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“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


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.”


“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)


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.


“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything”*…




We’re living through a real-time natural experiment on a global scale. The differential performance of countries, cities and regions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic is a live test of the effectiveness, capacity and legitimacy of governments, leaders and social contracts.

The progression of the initial outbreak in different countries followed three main patterns. Countries like Singapore and Taiwan represented Pattern A, where (despite many connections to the original source of the outbreak in China) vigilant government action effectively cut off community transmission, keeping total cases and deaths low. China and South Korea represented Pattern B: an initial uncontrolled outbreak followed by draconian government interventions that succeeded in getting at least the first wave of the outbreak under control.

Pattern C is represented by countries like Italy and Iran, where waiting too long to lock down populations led to a short-term exponential growth of new cases that overwhelmed the healthcare system and resulted in a large number of deaths. In the United States, the lack of effective and universally applied social isolation mechanisms, as well as a fragmented healthcare system and a significant delay in rolling out mass virus testing, led to a replication of Pattern C, at least in densely populated places like New York City and Chicago.

Despite the Chinese and Americans blaming each other and crediting their own political system for successful responses, the course of the virus didn’t score easy political points on either side of the new Cold War. Regime type isn’t correlated with outcomes. Authoritarian and democratic countries are included in each of the three patterns of responses: authoritarian China and democratic South Korea had effective responses to a dramatic breakout; authoritarian Singapore and democratic Taiwan both managed to quarantine and contain the virus; authoritarian Iran and democratic Italy both experienced catastrophe.

It’s generally a mistake to make long-term forecasts in the midst of a hurricane, but some outlines of lasting shifts are emerging. First, a government or society’s capacity for technical competence in executing plans matters more than ideology or structure. The most effective arrangements for dealing with the pandemic have been found in countries that combine a participatory public culture of information sharing with operational experts competently executing decisions. Second, hyper-individualist views of privacy and other forms of risk are likely to be submerged as countries move to restrict personal freedoms and use personal data to manage public and aggregated social risks. Third, countries that are able to successfully take a longer view of planning and risk management will be at a significant advantage…

From Steve Weber and @nils_gilman, an argument for the importance of operational expertise, plans for the long-term, and the socialization of some risks: “The Long Shadow Of The Future.”

* Dwight D. Eisenhower


As we make ourselves ready, we might recall that it was on this date in 1822 that Charles Babbage [see almanac entry here] proposes a Difference Engine in a paper to the Royal Astronomical Society (which he’d helped found two years earlier).

In Babbage’s time, printed mathematical tables were calculated by human computers… in other words, by hand.  They were central to navigation, science, and engineering, as well as mathematics– but mistakes occurred, both in transcription and in calculation.  Babbage determined to mechanize the process and to reduce– indeed, to eliminate– errors.  His Difference Engine was intended as precisely that sort of mechanical calculator (in this instance, to compute values of polynomial functions).

In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.


A portion of the difference engine




“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”*…



Eliminating waste sounds like a reasonable goal. Why would we not want managers to strive for an ever-more-efficient use of resources? Yet as I will argue, an excessive focus on efficiency can produce startlingly negative effects, to the extent that superefficient businesses create the potential for social disorder. This happens because the rewards arising from efficiency get more and more unequal as that efficiency improves, creating a high degree of specialization and conferring an ever-growing market power on the most-efficient competitors. The resulting business environment is extremely risky, with high returns going to an increasingly limited number of companies and people—an outcome that is clearly unsustainable. The remedy, I believe, is for business, government, and education to focus more strongly on a less immediate source of competitive advantage: resilience. This may reduce the short-term gains from efficiency but will produce a more stable and equitable business environment in the long run…

Roger Martin‘s eloquent argument for a longer-term perspective and for robustness as a primary goal: “The High Price of Efficiency.”

[image above: source]

* Peter Drucker


As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 2000 that Alan Greenspan was nominated for his fourth term as Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  An accolyte of Ayn Rand, he oversaw an “easy money” Fed that, many suggest, was a leading cause of the dotcom bubble (which began later that year) and the subprime mortgage crisis, (which led to the Great Recession, and which occurred within a year of his departure from the Fed).

220px-Alan_Greenspan_color_photo_portrait source


Written by LW

January 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.'”…



Surprised! Henri Rousseau, 1891

In An Autobiography, published in 1939, R.G. Collingwood offered an arresting statement about the kind of insight possessed by the trained historian. The philosopher of history likened the difference between those who knew and understood history and those who did not to that between ‘the trained woodsman’ and ‘the ignorant traveller’ in a forest. While the latter marches along unaware of their surroundings, thinking ‘Nothing here but trees and grass’, the woodsman sees what lurks ahead. ‘Look’, he will say, ‘there is a tiger in that grass.’

What Collingwood meant was that, through their familiarity with people, places and ideas, historians are often equipped to see how a situation might turn out – or at least identify the key considerations that determine matters. Collingwood’s musings implied an expansive vision of the role historians might play in society. Their grasp of human behaviour, long-term economic or cultural processes and the complexities of the socio-political order of a given region of the world meant that they could be more than just a specialist in the past. By being able to spot the tiger in the grass, historians might profitably advise on contemporary and future challenges as well…

Can the study of the past really help us to understand the present?  Robert Crowcroft argues that it can: “The Case for Applied History.”

* Eduardo Galeano


As we look to the past, we might spare a thought for Martha; she died on this date in 1914.  As she was the last known passenger pigeon, her death meant the extinction of the species.

(De-extinction efforts are underway.)




Written by LW

September 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

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