Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Thinking’ Category

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Breakthrough Listen Initiative Wants to Hear From You

Posted on Tuesday, August 9th, 02016 by Andrew Warner
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We have received an email from Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI research, on a new outreach on behalf of the Breakthrough Listen Initiative. They want to hear from the general public on their ideas for new approaches for finding evidence of extraterrestrial technological civilizations. They are looking for 1 page descriptions, with specific attention paid to:

  • New parameter space to be explored;
  • Hardware and/or software required;
  • Current status of any prototyping or trial runs;
  • Any technology barriers at this time;
  • Scale of the effort – estimates of resources, time to completion, and costs;
  • Any other scientific opportunities enabled by this new approach.

Descriptions that reach Jill Tarter by 15 August, 2016 will be incorporated into the subcommittee’s deliberations later that week. Please send your approach to

Craters & Mudrock: Tools for Imagining Distant Future Finlands

Posted on Tuesday, July 5th, 02016 by Vincent Ialenti
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 Lake LappajärviLake Lappajärvi (Photo Credit: Hannu Oksa)
About 73 million years ago a meteorite crashed into what is now Finland’s Southern Ostrobothnia region. Today, serene Lake Lappajärvi rests in the twenty-three kilometer wide crater made in the distant past blast’s wake. Locals still enjoy boating to Lappajärvi’s Kärnänsaari: an island formed by the Cretaceous meteorite collision’s melt-rock. Paddling there is an encounter with Finland’s landscape’s deep history.

Lappajärvi has caught the attention of safety case experts working on radioactive waste management company Posiva Oy’s underground dump for used-up nuclear fuel at Olkiluoto, Western Finland. These experts are tasked with predicting how Posiva’s repository will interact with the region’s rocks, groundwater, ecosystems, and populations throughout nuclear waste’s multi-millennial time spans of dangerous radioactivity. From 02012 to 02014, I spent thirty-two months in Finland conducting anthropological research on how safety case experts see the world, how they relate to one another, and how they reckon with various spans of time in their professional lives.

When I returned to my home institution Cornell University in August 02014, I wrote a three-article series for NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog. In it I described how safety case experts envisioned Finnish landscapes changing over the next ten thousand years. I explained how they study a present-day ice sheet in Greenland and a uranium deposit in Southern Finland as analogues to help them think about Finland’s far future ice sheets and nuclear waste deposits. I suggested that, in this moment of global environmental uncertainty some call the Anthropocene, it becomes a pressing societal task to embrace long-termist “deep time thinking.”

I continue this line of thought here by exploring how safety case experts study prehistoric places – like Lappajärvi crater-lake – to forecast how Finland will change one million years hence. I present these prehistoric places as tools for imagining distant future worlds. I advocate that societies at large use these tools to do intellectual exercises, imagination workouts, or thought experiments to cultivate their own deep time thinking skills. Doing so is crucial on a damaged planet wracked by environmental crisis.

Safety case experts make mathematical models of how the Olkiluoto repository might endure or fall apart in the extreme long-term. They assess the nuclear waste dump’s physical strengths. This is the crux of their work. However, they also develop more qualitative, speculative, quirky approaches in their Complementary Considerations report. A hodgepodge of scientific evidence and PR tools aimed at persuading various audiences of the facility’s safety, this report plays a supporting role in their broader safety argument. And it contains a fascinating thought experiment: a section called “The Evolution of the Repository System Beyond A Million Years in the Future” (p197-200).

OlkiluotoFinland’s nuclear waste repository at Olkiluoto (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy)
Complementary Considerations explains how Lappajärvi crater-lake kept its form throughout numerous past Ice Age glaciation and post-Ice Age de-glaciation periods. It tells a story of “fairly stable conditions and slow surface processes” over millions of years. In light of this, safety case experts expect only limited erosion and landmass movement throughout the repository’s multimillion-year futures. Lappajärvi’s deep histories are, in this way, taken as windows into Olkiluoto’s deep futures. From this angle, safety case experts argue that Posiva’s repository can, like Lappajärvi’s crater, withstand the waxing and waning of future Ice Ages’ ice sheets advancing and retreating.

Safety case experts also use prehistoric Littleham mudstone in Devon, England as a tool for forecasting Finland’s far futures. In Devon one can find copper that has survived over 170 million years without corroding away. The copper was long encased in the sedimentary rock. Complementary Considerations predicts a similar fate for the huge copper canisters Posiva will use to secure Finland’s nuclear waste. It also suggests that – because Littleham mudstone is more abrasive to copper than is the bentonite clay to surround Posiva’s canisters – the canister copper might see even rosier futures.

Safety case experts see the distant pasts of mudstone and copper in England as tools for envisioning the distant futures of bentonite and canisters in Finland. They see the distant pasts of a Southern Ostrobothnian crater-lake as tools for envisioning the distant futures of an Olkiluoto repository’s local geology. Deep time forecasts are, in this way, made through techniques of analogy. Visions of far future worlds emerge from analogies across time (extrapolating from long pasts to reckon long futures) and analogies across space (extrapolating across distant locales sometimes thousands of miles apart).

Yet, as safety case experts and their critics both cautioned me, one should not take these deep time analogies too seriously. There are, of course, limits to what, say, native copper in mudrock in Devon can really tell us about manufactured copper pieces in clayin Olkiluoto. Differences between repository conditions and these prehistoric places are, for many, simply too vast to make reasonable analogies between them.

But I am only half-interested in whether these techniques ought to persuade us of Posiva’s repository’s safety. I let the engineers, geologists, chemists, metallurgists, ecosystems modelers, and regulatory authorities sort that out. Instead, I find a unique intellectual opportunity in them. I wonder: can safety case experts’ techniques be retooled to help populations reposition their everyday lives within broader horizons of time? Can farsighted organizations like The Long Now Foundation help inspire general long-term thinking?

One does not have to be a Nordic nuclear waste expert to benefit from the deep time toolkits I present here. An educated public can too reflect on how analogical reasoning can stretch one’s imaginative horizons further forward and backward across time. For example, many drive through rural regions where stratigraphic rock layers are visible on highways carved into rocky hills. When doing so, why not visualize what the surrounding landscape might have looked like in each of the past times the rock faces’ layers respectively represent? Are the imageries that come to mind drawn from forest, mountain, desert, or snowy environments out there in the world today? What analogical resources did your mind tap to imagine distant past worlds? What might these landscapes’ far futures look like if they were to have, say, Sahara-like conditions? What about Amazonian rainforest-like conditions?

Posiva FacilityThe tunnel into Posiva’s underground research facility ONKALO (Photo Credit: Posiva Oy)
Straining to imagine present-day landscapes in such radically different states – in ways inspired by encounters with the deep time of Earth’s everyday environments – can be an intellectual calisthenics strengthening one’s long-termist intuitions. It can serve as an imaginative mental workout for prepping one’s mind for better adopting the farsightedness necessary to think more clearly about today’s climate change, biodiversity, Anthropocene, sustainability, or human extinction challenges.

Scenes in which radically long time horizons enter practical planning, policy, or regulatory projects – with Finland’s nuclear waste repository safety case work as but one example – can be sources of tools, techniques, and inspiration for thinking more creatively across wider time spans. And groups that advocate long-termism like The Long Now Foundation have a key role to play in disseminating these tools, techniques, and inspirations publically in this moment of planetary uncertainty.

Vincent Ialenti is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and a PhD Candidate in Cornell University’s Department of Anthropology. He holds an MSc in “Law, Anthropology & Society” from the London School of Economics.

Visualization of 5,000 Years of War

Posted on Wednesday, March 16th, 02016 by Andrew Warner
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Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 12.37.27 PM
1100Lab has developed a visualization mapping all of the battles in Wikipedia in the last 5,000 years. Their blog details how they compiled the data, as well as other projects by the Netherlands based research and development firm.

Edge Question 02016

Posted on Tuesday, January 12th, 02016 by Andrew Warner
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It’s been an annual tradition since 01998: with a new year comes a new Edge question.

Every January, John Brockman presents the members of his online salon with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time. Previous iterations have included prompts such as “What should we be worried about?” or “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” 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:


Scientific topics receiving prominent play in newspapers and magazines over the past several years include molecular biology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, chaos theory, massive parallelism, neural nets, the inflationary universe, fractals, complex adaptive systems, superstrings, biodiversity, nanotechnology, the human genome, expert systems, punctuated equilibrium, cellular automata, fuzzy logic, space biospheres, the Gaia hypothesis, virtual reality, cyberspace, and teraflop machines. … Unlike previous intellectual pursuits, the achievements of the third culture are not the marginal disputes of a quarrelsome mandarin class: they will affect the lives of everybody on the planet.

You might think that the above list of topics is a preamble for the Edge Question 2016, but you would be wrong. It was a central point in my essay, “The Third Culture,” published 25 years ago in The Los Angeles Times, 1991 (see below). The essay, a manifesto, was a collaborative effort, with input from Stephen Jay Gould, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Stuart Kauffman, Nicholas Humphrey, among other distinguished scientists and thinkers. It proclaimed:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

“The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers,” I wrote, “is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called ‘science’ has today become ‘public culture.’Stewart Brand writes that ‘Science is the only news. When you scan through a newspaper or magazine, all the human interest stuff is the same old he-said-she-said, the politics and economics the same sorry cyclic dramas, the fashions a pathetic illusion of newness, and even the technology is predictable if you know the science. Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.’ We now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change.” Science has thus become a big story, if not the big story: news that will stay news.

This is evident by the continued relevance today of the scientific topics in the 1991 essay that were all in play before the Web, social media, mobile communications, deep learning, big data. Time for an update. …

Contributors include: Long Now President Stewart Brand, Long Now Board Members Kevin Kelly, Peter Schwartz, Paul Saffo, and many of our past Seminar speakers.





Sweden’s Minister of the Future

Posted on Tuesday, December 8th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Sweden’s Minister of the Future, Kristina Persson, has been tasked with expanding the temporal horizons of government plans and “constantly remind others to include the long-term in the decision making process.”

The idea behind the creation of such a ministry was a simple one: for Sweden to remain competitive tomorrow, it might, unfortunately, have to take unpopular steps today—and since politics and politicians, given elections and interests, tend to focus on the short-term, a watchdog for the long-term was needed.

It’s easier said than done, as politics show us every day. Can you think of a politician willing to risk re-election for a better future they cannot benefit from? Most probably wouldn’t.

Read the full interview by Alberto Mucci at Vice Motherboard.

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.