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CoTLN 2, and The Techno-Human Condition

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.

  1. Serve the long view
  2. Foster Responsibility
  3. Reward Patience
  4. Mind mythic depth
  5. Ally with competition
  6. Take no sides
  7. 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 ?

1 comment to CoTLN 2, and The Techno-Human Condition

  • Sam Brenner

    Here are some things about pretty photos of sunsets that I could imagine myself disagreeing with:

    1. They are cliché.
    2. If it was taken on the photographer’s cellphone and uploaded to Facebook with the intent of making the photographer cooler for seeing it, and me less cool for not.
    3. The pretty colors are probably caused (in part) by pollution.

    Okay, I’m just hatin’. Sorry.

    But yes, I find that the Techno-Human Condition’s list empowers me to better participate in the larger discussion of “where is this all going?” I’ve always found it difficult to reconcile my chosen profession of “making things on the internet” with my dislike of… well… things on the internet. In talking with you a while ago, Jay, something you said stuck with me – that all of these discussions about technology, whether they be about short term or long term issues, topics like social networking, healthcare, war, peace etc. are going to happen whether I participate or not. And that whether or not I like where the conversation is going, by participating I’m (at the very least) giving my ideas a chance to be heard.

    The Long Clock’s guidelines might be nice if I was some benevolent overlord of humanity, but the THC (how did you not choose that abbreviation, by the way?) list speaks to me more as an individual participant. They’re guidelines not only for designing systems, but for being a part of one.

    And for the final question you ask – whether any guidelines are too difficult to implement in today’s environment – I would say that those guidelines are too important not to consider. That saying “it’s too slow and difficult to consider the impact of what I’m doing on other people” is a foolish thing to think as an individual human. Sometimes work needs to get done quickly, yes, but just stepping back and asking yourself, for example, “what alternative approaches are available for pursuing such goals?” can’t hurt.