The Industrial Sublime: Edward Burtynsky Takes the Long View

Posted on June 19th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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“Oil Bunkering #1, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

The New Yorker recently profiled photographer, former SALT speaker, and 02016 sponsor of the Conversations at the Interval livestream Edward Burtynsky and his quest to document a changing planet in the anthropocene age.

“What I am interested in is how to describe large-scale human systems that impress themselves upon the land,” Burtynsky told New Yorker staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian as they surveyed the decimated, oil-covered landscapes of Lagos, Nigeria from a helicopter.

“Saw Mills #1, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

For over three decades, Edward Burtynsky has been taking large-format photographs of industrial landscapes which include mining locations around the globe and the building of Three Gorges Dam in China. His work has been noted for beautiful images which are often at odds with their subject’s negative environmental impacts.

Photograph by Benedicte Kurzen / Noor for The New Yorker

“This is the sublime of our time,” said Burtynsky in his 02008 SALT Talk, which included a formal proposal for a permanent art gallery in the chamber that encloses the 10,000-year Clock, as well as the results of his research into methods of capturing images that might have the best chance to survive in the long-term.

“Oil Bunkering #4, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

As the Khatchadourian notes, Burtynsky’s approach has at times attracted controversy:

Over the years, greater skepticism has been voiced about […] Burtynsky’s inclination to depict toxic landscapes in visually arresting terms. A critic responding to “Oil” wondered whether the fusing of beauty with monumentalism, of extreme photographic detachment with extreme ecological damage, could trigger only apathy as a response. [Curator] Paul Roth had a different view: “Maybe these people are a bit immune to the sublime—being terribly anxious while also being attracted to the beauty of an image.”

“Oil Bunkering #2, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

Burtynsky does not seek to be heavy-handed or pedantic in his work, but neither does he seek to be amoral. The environmental and human rights issues are directly shown, rather than explicitly proclaimed.

“Oil Bunkering #5, Niger Delta, Nigeria 2016” / Photograph by Edward Burtynsky

In recent years Burtynsky’s work has focused on water, including oil spills around the world, like the ones he was documenting in Lagos, a city he calls a “hyper crucible of globalism.”

As the global consequences of human activity have become unmistakably pressing, Burtynsky has connected his photography more directly with environmentalism. “There has been a discussion for a long time about climate change, but we don’t seem to be ceasing anything,” he says. “That has begun to bring a sense of urgency to me.”

Burtynsky is currently working on the film Anthropocene, which documents unprecedented human impact on the natural world.

Read The New Yorker profile of Burtynsky in full.

How Can We Create a Manual For Civilization?

Posted on June 7th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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“WHAT BOOKS would you want to restart civilization from scratch?”

The Long Now Foundation has been involved in and inspired by projects centered on that question since launching in 01996. (See, for example, The Rosetta Project, Westinghouse Time Capsules, The Human Document Project, The Survivor Library, The Toaster Project, The Crypt of Civilization, and the Voyager Record.) For years, Executive Director Alexander Rose has been in discussions on how to create a record of humanity and technology for our descendants. In 02014, Long Now began building it.

The Manual For Civilization is working toward a living, crowd-curated library of 3,500 books put forward by the Long Now community and on display at The Interval. To stack the shelves, we solicited book recommendations from Long Now members and supporters, special guest curators like Long Now founders Stewart Brand and Brian Eno, past Seminar speakers like George Dyson and Neal Stephenson, subject experts Maria Popova and Violet Blue, and volunteer curators like Alan Beatts, Michael Pujals, and Heath Rezabek.

Neal Stephenson selecting books for The Manual For Civilization


The physical collection in The Interval grounds the catalog, and also provided the size constraint of the number of books. But the Long Now community is global, and the reality is that few Long Now members have had the opportunity to peruse our Bay Area-bound library.

Today, we’re getting ready to digitalize the Manual so that the library can be shared with the world. We are partnering with the Internet Archive, who have created a special collection for the Manual, and, for the first time, we are sharing a selection of the titles in our collection as a temporary browse-only catalog on Libib (currently showing about 800 of the currently 1400 selections). To help make this digitalization effort happen, we will need to raise approximately $100,000 to scan all the books and post them online making the library accessible to everyone. If you are interested in helping support this effort, please contact nick@longnow.org.

The Origins of the Manual (01751-02014)

“Final Steps in Shaping a Goblet,” from Diderot’s Encyclopedie.


Framing the library’s focus as “restarting civilization” may seem apocalyptic or predictive on its face, but that is not the intention. Rather, the hope is to create a curatorial principle that inspires valuable conversation that reframes how we think about where civilization has come so far, where it might go in the future, and what tools are necessary to get it there.

In that sense, The Manual For Civilization is the latest in a centuries-long genealogy of ambitious projects to catalog and, crucially, democratize the most essential human knowledge. Inherent in each project—from Denis Diderot’s famous Encyclopedie to Long Now Co-Founder Stewart Brand’s countercultural bible Whole Earth Catalog to The Manual—is a theory of civilization. There is also, as will be discussed further below, a bias depending on which curatorial principle is emphasized and of course, who does that curation.

“Figurative system of human knowledge” from the Encyclopedie. Knowledge was divided into branches of memory, reason and imagination.


When Diderot began editing the Encyclopedie in 01751, the ideas of the Enlightenment held sway only amongst learned philosophes. Power rested in the hands of the clerics. Diderot considered the Encyclopedie as a deliberate attempt to “change the way people think” by democratizing the ideals of the Enlightenment. Controversially, the Encyclopedie’s central organizing principle was based on reason, rather than the authority of the church. In the entry for encyclopedia, he wrote:

The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.

Diderot would continue editing the Encyclopedie over the next fifteen years, amassing thousands of entries and enlisting the help of some of the Enlightenment’s most brilliant minds as contributors, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu. Diderot’s 35 volumes constituted a:

tremendous storehouse of fact and propaganda that swept Europe and taught it what ‘reason,’ rights,’ ‘authority,’ ‘government,’ ‘liberty,’ ‘equality,’ and related social principles are or should be. The work was subversive in its tendency, not in its advocacy: it took for granted toleration, the march of mind exemplified by science, and the the good of the whole people….The eleven volumes of plates were in themselves a revolutionary force, for they made public what had  previously been kept secret by the guilds, and they supported the philosophe doctrine that the dissemination of knowledge was the high road to emancipation.

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog divided knowledge into sections based on whole systems thinking.


Two hundred years later, while reflecting on the legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog (01968), Stewart Brand wrote that the Catalog and the Encyclopedie shared a similar aim: to hand “the tools of a whole civilization to its citizens.” Like the Encyclopedie, Brand wrote, the Whole Earth Catalog sought to decentralize authority and redistribute it to individuals through access to knowledge, or tools. Diderot’s Encyclopedie, wrote Brand, “was the leading tool of the Enlightenment.”

Though the first commune-bound readers of the Whole Earth Catalog— those “bands of adventurous malcontents who were setting out to reinvent civilization”— did not exactly restart civilization, their process held “surprising value.” Brand wrote that as the decades passed, the Catalog’s true legacy was glimpsed in the personal computer revolution that followed, which was informed by the same process:

The personal-computer revolution was a direct result of that value system. It was initiated and carried to fruition by youthful longhairs, on purpose, with striking consistency between what was intended and what was accomplished. The impulse was to decentralize authority—to undermine the high priests and air-conditioned mainframes of information technology and hand their power to absolutely everybody.

“Here are the tools to make your life better. And to make the world better,” Brand wrote in his foreword to the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog (01994)—the last edition published. “That they’re the same tools is our theory of civilization.”

A Merry Prankster tarot card of Stewart Brand linking the curatorial principles of the Catalog to the formation of the World Wide Web.


In the inaugural Whole Earth Catalog, Brand declared that “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” But we are as gods only because of our ancestors’ diligence. The promise of a technologically advancing future is predicated on millennia of accumulated knowledge. Civilization has taken a lot of work to build, and it demands a great deal of know-how to sustain. And as modern life increasingly encourages specialization, familiarity across that accumulated knowledge’s breadth can wane. Our ability to collaborate is a strength, but beyond a point we risk losing comprehension of the infrastructure—both physical and intellectual—that supports our modern lives. How can we retain that knowledge?

Stewart Brand at The Interval as the Manual For Civilization is constructed.


These questions inspired Long Now to build The Manual For Civilization. In developing the experience of The Interval, we integrated the Manual of Civilization book collection into the design layout as two floors of bookshelves that would face outward in The Interval space. The first floor shelves would be open and accessible for browsing, and the upper shelves would be accessible by staff, reached from the front by a tall ladder, or from the opposite side, since the shelves are open to the Long Now office above.

The Interval at Long Now in San Francisco.


As the opening date of The Interval approached in the summer of 02014, we knew we had a lot of empty shelves to fill, but had already started assembling the catalog as well as physical copies of books. In one pre-opening party, we had a bucket brigade of supporters passing physical books in the door, up the spiral staircase, to people on ladders who arranged the books on shelves, about 1,000 volumes that evening!

Kevin Kelly, with Alexander Rose, selects books from his personal library for The Manual For Civilization


We’ve had over 2,500 submissions and recommendations to the collection so far, with approximately 1,400 approved for inclusion in The Manual by our director Alexander Rose. Currently, 1,007 physical books reside in the Manual’s bookshelves. 861 titles from the collection are available to view on Libib.

Our plan is to solicit more book lists and recommendations until the list grows to about 5,000 from which we will edit the collection down to the 3,500 or so volumes that can fit on the shelves. We began the collection by using four broad categories to structure the collection:

  • Long-term Thinking, Past and Future: these include books on history as well as futurism and many books by Long Now speakers.
  • Rigorous Science Fiction: especially works that build richly imagined possible worlds to help us think about the future.
  • The Cultural Canon: great works of literature, poetry, philosophy, religion.
  • Mechanics of Civilization: “how-to” books for critical skills and technology, for example books on navigation, growing and gathering food, midwifery, forging tools.

Beyond these categories, we are exploring other ways to organize and catalog the collection, and to locate books on shelves. With any scheme though, we want to preserve the experience and delight of serendipitous discovery, of going to the bookshelf to look for one thing, and discovering three or four other things you are curious about.

Via humorous webcomic XKCD. 


We also hope to open up the discussion so that we can have an ongoing conversation about which books are in and out of the collection at any point in time, and why. With any curatorial principle comes a bias. This bias is problematic, but can be mitigated in a variety of ways. Wikipedia, for example, makes it possible for anybody to edit and contribute to its catalog. In the case of the Manual, we are committed to evolving our curatorial principle over time, the hope being that as we move through the Long Now, this living collection is responsive, adaptive and open.

We’ve already had a few valuable learning experiences. When the Manual launched, Long Now member and Brainpickings founder Maria Popova contemplated Stewart Brand’s selections for the Manual, and had “only one lament:”

One would’ve hoped that a lens on rebuilding human civilization would transcend the hegemony of the white male slant and would, at minimum, include a more equal gender balance of perspectives — of Brand’s 76 books, only one is written by a woman, one features a female co-author, and one is edited by a woman. It’s rather heartbreaking to see that someone as visionary as Brand doesn’t consider literature by women worthy of representing humanity in the long run. Let’s hope the Long Now balances the equation a bit more fairly as they move forward with the remaining entries in their 3,500-book collaborative library.

Long Now member Maria Popova.


Long Now immediately reached out to Popova and invited her to contribute her own list for the Manual. In selecting it, she found it especially challenging to reconcile the curatorial constraints of the Manual with her desire to offer a diverse and balanced representation of essential human knowledge:

I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll — once we crack one layer, there’s always another, a fractal-like subdivision that begins at the infinite and approaches the infinitesimal, getting exponentially granular with each layer, but can never be fully finished. If we take, for instance, the “women problem” — to paraphrase Margaret Atwood — then what about Black women? Black queer women? Non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women of Jewish descent? And on and on. Due to that infinite fractal progression, no attempt to “solve” diversity — especially no thirty-item list — could ever hope to be complete. The same goes for other variables like genre or subject: For every aficionado of fiction, there’s one of drama, then 17th-century drama, then 17th-century Italian drama, and so on.

The inherent biases in catalogs like the Manual must be acknowledged, and ideally mitigated through open conversation, if such catalogs are to persist over the long term. Over time, we believe that the conversation about what goes into Manual will become as rich and interesting as the collection in the Manual itself.

FURTHER READING

Watch Jimmy Wales’ 02006 SALT Talk on Wikipedia and the future of free culture.

Watch Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle’s 02011 SALT Talk on universal access to all knowledge.

Selections for The Manual For Civilization from members of the Long Now community:

Projects that inspired the Manual For Civilization:

  • The Rosetta Project: A multi-millennial micro-etched disk with a record of thousands of the world’s languages.
  • Westinghouse Time Capsules: Two time capsules (they actually coined the term for this project) by Westinghouse buried at Worlds Fair sites, one in 01939 and the other 01965 to be recovered in 5000 years.  They also did the very smart thing of making a “Book of Record” and an above ground duplicate of the contents on display.
  • The Human Document Project: A German project to create a record of humanity that will last one million years.
  • Crypt of Civilization: An airtight chamber located at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. The crypt consists of preserved artifacts scheduled to be opened in the year 8113 AD.
  • The Voyager Record: The Voyager Golden Records are phonograph records that were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or far future humans, who may find them.
  • Georgia Guidestones: The four granite Guidestones are covered in inscriptions written in 8 major languages that describe the tenets of their imagined Age of Reason.
  • Doomsday Chests by Noah Raford
  • The Forever Book an idea by Kevin Kelly
  • Global Village Construction Set
  • History of Humanity” project
  • The Library of Utility
  • The Memory of Mankind project
  • The Great Pyramid project
  • Digital Clay Tablets
  • Arnano sapphire and glass data storage

Content that has been discussed to be used for these projects:

  • The Gingery books are great first pass on how to re-start manufacturing technology
  • wikiHow has a lot of great info and it is continuously updated.  The entry on how to deliver a baby seems like a particularly handy one…
  • The Foxfire Books on homespun technology seem to have a slightly less industrial take than the Gingery books, and are pretty comprehensive
  • The Let’s Say You’ve Gone Back in Time poster to help you restart civilization by Ryan North the creator of the awesome Dinosaur Comics
  • The Way Things Work by David Macaulay.  This is a fantastic book, but it might leave people thinking that all technology is powered by woolly mammoths and angels.
  • The Harvard Classics originally known as Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf are often referred to as an item that should go into a record like this.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica People often suggest using the latest version that is now out of copyright.  I believe this is the 13th edition but so far I have only found digital copies of the 11th.
  • The Domesday book: The Domesday Book is the record of the great survey of England completed in 1086.  It would be interesting to find surveys and census’ from around the world
  • The Mormon Genealogical Data:  This is also held in a bunker outside Salt Lake City Utah, but it might be nice to have a record of gene lines for a future civilization to better understand its past.
  • The Top 100 Project Gutenberg books: If you are concerned with archiving works in copyright this is a great source to find texts that are free to use.
  • The Internet Archive: An archive of complete snapshots of the web as well as thousands of books and videos.  Incidentally you would also get all of our scanned page content from the Rosetta Project with this.
  • Wikipedia: The text only version of this is actually not that large, and could be archived fairly easily.  Also one of the few sources that is beginning to get filled out in many languages and is also not held under a copyright.
  • How to field dress a deer: PDF pocket version from Penn State College of Agricultural Science (living in Northern California, I think this one will be especially handy).
  • The Toaster Project
  • The Panlex Project of cross linked language dictionaries
  • The Survivor Library

 

Select Interval Talk Videos Now Online

Posted on June 7th, 02017 by Mikl Em
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Neal Stephenson at The Interval

As we mark the 3-year anniversary of the Conversations at The Interval lecture series, we’ve released video of more than a dozen Interval talks for the first time. HD video of fifteen select talks is now on The Interval website, free for everyone to enjoy.

Production of these talks was funded by donations from The Elkes Foundation, Because We Can, and Margaret & Will Hearst. Thanks to them and the ongoing support of Long Now members we can share these, and all our Long Now videos, free with the public.

Speakers featured include Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand; science fiction authors Neal Stephenson (shown above), Kim Stanley Robinson, and Andy Weir; artist Jonathon Keats; and internet archivist Jason Scott. Talk subjects range from interplanetary travel to the Internet of Things; digital preservation to the science of human taste; deep time art to the connection between genetics & ideology. You can see the full list of videos here.

Don’t know which to watch first? Here are a few suggestions:

Our first Interval speaker ever was Wired editor Adam Rogers who discussed the 10,000 year history of booze and the science behind it. You can see in the video and below how much The Interval has changed in 3 years.

Adam Rogers: Proof: The Science of Booze (May 02014)

Watch Adam Rogers at The Interval, May 02014

In the 01980s Jason Scott was an active participant in dial-up Bulletin Board Systems–one of the earliest networked communities. When he realized the content of the BBS era was in danger of disappearing he became, almost by accident, an archivist. Ever since, while some take the short-term view, Jason has stepped up to be a good ancestor for those who will inhabit the future networked world.

Jason Scott: The Web in an Eye Blink (February 02015).

Jason Scott at The Interval, "The Web in an Eyeblink" February 24, 02015

How does the frame of long-term thinking change the way we consider the present, past, and future of refugees and others migrating under duress? We assembled a panel of academics and experienced non-profit workers to discuss this important topic.

The Refugee Reality panel discussion (February 02016).

Watch Refugee Reality at The Interval, February 02016

If you enjoy Long Now’s long-running Seminar podcast and the videos of that series, we think you’ll enjoy these talks, too. An audio podcast of Interval talks will launch soon!

Our Interval series continues with new talks every month. Next up is our special daytime talk by authors Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland on Wednesday, June 14. And then on June 27, geologist Miles Traer discusses “The Geological Reveal” a deep time rock record history of the SF Bay Area.

June 14, 02017 at 12pm: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland at The Interval June 27, 02017: Miles Traer at The Interval " The Geological Reveal: How the Rock Record Shows Our Relationship to the Natural World"

 

If you can’t make The Interval talks in person we have a video livestream
exclusively for Long Now members. So you can watch live from anywhere.

We also have short clips from Interval talks on the Long Now YouTube and Facebook pages. We hope you enjoy them, and if so that you’ll share them with others. Here’s a clip of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 02016 talk:

Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland speak at The Interval: June 14, 02017

Posted on June 6th, 02017 by Mikl Em
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Authors Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland at The Interval on Wednesday, June 14

Next week is the 3-year anniversary of Long Now’s Interval cafe and bar opening to the public in San Francisco. Since 02014 we’ve produced sixty-six long-term thinking lectures at The Interval.

On this milestone week we’re pleased to welcome authors Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland on Wednesday, June 14, 02017 to discuss their novel The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. which debuts next week. This will be a special daytime event that starts at noon Pacific Time.

Tickets for this event sold out in less than an hour to Long Now members; one of our member benefits is early access to buy Interval event tickets. But, as we do for all our talks, we will host a live video stream of this event—starting at 12:30pm PT (UTC -7:00). The earlier time will we hope allow Long Now members and fans around the world will tune in, as it’s a more convenient hour in many time zones than our usual evening talks.

You do have to be a Long Now member to watch on the Long Now site. Membership starts at $8/month and comes with lots of benefits. So we hope you will consider joining if you are not yet a member; and if you are, we hope you will spread the word!

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. features time travel, ancient texts,
 19th century technology, 
a language expert as protagonist, and magic. Sounds like the perfect summer reading for imaginative long-term thinkers!

This is Neal’s second visit to The Interval. In 02015 he talked about his novel Seveneves with Stewart Brand. Video of that talk is now live on The Interval site. He and Nicole will be joined in conversation by Long Now’s Executive Director Alexander Rose.

Neal’s long-time connection with The Long Now Foundation goes back to 01998 when he offered some design ideas about the 10,000 Year Clock to our co-founder Danny Hillis. Those sketches became the basis for his novel Anathem, published a decade later, which Neal launched with a Long Now event in San Francisco. In 02014 he not only gave us a list of books for the Manual for Civilization project, but he personally donated to help us build The Interval.

All of this makes his and Nicole’s visit during The Interval anniversary week even more special. We’re excited to learn more about the book and to share this event live with our members everywhere. We hope you will join us! More about the June 14 event.

Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland at The Interval, June 14 02017

Göbekli Tepe and the Worst Day in History

Posted on May 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Technological advances are revolutionizing the field of archaeology, resulting in new discoveries that are upending our previous understanding of the birth of civilization. Many scholars believe that few will be as consequential as Göbekli Tepe.

The ruins of Göbekli Tepe. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi.


IN 01963, anthropologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Istanbul surveyed ruins atop of a hill in Southern Turkey that the locals called Göbekli Tepe (“potbelly hill” in Turkish). Examining the broken limestone slabs dotting the site, the anthropologists concluded that the mound was nothing more than a Byzantine cemetery—a dime a dozen in the ruin-rich Levant region.

Three decades later, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt made a startling claim: Göbekli Tepe was the site of the world’s oldest temple. Geomagnetic surveys of the site revealed circles of  limestone megaliths dating back 11,600 years—seven millennia before the construction of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, six millennia before the invention of writing, and five centuries before the development of agriculture.

Photograph by Vincent J. Musi.


The implications of Schmidt’s discoveries were profound, and called into question previous archaeological and scientific understandings about the Neolithic Revolution, the key event in human development pointed to as the birth of human civilization. “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later, to civilization,” journalist Charles Mann wrote in a 02011 National Geographic cover story on the site. “[Göbekli Tepe] suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” As Andrew Curry of The Smithsonian put it after a visit to Göbekli Tepe with Schmidt:

Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

Einkorn wheat was first domesticated near Göbekli Tepe—perhaps, posits Charles Mann, to feed those who came to worship. Photo by Vincent J. Musi.


Schmidt believed that humans made pilgrimages to Göbekli Tepe from as far away as 90 miles. But then there’s the question of what, exactly, these pilgrims were worshipping. As Curry mused after his visit to Göbekli Tepe:

What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe’s builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn’t speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean

In a March 02017 article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis proposed a bold theory: the pillars are telling the story of a comet hitting the earth and triggering an ice age some 13,000 years ago. The comet strike, known as the Younger Dryas Impact Event, is hypothesized to have set off a global cooling period that depleted hunter-gatherer resources and forced humans to settle into areas where they could cultivate crops.

On the left, an artistic rendering of the Younger Dryas Impact Event. On the right, the night sky around 10,950 BC when the impact hypothetically occurred. Image: Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis


Combining the approaches of astronomy and archaeology, Sweatman and Tsikritsis claim that the animals carved on the pillars depict constellations, with the famous vulture stone indicating a time stamp of the night sky at the time of the catastrophe. Using computer software, Sweatman and Tsikritsis matched the animal carving to patterns of the stars, yielding three possibilities that synced up to their astronomical interpretations, plus or minus 250 years: 02000, 4350 BCE, 10,950 BCE, and 18,000 BCE.

The date of 10,950 BCE aligns with the latest hypotheses as to when the Younger Dryas Impact Event occurred, lending credence to Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ interpretation that the Vulture Stone depicts what Sweatman calls “probably the worst day in history since the end of the Ice Age.”

The famous vulture stone, which Sweatman and Tsikritsis claim depicts the constellations of the night sky. Photo by Vincent J. Musi.


But, as Becky Ferreira of Motherboard reports, there’s reason to regard Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ claims with skepticism. For one, many scholars do not accept the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis that a comet strike served as the catalyst for the Ice Age that followed. Some have also criticized Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ study for omitting crucial information to make their case. Archaeologist Jens Notroff, a researcher at the Göbekli Tepe site, takes Sweatman and Tsikritsis to task for failing to mention that the headless man on the vulture stone, which they claim symbolizes the devastating loss of human life after the comet, also possesses an erect phallus—hardly a robust indicator of loss of life.

“There’s more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 B.C.] than from Sumer to today,” says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility.”

Perhaps. But if the recent archaeological discoveries are any indication, we are often mistaken in our assumptions about the complexity and historic trajectory of ancient civilizations. Time will tell. And technology will help.

FURTHER READING

As of this writing, Sweatman and Tsikritsis are working on a rebuttal to critiques of their paper.

Read Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ article in full.

Göbekli Tepe was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List five years ago and is expected to become a protected UNESCO Heritage site next year.

Read our February 02017 feature on how one historian is combining the approaches of comparative mythology of evolutionary biology with new computational modeling technologies to reconstruct some of humanity’s oldest myths.

Read Charles Mann’s National Geographic story in full. Mann also gave a Seminar for Long Now in April 02012.

Is Anything Original? The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Remediation

Posted on May 19th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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As PBS Newshour reports, modern-day renaissance workshop Factum Arte preserves art and historical works threatened by war, looting and the passage of time by creating high tech, full-scale reproductions of them. In so doing, the organization is challenging notions of what constitutes an original work of art.

Factum Arte is recreating works of art recently destroyed by ISIS and damaged in the Syrian Civil War. Via Factum Arte.

 

A Monument to Outlast Humanity

Posted on May 17th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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“City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that is mined and mixed on site. Via Jamie Hawkesworth / The New Yorker

Michael Heizer, an eccentric pioneer of the Earthworks movement, is almost done with the mile-and-a-half sculpture he’s been working on for upwards of half a century in a remote Nevada desert. And almost nobody has seen it. “City,” inspired by the ancient ritual sites of past civilizations and set to open to the public in 02020, is one of the most ambitious artworks ever attempted. The New Yorker recently profiled Heizer’s life and work, providing the first in-depth look at his efforts to build a monument to outlast humanity.

Read the feature in full here. To see more photos of “City,” head here.

SEE ALSO: Long Now’s 02012 profile of Heizer’s Levitating Mass, a 340-ton mass of granite and one of the only sculptures in the world meant to be walked under, now on permanent display at LACMA.

The Orrery at The Interval: An Invitation to Long-Term Thinking

Posted on April 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, The Big Here, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

As visitors to Fort Mason amble past The Interval, the Long Now Foundation’s cafe-bar-museum-venue space, some are drawn, as if by gravitational pull, to an unusual eight foot-tall stainless steel technological curiosity they glimpse through the glass doors. Metal gears sit stacked one on top of the other to form a tower, with geneva wheels jutting out like staircase steps. Halfway up, the structure blooms into a globe of crisscrossing rings of metal, with seven orbs of differing color and size strung along them.

It is the Long Now Orrery, a twenty-first century interpretation of an ancient device that tracks the relative position of the six planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury through Saturn) as they make their way around the sun.



Orreries came in vogue in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, where they were deployed as aids to teach a largely non-scientific public about the new heliocentric universe being revealed by the Scientific Revolution. After centuries of believing the Earth was the static, privileged center of the universe, orreries helped the European imagination re-calibrate to a bigger here and a longer now.

The Orrery at the Interval has much the same role. It is both a mechanism and an icon. As a mechanism, it functions as the first working prototype of an orrery that will help the 10,000 Year Clock tell time through the millennia. The one in the clock will be four times as large. As an icon, the Orrery draws people into the orbit of long-term thinking and opens up a space for conversations about our place in the universe.

Here’s how it works.

 

I. The Center of the Universe (01543)

The Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, with the Earth stationary at the center. By Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmical, (01660).

It is clear, then, that the earth must be at center and immovable.

—ARISTOTLE, De Caelo

It was something of an open secret in seventeenth century European astronomy circles: the Earth revolved around the sun.

The notion was not without historical precedent. In 01514, when Nicolaus Copernicus began privately circulating his theory on planetary motion, he cited the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who proposed a heliocentric model of the universe in the third century BCE.

An armillary sphere in a painting by Florentine Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, (c. 01480). Via Wikipedia.


But in the context of early modern Europe, the implications were profound, and appeared to contradict both common sense and the Bible. Since the time of Ptolemy (ca. 150 AD), the West conceived of the cosmos in anthropocentric and geocentric terms. This cosmographic understanding was reflected in calendars, maps and the armillary sphere, an ornate physical model of the cosmos consisting of a spherical framework of rings that mapped celestial longitude and latitude from the Earth’s perspective.

A drawing by Nicolaus Copernicus of the heliocentric model of the Solar System with the Earth revolving around the Sun. From his On The Revolutions of The Heavenly Spheres (01543).

 

Now, in the model put forth by Copernicus, the Earth was reduced to a mere point in a sun-centered universe, no more special than its celestial neighbors. Anticipating the upheavals his ideas would bring about, Copernicus delayed publishing On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until 01543, the year after his death and the year most historians point to as the start of the Scientific Revolution.

Galileo’s discovery of the four moons of Jupiter using the newly invented telescope in January 01610 proved that the solar system contained celestial bodies that did not orbit Earth. And Newton’s theories of universal gravity and gravitational attraction, first proposed in 01687, explained why planets orbit along elliptical trajectories—something first inferred by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 01609.

But it would take more than observation and theory for Europeans at large to shake the notion that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

It would take the orrery.

 

II. Round the Gilded Sun (01704)

An orrery of John Rowley. Detail of an engraving from The Universal Magazine (01749).

 

O! pray! move on, Sir, said she, this is amazingly fine: I fancy myself travelling along with that little Earth in its course round the gilded Sun, as I know I am in reality with that on which I stand, round the real one.

—JOHN HARRIS, Astronomical Dialogues, (01725)

Astronomers and scientists began constructing orreries to get celestial bearings in this new Copernican universe. The orrery built on the armillary sphere, but with a Copernican twist: viewers would not only be able to see this new universe in miniature; they’d be able to track the movements of its planets over time.

The deeper, theological implications of heliocentrism were baked into the design. As Denis Cosgrove, in his cartographic genealogy of the Earth in the Western imagination (02001), writes:

The Creator’s disengagement from an active presence was implicit in the new cosmology, and had profound implications for global images and meanings. Unlike the armillary, the orrery’s meaning lies in motion: inert matter is driven by forces that once set in motion continue to operate independently as the variously sized spheres revolve at divergent speeds.

George Graham’s orrery and its mechanism, constructed sometime between 01704-01709. Via Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.


The credit for inventing the first modern orrery is disputed. The device would not answer to the name until famed inventor John Rowley presented one to Charles Boyle, the Fourth Earl of Orrery, in 01713. Rowley — and, more rarely, Orrery himself — is sometimes credited as the orrery’s inventor, but Rowley based his model’s design on a proto-orrery created in 01704 by English clockmakers George Graham and Thomas Tompion. Graham and Tompion’s model was simple, displaying only the Earth and its orbiting moon as it made its way across the sun.

 Stukeley’s drawing of Hales’ orrery. It bears the inscription: ‘This was a drawing I made at CCCC from a machine invented and executed by Mr. Stephen Hales, about 1705.’ Via Geared to the Stars (01978).


Then there’s the matter of William Stukeley, a physician and friend of Isaac Newton who, as Henry C. King (01978) puts it, “had the unfortunate habit of adding retrospective notes and passages to his early diaries.” Stukeley believed that it was Stephen Hales, a classmate from his days at Cambridge, and not Rowley, who was the orrery’s true inventor. In a 12 December 01752 diary entry, he writes:

about the year whilst I resided in Bennet Coll. [Chorpus Christi] where Dr. Hale [sic] was then fellow, at his request I made a drawing, which I had still by me, of a planetarium made by Dr. Hale. It was a machine to shew the motion of the earth moon & planets, in the nre [nature] of what they have since made in London, by the name of Orrerys. Dr. Hales proposed to me that we shd make another, upon an improv’d design, but my father dying, whilst I was undergraduate, wh making my stay at college somewhat uncertain, the design was dropped.

An animation of the 21 plates of Edward Quin’s 01830 atlas, which mapped the “Known World” from 2348 BCE to 01828. Via Slate.


These competing claims for provenance in the early eighteenth century occurred against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Philosophers and scientists vaunted reason and empirical observation as the sources of authority, contradicting the church. Seafarers and traders navigated across unmapped waters, bringing back with them astronomical knowledge that fueled global competition among European states. This competition, in turn, drove many clockmakers to produce devices of ever greater precision, not just for navigators for the lay public as well. “Knowledge of the terrestrial globe, its place in the solar system, and its geographical patterns,” writes Cosgrove, became “a prerequisite for educated men and women.”

“The Compleat Orrery described by Mr. S. Dunn” (01780). Via Geared to the Stars (01978).


As Henry C. King writes in his history of orreries, planetaria, and astronomical clocks (01978):

Some of the best work went into machines made for kings, princes, and wealthy patrons, but towards the end of the eighteenth century in England public interest in Newtonian natural philosophy encouraged instrument-makers to consider a wider market for their products. Like Blaeu and Moxon of an earlier age, they found it worthwhile to make machines that sacrificed ornamentation, but not necessarily craftsmanship, for scientific excellence and educational merit. The study of astronomy no longer became the prerogative of a chosen few but was laid open to the understanding of any literate person, regardless of social and educational background.

Orreries grew more popular and advanced as the Enlightenment swept Europe over the eighteenth century. They came to be seen as more than just a visual instruction in the new science; they were desirable possessions and icons of the scientific method. Most importantly, they succeeded in reorienting a largely non-scientific public to a perspective that could see the implications of Copernicanism as obvious, instead of radical.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766), by Joseph Wright. Via Wikipedia.


Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766) underscores the Enlightenment Age shift from traditional religious models towards ones based on reason and empirical observation. A domestic group of eight gathers round an orrery, its sun represented by a candle so illuminating that a man sitting to its right must shield his eyes. A scholar leans over the orrery, explaining its mechanics and underlying Newtonian principles. Breaking from artistic tradition, the faces of the two boys sitting at the orrery’s edge express the kind awe and wonder normally reserved for religious events and icons.

As art historian Abram Fox puts it:

According to the French academies of art, the highest genre of painting was history painting, which depicted Biblical or classical subjects to demonstrate a moral lesson. This high regard for history painting was adopted by the British. Wright took this noble, aggrandizing method of portraying events and applied it to a composition showing a contemporary subject in A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery.

Rather than a moral of leadership or heroism, this painting’s “moral” is the pursuit of scientific knowledge. With its collection of non-idealized men, women, boys, and girls informally arranged in a small physical space around a central organizing point, Wright’s painting mimics the compositional structure of a conversation piece (an informal group portrait), but with the dramatic lighting and scale expected from a major religious scene.

In effect, A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery does depict a moment of religious epiphany. The figures listening to the philosopher’s lecture in Wright’s painting are experiencing conversion…to science.

The Orrery in Aughra’s observatory in The Dark Crystal (01982).


Orreries eventually fell out of favor as the modern world developed and the Copernican perspective became the default way of understanding the world. Mechanical orreries are still being built, but they are more works of art than instruction aid. Today, few outside horology and cosmography would be familiar with the term “orrery,” though orreries have occasionally made pop culture cameos, notably in climactic, high stakes scenes in The Dark Crystal (01982) and Tomb Raider (02001).

A fragment of the Antikythera mechanism. The scales on Fragment C divide the year by days and signs of the zodiac. Via Smithsonian.


But orreries still have lessons to teach. The discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, a proto-orrery and analogue computer dating back to 200 BCE that displayed the diurnal motions of the Sun, Moon and the five known planets, has challenged our assumptions about antiquarian astronomy and technology. Found in a 01901 shipwreck off the Greek coast by sponge divers, the Antikythera mechanism mystified scholars until 02006, when advances in x-ray technology revealed a hidden differential gear — thought to be an eighteenth century invention.

Despite their obscurity, orreries remain a useful tool to educate students about foundational ideas in astronomy. Human orreries have launched at a number of universities, where students play the role of the “planets,” and use their positions as modeled by the orrery to predict what they’ll see in the sky that night. Increased computing power has led to the advent of digital orreries for students to easily track planetary motion.

Photo by Bassam Khabieh / Reuters, March 2, 02017


In March 02017, war photographer Bassam Khabieh visited a school damaged by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Douma in Syria. After six years of civil war, the country’s education system has been decimated. Teachers in ISIS territory risk their lives if they teach lessons that do not cohere to ISIS ideology.

In one of Khabieh’s photographs, a damaged orrery stands amidst the dusty rubble, the plastic sphere of Earth dislodged from its mount.

 

III. A Prototype for the Queen (01999)

The First Prototype of the 10,000 Year Clock on display at the Science Museum in London

 

At Long Now Foundation we’ve always resisted the idea of turning the institution into a religion — even though religions may have the best track record for long-term endurance. But the comparison to monks devoting their lives to maintain a remote and long-lived clock is hard to avoid, especially if you show up at a momentous clock event in a hooded robe.

—KEVIN KELLY

As the seconds ticked towards a new millennium, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand stood contemplatively before the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now in a hooded robe, waiting.

On the left is Brand during his 01966 Whole Earth campaign. On the right, Brand stands before the first Clock prototype on New Year’s Eve, 01999.


Thirty four years earlier, Brand mounted a successful campaign to have NASA release the first photographs of the whole earth from space. Now, on the eve of the millennium, Brand, Danny Hillis, Brian Eno and the Long Now Foundation were attempting to build something that would do for thinking about time what the photographs of the Earth did for thinking about the environment.

“Such icons reframe the way people think,” Brand wrote in 01999.

Cosgrove writes that like the the Copernican orrery, the image of a vital planet floating in the cosmic void helped catalyze a revolution in the global imagination, prefiguring the modern environmental movement and rise of globalization:

The Copernican revolution was secured through the circulation of cosmographic images that challenged ways of imagining and experiencing not only planetary arrangement and movement but the entire arrangement in which human existence was created and performed.

Twentieth-century photographic images of the earth have stimulated equally profound changes in perceptions of society, self, and the world. Both sets of images demarcate key moments in the evolution of the ‘globalized’ earth.

Earthrise, seen for the first time by human eyes, 24 December 01968. Via NASA.


The first step to making an iconic clock is making a clock that works. The clock prototype was completed in a frenzied rush only hours before midnight, after three years of research and design. Brand, Hillis and some dozen others gathered in the offices of the Internet Archive in San Francisco’s Presidio district to see if it would tick.

“It was a very strange scene,” Kevin Kelly recalled.

“Because of hysteria about Y2K, the Presidio was blockaded with a police checkpoint. No one else was around the usually busy park. It was a like a secret society meeting. Stewart had just returned from a vacation in Morocco a day before so he was wearing a djellaba. He looked like a monk overseeing the clock’s big moment.”

A hush swept the room as the final seconds counted down. 3…2…1. Clicking gears whirred into place. And then: GONG! A chime rang in the new century. And: GONG! Another chime signaled the start of a new millennium.

Like clockwork.

In the months that followed, Long Now presented the prototype at TED before installing it at the Science Museum in London. It was the culminating piece of the museum’s “Making of the Modern World” exhibit, which was opened by the Queen of England. The prototype remains there today on permanent loan.

“We realized it was kind of sad to have built the Prototype but not have one of our own,” Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose recalled. “Don’t get me wrong: it’s in a fantastic museum in a fantastic location, but it would’ve been nice to have a prototype for ourselves.”

A wood-engraved frontispiece illustrating “a small portion of Mr Babbage’s Difference Engine,” (01872). Via Hordern House.


Enter Nathan Myhrvold, then-CTO of Microsoft. He was using a unique funding model to finance the Science Museum’s efforts to construct the difference engine that Charles Babbage designed in 01849 but, because of the limits of machine technology at the time, was not able to build. Myhrvold and the Science Museum agreed that if he were to fund the construction of two iterations of Babbage’s machine, he’d get to keep one.

The Babbage Difference Engine, built by the Science Museum of London in 02002, 153 years after it was first designed. Via Computer History.


Myhrvold reached out and made the same deal with Long Now, financing its efforts towards building a second Clock prototype. At the time, Rose and Danny Hillis had only a notional idea as to what that prototype would be.

Hillis decided that, rather than build a full clock, he’d design a part of the clock that would be the planetary display. Like the first prototype, such a device would require tackling unprecedented design problems raised by keeping track of, and lasting through, deep time. Unlike the first prototype, Long Now would get to keep a copy this time.

 

IV. A Robust and Durable Computer (02005)

“I love that thing,” says Francis Pedraza, an Interval regular, when I ask him about the Orrery over his afternoon tea. He’s never heard the term “orrery,” which he jots down in his notebook as soon as I mention it. But he has a good guess as to what it does.

“Check it out,” Pedraza says, raising his left wrist to show me his Apple Watch. Its face displays a digital orrery of the solar system. A simple twist of the crown by Pedraza sends the planets scurrying forward or backward in time across their celestial trajectories, displaying effortlessly what took Early Modern European scientists painstaking precision to engineer.

“It’s great,” Pedraza says. “People see that I’m wearing a watch, and they ask me the time. And I say: ‘It’s half past Mars!’”

If Pedraza were so inclined, he could twist the crown to 10,000 years into the future (it would likely take a few hours). But with planned obsolescence baked in, Pedraza’s watch would be lucky to last another two years. The Long Now Orrery, on the other hand, must be a precise and durable computer for 10,000 years.

A fragment of a Roman nundinae for the month of April (Aprilis), showing its nundinal letters on the left side. Via Wikipedia.


On its face, an orrery may seem an unlikely technology to depend on for the long term. But it makes sense when one considers how the way we’ve measured time has changed throughout history. It’s likely that our current use of hours, minutes, weeks and months may be as obscure and forgotten as the nundina, the akhet, or the gesh several millennia from now.

The day, the year, and the movements of the other planets in our solar system, on the other hand, aren’t subject to the whims of those in power or passing cultural trends. The 10,000 Year Clock keeps track of these robust units of time. The Clock’s main dial keeps track of the Sun, Moon and stars while The Orrery models our solar system.

 
Danny Hillis, Long Now Co-Founder and designer of the Clock and Orrery. Via Discover Magazine.


“If you came up to the clock thousands of years from now,” said Danny Hillis, “You could still read the time, even if you did not have the same time system we have now.”

The prototype is designed to update each planet’s position twice a day, providing something of a kinetic sculpture of the Long Now as a time scale: Mercury completes one revolution in about 88 days; the Earth takes exactly one solar year; Saturn makes it around the Sun in just under thirty years.

Each of the Orrery’s planets is ground from a stone that resembles the celestial body it represents. The Sun is made of yellow calcite; Mercury of meteorite; Venus of lemon yellow Mexican calcite; Earth of Chilean lapis; Mars of red Namibian Jasper; Jupiter of banded sandstone; and Saturn, of banded Utah onyx.

It took over a year of searching for Alexander Rose to find the perfect stones. “You get the right idea of what stone you want, but then you have to get the right one,” he recalled. “They can come in all shapes and patterns, and by the time it gets ground down to the right size you don’t know if it’s going to look like the planet. With the Earth, we knew wanted Chilean lapis, which has those cloudy inclusions not seen in regular blue lapis, but then it was a question of finding one that had the right cloud patterns and continents.”

The Orrery was conceptualized by Danny Hillis, with project management and additional design by Alexander Rose. The lead engineer was Paolo Salvagione, and the lead machinist and fabricator was Christopher Rand. Other machinists included Erio Brown, Brian Roe, Mark Ribaud, Reason Bradley, General Precision, Oakland Machine Works, Jim Johnson, Brian Ford, Ebin Stromquist. The base was fabricated by Seattle Solstice.


Most traditional clocks perform their mathematics in the orientation of gears around an axis. A gear measured this way can be in an infinite number and continuous number of states (an analog representation).

The problem with building a 10,000 year clock using gears is that the gears can slowly wear down and slip, allowing inaccuracy to build up within the system over long periods of time. Even the best made clocks in the world will experience this after a few hundred years. To address this, Danny Hillis invented the Serial Bit Adder. The Serial Bit Adder is a simple mechanical binary computer that converts continuous motion from the gear (analog energy), into a digital output.

The crucial mathematical logic for the bit adders is represented in the positions of the pins, which can only ever be in one of two states (digital), even if they become significantly worn. The bit adders calculate how much to move the planets in the display based on the known input of two rotations per day by the Orrery’s central shaft. As that shaft rotates it also turns the 6 bit adder disks: one for each planet.

A bit adder consists of a rotating disk and two sets of 27 mechanical pins. Each individual pin can be in one of two states, and each set of pins taken altogether represents a 27 bit number. One set of pins is immovable — these are set based on the calculation that particular bit adder must perform; they are, in other words, the program. The other set of pins can move between the two possible states; they represent an accumulator.

The Orrery’s base, featuring the serial bit adder.


As the bit adder’s disk rotates, a portion of the disk reads the program from the unmoving bits and is moved by them. Its movements cause the other set of bits to be flipped as necessary. Each time the adder rotates, it adds the number encoded in the static pins into the number encoded by the moveable ones. That number is a fraction between zero and one. As the outer pins accumulate the value represented by the inner pins, their value grows towards one. When they surpass a value of one, the adder produces an output that adjusts its corresponding planet by way of engaging a 6-sided Geneva wheel. In this way, a precise ratio can be calculated based on the two daily rotations of the central shaft and applied to the planets in the display.

Author Neal Stephenson, who based his book Anathem (02008) partly on the 10,000 Year Clock, at the unveiling of the Orrery.


The Orrery was completed in 02005, and displayed at Long Now’s Fort Mason headquarters back when the space was a museum. In the lead up to designing and building the Interval, Alexander Rose knew the Orrery would be crucial component from an experience design perspective.

“It was obviously this shiny metal object,” said Rose. “By centering it by the front doors, it becomes the focal point when you walk in.”

“We had two goals with the walk-in experience: to suck you in from outside with the Orrery, and to force you to look up. That’s what the big wall of books for the Manual for Civilization is about.”

“Studies in psychology have shown that when you look up, you’re primed for an awe experience,” Rose says. “The Orrery was meant as the eye candy visible from outside to get you inside. The books behind it are what change your perspective and inspire you to move around the space.”

 

V. Human Orreries (02017–10,000)

Back at The Interval, Pedraza brings up what, for some, is an uncomfortable truth: despite our post-Copernican knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun, many of us still maneuver through the world with the assumption that we are the center of the universe.

The author David Foster Wallace addressed this tendency towards self-centeredness in a commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 02005:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

“If we consider that thing for a second,” Pedraza says, pointing to the Orrery and starting to scribble in his pad. “It’s this expanded long-term view of where we fit into the universe. It’s not where most people are hanging out.”

“If we imagine instead an orrery with a human as the globe at the center,” he continues, “the orbits of their concerns are very immediate in a time sense. Very short-term instant gratification. Very ‘this week’ and ‘what now?’ focused.”

Sketch by illustrator Dan Bransfield.


He shows me a drawing of a human orrery orbited by different spheres of obligations, roles, and time considerations.

“You guys are trying to get them from thinking like this,” he says, pointing to his drawing, “to that,” pointing to the Orrery. “That’s a hell of a challenge.”

Perhaps Pedraza is right. But that does not make the effort any less necessary. And the Orrery at the Interval — mechanism, icon, “shiny metal object” — is an essential component of that effort. It draws passers-by to the threshold of long-term thinking, inviting them to expand the orrery of their concerns to include not just the spheres of their immediate orbit, but the Earth as well; and not just for the present interval, but the next ten thousand years, too.

 

How Hard Would It Be To Restart Civilization From Scratch?

Posted on April 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Manual for Civilization   chat 0 Comments

Via TED.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an entire civilization to build a toaster.

That’s what Designer Thomas Thwaites learned when he set himself the challenge of building his own, from start to Pop Tarts. He smelted ore, coaxed plastic out of oil, and toiled towards a prototype that worked for a total of thirty seconds.

Long Now board member Kevin Kelly, in a 02014 SALT Talk on the technium, said that Thwaites’ project reveals the deeply interconnected and dependent nature of the technologies that make up our modern world:

A technology such as the mouse is made up of hundreds of technologies, and they themselves are requiring hundreds of other technologies to support it. These technologies form networks in the sense that they are all self-supporting. To make a saw, you need a hammer to hammer the saw blade. To have a hammer, you need a saw to cut the wood. The more complex the technology, the more self-supporting and self-dependent it is. You might think of any complex invention as a network of dependent and self-sustaining different technologies.

British astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, who spoke at The Interval in 02015  and provided his expertise for the Manual for Civilization, uses thought experiments grounded in global catastrophe to explore the depth of our dependence on these technologies—and their dependence on one another. If the world as we know it were to end tomorrow, he asks, what would be necessary to rebuild key features of civilization like agriculture, communication, transportation, and medicine? How far could such a post-apocalyptic society get?

Dartnell’s technological thought experiments tackle such questions as: how do you get into a can without a can opener? Via YouTube.

A recent Darnell thought experiment, published in Aeon, broaches one of the technologies modern civilization depends on most, but whose resources are fast depleting: fossil fuels.

It’s easy to underestimate our current dependence on fossil fuels. In everyday life, their most visible use is the petrol or diesel pumped into the vehicles that fill our roads, and the coal and natural gas which fire the power stations that electrify our modern lives. But we also rely on a range of different industrial materials, and in most cases, high temperatures are required to transform the stuff we dig out of the ground or harvest from the landscape into something useful. You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy.

So, Dartnell asks:

Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?

Charcoal production in Brazil. Photo by Franz Lanting/Getty. Via Aeon.

Dartnell’s answer is: “maybe – but it would be extremely difficult.” Our best bet, he concludes, may be a combination of burning wood for fuel and using renewable energy for electricity, which would only work if the population were sufficiently small in size. But, Dartnell says, there’s a catch:

These options all presuppose that our survivors are able to construct efficient steam turbines, CHP stations and internal combustion engines. We know how to do all that, of course – but in the event of a civilisational collapse, who is to say that the knowledge won’t be lost? And if it is, what are the chances that our descendants could reconstruct it?

The question of what knowledge is essential to sustain or rebuild civilization inspired the Long Now to start the Manual For Civilization. Alexander Rose, Executive Director of Long Now, believes there’s more to the problem than just knowing how to remake a technology like steam turbines.

The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia, located in Segovia, Spain and built in 112 AD. Via Wikipedia.

“After the fall of the great Egyptian, Mayan, and Roman empires we had evidence and examples of their engineering achievements all around us,” he said. “But aqueducts or senate buildings are worthless without a society around them to maintain, contextualize, and protect them.”

You can read Lewis Dartnell’s Aeon article on rebooting civilization without fossil fuels in full here. Dartnell’s latest book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, is available here.  For more information on his thought experiment on the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our world works and how you could reboot civilization from scratch visit www.the-knowledge.org

 

Tiffany Shlain Presents 50/50 Day

Posted on April 14th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Events   chat 0 Comments

“Women have always been an equal part of the past,” the American feminist Gloria Steinem once said. “We just haven’t been a part of history.” On May 10th, thousands of people will gather at events across the globe to discuss what it will take to get to a more gender-balanced world.

Historical female leaders from 50/50.

It’s part of the 50/50 global initiative launched by Tiffany Shlain, the Emmy-nominated filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards. The centerpiece film for the global conversation will be 50/50, a 26-minute documentary by Shlain that explores the 10,000 year history of women and power.

Long Now is partnering with Tiffany Shlain for the San Francisco events on 50/50 Day. If you’re inspired to get involved or host a screening, sign up here. You can watch the full 50/50 documentary here.

Back in 02010, Shlain participated in our “Long Conversation” event in dialogue with environmentalist Paul Hawken and also with game designer Jane McGonigal.