Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Thinking’ Category

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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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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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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.

(more…)

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.

Taking the longpath

Posted on Monday, November 18th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Writing for Wired, Ari Wallach contrasts the perspectives that go into building a cathedral that isn’t completed until long after its designer’s death and a McMansion that’s built, foreclosed on and abandoned in less than a generation.

He proposes what he calls the “Longpath,” to encourage more endeavors of the cathedral’s scale:

We need a framework for long-term strategy — one that is visionary yet goal-oriented. Without organising principles, it will be impossible to corral the corporations and capitals of the globe to tackle our significant long-term challenges.

To this end, I suggest “longpath”. It’s a term that connotes long-term and goal-oriented strategies. It can help leaders navigate the balance between short-term gain and long-term ruin.

To further develop this perspective, Reinventors.net is hosting and livestreaming a roundtable discussion with Wallach. Long Now’s executive director Alexander Rose will also take part in the discussion, along with Felicia Wong, Nicole Boyer and Peter Leyden.

This roundtable will bring together an eclectic group to consider how Longpath Thinking might really work. How long is long? Are there better methods for thinking in this way? How would we begin to institutionalize this approach in government and business, the economy and society?

Watch the conversation online on Wednesday November 20th, 02013 at 11:00 am PT.

Human Self-Interest and the Problem of Solving Long-Term Issues

Posted on Friday, November 8th, 02013 by Charlotte Hajer
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We are a selfish, short-sighted lot. As many a game theory experiment has shown, we simply aren’t as motivated by the promise of collective future benefits as we are by the gratification of instant private rewards.

A group of researchers based at NYU now argues that this kind of self-interest can throw up significant hurdles to the process of solving long-term, multi-generational problems like climate change. As reported in the October issue of Nature Climate Change, The team conducted a study that measured participants’ willingness to invest personal resources into a group effort that would lead to rewards in the future: each subject was given €40, and was then asked to deposit €0, €2, or €4 into a collective “climate account” that would fund an environmental awareness advertisement. If each participant deposited enough for the account to reach a total of €120, all would receive an additional €45.

However, the reward of cooperation, the €45 endowment per group member for meeting the €120 target, was distributed on three different time horizons. In one treatment (T1), the €45 cash endowment was paid the next day; in the second treatment (T2), the €45 cash endowment was paid 7 weeks later; in the third treatment (T3), the €45 endowment was invested in planting oak trees that would sequester carbon (as well as provide habitat and greenery) and therefore provide the greatest benefit to future generations, although in a currency different to the monetary endowments offered in T1 and T2.

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Just as the scholars hypothesized, participants’ willingness to invest was highest in the T1 scenario, and lowest for T3. In other words: the further a reward lies in the future – and the less likely the individual therefore is to benefit from it himself – the less motivated he is to give his personal resources up for the greater good. The research group concludes:

The results show the power of intergenerational discounting to undermine cooperation …. Immediate monetary rewards seem to matter most. Applying our results to international climate change negotiations paints a sobering picture. Owing to intergenerational discounting, cooperation will be greatly undermined if, as in our setting, short-term gains can arise only from defection. This suggests the necessity of introducing powerful short-term incentives to cooperate, such as punishment, reward or reputation, in experimental research as well as in international endeavours to mitigate climate change.

The article explains that immediate and delayed rewards trigger entirely different parts of the human brain, suggesting that long-term and short-term strategizing involve divergent cognitive processes. It seems, then, that our best chance of fostering a sense of accountability for the future may be to create scenarios in which both parts of the brain are stimulated simultaneously: by coupling the incentive of long-term rewards with that of very short-term consequences.