(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘planning

“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline

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As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Everything we care about lies somewhere in the middle, where pattern and randomness interlace”*…

True randomness (it’s lumpy)

We tend dramatically to underestimate the role of randomness in the world…

Arkansas was one out away from the 2018 College World Series championship, leading Oregon State in the series and 3-2 in the ninth inning of the game when Cadyn Grenier lofted a foul pop down the right-field line. Three Razorbacks converged on the ball and were in position to make a routine play on it, only to watch it fall untouched to the ground in the midst of them. Had any one of them made the play, Arkansas would have been the national champion.

Nobody did.

Given “another lifeline,” Grenier hit an RBI single to tie the game before Trevor Larnach launched a two-run homer to give the Beavers a 5-3 lead and, ultimately, the game. “As soon as you see the ball drop, you know you have another life,” Grenier said. “That’s a gift.” The Beavers accepted the gift eagerly and went on win the championship the next day as Oregon State rode freshman pitcher Kevin Abel to a 5-0 win over Arkansas in the deciding game of the series. Abel threw a complete game shutout and retired the last 20 hitters he faced.

The highly unlikely happens pretty much all the time…

We readily – routinely – underestimate the power and impact of randomness in and on our lives. In his book, The Drunkard’s Walk, Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow employs the idea of the “drunkard’s [random] walk” to compare “the paths molecules follow as they fly through space, incessantly bumping, and being bumped by, their sister molecules,” with “our lives, our paths from college to career, from single life to family life, from first hole of golf to eighteenth.” 

Although countless random interactions seem to cancel each another out within large data sets, sometimes, “when pure luck occasionally leads to a lopsided preponderance of hits from some particular direction…a noticeable jiggle occurs.” When that happens, we notice the unlikely directional jiggle and build a carefully concocted story around it while ignoring the many, many random, counteracting collisions.

As Tversky and Kahneman have explained, “Chance is commonly viewed as a self-correcting process in which a deviation in one direction induces a deviation in the opposite direction to restore the equilibrium. In fact, deviations are not ‘corrected’ as a chance process unfolds, they are merely diluted.”

As Stephen Jay Gould famously argued, were we able to recreate the experiment of life on Earth a million different times, nothing would ever be the same, because evolution relies upon randomness. Indeed, the essence of history is contingency.

Randomness rules.

Luck matters. A lot. Yet, we tend dramatically to underestimate the role of randomness in the world.

The self-serving bias is our tendency to see the good stuff that happens as our doing (“we worked really hard and executed the game plan well”) while the bad stuff isn’t our fault (“It just wasn’t our night” or “we simply couldn’t catch a break” or “we would have won if the umpiring hadn’t been so awful”). Thus, desirable results are typically due to our skill and hard work — not luck — while lousy results are outside of our control and the offspring of being unlucky.

Two fine books undermine this outlook by (rightly) attributing a surprising amount of what happens to us — both good and bad – to luck. Michael Mauboussin’s The Success Equation seeks to untangle elements of luck and skill in sports, investing, and business. Ed Smith’s Luck considers a number of fields – international finance, war, sports, and even his own marriage – to examine how random chance influences the world around us. For example, Mauboussin describes the “paradox of skill” as follows: “As skill improves, performance becomes more consistent, and therefore luck becomes more important.” In investing, therefore (and for example), as the population of skilled investors has increased, the variation in skill has narrowed, making luck increasingly important to outcomes.

On account of the growth and development of the investment industry, John Bogle could quite consistently write his senior thesis at Princeton on the successes of active fund management and then go on to found Vanguard and become the primary developer and intellectual forefather of indexing. In other words, the ever-increasing aggregate skill (supplemented by massive computing power) of the investment world has come largely to cancel itself out.

After a big or revolutionary event, we tend to see it as having been inevitable. Such is the narrative fallacy. In this paper, ESSEC Business School’s Stoyan Sgourev notes that scholars of innovation typically focus upon the usual type of case, where incremental improvements rule the day. Sgourev moves past the typical to look at the unusual type of case, where there is a radical leap forward (equivalent to Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm shifts in science), as with Picasso and Les Demoiselles

As Sgourev carefully argued, the Paris art market of Picasso’s time had recently become receptive to the commercial possibilities of risk-taking. Thus, artistic innovation was becoming commercially viable. Breaking with the past was then being encouraged for the first time. It would soon be demanded.

Most significantly for our purposes, Sgourev’s analysis of Cubism suggests that having an exceptional idea isn’t enough. For radical innovation really to take hold, market conditions have to be right, making its success a function of luck and timing as much as genius. Note that Van Gogh — no less a genius than Picasso — never sold a painting in his lifetime.

As noted above, we all like to think that our successes are earned and that only our failures are due to luck – bad luck. But the old expression – it’s better to be lucky than good – is at least partly true. That said, it’s best to be lucky *and* good. As a consequence, in all probabilistic fields (which is nearly all of them), the best performers dwell on process and diversify their bets. You should do the same…

As [Nate] Silver emphasizes in The Signal and the Noise, we readily overestimate the degree of predictability in complex systems [and t]he experts we see in the media are much too sure of themselves (I wrote about this problem in our industry from a slightly different angle…). Much of what we attribute to skill is actually luck.

Plan accordingly.

Taking the unaccountable into account: “Randomness Rules,” from Bob Seawright (@RPSeawright), via @JVLast

[image above: source]

* James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

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As we contemplate chance, we might spare a thought for Oskar Morgenstern; he died on this date in 1977. An economist who fled Nazi Germany for Princeton, he collaborated with the mathematician John von Neumann to write Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, published in 1944, which is recognized as the first book on game theory— thus co-founding the field.

Game theory was developed extensively in the 1950s, and has become widely recognized as an important tool in many fields– perhaps especially in the study of evolution. Eleven game theorists have won the economics Nobel Prize, and John Maynard Smith was awarded the Crafoord Prize for his application of evolutionary game theory.

Game theory’s roots date back (at least) to the 1654 letters between Pascal and Fermat, which (along with work by Cardano and Huygens) marked the beginning of probability theory. (See Peter Bernstein’s marvelous Against the Gods.) The application of probability (Bayes’ rule, discrete and continuous random variables, and the computation of expectations) accounts for the utility of game theory; the role of randomness (along with the behavioral psychology of a game’s participants) explain why it’s not a perfect predictor.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 26, 2021 at 1:00 am

“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

“Be a good ancestor”*…

The planned underground repository near the Olkiluoto nuclear-power plant in Finland could teach us the merits of long-term thinking

The Greek philosopher Plato once imagined a city that provides full justice to its citizens. Setting out his ideas in the Republic almost 2500 years ago, Plato did not, however, think that such a city could ever be realized. Radical (and surely unachievable) transformations in education, culture and government would be required to establish and sustain it. “Ridiculous,” Plato concluded.

In a similar vein, the US cultural anthropologist Vincent Ialenti envisions a fictional city whose citizens have been trained to think so that humans don’t need to flee the planet to survive. So utopian is the picture that Ialenti – writing in his new book Deep Time Reckoning – calls it “absurd”. Yet that notion is no less absurd, he continues, than the way humans are now acting, “careening toward an Anthropocene cliff”.

Based at George Washington University, Ialenti developed this picture by drawing on three years of fieldwork in Finland, where he’d studied experts who were evaluating the risks of a permanent repository for nuclear waste…

The Finnish experts developed various strategies to envision “deep time”. For example, they implemented unusual computer modelling methods to integrate a variety of datasets, scenarios, maps and reports over an unprecedented range of issues, including climate change, geological events, shorelines, human demographics, vegetation growth and ecosystems. For clues on the long-term evolution of materials and planetary landscapes, they studied everything from ancient Roman nails and 2100-year-old Chinese cadavers to cannons from a sunken 17th-century Swedish warship and traces of a crater in Finland caused by a meteor 73 million years ago.

Ialenti is fully aware of the deficiencies and partialities of the Finnish project and of his own study…

Climate-change predictions, even for 2050, seem hopelessly far in the future, and tainted by politics, guesswork and subjectivity. Thinking about the present seems more do-able, while thinking about tens or hundreds of thousands of years in the future appears starry-eyed and abstract. But Ialenti believes the exact opposite is true. What’s abstract (in the sense of detached from reality) is what Ialenti calls “a manic fixation on the present”, and not being able to think about humanity thousands of years hence.

Ialenti is less interested in the conclusions reached by the Finnish experts than by their audacious aims, which are to develop methods to break free from what he calls our “shallow time discipline”. He then tries to devise ways to retrain our habits to encourage humans to think long-term; for him, Deep Time Reckoning is not a stale academic treatise but more of a “practical toolkit”.

 This toolkit includes high-school civics classes devoted to teaching long-term developments: of the universe since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago; of Earth since 4.5 billion years ago; of Earth’s life, dinosaurs and humans; and of the evolution of languages and technologies. It envisions school pupils reading about futuristic visions by Ray Kurzweil and Marxist descriptions of world utopias.

Ialenti even asks his university students to examine the tools that the insurance industry uses to protect companies against future calamities, and the methods that the Catholic Church uses to maintain institutional continuity. Practiced over generations, Ialenti thinks, such an education would eventually make deep time thinking “less wacky and aloof”, and more second-nature…

Plato meant the Republic to be a beacon for humans to think about justice in the present, not as the blueprint for an actual city to be realized in the future. After all, if you head straight towards a lighthouse, you usually end up on the rocks.

Somewhere in deep time looms a catastrophe that we don’t yet have the imagination to envision, nor the will to confront. Ialenti thinks he finds in the Finnish nuclear-risk experts glimmerings of what it might take to cultivate the human behaviour needed to do so. Humanity’s long-range hope, Ialenti suggests, hangs on what we might call the Finlandization of the planet.

Professor Robert P. Crease (@rcrease) explains how a nuclear-waste program in Finland can help us to envisage the world thousands of years from now: “Very Deep Thinking.”

See also Ingrid Burrington‘s interview with Yale architecture and design professor Keller Easterling, “How to Design Better Systems in a World Overwhelmed by Complexity, ” and Jeremy Lent‘s “What Does An Ecological Civilization Look Like?

* Marian Wright Edelman

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As we play the long game, we might spare a thought for Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski; he died on this date in 1950. Trained as an engineer, he developed a field called general semantics, which he viewed as both distinct from, and more encompassing than, the field of semantics. He argued that human knowledge of the world is limited both by the human nervous system and the languages humans have developed, and thus no one can have direct access to reality, given that the most we can know is that which is filtered through the brain’s responses to reality.

Korzybski was influential in fields across the sciences and humanities through the 1940s and 50s (perhaps most notably, gestalt therapists), and inspired science fiction writers (like Robery Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt) and philosophers like Alan Watts.

His best known dictum is “The map is not the territory.”

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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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