Omer has already encapsulated the basic premise of the 10,000 Year Clock, which stands as the scaffolding within Stewart Brand’s “The Clock of the Long Now” . One part epochal timepiece, one part library for all mankind, the CoTLN (book, clock, and library) aim to foster multi-generational responsibility and function as a monument to the whole. With the large version (a smaller, city version has already been built) presently under construction in Nevada and embedded into a mountain, the clock and museum are to be a lateral step outside the ever-accelerating moment. We can follow their progress online.
For me, one of the most interesting frameworks discussed in the CoTLN(the book) is this notion of different strata operating at different speeds but influencing one another in due course. In this model, Art & Fashion sit at the top as the fastest and most turbulent layer, with change percolating down through the remaining five (in order: Commerce, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture (read: religion, custom) and then Nature) The basic premise: Change at the natural level should not / can not happen at the same speed as change on a fashion or commercial level. This is difficult to disagree with, and as such, I think it a valuable tool for framing what is wrong with, say, nearly everything about our current governmental/commercial/industrial machine. Examples which affect this balance feel illustratively self-destructive, i.e. Chopping down an entire forest for one short term payoff, vs. sustainably harvesting lumber over generations for long-term steady, greater profit.
I recently read another text, titled The Techno-Human Condition (TT-HC) by Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz. This book explores the trans-humanist debate – whether or not we are, or are becoming, a wholly new thing. It also contains much discussion of strata – three levels of technological innovation.
Level I. Direct cause and effect > i.e. Tim Berners-Lee invents the Web to facilitate sharing at CERN.
Level II. The network that a level one technology exists within > i.e. the communications system. (mail, television, radio, telephone, etc., etc.)
Level III. The even messier structures beyond that – a.k.a. the “earth system”, which is a fairly awkward catch-all for everything and includes both human and natural systems, in which we have practically no idea how level II and III developments will play out.
This model’s divisions, understandably messy, underscore the more important point – The ideas we’ve inherited from the enlightenment (steady, rational progress, the value of the individual, separation of mind and matter) no longer serve the increasing resolution with which we understand the complexity of our underlaying level II and III systems. Must we abandon the notion that we can possibly predict what sort of fruit our pioneering efforts will bear? Ethically, how do we put any of this into practice?
The CoTLN(book) sets out a handful of guidelines.
- Serve the long view
- Foster Responsibility
- Reward Patience
- Mind mythic depth
- Ally with competition
- Take no sides
- Leverage longevity
Like a pretty photo of a sunset, this list is hard to disagree with. However, it also doesn’t give us much in the way of concrete guidance. At its best, these bytes are worthwhile principals, but difficult to translate into practical, immediate implementation, especially at an individual level. At worst, it lands as grandiose, new-age techno-spiritualism. As a reader, do you take anything away from the seven points outlined above?
I believe a better list – not sound bytes, but instead, valuable questions – is to be found towards the end of the TT-HC. I copy them here because I believe in them.
- What are the values that motivate a particular investment in science or technology?
- Who holds those values?
- Who is most likely to benefit from the translation of the research results into social outcomes? who is unlikely to benefit?
- What alternative approaches are available for pursuing such goals?
- Who might be more likely to benefit from choosing alternative approaches? who might be less likely to benefit?
- Have alternative scenarios (or models) been explored? If so, what do they say about the preceding questions?
So now I’m supposed to ask – what do you think about the bulleted questions above? Worth considering while designing systems for others? Too slow and difficult given the current pace of market-driven competition and development ?