Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Thinking’ Category

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Pace Layers Thinking: Paul Saffo and Stewart Brand @ The Interval — January 27, 02015

Posted on Tuesday, January 27th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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Pace layering from "The Clock of the Long Now" by Stewart Brand“Pace Layers” diagram from Stewart Brand’s book “The Clock of the Long Now”

January 27, 02015:
Paul Saffo and Stewart Brand (Long Now Board members)
Pace Layer Thinking
at The Interval

This talk is sold out.
Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast at 7:15 PT on January 27

In “Pace Layer Thinking” Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo will discuss Stewart’s six-layer framework for how a healthy society functions. It is an idea which, 15 years after he first suggested it, continues to be influential and inspiring.

Because interest in this event has been overwhelming (tickets sold out within hours of our announcing it), Long Now will share a live audio stream on the Long Now member site. Any member can access this stream starting at 7:15pm PT tonight. Memberships start at $8/month. We also live stream our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking to our members.

Stewart Brand speaks at The Interval on January 27, 02015Stewart Brand photo by Pete Forsyth

Stewart will join fellow Long Now board member Paul Saffo (Stanford, Singularity University) to reflect on the past and future of one his many enduring ideas. An expert forecaster himself with decades of experience, Paul will put Pace Layers’ influence into perspective. And lead a discussion with Stewart and the audience about the many ways that Pace Layers thinking can be useful.

This talk takes place at The Interval, Long Now’s San Francisco museum/bar/cafe/venue. The Interval hosts events like this on Tuesday nights a couple times a month. The limited capacity guarantees an intimate event. Speakers at The Interval stay afterwards to continue the discussion with the audience. See our upcoming lineup here.

The Interval at Long NowPhoto by Because We Can

Stewart Brand first explained the idea of “Pace Layers” in his 01999 book The Clock of Long Now. On page 37, in a chapter that cites Brian Eno and Freeman Dyson amongst others, the diagram first appears. It shows six layers that function simultaneously at different speeds within society. We will have a limited number of signed copies of The Clock of Long Now as well as Stewart’s How Buildings Learn for sale at the talk.

Recently Stewart spoke about Pace Layers at the Evernote Conference (video below) at the request of Evernote CEO Phil Libin. Phil’s intro makes it clear how much Stewart’s work has influenced him. Especially Pace layers.

If you weren’t able to get tickets to tonight’s talk, you can still tune in online at 7:15 PT for the live audio stream if you are a member of The Long Now Foundation.

Stewart Brand co-founded The Long Now Foundation in 01996 and serves as president of the Long Now board. He created and edited the Whole Earth Catalog, co-founded the Hackers Conference and The WELL. His books include The Clock of the Long Now; How Buildings Learn; and The Media Lab, and most recently Whole Earth Discipline. He curates and hosts Long Now’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking series in San Francisco. He also co-founded Revive & Restore, a Long Now project focused on genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species.

Paul Saffo is a Long Now Foundation board member and a forecaster with extensive experience exploring the dynamics of large-scale, long-term change. He teaches forecasting at Stanford University and chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University. He is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. Paul’s essays have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, Foreign Policy, Wired, Washington Post, and The New York Times amongst many others.

The Thing from the Future: Prognostication Can Be Fun

Posted on Friday, January 2nd, 02015 by Ahmed Kabil
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The Thing from the Future cards

Imagining the future can be daunting, but The Thing from the Future card game makes it fun. While its creators the Situation Lab (a project of artist/designer Jeff Watson and Long Now fellow Stuart Candy) simply call it “an imagination game”, it’s quite an elegant factory for generating alternative futures.

Through collaboratively and competitively describing objects from a range of possible futures, The Thing from the Future players confront questions about the near and long-term future from unconventional vantages that yield creative solutions. Each round of the game begins with a collectively generated creative prompt that describes the type of future a yet-to-be-imagined object comes from, as well as where it fits in a given culture or society, what kind of object it is, and what sort of emotional reaction an observer from the present might have when confronted with it. The player who comes up with the most compelling future scenario wins the round.

The Thing from the Future underscores how the constraints of generative systems can be used to inspire long term thinking. In their 02006 SALT talk Playing with Time, Brian Eno and Will Wright discussed the role of generative systems in their respective fields of music and game design.

“The power of generative systems is you make seeds rather than forests.”
-Brian Eno, June 02006 Playing with Time SALT

Whether a game of chess, a computer simulation of a city, or a piece of music, from a simple set of rules, or “seeds,” complex futures emerge. Changing any one of these rules vastly affects the future outcome. In the case of The Thing From the Future, the constraints are the key to enabling players to break out of traditional patterns of thinking about the future. In that sense, The Thing From the Future evokes Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a card game of aphorisms that the artistically-inclined are encouraged to turn to in moments of creative blockage. For example: “Do nothing for as long as possible.”. “Repetition is a form of change,” reads another.

Oblique Strategies card deck

In a 01980 interview, Eno discussed the inspiration behind the cards:

The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when    the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were other ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.

In much the same way that Oblique Strategies inspires “tangential” ways of thinking in moments of creative panic, The Thing from the Future grounds musings about the future and turns them into concrete scenarios.

The Thing From The Future, while intellectually stimulating, is at its core, fun, and meant to be played by anyone. You can buy it online here or stop by and ask to use the deck we keep at The Interval (open daily from 10am-midnight).


Oxford’s Oak Beams, and Other Tales of Humans and Trees in Long-Term Partnership

Posted on Wednesday, December 31st, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Here at Long Now, we often like to tell the story – or perhaps better said, legend – of the oak beams at New College in Oxford. First told to Stewart Brand by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, this short and simple story epitomizes the tremendous value we can reap from some long-term thinking.

New College Oxford Dining HallPhoto via Tripadvisor

Despite what the name may suggest, New College is one of Oxford’s oldest. Founded in 01379, at its heart lies a dining hall that features expansive oak beams across its ceiling. About a century ago, an entomologist discovered that the beams were infested with beetles and would need replacing. The College agonized over where they might find oaks of sufficient size and quality to make new beams. Then, as Stewart Brand recounts,

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

In all likelihood, the story is a blend of myth and reality. While the College, in keeping with standard woodland practices in Britain, has always kept groves of oaks intended for construction purposes, it isn’t clear that any particular set of trees was officially designated to replace the beams of the College dining hall.

But as with all good legends, this story conveys a larger truth: that a symbiotic relationship with the natural world around us is a useful and sustainable way to maintain human civilization for centuries to come. Atlas Obscura concludes:

Somewhere on the land owned by the New College are oaks that are, or will one day, be worthy of use in the great hall, assuming that they are managed in the same way they were before. It is in this management by the Forester in which lies the point. Ultimately, while the story is perhaps apocryphal, the idea of replacing and managing resources for the future, and the lesson in long term thinking is not.

There are other stories that, like this one, convey the value of this kind of long-term partnership. For example, NPR recently featured a story on the Bosco Che Suona – the ‘woods that sing’. It’s in this Italian Alpine forest that Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppi Guarneri, and Nicola Amati found the spruce trees from which they made their world-famous violins.

Il Bosco Che Suona – the ‘woods that sing’
Photo via

Centuries later, artisan luthiers still come to these woods to source their raw material – and it is in large part due to this ongoing use that the Bosco continues to thrive. In partnership with local foresters, instrument makers select trees they think produce high-quality violins. The felled tree in turn makes room for new saplings, and the many months required for the production of a single instrument ensures that these young trees have time to grow up. NPR writes:

Before a tree hits the chopping block, Mazzucchi looks around to see if there are any tiny saplings struggling to grow nearby. If so, removing an adult tree will let more sun in and actually help the babies mature.

Bruno Cosignani, the head of the local forest service, explains that light is the limiting factor on tree growth.

“As soon as a tree falls down, those who were born and suffering in the shadows can start to grow more quickly,” he says.

And centuries from now, those trees, too, might become musical instruments.

Cork Oak Trunk SectionPhoto via Wikipedia

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, forests of cork oak likewise thrive in large part because of their utility to human industry. For centuries, possibly even millennia, the bark of these trees has been used to make the cork stoppers that keep wine (or any other liquid) inside a bottle. Because only the outer coating is harvested, the trees are left to stand – and thus continue to sustain both local ecosystems and human economies. As a feature in the Huffington Post explains,

Clearly, the environment supports rural livelihoods (and diets). But it also provides substantial ecosystem services. By resisting both fire and drought, cork oaks stabilize the region’s sandy soils and hold a line against creeping desertification. The trees, which are neither irrigated nor treated with herbicides or fertilizers, store carbon. (Because a harvested tree needs to regenerate its bark, it absorbs up to five times more carbon than an unharvested tree.) They also provide plant and animal habitat, absorb rainfall and prevent soil erosion, thus protecting the watershed that supplies two thirds of Lisbon’s drinking water.

Cork cutter at workPhoto via Portuguese American Journal

By harvesting material sustainably, the cork industry supports, rather than endangers, these forests. In fact, the largest threat to the Mediterranean cork oaks in recent decades has been the advent of aluminum screw caps and plastic corks. Without utility for the wine industry, there is little economic incentive to help sustain these cork groves.

Mediterranean cork oaks
Photo by Michelle Chaplow

These three different stories share a common message: by making responsible use of natural resources, we actually allow them to thrive, in turn ensuring their availability for centuries to come. In each of these three instances, humans have developed a symbiosis with trees that is uniquely long-term in approach. Whether out of respect for their lengthy lifespans, a recognition of their vital importance to aerobic life, or simply for utilitarian reasons, humans in each of these three instances make use of trees in ways that deliberately foster their longevity. Long-term thinking can be difficult for us short-lived humans, but perhaps trees can help us make a leap beyond the horizon of our own lifespans. Like the 10,000 Year Clock, trees – alive like us, but for so much longer – can help us imagine a time scale, and thus a world, that exceeds our own.

The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Carne Ross writes to John Burnside

Posted on Monday, December 8th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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dysonIn April, Long Now board member Esther Dyson wrote a letter to Carne Ross 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. Carne’s response is now addressed to John Burnside, a novelist, short story writer and poet, 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: Carne Ross, New York City
To: John Burnside, Berlin
8 December 2014

Dear John,

We are bidden to consider the future. What a privilege to be asked! What a nightmare to contemplate!

Esther Dyson wrote to me to propose an appealing scheme of how to inspire communities to be healthier. She spoke too of how data and technology, on which she is more than expert, enable government to provide better services and be accountable to citizens.

Of course she is right on this point, but I think you and I would want to take it some way further. Esther’s model is the familiar archetype of representative democracy, where the many elect the few to provide services for them. It is a transactional model, technocratic, with success or failure assessed with measurement and metrics. What’s missing are some essential questions: Who is doing what to whom? Who has power and who does not? Indeed, what is it all for? Like Esther, I want better and more accountable services for everyone. But this is not enough. The contemporary architecture of representative democracy and a capitalist economy, within which these reforms would take place, is to me, and I suspect you, deeply inadequate. Its flaws – inequality, environmental destruction, to name but two – are all too evident.

Let us look to the future, which is the challenge posed by this series of letters. I tried to cast my mind ten thousand years hence, or a thousand. Of course it was impossible. I could imagine space colonies and eternally-pickled brains whose contents are stored in data clouds. But what’s the use of such piddling fantasies? It seemed more worthwhile to fantasize about an ideal. How would humans live in an ideal world? I did not imagine a blueprint of such a world: if the twentieth century has taught us anything, it must be that utopian designs are inherently despotic; whether communist, fascist or even neo-liberal. Humans are forced to fit the design, and not the other way around. I tried to imagine how a human would ideally live, a thought experiment which proved one thing: how pathetically distant our current “civilisation” is from ideal. But the vision thereby also provided a kind of target.

How should humans ideally live? They would be fed and housed in as much comfort as they wished. They would live as long as they wanted in beauty and perfect, athletic health (you and I, I fear, are some way from this ideal already). They would be free to die as they choose, for eternal life would, I suspect, be its own kind of hell (though I would be willing to give it a go). They would live in peace, without hatred or resentment. They would wallow in mutual love with other humans (perhaps they could enjoy the permanent sensation of being “in love”). I have long doubted the idea of living in “harmony” with heartless, brutal nature, but humans in this ideal conception would enjoy their planet, unthreatened by its depredations, and reaping from it all that they needed. They would be free of all coercion: no one would have power over anyone else. There would therefore be no government.

Their material needs and desires thus satisfied, humans would be free to indulge in what for me is the ultimate “point”, if there can be said to be such a thing, which would be the expression and enactment of all that is sublime and joyous of the immaterial: art, music, poetry (yes, John, you have a place there), love, sex (needless to say), pleasure, literature, voluptuous languor. There are not sufficient words for this fabulous realm; there is certainly no measure, which is why I recoil at our current obsession with metrics and measurable targets, and data: the things that matter most have no measure! It is there to be endlessly explored, imagined. It is the infinite.

Writing this today, I feel terribly sad and a little bit desperate. My expectation is that this ideal is, in reality, wholly unattainable. Looking forward once more, I fear that much more likely is that within a few hundred years, if not less, humanity will have successfully annihilated itself in ways already all too clear. Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. It seems implausible to expect that the bombs will never be detonated. We have already come very close to nuclear war on several occasions in the few decades since their invention. The supposedly stable framework of strategic theory – “mutually assured destruction”, deterrence etc. – seems flimsy at best, likewise, is the reliance on lots of buttons that must be pressed, or keys that must be turned simultaneously, as launch devices designed to prevent an accidental launch. Most worryingly, the proliferation of these ghastly weapons has already put them in the trembling hands of nutters like the Kim family tyranny of North Korea, and under the control of governments which could tomorrow be overthrown by, millenarian extremists, whether religious or secular.

Then there is “the environment” where credible scientific forecasts of global warming are already painting a future of planetary catastrophe. A thousand years hence? Even getting through a hundred without mass starvation, war and species loss seems unlikely at this rate. God, I feel like should stop writing, pour myself a Highland malt and lose myself in your fine poems. No, I feel obliged to continue.

What is to be done? Metrical improvement of government services doesn’t quite hit the mark, does it? I am not preaching revolution, for Hannah Arendt was right to say that revolution merely brings us back to where we started, usually, with much bloodshed and misery along the way. I don’t believe in violent overthrow or hostility. Together, we might just make it. Divided, we most definitely shall not.

I do believe that a cultural, political, and economic reformation is possible; a profound and magnificent reimagining of how we live and how we get by with one another. Humans survive together. Alone, we are nothing: life is not worth living. The most important question is not what we believe, where we’re from, what sex we are, or what kind of music, or food, or sexual partner we like. It is: how do we deal with Other People? Get this right, in the economy and in politics, and we might just make it.

If the ideal is humans who are comfortable, healthy, free from violence or coercion, then that is where we should start. This is not impossible even today. Put people first and central in politics and the economy. In ancient Athens, many citizens played an active part in deciding the city’s future. Today, “participatory” processes allow the mass – sometimes tens of thousands of citizens, men and women – to decide things like budget priorities. When all are included in these decisions, the resulting policies reflect all of their interests; they are more equitable. In comparison, supposedly “representative” democracies will inevitably create elites (the few elected by the many) who are inherently susceptible to the influence of – if not corruptible by – the most powerful, thereby exacerbating, rather than reducing, any existing power imbalance.

Inequality supercharges this problem. The rich are already powerful. The evidence clearly shows that “democratic” legislation reflects their interests (literally: interest on capital is taxed at a lower rate than earned income, so a wealthy hedge fund owner is taxed at a lower rate than his cleaner). As Thomas Piketty has so convincingly demonstrated, the rich are indeed getting richer, because, as he shows, the returns on capital are, in general, greater than the returns on labour. Not only are the rest not getting richer (at all), the poor are, astonishingly, actually getting poorer. We are living in the age of the globalized, mega-wealthy plutocrats who control vast sums of money, and thus vast numbers of people. They control politics, philanthropy, culture, and even ideas (the musings of a billionaire are deemed, in publications like The New York Times, much more worthy of publication than the musings of, say, a street sweeper).

Fixing democracy is only half the solution. We must also promote new forms of economic activity, where profits and agency are shared, not concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. Employee-owned cooperatives, whether a bakery or a bank, can be as successful as the egoist entrepreneur (an archetype that is much too celebrated in contemporary culture; every successful individual stands on the shoulders of many). This is not state control, or redistribution by taxation, which of course is a kind of coercion, something we wish to avoid. It is altering the form, and thus the outcome, of economic activity at source. If widely implemented, with good will, patience and perseverance (for nothing human is ever perfect), such methods may have rapid effect, especially since humans are now so thoroughly connected with one another, and ever more so. Changing the method is tantamount to changing the outcome because, as Gandhi stressed, the means are the end. Change the manner in which we interact with one another, how we govern ourselves, how we make things, how we flourish, and we change everything. We are no longer mere outputs of an ideological system, we are in control, at the centre, the point.

John, I know that you share these sentiments. The question now that I cannot answer is how do we foment this transformation. Stalin imposed Marx’s revolution, causing untold horrors. Our reformation must come by suasion, not coercion. It’s clear that the disillusionment with the current status quo is rampant. But it is a different matter to turn that negative into a positive impulsion to build new things, new companies, new forums for decisions. Expert craftsman of words that you are, I suspect you would also agree that words alone are not enough. Are we to be dragged under by our own cynicism? Or will hope come to our rescue?

My hope is succoured by the hundred tales I hear of people of similar mind taking their own course, building businesses, starting communities, tending to the vulnerable, sharing their labour, love and resources for goals far greater than mere money, for solidarity, for compassion, for mutual aid; they who celebrate the best of humanity, not the most selfish: a thousand paths in the same direction, towards lives that are lived fully, marching forward in step alongside other humans, respecting and loving them and in common purpose with them. These stories move me to the quick. There are legion. May they prevail.

Over to you, my friend,


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

John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.

Where Time Begins

Posted on Thursday, November 20th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Last year I had the opportunity to give a talk and tour of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC at the invitation of Demetrios Matsakis, the director of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Time Service department.  The Naval Observatory hosts the largest collection of precise frequency standards in the world, and uses them to, among other things, keep services like internet time and the global positioning system in your phone running correctly.

The USNO Master Clock is actually an average of many timing signals

The US Naval Observatory keeps track of time and distance in what seems like obscure ways, but these signals are used for some of the most widely trusted and life-critical systems on the planet.  The observatory uses a series of atomic clocks, ranging from hydrogen mazers to cesium fountain clocks, which are averaged into the time signals we all use in synchronizing internet servers and finding our way with the guidance of our phones.  In fact GPS would not be possible without the highly accurate time signals generated by the observatory, as time very literally equals distance when you are a satellite flying overhead at speeds that actually have to account for Einsteinian relativity.

The humble rack servers pumping out one of the most accurate and life-critical time signals in the world

The Naval Observatory is also part of the larger network in the US that includes NIST and several labs around the world that contribute to the international standards of time like Universal Coordinated Time or UTC.  These time standards are defined in collaboration: many of the world’s national labs send in how long a second lasts based on their clocks, and these seconds are then averaged to define the second for the month.  But ironically, they do this in retrospect and sometimes add leap seconds, so they only know what the ‘second’ was last month, not this month.

I am often asked when explaining the 10,000 Year Clock why we do not use an atomic clock, as they are often reported to be accurate to “one second in 30 million years”.  But this does not mean they will last 30 million years; it is just a way to explain an accuracy of 10-9 seconds in everyday terms.  These atomic clocks are extremely fragile and fussy machines that require very exact temperatures and deep understanding of atomic science in order to even read them.  They sometimes only last a few years.

Two of the Rubidium Fountain Clocks at the USNO used to create the master time signal

Demetrios was also able to tell me more about some of the long-term timing issues that affect The 10,000 Year Clock.  Because the Clock synchronizes with the sun on any sunny day, one of the effects that we have to take into account is the rate at which the Earth’s rotational rate may change from millennium to millennium.  It turns out that the earth’s rotation can be greatly affected by climate change.  If the poles freeze in an ice age, and all the water freezes closer to the poles, the earth spins faster.  If the current warming trend continues and the poles melt extensively, the mass of the water around the equator will slow the earth’s rotational rate.  All these changes affect where the sun will appear in the sky, and since our clock uses the sun to synchronize, it is an effect we have to account for.  While this was all known to us, there is a counter effect that Demetrios told me about.  It turns out that when there is less water weighing down one of the tectonic plates of the earth, it rises up higher, counteracting some of the mass altered by the shift in water.  We will be investigating this further to see if it changes our calculations.

Many thanks to Demetrios Matsakis for inviting me to the Naval Observatory, it was an honor to present to some of the most technical horologists in the world, and witness the place where the ephemerality of time is pinned down to just “one second in 30 million years”.

Growing A Book For One Hundred Years

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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It started with a seed planted in the mind of Scottish artist Katie Paterson when she made the connection between tree rings and chapters of books. Now several years in the making, Paterson’s vision will unfold over the next century in her artwork Future Library–an ambitious and evolving piece that will outlive Paterson and most of us living today.

Photo by Giorgia Polizzi

In the summer of 02014, Paterson and her team planted 1,000 Norwegian Spruce saplings in the forest Normarka, situated just outside of Oslo. The site is about a 25-minute walk from a metro station, yet according to Paterson, feels deep within the forest and has no city sounds.

Photo by Giorgia Polizzi

These trees will supply the paper for an anthology of books to be printed in a hundred years’ time, when the saplings are fully grown. In the meantime, one writer every year will be invited to add a new text to the collection of unpublished, unread manuscripts held in trust at the New Public Deichmanske Library in Bjørvika until their publication date in 02114. The text can take on any length, form, and genre. The only request is to have the work submitted by manuscript within one year of invitation. As the trees grow, so does the collection. Katie Paterson explained:

The idea to grow trees to print books arose for me through making a connection with tree rings to chapters – the material nature of paper, pulp and books, and imagining the writer’s thoughts infusing themselves, ‘becoming’ the trees. Almost as if the trees absorb the writer’s words like air or water, and the tree rings become chapters, spaced out over the years to come…This artwork will bring together the work of preeminent writers, thinkers and philosophers of this and future generations. It is an artwork that belongs not only to us and the City of Oslo now, but to these who are not yet born.

With the forest planted, the next key part of the Future Library is designing the Silent Room to house the unpublished texts in the New Deichmanske Library, which will open in 02018. In collaboration with the library’s architects Lund Hagem and Atelier Oslo, Paterson is specially constructing this room from the cut-down trees recently cleared for the Future Library saplings.

Photo by Giorgia Polizzi

The Silent Room will be located on the top floor of the library – the floor that houses the library’s special collection of books and archives. The small, intimate room will be geared for one or two people; it will face the forest, awaiting the growth of the trees and providing a view of where, in essence, the books are developing. The other aspect of the texts–the unpublished manuscripts–will be contained here with only the authors’ names, the title of their work and the year visible to visiting patrons. Katie Paterson explained:

The atmosphere is key in our design, aiming to create a sense of quietude, peacefulness, a contemplative space which can allow the imagination to journey to the forest, the trees, the writing, the deep time, the invisible connections, the mystery.

As is the case with any long-term project, questions of trust dominate the design of Paterson’s Future Library. Planning a project with a timescale of 100 years provides many challenges, such as the consideration of tree types, native Norwegian pests, climate, or potential fires; communicating across time; ensuring access to a printing press (one will be stored in Oslo and workshops will be held for the next generations in printing and binding books); and crafting 100-year contracts with lawyers. How will the library room be looked at and experienced in a century? How will the materials react over the decades to come? What languages will people be speaking in 02114? What kind of technologies will exist? What will be the status of the printed book, the written word? Paterson asked herself 100-year-timespan questions such as these with every decision made for Future Library. It involves thinking and developing on a timespan that transcends most conventional artwork. Paterson explained:

The works like Future Library really slow the pace down, to over a century. There is still constant movement within the artwork; inviting authors, the library room design, trust meetings, forest tending, yearly events, the writing, even the tree rings forming. Future Library will evolve and live over ‘long time’ and over ‘now’ simultaneously…I like the idea that time is substance, that can be manipulated and invented. I certainly see time as non-linear – reaches of time, webs, loops, networks, holes – and visualize time growing and existing like a cell or a wave, expanding and contracting. Future Library is marked out by yearly demarcations and these ‘chapters’ keep it fluid.

Future Library was conceived by Paterson, is commissioned and supported by the Bjørvika Utvikling urban development project, and produced by the Bristol-based arts producer Situations. A Future Library Trust has been established to help sustain Future Library for its 100-year duration. It consists of seven members, including the literary director of the Man Booker Prize. Its members will change decade by decade, and they are the ones to invite the 100 authors, whose names will be announced year by year. The authors are being selected for their “outstanding contributions to literature or poetry and for their work’s ability to capture the imagination of this and future generation.”

Photo by Giorgia Polizzi

This month, award-winning author Margaret Atwood was named as the first contributor to the Future Library. The author of novels such as Daughters of the North and Oryx and Crake (both of which will be included in Long Now’s own Manual for Civilization) is in many ways ideally suited for a collection like Future Library: much of Atwood’s work explores human lives and lived experience in a variety of possible futures. As Paterson explains,

[Atwood] is incredibly perceptive, continually writing about prescient subjects and her work speaks across generations, across time. She writes about time and catapults her readers to a future time and place, projecting unsettling, strange, dystopian worlds. Her work has so much to say about us alive now and futures we are building as a species.

Atwood has already started writing the tale that only she will read during her lifetime.

When asked about the content of her story in an interview with the Louisiana Channel, Atwood stated that wild horses could not drag it out of her:

I think it takes us to that period of childhood when we used to bury things in secret locations and hope that somebody would come and dig them up. Or that other period when we put messages in bottles and put them into the ocean. But essentially that’s what writing is anyway, so publishing a book is like a message in the bottle and throwing it in the ocean because you never know who will read it. And writing and publishing a book is also like time travel because the book is a vehicle for the voice, and it doesn’t turn into a voice again until somebody at the other end reads it. So in this case, the filament between the launching of the book and the turning of the book back into voice just happens to be longer than usual.

On a cosmic timescale, a span of 100 years is fleeting and insignificant. “However, in many ways the human timescale of 100 years is more confronting,” Paterson explains. “It is beyond many of our current life spans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to comprehend and relativize.”

What can help us confront and comprehend this short-yet-long timespan is, perhaps, a sense of hope and optimism. The Future Library project, for its part, tries to encourage these perspectives. In her reply letter to her Future Library invitation, Atwood wrote, “This project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years!” Paterson expands upon Atwood’s statement in her own words:

In its essence, Future Library is hopeful – it believes there will be a forest, a book, and a reader in 100 years. The choices of this generation will shape the centuries to come, perhaps in an unprecedented way. Inside the forest time stands still. This place could have existed for one hundred, one thousand, one million, or even one hundred million years. I take comfort in the natural processes that have unfolded over such enormous expanses of time. Imagining the plethora of living beings that have evolved in its ecosystem. The earth itself has a predicted lifespan of another few billion years, and there are millions of other planets and galaxies. Life in this universe will continue to exist.

Photo by Giorgia Polizzi

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

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

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

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

What Nuclear Waste Management Can Teach Us About Deep Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian Hon Seminar Media

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

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Wednesday July 16, 02014 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Hon Seminar page.


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


Future artifacts – a summary by Stewart Brand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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