Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Thinking’ Category

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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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IDL TIFF file

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.

Neil Gaiman on Libraries and the Future

Posted on Tuesday, October 29th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Books connect our future and our past, teaching us about what came before and encouraging us to imagine what might yet be. Because of this, reading and libraries remain essential even in our technological and multimedia future, Neil Gaiman recently insisted in a lecture for London’s The Reading Agency:

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different. [...]

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

His full remarks are available at The Guardian. We’re grateful to Mr. Gaiman for his enthusiasm and support of reading and libraries – he’s been a huge help to our own effort to build a library: our Manual for Civilization, which will live in the currently-under-construction Long Now Salon.

Humans and nature: It’s complicated.

Posted on Friday, October 25th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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Depending on your point of reference, humanity can seem distinct from and damaging to nature or like an emergent part of a single thriving force. Two interviews with the authors of new books illustrate this elasticity and the multifaceted conceptions of ourselves and nature we shift through depending on the questions we ask and the spaciotemporal scales we consider.

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J.B. MacKinnon and Sharon J. Riley, writing for Harpers, discuss The Once and Future World in which MacKinnon explores the impact humans have had on the Earth’s ecosystems and how misunderstanding that impact can lead us to misunderstand nature itself. He relates the story of a whale that was spotted just off the coast of downtown Vancouver:

Vancouverites saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because hardly anyone was aware that whales lived in the area by the hundreds until they were hunted out a century ago… If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.

It’s been said that “technology is anything invented after you were born.” In a similar way, our reference point for nature often comes from what we grew up with, even though most of us were born into environments hugely affected by human development. Ecology and Natural History can show us a deeper picture of the major changes wrought by humans the world over and illustrate major inflection points (like the Industrial Revolution, or the Columbian Exchange) against former baselines. MacKinnon reminds us that these baselines are relative, but that they also tend to be fairly stable in comparison to human rates of change.

Human society, in MacKinnon’s account, has degraded nature by harming biodiversity. It’s this diversity, he says that we ought to seek, rather than the restoration of any particular baseline of the past. In looking forward, he offers a model for valuing biodiversity that, surprisingly, comes from one of nature’s symbolic antipodes – the city:

I now find myself comparing co-existence with other species to life in a multicultural city: it’s complicated and demands innovation and often education, but when it works it creates the most exciting societies the world has ever known. Few people who live in multicultural cities would say it’s easy, but even fewer, I think, would say they would prefer homogeneity. The shared culture of difference becomes a part of our individual identities, and at that point, a harm to diversity really does become a harm to us all. Now consider a similar relationship, this time not to cultural but to ecological complexity, and we have what I would consider the rewilding of the human being. Ecology as a part of identity.

If MacKinnon asks how humanity has affected nature on Earth, Ross Anderson and Lee Billings discuss what life on earth has to learn about itself as our search for other worlds really gets going. This galactic expansion of scope compresses, in some ways, the conversation’s working definitions of nature and humanity.

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Ross Anderson, for The Atlantic, spoke with Lee Billings about his book Five Billion Years of Solitude which explores the science and cosmological ramifications of the search for extrasolar planets and their potential inhabitants. The book is largely about the scientists who are on the cutting edge of this field, but Billings and Anderson also discuss the emergence of life on Earth and the inevitable end of Earth’s habitability.

A point Billings repeatedly stresses is the fragility of our newfound ability to look and venture beyond our own small world. Ecological, political, cultural and technological obstacles threaten to limit our achievement and, as alluded by the book’s title, doom our planet to a life of solitude. The work of the scientists in Billing’s writing is important and grandiose in effect, but often mundane in practice and the same can be said about the governance of a society.

Throughout history, countless aspirations of heartbreaking beauty and staggering genius have been torpedoed by all-too-human foibles or by simple bad luck, and that’s not going to change. Maybe we will build super-intelligent machines or travel to the stars someday, but even then we’ll still have to do the dirty laundry.

These concerns, in Billings’ mind however, aren’t limited to humanity. What we’ve achieved, we owe to the natural world from which we’ve been born and to which we’re still a part. We aren’t beginning to consider that Earthlings might someday reach other planets and stars because of humanity’s exceptionalism, though that’s been important; we’re considering it because of the riches we lucked into on this precious world.

We really owe our progress and our current state not only to our biology, but also to our planetary resources—to the fossil fuels we burn, the ores we mine, the rich diversity of other species we exploit, and so on. We’re presently using most of those resources in very unsustainable ways. We’ve already plucked all the low-hanging fruit, and much of what we are burning and mining and exploiting now is only available to use through our already sophisticated technology.

So if we somehow drive ourselves extinct, if all our great edifices collapse, I think it would be very difficult if not impossible for anything else to rise up and rebuild to where we are now, even given a half-billion or a billion years. People can and will disagree with me about that, but my position errs on the side of caution, on the side that says humanity’s present moment in the Sun is too valuable to treat as something disposable.

Any species can overreach its niche and in that we may not be exceptional. Environmentalists often threaten apocalypse and the fall of human society if we don’t learn to value the Earth’s resources properly, but Billings expands the scope and the stakes. Our work seeking other worlds isn’t just a human endeavor, it’s a planetary one. Like MacKinnon suggesting that we imagine ourselves to be a citizen of diverse city, Billings suggests that we’re ambassadors for that city and we may not have a successor.

In taxonomy, classifiers who focus on their subject matter’s similarities are known as “lumpers,” while those most interested in difference are “splitters.” Ultimately, of course, humans are just another part of the natural world, governed by evolution and physics like anything else. But in our day to day lives, and even across generations, our place on this planet is clearly unique in key ways. As these two conversations show, parsing our role on this planet involves both lumping and splitting.

Primatologist Robert Sapolsky has spent a career studying humanity’s close biological family and often focuses on lumping us in with other primates, but he offers a single, essential split he’s observed about humans: that we can simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in mind at once. And maybe that quirk itself is what allows us to zoom from a galaxy, down to a planet, and in to a city and to simultaneously lump and split this thing we call nature and ourselves.