(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘future

“In the long run, we are all dead”*…

I’ve spent several decades thinking (and helping others think) abut the future: e.g., doing scenario planning via GBN and Heminge & Condell, working with The Institute for the Future, thinking with the folks at the Long Now Foundation; I deeply believe in the importance of long-term thinking. It’s a critical orientation– both a perspective and a set of tools/techniques– that can help us off-set our natural tendency to act in and for the short-run and help us be better, more responsible ancestors.

But two recent articles warn that “the long term” can be turned into a justification for all sorts of grief. The first, from Phil Torres (@xriskology), argues that “so-called rationalists” have created a disturbing secular religion– longtermism– that looks like it addresses humanity’s deepest problems, but actually justifies pursuing the social preferences of elites…

Longtermism should not be confused with “long-term thinking.” It goes way beyond the observation that our society is dangerously myopic, and that we should care about future generations no less than present ones. At the heart of this worldview, as delineated by [Oxford philosopher Nick] Bostrom, is the idea that what matters most is for “Earth-originating intelligent life” to fulfill its potential in the cosmos. What exactly is “our potential”? As I have noted elsewhere, it involves subjugating nature, maximizing economic productivity, replacing humanity with a superior “posthuman” species, colonizing the universe, and ultimately creating an unfathomably huge population of conscious beings living what Bostrom describes as “rich and happy lives” inside high-resolution computer simulations.

This is what “our potential” consists of, and it constitutes the ultimate aim toward which humanity as a whole, and each of us as individuals, are morally obligated to strive. An existential risk, then, is any event that would destroy this “vast and glorious” potential, as Toby Ord, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute, writes in his 2020 book The Precipice, which draws heavily from earlier work in outlining the longtermist paradigm. (Note that Noam Chomsky just published a book also titled The Precipice.)

The point is that when one takes the cosmic view, it becomes clear that our civilization could persist for an incredibly long time and there could come to be an unfathomably large number of people in the future. Longtermists thus reason that the far future could contain way more value than exists today, or has existed so far in human history, which stretches back some 300,000 years. So, imagine a situation in which you could either lift 1 billion present people out of extreme poverty or benefit 0.00000000001 percent of the 1023 biological humans who Bostrom calculates could exist if we were to colonize our cosmic neighborhood, the Virgo Supercluster. Which option should you pick? For longtermists, the answer is obvious: you should pick the latter. Why? Well, just crunch the numbers: 0.00000000001 percent of 1023 people is 10 billion people, which is ten times greater than 1 billion people. This means that if you want to do the most good, you should focus on these far-future people rather than on helping those in extreme poverty today.

[For more on posthumanism, see here and here]

The Dangerous Ideas of ‘Longtermism’ and ‘Existential Risk’

The second, from Paul Graham Raven (@PaulGrahamRaven) builds on Torres’ case…

Phil Torres… does a pretty good job of setting out the issues with what might be the ultimate in moral philosophies, namely a moral philosophy whose adherents have convinced themselves that it is not at all a moral philosophy, but rather the end-game of the enlightenment-modernist quest for a fully rational and quantifiable way of legitimating the actions that you and your incredibly wealthy donors were already doing, and would like to continue doing indefinitely, regardless of the consequences to other lesser persons in the present and immediate future, thankyouverymuch.

I have one bone of contention, though the fault is not that of Torres but rather the Longtermists themselves: the labelling of their teleology as “posthuman”. This is exactly wrong, as their position is in fact the absolute core of transhumanism; my guess would be that the successful toxification of that latter term (within academia, as well as without) has led them to instead identify with the somewhat more accepted and established label of posthumanism, so as to avoid critique and/or use a totally different epistemology as a way of drawing fire…

[For more on transhumanism, see here and here]

Longtermism is merely a more acceptable mask for transhumanism

Both pieces are worth reading in full…

And for more on a posthuman (if not in every case posthumanist) future: “The best books about the post-human Earth.”

* John Maynard Keynes

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As we take the long view, we might send far-sighted birthday greetings to John Flamsteed; he was born on this date in 1646. An astronomer, he compiled a 3,000-star catalogue, Catalogus Britannicus, and a star atlas called Atlas Coelestis, and made the first recorded observations of Uranus (though he mistakenly catalogued it as a star). Flamsteed led the group of scientists who convinced King Charles II to build the Greenwich Observatory, and personally laid its foundation stone. And he served as the first Astronomer Royal.

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“Be a good ancestor”*…

Even though– especially because– it’s hard…

… Mental time travel is essential. In one of Aesop’s fables, ants chastise a grasshopper for not collecting food for the winter; the grasshopper, who lives in the moment, admits, “I was so busy singing that I hadn’t the time.” It’s important to find a proper balance between being in the moment and stepping out of it. We all know people who live too much in the past or worry too much about the future. At the end of their lives, people often regret most their failures to act, stemming from unrealistic worries about consequences. Others, indifferent to the future or disdainful of the past, become unwise risk-takers or jerks. Any functioning person has to live, to some extent, out of the moment. We might also think that it’s right for our consciousnesses to shift to other times—such inner mobility is part of a rich and meaningful life.

On a group level, too, we struggle to strike a balance. It’s a common complaint that, as societies, we are too fixated on the present and the immediate future. In 2019, in a speech to the United Nations about climate change, the young activist Greta Thunberg inveighed against the inaction of policymakers: “Young people are starting to understand your betrayal,” she said. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you.” But, if their inaction is a betrayal, it’s most likely not a malicious one; it’s just that our current pleasures and predicaments are much more salient in our minds than the fates of our descendants. And there are also those who worry that we are too future-biased. A typical reaction to long-range programs, such as John F. Kennedy’s Apollo program or Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is that the money would be better spent on those who need it right now. Others complain that we are too focussed on the past, or with the sentimental reconstruction of it. Past, present, future; history, this year, the decades to come. How should we balance them in our minds?

Meghan Sullivan, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame, contemplates these questions in her book “Time Biases: A Theory of Rational Planning and Personal Persistence.” Sullivan is mainly concerned with how we relate to time as individuals, and she thinks that many of us do it poorly, because we are “time-biased”—we have unwarranted preferences about when events should happen. Maybe you have a “near bias”: you eat the popcorn as the movie is about to start, even though you would probably enjoy it more if you waited. Maybe you have a “future bias”: you are upset about an unpleasant task that you have to do tomorrow, even though you’re hardly bothered by the memory of performing an equally unpleasant task yesterday. Or maybe you have a “structural bias,” preferring your experiences to have a certain temporal shape: you plan your vacation such that the best part comes at the end.

For Sullivan, all of these time biases are mistakes. She advocates for temporal neutrality—a habit of mind that gives the past, the present, and the future equal weight. She arrives at her arguments for temporal neutrality by outlining several principles of rational decision-making. According to the principle of success, Sullivan writes, a rational person prefers that “her life going forward go as well as possible”; according to the principle of non-arbitrariness, a rational person’s preferences “are insensitive to arbitrary differences.” A commitment to being rational, Sullivan argues, will make us more time-neutral, and temporal neutrality will help us think better about everyday problems, such as how best to care for elderly parents and save for retirement.

Perhaps our biggest time error is near bias—caring too much about what’s about to happen, and too little about the future. There are occasions when this kind of near bias can be rational: if someone offers you the choice between a gift of a thousand dollars today and a year from now, you’d be justified in taking the money now, for any number of reasons. (You can put it in the bank and get interest; there’s a chance you could die in the next year; the gift giver could change her mind.) Still, it’s more often the case that, as economists say, we too steeply “discount” the value of what’s to come. This near bias pulls at us in our everyday decisions. We tend to be cool and rational when planning for the far-off future, but we lose control when temptations grow nearer in time.

If near bias is irrational, Sullivan argues, so is future bias… Sullivan shares an example invented by the philosopher Derek Parfit. Suppose that you require surgery. It’s an unpleasant procedure, for which you need to be awake, in order to coöperate with the surgeon. Afterward, you will be given a drug that wipes out your memory of the experience. On the appointed day, you wake up in the hospital bed, confused, and ask the nurse about the surgery. She says that there are two patients in the ward—one who’s already had the operation, and another who’s soon to have it; she adds that, unusually, the operation that already happened took much longer than expected. She isn’t sure which patient you are, and has to go check. You would be greatly relieved, Parfit says, if the nurse comes back and tells you that you already had the operation. That is, you would willingly consign to your past self a long and agonizing procedure to avoid a much shorter procedure to come.

There is an evolutionary logic behind this kind of bias. As Caspar Hare, a philosopher at M.I.T., puts it, “It is not an accident that we are future-biased with respect to pain. That feature of ourselves has been selected-for by evolution.” In general, Hare writes, it seems likely that animals that focussed their attention on the future survived longer and reproduced more…

In 1992, Parfit teamed up with the economist Tyler Cowen to argue, in a book chapter, that our governments are too eager to discount the fortunes of future people. Parfit and Cowen proposed that even a small bias in favor of the present over the future could have huge consequences over time. Suppose that a politician reasons that one life now is equal to 1.01 lives a year from now, and so embraces policies that favor a hundred people now over a hundred people next year. This hardly seems to matter—but this “discount rate” of one per cent per year implies that we would rather save a single life now, at the cost of a million lives in about fourteen hundred years. At a ten-per-cent discount rate, one life now would be worth a million in a mere century and half. Although no one in power thinks in exactly these terms, many of our decisions favor the present over the future.

In a 2018 book, “Stubborn Attachments,” Cowen expands on the idea, asking how we can fight near bias at a societal level and better further the interests of future people. There are “a variety of relevant values” that we might want to consider in our temporal rebalancing, he writes, “including human well-being, justice, fairness, beauty, the artistic peaks of human achievement, the quality of mercy,” and so on. Cowen concludes that the best way to maximize all of these things for the future is to increase economic growth. (He doesn’t go just by G.D.P.—he adds in various measures of “leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities.”)

The thing about economic growth, Cowen tells us, is that it has the potential to advance just about everything that people value. “Wealthier societies have better living standards, better medicines, and offer greater personal autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun,” he writes. He concedes that, in recent decades, inequality has risen within wealthier nations, but also notes that, as a consequence of global economic growth, “recent world history has been an extraordinarily egalitarian time”: over all, countries are becoming more equal. In terms of happiness, Cowen shows that there is considerable evidence supporting the commonsense view that citizens of rich countries are happier than citizens of poor countries, and that, within rich countries, wealthier individuals are happier than poorer ones. The data actually understate the strength of the effect, Cowen writes, because many studies miss the happiness boost that comes from more years on the earth: “Researchers do not poll the dead.”

Cowen is sympathetic to the school of thought known as effective altruism, which holds that we should use data and research to figure out how to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But he worries that these sorts of altruists are too prone to think about the greatest good for people right now. An effective altruist might hold that, instead of spending money on some luxury for yourself, you should use it to help the poor. But, for Cowen, this sort of advice is too present-oriented. Even a small boost in the growth rate has enormous ramifications for years to come. “Our strongest obligations are to contribute to sustainable economic growth,” he writes, “and to support the general spread of civilization, rather than to engage in massive charitable redistribution in the narrower sense.” In general, Cowen thinks that policymakers should be more future-oriented. He suggests that we should put fewer resources into improving the lives of the elderly and devote correspondingly more resources to the young and the not-yet-born. Most politicians would balk at this suggestion, but, when they do the opposite—well, that’s a choice, too.

Cowen, to my mind, glosses over the problem of diminishing returns. Suppose that our prosperity increases a hundredfold. Life would be better, but would our happiness also increase by a multiple of a hundred? After a certain point, it might make sense to worry less about growth. Perhaps the most privileged of us are close to that point now. But these things can be hard to judge. The Babylonian kings might have thought that they were living the best possible lives, not realizing that, in the future, even everyday schmoes would be wiser and more pain-free, living longer, eating better, and traveling more.

Whether or not one agrees with Cowen’s thesis, there are clearly good reasons for adopting temporal neutrality on a societal level. It’s less clear that we have an obligation to be rigorously time-neutral as individuals. If we can indulge our own time biases without making horrible errors in judgment, why shouldn’t we? Why not distribute our pleasures and pains unevenly throughout our lives, if we believe that, for us, doing so will contribute to “life going forward as well as possible”? For many people, as Seneca wrote, “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.” We undertake activities that we know to be difficult or unpleasant because we see them as part of a good life and wish to think back upon them in the future. We curate our presents to furnish our futures with the right kinds of pasts. If this benign bias encourages us to take on difficult things, isn’t it wise to indulge the bias?

Many people suspect that a good life might be one that’s ordered in a certain way. Psychologists find that people tend to prefer the idea of a wonderful life that ends abruptly to the idea of an equally wonderful one that includes some additional, mildly pleasant years—the “James Dean effect.” There’s also an appeal to starting with the worst and then seeing things improve. Andy Dufresne, the protagonist of the film “The Shawshank Redemption,” based on a novella by Stephen King, is convicted of double murder but maintains his innocence; he spends twenty-eight years in prison before stealing millions of dollars from his corrupt warden and escaping, then living out the rest of his life on a Mexican beach. It’s an exhilarating and powerful tale, but, if one flipped the order—coastal paradise, then brutal prison—it would be impossible to enjoy. Rags to riches beats riches to rags, even if the good and the bad are in precise balance. Maybe this is what Sullivan calls a structural bias—but, without structure, there’s no story, and stories are good things to have.

It’s true that time-biased thinking can mislead us. Imagine that you are listening to a symphony for a pleasurable ninety minutes—and then, at the end, someone’s cell phone goes off, to loud shushing and stifled laughter. You might say that these awful thirty seconds ruined the experience, even though the first ninety-nine per cent of it was wonderful, and think that, if the phone had rung at the start, it would have been less of a problem. But is a disruption in the finale really worse than an interruption in the overture? Sullivan’s arguments show that we should try reconsidering those kinds of intuitions—and that we should be wary, in general, of the strange places to which they can lead us. In a classic series of studies, Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues exposed volunteers to two different experiences—sixty seconds of moderate pain, and sixty seconds of moderate pain followed by thirty seconds of mild pain. When they asked people which experience they would rather repeat, most chose the second experience, just because it ended better. There is little good to be said about choosing more over-all pain just because the experience ends on the right note.

And yet giving up all our time biases is a lot to ask. We are, it seems, constituted to favor the here and now, to radically discount the distant future, and to give special weight to how experiences end. We can move in the direction of temporal neutrality, fighting against certain time biases just as we resist our other unreasonable biases and preferences. This may make us more rational, more kind to others, and, at times, more happy.

How much should we value the past, the present, and the future? “Being in Time,” from Paul Bloom (@paulbloomatyale)

* “Be a good ancestor. Stand for something bigger than yourself. Add value to the Earth during your sojourn.” – Marian Wright Edelman

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 356 BC that the second version of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (which had replaced a Bronze Age structure) was destroyed by arson (by a man, Herostratus, set fire to the wooden roof-beams, seeking fame at any cost; thus the term “herostratic fame“).

Its third iteration was finished several decades later, and survived for six centuries. It was described in Antipater of Sidon‘s list of the world’s Seven Wonders:

I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, “Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand”.

This model of the Temple of Artemis, at Miniatürk Park, Istanbul, Turkey, attempts to recreate the probable appearance of the third temple.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 21, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Human decision-making is complex. On our own, our tendency to yield to short-term temptations, and even to addictions, may be too strong for our rational, long-term planning.”*…

Many of us acknowledge that long-term thinking is a difficult, but necessary investment in a safe and happy future– our obligation to those who come after us. But it turns out that long-term thinking has more immediate benefits as well…

In times of global crisis, focusing on the present is justified. Yet as we move into 2021, there is good reason to spend some time also reflecting on our place within the longer-term past and future. For one, there remain creeping problems that we cannot ignore, such as climate change, antibiotic resistance or biodiversity loss. But also because contemplating deeper time can help replenish our mental energies during adversity, and offer a meditative source of catharsis amid the frenzy of the now.

In my research and writing, I explore the worldviews of nuclear waste experts in Finland, who reckon with radioactive isotopes over extremely long-term planetary timeframes. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,100 years, whereas uranium-235’s half-life is over seven hundred million years. Like many anthropologists doing fieldwork within other cultures, my mission has been to uncover insights that could widen people’s perspectives in my own or other societies.

While the experiences of a nuclear waste expert may seem an unusual source of inspiration for well-being, this research has taught me that there can be personal benefits to stretching the intellect across time. Here’s how you might integrate some of these principles into your own life as you step into next year.

Doing Safety Case-inspired deep time exercises can not only help us imagine local landscapes over decades, centuries, and millennia. It can also help us take a step back from our everyday lives – transporting our minds to different places and times, and feeling rejuvenated when we return.

There are several benefits to this. Cognitive scientists have shown how creativity can be sparked by perceiving “something one has not seen before (but that was probably always there).” Corporate coaches have recommended taking breaks from our familiar thinking patterns to experience the world in new ways and overcome mental blocks. Contemplating deep time can cultivate a thoughtful appreciation of our species’ and planet’s longer-term histories and futures.

Yet it can also help us refresh during frazzled moments of unrest. Setting aside a few minutes each day for deep time contemplation can enrich us by evoking a momentary sense of awe. A Stanford University study has shown how awe can expand our sense of time and promote well-being. Anthropologist Barbara King has shown how awe can be “mind- and heart-expanding.”

Our challenge, then, is to discover, in ourselves, techniques for always bringing an awe-inspired awareness of deep time with us – wherever our futures may lead.

Taking inspiration from a far-sighted Finnish nuclear waste project, anthropologist Vincent Ialenti (@vincent_ialenti) explains why embracing Earth’s radical long-term can be good for well-being today: the benefits of embracing ‘deep time’ in a year like this.

* Peter Singer

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As we find perspective and peace in being good ancestors, we might say alles Gute zum Geburtstag to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg; he was born on this date in 1742. Lichtenberg held the first professorship in Germany explicitly dedicated to experimental physics; he is remembered for his posthumously published notebooks, which he himself called sudelbücher, a description modelled on the English bookkeeping term “waste books” or “scrapbooks”, and for his discovery of tree-like electrical discharge patterns now called Lichtenberg figures.

One of the first scientists to introduce experiments with apparatus in their lectures, Lichtenberg was a popular and respected figure in contemporary European intellectual circles. He was one of the first to introduce Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod to Germany by installing such devices in his house and garden sheds. He maintained relations with most of the great figures of that era, including Goethe and Kant. Ans was sought out by other leading scientists: Alessandro Volta visited Göttingen especially to see him and his experiments; mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss sat in on his lectures.

But Lichtenberg was also an accomplished satirist, whose works put him in the highest ranks of German writers of the 18th century. And he proposed the standardized paper size system used globally today (except in Canada and the U.S.) defined by ISO 216, which has A4 as the most commonly used size.

Perhaps in time, the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own…

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

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“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”*…

Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps, 1883 (source)

The future is not a destination. We build it every day in the present. This is, perhaps, a wild paraphrasing of the acclaimed author and futurist William Gibson who, when asked what a distant future might hold, replied that the future was already here, it was just unevenly distributed. I often ponder this Gibson provocation, wondering where around me the future might be lurking. Catching glimpses of the future in the present would be helpful. But then, I think, rather than hoping to see a glimpse of the future, we could instead actively build one. Or at the very least tell stories about what it might be. Stories that unfold a world or worlds in which we might want to live – neither dystopian nor utopian, but ours. I know we can still shape those worlds and make them into somewhere that reflects our humanity, our different cultures and our cares.

Of course, it is not enough to tell stories about some distant or unevenly distributed future; we need to find ways of disrupting the present too. It might be less important to have a compelling and coherent vision of the future than an active and considered approach to building possible futures. It is as much about critical doing as critical thinking. One approach to the future might be to focus less on the instruments of technologies per se and more on the broader systems that will be necessary to bring those futures into existence…

It might be less important to have a compelling and coherent vision of the future than an active and considered approach to building possible futures. It is as much about critical doing as critical thinking…

AI is always, and already, a lot more than just a constellation of technologies. It exists as a set of conversations in which we are all implicated: we discuss AI, worry out loud about its ethical frameworks, watch movies in which it figures centrally, and read news stories about its impact…

[S]tories of the future – about AI, or any kind – are never just about technology; they are about people and they are about the places those people find themselves, the places they might call home and the systems that bind them all together…

When I returned to Australia in 2017, I wanted to build other futures and to acknowledge the country where my work had started and where I was now working again. I knew I needed to find a different world and a different intersection, and to find new ways to tell stories of technology and of the future – I wanted some different pasts and some different touchstones.

I first saw a photograph of the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps in a Guardian news article, and the image stayed with me.. That black-­and-­white photograph from the late 1800s showed long, sweeping lines of grey stones arcing across a fast-­moving river. The water flowing around the lines of stones was tipped white at the breakpoints. And although there was no one in the image, the arrangement of the stones was deliberate, human-­made and enduring. It was a photograph of the one of the oldest known human-­built technical systems on the planet. And while there are ongoing debates about its exact age – 4,000 years, 10,000 years, 40,000 thousand years – there are no arguments about its complexity or sophistication…

I came to think that the importance of this place was not about the traps per se. It was about the system those traps create, and the systems in which they are, themselves, embedded. This is a system thousands of years in the making and keeping. This is a system that required concerted and continuous effort. This was something that required generations, both of accumulated knowledge about how the environment worked and accumulated knowledge about hydrology and about fish, and an accumulated commitment to continuing to build, sustain and upgrade that system over time.

The technical, cultural and ecological elements cement the significance of this place, not only as a heritage site but as a knowledge base on which contemporary systems could be built. Ideas about sustainability; ideas about systems that are decades or centuries in the making; ideas about systems that endure and systems that are built explicitly to endure. Systems that are built to ensure the continuities of culture feel like the kind of systems that we might want to be investing in now. This feels like the outline of a story of the future we would want to tell…

Now, we need to make a different kind of story about the future. One that focuses not just on the technologies, but on the systems in which these technologies will reside. The opportunity to focus on a future that holds those systems – and also on a way of approaching them in the present – feels both immense and acute. And the ways we might need to disrupt the present feel especially important in this moment of liminality, disorientation and profound unease, socially and ecologically. In a present where the links towards the future seem to have been derailed from the tracks we’ve laid in past decades, there is an opportunity to reform. Ultimately, we would need to think a little differently, ask different kinds of questions, bring as many diverse and divergent kinds of people along on the journey and look holistically and critically at the many propositions that computing in particular – and advanced technologies in general – present.

For me, the Brewarrina Fish Traps are a powerful way of framing how current technological systems should and could unfold. These present a very different future, one we can glimpse in the present and in the past; one that always is and always will be. In this moment, we need to be reminded that stories of the future – about AI, or any kind – are never just about technology; they are about people and they are about the places those people find themselves, the places they might call home and the systems that bind them all together.

Genevieve Bell (@feraldata) on the importance of stories of systems, serendipity, and grace: “Touching the future.” (via Sentiers)

For more, see her Long Now talk, “The 4th Industrial Revolution: Responsible & Secure AI.”

And for an extended riff on the context and implications of the Richard Brautigan poem that she quotes in her piece, see Adam Curtis’ “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” (streaming on Amazon Prime).

And for an apposite look at the Renaissance, when mechanical inventions served as a medium for experimental thinking about all aspects of the cosmos, see “When Engineers Were Humanists.”

* William Gibson (in an interview on Fresh Air in August, 1993; repeated by him– and others– many, many times since)

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As we think like good ancestors, we might spare a thought for Henry, Duke of Cornwall. The the first child of King Henry VIII of England and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, celebrated as the heir apparent, he died within weeks of his birth, on this date in 1511. His death and Henry VIII’s failure to produce another surviving male heir with Catherine led to succession and marriage crises that affected the relationship between the English church and Roman Catholicism, giving rise to the English Reformation.

Michael Sittow’s Virgin and Child. The woman appears to have been modelled on Catherine of Aragon.

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“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope”*…

After this post, your correspondent is heading into his customary Holiday Hiatus; regular service will resume in early 2021. In the meantime, a piece to ponder…

“Civilizations with long nows look after things better,” says Brian Eno.  “In those places you feel a very strong but flexible structure which is built to absorb shocks and in fact incorporate them.”undefined  You can imagine how such a process could evolve—all civilizations suffer shocks; only the ones that absorb the shocks survive.  That still doesn’t explain the mechanism.

In recent years a few scientists (such as R. V. O’Neill and C. S. Holling) have been probing the same issue in ecological systems: how do they manage change, how do they absorb and incorporate shocks?  The answer appears to lie in the relationship between components in a system that have different change-rates and different scales of size.  Instead of breaking under stress like something brittle, these systems yield as if they were soft.  Some parts respond quickly to the shock, allowing slower parts to ignore the shock and maintain their steady duties of system continuity.

Consider the differently paced components to be layers.  Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

From the fastest layers to the slowest layers in the system, the relationship can be described as follows:

All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure.  It is what makes them adaptable and robust…

Stewart Brand (@stewartbrand) unpacks a concept that he popularized in his remarkable book How Buildings Learn and that animates the work of The Long Now Foundation, which he co-founded– pace layers, which provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing feedback throughout the system.  It is in the contradictions between these layers that civilization finds its surest health: “Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning.” Do click through and read in full…

* Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1872 that HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth. Modified for scientific exploration, its activities over the next four years, known as The Challenger Expedition, laid the foundation for the entire academic and research discipline of oceanography.

The Challenger

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