’s three recent pieces on “deep time” on NPR’s 13.7 blog. Or visit his page on

David Eagleman: Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization — Seminar Flashback

Posted on Friday, August 22nd, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In April 02010 author and neuroscientist David Eagleman proposed several internet-enabled ways to avoid the collapse of civilization. Eagleman is a Guggenheim Fellow known for his research on time perception and synesthesia; his books include the best-seller Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives. Long Now members can watch this video here. The audio is free for everyone on the Seminar page and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view. From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

Civilizations always think they’re immortal, Eagleman noted, but they nearly always perish, leaving “nothing but ruins and scattered genetics.” It takes luck and new technology to survive. We may be particularly lucky to have Internet technology to help manage the six requirements of a durable civilization

David Eagleman directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College of Medicine. His latest book is Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He is also a Long Now Board member David Eagleman The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast. You can join Long Now to watch full video of this Seminar. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

Adrian Hon Seminar Media

Posted on Monday, August 4th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Wednesday July 16, 02014 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Hon Seminar page.


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


Future artifacts – a summary by Stewart Brand

Speaking from 02082, Hon described 5 (of 100) objects and events from this century’s history he felt most strongly evoked the astonishing trends that have transformed humanity in the past 8 decades.

Not all developments proved to be positive. One such was Locked Simulation Interrogation. In 02019 in Washington DC, frustrated by a series of 5 unsolved bombings, the FBI combined an unremovable top quality virtual reality (VR) rig with detailed real-time brain scanning to run a suspect through a cascade of 572 intense simulations designed to draw out everything the suspect knew about the bombings. As a result the 6th bombing was averted, and the technique of adaptive VR became a standard law enforcement tool. But over time it was found to be unreliable and often harmful, and in 02033 the Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional.

By the 02040s people’s comfort with mood drugs and discomfort with lives that felt meaningless (mass automation had replaced many forms of work) led to the Fourth Great Awakening. In 02044 a religious entrepreneur found a way to transform human nature and acquire converts to the “Christian Consummation Movement” with a combination of one eyedropper, 18 pills, and an “induction course of targeted viruses and magstim.” Inductees were made more empathic, generous, trusting, and disciplined. The movement grew to 20 million Americans by the 02070s before it leveled off. The world learned what could be done with desire modification.

A lasting monument to humanity’s progress off planet was Alto Firenze, the first space station designed for elegance. Constructed in 02036, it progressed through a series of beautifications and uses from hotel to conference center and art museum to eventually being declared a World Heritage Site. In 2052 it was moved to L5 and thus escaped the cascade of debris collisions that completely emptied the over-crowded low-Earth orbit later that year.

Perhaps it was the steady increase of older people, along with continuing trends in self-quantification and “gamification,” that led to the Micromort Detector in 02032. “What if you could have a number that told you exactly how risky an action, any action, was going to be?“ The Lifeline bracelet measured the wearer’s exact health condition along with the environment and the action being contemplated and displayed how risky it would be in “micromorts”—a unit representing one chance in a million of death. Go canoeing—10 micromorts. Two glasses of wine—1 micromort. The bracelets became tremendously popular, though they were found to increase anxiety badly in some users. Later spinoffs included the Microfun Detector and Micromorals Detector.

Signs of ancient life were found on Mars in 2028, on Europa in 2048. “By the time extrasolar alien life was first imaged in 2055, celebrations were considerably smaller, the wonder and excitement having been eroded by the slow drip of discoveries. By then, everyone had simply assumed that life was out there, everywhere.“ One planet now discovered to have signs of intelligent life is 328 light years away. Thus the Armstrong Expedition, using an antimatter-fueled lighthugger craft bearing only artificial intelligences set out to make contact in 02079.

“This century,” Hon summarized, “we learned what it means to be human.”

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How Hard Should the Turing Test Be?

Posted on Tuesday, July 29th, 02014 by Austin Brown
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It seems clear that computers are becoming more intelligent, but in the face of this fact, our definition of intelligence itself seems increasingly blurry. The University of Reading recently made an announcement exemplifying this trend:

The 65 year-old iconic Turing Test was passed for the very first time by computer program Eugene Goostman during Turing Test 2014 held at the renowned Royal Society in London.

At its face, this is huge and historic news. Alan Turing’s proposal of the eponymous test threw down the field of Artificial Intelligence’s original gauntlet. For a computer program to pass for human is no small feat and the creators have done something no one has achieved until now.

Within the world of Long Now’s Long Bets, as well, $20,000 is on the line – Mitch Kapor predicted in 02002 that “By 2029 no computer – or “machine intelligence” – will have passed the Turing Test.” He argued that when it comes to human knowledge and culture,

It is such a broad canvas, in my view, that it is impossible to foresee when, or even if, a machine intelligence will be able to paint a picture which can fool a human judge.

Ray Kurzweil, who helped popularize the Turing Test in his books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near took him up on the bet, countering that sufficient reverse-engineering of the human brain will allow for computer programs that can think like a human and that trends within the relevant research are accelerating much like the power of computers themselves.

Eugene Goostman would appear to have beat Kapor’s deadline by 15 years!

As with any wager, though, the devil is in the details, and here is where we come back to fuzzy definitions of intelligence. Eugene Goostman the computer program poses as a 13 year-old who is communicating in a language that isn’t his first. Interrogators had only had 5 minutes with which to get to know “him.” And in the end, a “passing” grade for this test was 30% – the program managed to convince 33% of judges it was human.

In a way, we have to talk about Turing tests. The Turing test passed by Eugene Goostman in not the same Turing test proposed by Kapor and Kurzweil. Indeed, Kurzweil found Eugene Goostman to be rather lacking, posting a transcript of a conversation he had with the program and pointing out some of its clearly non-human characteristics:

I chatted with the chatbot Eugene Goostman, and was not impressed. Eugene does not keep track of the conversation, repeats himself word for word, and often responds with typical chatbot non sequiturs.

His bet with Mitch Kapor stipulates that interviews will last 2 hours, which would allow for significantly more in-depth conversation and, one assumes, a much easier time in determining computer or human. Kurzweil has not conceded the bet and even explains that he expects a long period of dubious and debated claims that computers have passed Turing’s test.

Turing’s test was explicitly meant to ignore the mechanisms of thought and to focus on the experience of it, but in tweaking the rules of the test we implicitly set a bar and work towards a definition for human intelligence. The bar cleared by Eugene Goostman may not be high enough to indicate human-level intelligence to Kurzweil or many others, but there can be little doubt that higher bars will yet be cleared and each one’s demonstration of intelligence debated.

Ecological Anachronisms

Posted on Tuesday, June 24th, 02014 by Austin Brown
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Evolution is a diligent innovator and the diversity it has achieved offers the curious seemingly unending marvels. In some cases, though, a particular innovation might not make much sense on initial consideration. In those cases, zooming out in time can be instructive.

Whit Bronaugh, writing for American Forests, demonstrates this using the concept of ecological anachronisms:

An ecological anachronism is an adaptation that is chronologically out of place, making its purpose more or less obsolete.

The concept was developed by ecologist Daniel Janzen (a former SALT speaker) and Bronaugh calls on the Osage-orange to bring it into focus.

The Osage-orange is a North American tree that produces large, lumpy fruit. Those fruit fall to the ground and rot, ignored rather than ingested and spread (along with their seeds), every fall. Other parts of the tree feature long thorns that do little to discourage deer from eating their foliage. These adaptations, it would seem, aren’t adaptive at all, but rather strange, pointless wastes of energy. The tree’s range across North America is known to have contracted over the last few millennia, so this view isn’t entirely unfounded.

The fruit and the thorns, however, were adaptive when megafauna such as mammoths and gound sloths roamed the continent. The large fruit were a common part of the mammoth diet and the thorns were just the right size to discourage creatures much larger than deer from chewing up the leaves and branches. As Bronaugh explains,

It’s true that such adaptations are now anachronistic; they have lost their relevance. But the trees have been slow to catch on; a natural consequence of the pace of evolution. For a tree that lives, say, 250 years, 13,000 years represents only 52 generations. In an evolutionary sense, the trees don’t yet realize that the megafauna are gone.

Though in our lifetime, mammoths and ground sloths may seem long gone, the evolutionary moment in which we live still resonates with their presence. Perhaps a reprise is possible?

(Read: The Trees That Miss The Mammoths – American Forests)

Mapping the Long Walk – An Out of Eden Update

Posted on Friday, June 20th, 02014 by Chia Evers
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In January 02013, we introduced you to slow journalist Paul Salopek, who is retracing the steps of our earliest human ancestors in a seven-year journey Out of Eden. Since then, Salopek has covered more than 4,000 kilometers (nearly 2,500 miles), from in Eastern Ethiopia to East Jerusalem. His route was, intentionally, sketched in broad strokes, but each of his Milestones and Dispatches have been pinned to a digital map that captures the sights, sounds, and stories of his long road from Africa to Patagonia.

The first map pin, at Herto Bouri, marks a dense archaeological site, where Australopithecus garhi, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens idaltu made their homes 2.5 million to 160,000 years ago. Several of the Homo sapiens idaltu fossils bear the marks of (possibly cannibalistic) mortuary practices that included scraping the flesh from the skulls of the dead.

A map-within-the map in Djibouti, on the edge of the Red Sea, illustrates the ancient land bridges that carried our ancestors across the Red Sea into the Levant, and eventually into Southeast Asia and the Americas.

At Petra, the ancient stone city that is now Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, Salopek recorded a timeless dirge about the the ingratitude of children and the pain of old age. The singer, Qasim Ali, accompanied himself on the rababa, a 1200-year-old ancestor of the violin.

Four thousand kilometers from the ambiguously marked remains at Herto Bouri, Salopek reached Qafzeh Cave, on the slopes of Mount Carmel. This is the site of the first ceremonial human burial in the archaeological record—a teenaged boy with a red deer’s antlers held fast against his chest.

As of June 02014, Salopek is in Jerusalem, the subject of another thematic map—one which covers a two-day, 23-mile trek around the ancient city. His most recent Dispatch, from the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, tells the story of a traditional judge who negotiates settlements between families when a wrong has been done.

From Israel, Salopek will continue on to the Silk Road. We will continue to post updates on his progress, and have asked him to speak with us when his route brings him through the Bay Area in a few years. In the meantime, you can follow Salopek and the Out of Eden Walk on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, Vimeo, and Google+—or visit and the Out of Eden Walk site at

Stefan Kroepelin Seminar Primer

Posted on Monday, June 2nd, 02014 by Austin Brown
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Anything as vast and mysterious as the Sahara Desert is bound to invite myth and legend – it’s how we make sense of things too large, elusive or forbidding to know firsthand. Stefan Kroepelin, however, has dedicated his life to firsthand knowledge of the Sahara, and has dispelled some myths along the way. He’s come to know, better than almost any outsider, the desert’s eastern portion, made up of Libya, Egypt, Chad and Sudan.

Kroepelin is a geologist and archaeologist who has studied the interplay of human settlement and the Sahara’s changing climatic characteristics over the last 10,000 years. He’s encountered a fair share of difficult conditions and frightening surprises in the desolate, harsh and sometimes lawless expanses of the Sahara. But as Nature put it,

those decades of difficult field work have paid off for Kroepelin, who has made seminal discoveries about the climatic history of the Sahara that are challenging assumptions about the tipping points the world may face in a warmer future. – Nature

The story that Kroepelin has helped piece together opens on a Saharan region vastly different from the one we know today.

10,000 years ago, the Sahara was significantly wetter than it is now, a lush savannah that supported life and hints of early civilization where sand and little else can now be found.

That little else has been the key to Kroepelin’s success, though. He and his team took core samples from the bottom of a lake in Chad and, by analysing the layers of sediment that had built up over the last few millennia – and the pollen contained therein – were able to draw the clearst picture yet of the region’s dessication and dessertification.

Previous attempts to describe this transition were similarly based on core samples, but these were taken from the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Eastern Sahara itself. Where the story told by these samples described a precipitous change, Kroepelin had already established that human settlements in the region didn’t appear to have been abandoned quite so quickly, or as he put it on Science Friday in 02008,

We were using man as a very sensitive climate indicator.

His new core sample squared with the picture of a more gradual shift and upended the previous research. The people displaced by the region’s drying out made their way east and found the water they needed at the banks of the Nile. There they developed one of the longest-lasting civilizations known to history.

Dr. Stefan Kroepelin shares tales of desert adventures – some likely his own – at the SFJAZZ Center on Tuesday June 10th, 02014.

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 ?


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, 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.


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.



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
link   Categories: Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, The Big Here   chat 0 Comments


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.


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.


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.