The Long Now

What happens fast is illusion, what happens slow is reality. The job of the long view is to penetrate illusion.

Stewart Brand’s Clock of the Long Now is about an ambitious project to reframe human endeavor to focus on the long term. Not next week, next month, next year, or even next decade. Really long term. The Long Now Foundation is building a 10,000 year clock and a library to go with it. Their purpose is to take care of information deemed especially useful over long periods of time. For example, by promoting long term scientific studies, they can keep track of decisions with long term consequences. No other institution is set up to do this.

The main problem might be stated, How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? How do we make the taking of long-term responsibility inevitable?

Rigorous long-view thinking makes responsibility taking inevitable because it response to the slower, deeper feedback loops of the whole society and the natural world.

The style of the book is unusual- its written as a mosaic- each chapter a separate essay in different situational voice Its exploratory, rather than convergent. Its a collection of essays that teach the practical use of the long time perspective.

The ultimate reason for initiating something ambitious is not to fulfill certain notions but to find out what surprises might emerge. The most remarkable results almost certainly cannot be anticipated.

The product of even the most imaginative and prudent forethought is not certainty but surprise.

Reframing Human Endeavor

The truly long term perspective requires a major perspective shift.

Clock/library aims for the mythic depth to become, as Brian Eno puts it, “one of those system-level ideas which sets in motion all sorts of behaviour without ever having to be referred to directly again. This is what dominant mythos do: they make some sorts of behaviour ring with recognition and familiarity and value and a sense of goodness, and thus lay deep templates for social cohesion about what would otherwise be very hard-to-discuss topics.”
In this respect it might be like a species genotype, which contains much more hidden diversity (in recessive genes, mutations, etc.) than what is expressed in current bodily phenotypes. By its very inefficiency the genotype preserves tremendous adaptivity in the species.

One simple heuristic they propose is to expand the concept of present to two hundred years, personally experienced, generations- based period of time.

The trick is learning how to treat the last ten thousand years as if it were last week, and the next ten thousand as if it were next week. Such tricks confer advantage.

The book introduces two concepts (1) Kairos- opportunity of a propitious moment and (2)Chronos- Eternal or ongoing time. While the first offers hope, the second extends a warning. Kairos is the time of cleverness, chronos the time of wisdom.

There are so many varieties of short-term opportunity, and the pace of events buffets our attention with so many surprises, it is as if the old dialogue between opportunistic kairos and durational chronos has become a monologue, just a shriek of joy into the gale of freefall.

In praise of slow learning and long science

The incentive structure of science is not set up to study important questions. In the domain of atmosphere and climate, the delay between cause and effect can be 30 years. We are changing the world faster than we are understanding it.

Since it is the long, slow fluctuations and cycles that most influence everything in ecology, we still don’t have the most important information on how natural systems actually work over t ime.
Enormous inexorable power is in the long trends, but we cannot measure them or even notice them without doing extremely patient science.

Closely related to this, our society overemphasizes fast learning. But quick answers aren’t always right.

As history accelerates, people become fast learners, and thats good, but its also a problem. “Fast learners tend to track noisy signals to closely and confuse themselves by making changes before the effects of previous actions are clear, says decision analyst James March. Quiz shows and classroom reward the quick answers. This is not helpful in domains where the quick answer is the wrong answer.

Making use of accumulated wisdom

The accumulated past is life’s best resource for innovation.

Brand emphasizes the importance of making use of accumulated wisdom. This contrasts sharply with the utopian ideal of a hard restart, or the arrogance of a conquering civilization. Utopias eventually become dystopias. The Spaniards destroyed valuable scientific knowledge that the Mayans had developed, setting civilization back centuries.

Starting anew with a clean slate has been mone of the most harmful ideas in history. It treate previous knowledge as an impediment, and imagines that only present knowledge deployed in theoretical purity can make real the wondrous new vision. Thus the French revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 each made brave new worlds but catastrophically failed. By cutting off continuity with the slower parts of their cultures they had no fallback. The American Revolution of 1776, by contrast, was highly conservative. Its instigators studied Roman, Venetian, and even Iroquois history for precedents. There was little of the brutal rhetoric of making a total break with the past. As a result , all the leaders who started the revolution lived to see through to completion, and its innovations in governance aged relatively well. The Americans severed the political bonds with the Old World, but not the cultural bonds. They burned their bridges, not their libraries.

This is why it’s so important to carefully maintain historical records.

If raw data can be kept accessible as well as stored, history will become a different discipline, closer to a science, because it can use marketers data-mining techniques to detect patterns hidden in the data.

Digital archivists thus join and ancient lineage of copyists and translators reaching back through European monastic scribes to the Hellenistic scholars at the Library of Alexandria. The process, now as then, can introduce copying errors and spurious “improvements” and can lose the equivalent of volumes of Aristotle; yet the practice also builds the bridge between language eras, from Greek ot Latin to English to whatever follows. I think that to become comfortable about digital continuity- to feel assured that our future will stay connected to our past, that the digital dark age is ending- we will need the framework for a universal translation system.

Reverence for past can still be over-done. Brand emphasizes a balance between the two. Comparing Europe and the US is a useful framework.

While Europe specializes in deep continuity with occasional equally deep discontinuity, America specializes in perpetual petty turmoil. America provides the stimulation in the arrangement., Europe makes the wisdom. America is comic, Europe tragic. Together they make great theater. The kairos- chronos dialogue can be between different parts of the world; it can be between different parts of the mind. The one contrives, the other warns..

Different parts of civilization have different paces

The Long Now isn’t about making everything slow. Its merely about fixing the balance between fast and slow. Ecological systems typically find a natural balance.

The combination of fast and slow components makes the system resilient, along with the way differently paced parts affect each other. Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets our attention, slow has all the power. All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure it is what makes them adaptable and robust.

Why reality is stranger than fiction

The book shifted my perspective, not just on time, but on reality itself:

At any time the several “probably” things that might occur in the future are vastly outnumbered by countless near-impossible eventualities, which are so many and individually so unlikely that it is not worth the effort of futurists or futurists to examine and prepare for even a fraction of them. Yet one of those innumerable near-impossibilities is what is most likely to occur. Reality is thus statistically forced to always be extraordinary. Fiction is not allowed that freedom. Fiction has to be plausible; reality doesn’t.

On tragic optimism

The book builds towards a conclusion of tragic optimism.

Everything has been going to hell as long as anyone can remember. Empires are always dying. Your friends are always dying. But in the long sweep of history, life has been getting steadily better for as long as you care to look. Does anyone really want to live in medieval times..
So short term worse, long term better. Maybe the way to resolve them is tragic optimism. I would settle for a world of tragic optimists.

Get the full book here.


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