Creative Technology at the Timescale of Civilization

At the Interval in San Francisco, Baukunst GP Tyler Mincey spoke with Nick Brysiewicz, Director of Strategy at the Long Now Foundation, about how and why we need to think on a 10,000 year timescale.  Their discussion ranged from the need for social constructs that pass knowledge down generation-to-generation to curating  ‘breadcrumb record trails’ that collect the most important digital ephemera currently being lost to the abyss of time.

Nick Brysiewicz.  The Long Now Foundation was founded in 1996.  You can imagine that if you're a Creative Technologist in the late 90s, the year 2000 was where all the cognitive energy was for the future.  You know, the year 2001, Space Odyssey 2000, was when it was all going to happen.  And in ‘96, it was close enough for you to know you were about to blow past that milestone.  And where were you going to place that cognitive energy in the future after that?

Danny Hillis, who was at MIT, invented massive parallel computing and worked on some of the fastest computers in the world.  He started thinking that we need an enduring symbol for the future in the same way that the Pyramids of Giza are an enduring symbol of the past.  And what would an enduring symbol of the future even be?  Maybe it was a clock.  Could you imagine a monument scale clock, like the pyramids, that would keep good time for the next 10,000 years?

So that 10,000 year period on both sides of this present moment is what we call the Long Now, as opposed to the short now. Building a 10,000 year clock, you’re all of a sudden thinking about metal joints and stuff in a way that no one’s bothered to.  You’re putting some really bright people into a space of questioning where they might be the first person to ever sit with that kind of question, in that space, with that expertise.  And from there, derive some really cool insights that can then be shared.

Tyler Mincey and Nick Brysiewicz in conversation at The Interval at The Long Now.
Tyler Mincey and Nick Brysiewicz in conversation at The Interval at The Long Now.

Tyler Mincey:  One of things we’ve been hitting on at Baukunst is thinking about technology very  broadly and understanding that what we think of as technology (gears, and cranks, and software) also includes human systems and how we pass down knowledge.  How are you thinking about the transfer of knowledge, generation to generation?

Nick:  A couple years ago, we started a project called the Organizational Continuity Project, which is a research endeavor to collect information on organizations that have lasted for like 900 years.  It's absolutely wild how many there are.  There's not an infinite number, but more than you might think.   There are breweries, brasseries, hotels, distilleries, hot springs, all kinds of things.  And we’re combing through the existing literature and having researchers go to these places and find out how these organizations have done things.  You know, How did they get through the last pandemic?  You have these organizations that have knowledge for how to get strategically from A to B, across time.

In modern times, one of the issues with these long-lived institutions is, let’s say the knowledge is passed down through families, you get somebody who doesn’t want to be in the same business as their parents.  I can relate to that.  I didn’t want to be in the same business as my parents, but they were not ten thousand year cultural foundation administrators.  So, what actually makes it through the generational filter?

Tyler:   Right, and when you’ve spoken about some of these institutions, I’ve heard you touch on process knowledge.  That process, doing things together, is how understanding is learned and passed down.  That it's not just about what can be written in a book, and actually, there are limitations around what knowledge can be transferred in a purely written form.  And I really appreciate that the Long Now’s clock project is about groups of people coming together to do something, not just to talk or to write something down in a book.  I think transferring knowledge by doing things together is so important.

So, I’m curious how you field some of the criticism that exists around long term thinking.  There are so many urgent problems we face in our day-to-day lives, it’s sometimes difficult to be an advocate for dedicating resources to long term thinking.

Nick:  I think this is a challenge that’s shared by all art organizations, right?  There's something to be said for finding the people that are touched by the work you're doing and then drawing them close, and just continuing to do the work that calls out to you.  There’s a chance you might be the only person that’s hearing that call, and so you have to chase it.  That’s my personal take.

Tyler:  Absolutely.  I believe we can't just work on short term problems.  We have to work on short term and long term problems in parallel, because some things just take a long time to develop.  And if we don't practically work on them, it's going to be too late once we get there.  And I appreciate that you’re shining a light on some of the long term problems we could be working on.

Nick:  And I don’t think long term thinking is in opposition to short term thinking.

We’re good at tracking things that move at the speed of jaguars, right?  We’re pretty good at that.  But we don’t function very well at the speed of antibiotic resistance or climate change, things that are a bit slower to manifest.  These issues only become salient when you zoom out a bit.  So all we’re advocating for is attuning to the scale of civilization and to develop an awareness of this timescale.  It’s just about increasing our range.  Imagine a palette that adds some more colors that are the long term colors.  It’s not that these things exist in competition.  It’s a non-zero sum game here.  We’re all helping each other out.  The short term is supported by long term thinking.


Question:  Here in San Francisco, there are a lot of software startups.  And the way we experience software online, it’s so interface dependent.  You start something, you build it, but then, it can be taken down.  So I’m curious what it’s like to be doing these long term physical projects when so many things around you are software-oriented and potentially more ephemeral?

Nick:  Yeah, we’re living in a digital Dark Age, right?  Most of our records are a lot more ephemeral than archivists would like them to be.  One of our first events at The Long Now Foundation back in the late 90s, was attacking this problem, How do we understand this new digital world we’re in and how this affects the breadcrumb record trail that we’re leaving through time?  There’s a superabundance of things we’re creating, right?  Personally, what I think becomes more important in an abundant information ecosystem is curation and collection.  How do you sculpt the set of things people pay attention to, and argue for this curation?

If you look at these shelves, we’ve estimated we can fit 3,000 books on the shelves.  And this is one of our projects called The Manual for Civilization.  And the idea is, if you had to jumpstart civilization, what would you like to have?  You know it’s kind of a variation of the desert island record question.   So this is kind of a curatorial challenge, right?  We still have empty shelves.  So if you have suggestions, I want to hear them…And we are working to scan these into digital form with the folks of the Internet Archive.  That whole team, they’re dear old friends, and they’re doing some amazing work on long term archival stuff in the digital space that’s worth checking out.

Tyler Mincey and Nicholas Brysiewicz answer questions from the audience.
Tyler Mincey and Nicholas Brysiewicz answer questions from the audience.

Tyler Mincey:  That’s amazing, and my two cents is that the flow between what is physical, and what is software, and what is hardware can be an infinitely deep philosophical conversation.  That line is blurring more and more, but maybe it’s always been blurred.

Question:  Are you anxious about the future?  And if so, what worries you?

Nick:  I am super anxious about the future, because being anxious about the future is what it feels like to be in the present.  And it always has been.  People have always been anxious about the future and that's just how it seems to be.  You can read stories going back thousands of years of people who felt like they were on an existential cliff.  And a lot of them were on an existential cliff.  So part of being alive is being, I think, attuned to the fact that our aliveness is somewhat fragile, that this isn't the kind of thing we can just trust is going to happen on its own.

(excerpts have been edited & condensed)

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