68: The Long Now with Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz

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Will Jarvis
I’m joined by Long Now director of strategy, Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, to discuss how to think about the very long term future, philosophy, and what the Long Now foundation is up to.

Transcript:

William Jarvis 0:05
Hey folks, welcome to narratives. narratives is a podcast exploring the ways in which the world is better than in the past, the ways that is worse than the past towards a better, more definite vision of the future.

I’m your host, will Jarvis. And I want to thank you for taking the time out of your day to listen to this episode. I hope you enjoy it. You can find show notes, transcripts and videos at narratives podcast.com.

Will Jarvis 0:41
Well, Nick, how are you doing today?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 0:44
I I had a pipe burst on my houseboat today. And so things are a little up in the air. But uh, the boat hasn’t sunk. It’s good pipes fix now. And so we’re all good. Yeah. That’s awesome that I’m doing great. Good, good.

Will Jarvis 0:58
Can you give us a quick bio of the big things you’re interested in?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 1:03
Bio for me? Yeah. Yeah, yeah. So um, yeah. My name is Nick prizewinner. I’m the Director of Strategy at the Long Now Foundation. Long enough Foundation is a nonprofit here in San Francisco that’s focused on helping people think about time, in a more expansive sense. So we’re thinking about sort of, you know, thinking about now as this conversation or this election cycle, this semester, this business quarter, we’re thinking about now in the context of decades, centuries, millennia, and you know, famously, the 10,000 year timeframe of our original project, the clock and long now, the clock of the long now is a is a mechanical clock, the you know, inside of a mountain in West Texas, that’s designed to keep good time for the next 10,000 years. And they’ve been the founding members along that foundation. Danny Hillis, Stuart Brand, Brian Eno, Peter Schwartz and Kevin Kelly have been working on that project since the late 90s. So I am the Director of Strategy for Long Now Foundation.

My background is in systems engineering, and philosophy. And so that’s most of what I’m thinking about is how to create systems, and how to think about systems that are going to help us on Yeah, they’re gonna help us. Super cool. How did you first get interested in in studying and working on the long term future?

Um, you know, I think I think whenever you’re thinking about if you’re really thinking about something deeply, the idea of second order consequences third order consequences, knock on effects of what you’re doing, should come up is something also worthy of thought. And as soon as you start thinking about what happens after you do the thing that you’re thinking about doing, what happens after that thing, you start stretching your thinking out into these longer timescales that I think eventually come up against the limits of human lifespan. There’s only so much we can do in our, you know, threescore and 10 years on earth. And so you end up with this certain limitation. But then the question is, well, can you transcend that limitation? Can you endeavor to build or to think or to have an impact beyond your lifetime, I think that’s a natural next step for thinking to take. And so for me, it was really just about thinking, thinking about my life, and what I want to accomplish in, you know, in a small window of time that I have here, what seems most worth accomplishing, I mean, philosophy is, is, you know, in attempting to account of the good life, and what it means to live the good life and what that would look like, and how we would even talk about, or how we would even decide amongst, you know, alternative opportunities, alternative paths in life. And so, so as soon as you start thinking about those kinds of things, you start running into this idea of multi generation ality. And then the question is, like, you know, do you just go for two generations or three generations? What’s the appropriate number of generations to be thinking about things that and, you know, the civilizational timescale itself is 10,000 years, we came out of an ice age about 10,000 years ago, it’s we started having agrarianism and walled cities became became the common way of life for human beings. And so when you think about how long civilization has been around about 10 millennia, and you think about the next 10 millennia, that becomes, puts you right in the middle of this, what we call the long now right this next and last 10,000 year period. So I think it’s really a natural landing place for anybody who’s thinking about their lives, and then the impact of their lives on this civilizational project that we’re in. It’s kind of natural to come up against that limit. And of course, you know, geophysicist will take it out to hundreds of 1000s of years, and cosmologists will take it out billions of years. And so, each of these timescales has certain affordances and I think I’m certain affordances and there’s certain things that are kind of covered over as well, right. If you’re thinking about cosmological timescales for sample, you know, you’re not paying attention to a lot of the kinds of human drama, timescale phenomena that we think about right? Something similar for 10,000 years or 10,000 years, some things become much more salient. And then some things kind of recede into the background a bit.

William Jarvis 5:18
Definitely, definitely. I love that that approach of thinking about, you know, 10,000 years, it’s the right time scale, think about a really long time for human civilization. I think that’s a great framing. I’m curious, you know, the economic growth for the past 10,000 years, incredibly flat until the Industrial Revolution, just quite recently, it’d be this tiny blip on the on all of human history. You know, do you think it’s an anomaly? Do you think it’s a, it’s a growth trend that we can continue kind of this hockey stick growth upward? Or do you see things like leveling out? And how should one kind of think about that?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 6:02
That’s a big question.

Will Jarvis 6:03
It is big question.

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 6:05
Well, the the first thing I’ll point out, that I’m sure you know, you’re aware of and sensitive to, is the idea that the things that we’re measuring, we talk about things like economic growth are not all the things, right. It’s a subset of things, right. And so it’s a finite set. And that finite set of things is ensconced within, what I would argue is probably best apprehended isn’t in finite set of things, there’s a lot more to the world than our apprehensions of the world, right? Basically, the first thing I’ll point out is just that, whenever you’re measuring these kinds of things, and you’re looking at trends, you’re looking at a subset of the whole. And if you focus in on a subset of a whole, all kinds of things become really interesting and apparent. And just like the timescale phenomenon we talked about, where there’s like a Goldilocks zone, there’s a right timescale for the right kind of thinking for the right kind of intervention. Ditto for metrics, ditto for any kind of what Heidegger would call like the in framing Gastel hierarchy, Martin Heidegger was a early 20th century philosopher who’s kind of known for a critique of technology that runs in the same line that I’m sharing right now, which is, which is just kind of pointing out that our apprehension of reality has certain limits. And that those limits themselves determine what it is we end up seeing. So you know, and so it sounds like a bit of a Dodge, because I’m kind of questioning the model here. And I guess in one sense, it is, although I think it’s an appropriate dodge, because it’s hard to say. It’s hard to say what things mattered across 10,000 years, right? We have some remnant artifacts and writings from the last 10 millennia. But we certainly don’t have the whole of it. And I certainly wasn’t there to experience all of it. And so for me to say, from my perch here in 2021, what are the parameters of concern for all of human history? That’s going to be a decision that I’m making here in 2021. And then I’m kind of back. I’m like painting a picture going backwards with my 2021 determination of what matters and what needs to be tracked. Right? And then ditto going forward, right? So I’m going to take my 2021 apprehension of things and reach out in another 10 millennia? I don’t know if that’s always I don’t know if that’s always the best way to go about things. I mean, there’s real practical reasons for it. I mean, first thing I’ll say is, how else am I supposed to extrapolate in either direction, other than with a 2021? Picture? Who I am the 2021? How can I be anywhere else? Right? So there’s a certain sense in which I’m kind of stuck here with the the models and the frameworks that I have at my disposal for thinking about the next last 10,000 years. But at the same time, I don’t I can I can practice some reticence in conflating my model of things with things as they are. Right. So I guess this is to say that in the next 10,000 years, you know, what’s up with this hockey graph? Do we think this is gonna be, you know, extensible? And it’s like, well, I mean, no, but I think we the reasons for why we won’t be looking at this hockey graph, certainly aren’t apparent to us right now. But I think are going to seem almost trivially apparent in the future, right. And you can think about other historical examples of things that people were, like, just think about anything that people are concerned about, reach back, like more than 100 years ago, and look at what people were concerned about what they were worried about what they thought was going to be a big problem. It almost seems, you know, it almost seems

there’s a certain interpretation of history where it almost seems childlike, the things that people used to think were important, and now we’re so much more, so much more well, well informed and well educated, we wouldn’t make these mistakes now. But I think there’s a certain kind of temporal hubris to that which kind of pace ourselves as being the apotheosis of all things, when in truth, we are the apotheosis of a lot of things, those, the a lot of those things are things we’re tracking pretty accurately right? As far as civilization goes, there’s a lot of things that are happening in civilization in 2021, that are, that are Apotheon, can I use that word that are that are like, they are achievements, when looked at, you know, through through a lens of history in a certain way. But it’s also, I think, really interesting to think about what opportunity costs and trade offs, some of those achievements have involved have required of us? You know, are there things that you know, we had a lot of gains in certain parameters. But do we have losses and other parameters? Are we even aware of all of the losses, you know, that might be there. And then again, likewise, moving forward, when you think about the next 10,000 years, there are a lot of things like, I’d like to think that in the future, if we go out 1000 years or 10,000 years, a lot of the things that we’re struggling with as a civilization right now, are going to seem quaint, that would be the hope, right, that we would have figured this stuff out, you know, we’ve thought about it deeply. We’ve tried a few things, we’ve run some experiments, we figured out some things that work. And now these things that used to be challenges and problems, almost insurmountable challenges and problems no longer are. So that would be nice. And I I’m, I’m a, I’m a fan of that projection out of this moment in the future. And at the same time, there’s, it seems to me reductive, to avoid the concession that there’s going to be things that we’ve lost in that process, what are those things is going to be in it? Who’s keeping the grand total? So there’s the sense that like, we want like an index, we want a single figure that sums up all the other figures and says just on net, are things getting better hockey stick graph style, it’s going through the roof, or, or things getting worse, or what’s going on? And I guess I, I think there are limitations to how useful that perspective is. Those limitations are things like, you know, very focused interventions. And there are things that you can track, see how the trend lines are going, see where we are see where we might be going. That’s that’s a useful way of thinking about the future, under a certain aspect, but I think when we take a step back, and we look at things as a whole, it becomes really reductive, to look at these kinds of trend lines, I think it just it it can be intoxicating, because especially some of these exponential trend lines. it tempts interesting parts of the mind, right? Like, what is it going to be like when you’re up against the wall of an exponential curve? Like, what does that look like? How do you how do you even grok that? And I think it’s worth thinking about that stuff? I think it’s what there’s a lot of food for thought in there. Most of the time, when I talk to people about this, there is this mistaking the the map for the territory, or the the menu for the meal as it were.

William Jarvis 13:20
Definitely, I think that’s super wise. And I think it perhaps is something we all fall into. But there’s definitely that we definitely have some kind of temporal hubris, or like, you know, we live in our own time. So we we judge everything by our own standards. And, and you know that that’s kind of our reference point. But there’s a lot of things we don’t know. And I think it’s a good reminder. Just to keep that in mind, when you when you look at all these just how humanity has progressed over time. So I guess I, and I’m sorry, I’m deviating off the outline, but I’m curious. So do you. I get the sense that you don’t think progress is something that’s automatic.

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 14:03
Automatic meaning like inevitable,

William Jarvis 14:05
but yeah, like it like a Whig history kind of thing. Like do, you know, history moves and kind of this northeasterly direction towards some some good thing?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 14:14
Yeah, I think the answer is yes. But I think it’s like a trivial Yes.

Will Jarvis 14:18
Very high, high noise. Well,

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 14:26
so So my earliest point was that I think the the set of things that we’re concerned with when we’re looking at trend lines that are going up or down, or staying static, is a finite set. That’s a finite set that is this situated inside of in finite space, right. Because I guess think about this, like, how, like we can look at like how much faster cell phones are getting at right processing speeds, right. Okay. Is that something that like, medieval Christian scholastics would have been tracking or thinking About looks like no, this is like a parameter of concern that’s just erupted into existence where we had to invent the parameter that we’re tracking, right? There was a time when that parameter wasn’t even a parameter of concern. And when you look at the future, I’m imagining the number of parameters that we can’t even fathom right now UML is, is, is out of scale with the number of parameters we’re tracking, which means, you know, even if it’s not theoretically infinite, it’s pragmatic. It’s practically infinite. And so what I’m arguing is that like, if you have, you know, you have a world in a state, and then you’re going to track how that state changes over time. Yeah, there’s going to be readings of that world of that, that whole lump of everything, there’s going to be readings that are available to you, in which things are getting better. And obviously, so there’s going to be readings available to you, that are like readings of decline, right? Where things are just getting worse. And obviously, so and then there’s going to be readings of stasis, where things aren’t changing at all, that it’s all cyclical, it’s just more of the same stuff, right? It’s a merry go round. I think time is a flat circle. Isn’t that the True Detective term? Like there are these different readings? And so this is like a, what I would call like a hermeneutic. Right? Which is like, how do you interpret what is happening? The change? Like how do you interpret it? So one way is to be a realist about something like progress and say, no, no, the things that we’re tracking that give us this upward trend line, these are the only things that matter to humans. And therefore, human civilization is progressing, obviously. So I’m, like, I’m in agreement with the general observations, right? Like, they’re like, yes, these things you’re tracking are getting better and awesome. And I am an absolute cheerleader for things getting better for humans, right. But but that’s not like, that’s the only story. And again, there’s this temptation to reduce everything that yeah, there’s bad stuff in the world. Yeah, there’s good stuff in the world. Yeah, there’s stuff that stays the same. When you sum it all together, though. What’s that arrow doing? And I think that’s what I’m calling into question. Is this, the possibility of summing it all together? Can you fit an infinite number of things, which includes all these things that don’t even exist? Yet as parameters of concern? Can you fit all of those things into a finite set of concerns? Like that, Sam, I don’t I don’t think you can do that. And so so it’s, it’s useful hermeneutics can be useful, because you’re looking at things under an aspect that is revealing something. So when you look at the hermeneutic of progress, it’s revealing something about civilization. Right. Now, I don’t want to jump ahead and say what it is that it’s revealing, but it’s certainly revealing something and it’s something worth paying attention to. It’s something worth tracking, it’s something we’re thinking very deeply about. But is that the whole store? Like is that it? Is there is there no story to be told for hermeneutics of decline? I don’t think that’s true. I think there are really compelling hermeneutics of decline, that are out there as well that are worth paying attention to, if only to further the the the project of progress, which is to make things better, right, if only to track things that are declining, because we don’t want them to decline anymore. And we want to intervene. So I think there’s, there’s, there are reasons for us to be alive to all of these different hermeneutics, not just the ones that are not just the ones that tell the story that we want to be true. There’s a lot gotcha of different hermeneutics, but the progress one, I think, is obviously one of the more one of the most interesting ones like if you want something to think deeply about all of those up into the right trend lines should give everyone pause for reflection, and, and and consideration of how they can play a role in that in the world getting better and going up into the right, because I think we all fundamentally want that. I don’t know too many people that are actively working for hermeneutics have declined

or stasis for that matter. Um, well, I guess that’s a separate conversation. I can imagine two people arguing for hermeneutic of stasis. But I think I think the progress story is one of the most important stories, we can tell each other about each other and about what we’re doing. Because it it does reveal things about humans, it reveals our agency, it reveals the kind of stuff that we’re capable of it reveals the kinds of achievements that we’ve already achieved when things seem impossible. It reveals to us like No, we’ve done the impossible before, right. So there’s there are all of these really beautiful things that are present in that story. It’s just not of it’s just not a final assessment. It’s not it’s not the only story in town. That’s all I guess my my only addition to the to the story.

William Jarvis 19:42
Oh, I love that. I love that. And in the in the story. Do you think people generally overrate their agency or underwrite their agency?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 19:54
In the story, I mean, I think people again, like agencies and other One of these hermeneutics, right, there are, there are really good reasons to believe that you’re capable of anything. And there’s a really good reasons to have some humility, about what you are capable of, there are really good reasons to want to be an actor, and to kind of thrust your will into the world to kind of make a dent in the universe as it were right. And then I think there’s a lot of good reasons to abide, and to allow things to happen. There are all kinds of things that, you know, internal to you that you allow to happen without your intervention, you know, you don’t have to worry about breathing too often. You don’t worry about by beating your own heart or digesting your food. And I don’t know about you, but I’m quite glad that I don’t spend a lot of time you know, I also, you know, the things that I do have to consciously keep track of, you know, every now and then I screw them up, I would hate to screw up beating my heart. That seems like something I’m pretty happy, as you know, kind of gets done automatically for me for the most part. So there’s a sense in which like, again, do people overweight or underweight their own agency? It really depends on the situation there. I can imagine a ton of different stories in which people are vastly over emphasizing their agency and their ability to direct the course of change for the universe. Like, that’s the thing human beings do. They overestimate that, but human beings also deeply and I think tragically underestimate what they’re able to do as well. Right. And so it depends on who you’re speaking to. If you’re speaking to people who are like, early on in their careers, and they want, you know, they want to, there’s some kind of thing that seems impossible, but you know, it might not be impossible, you got to try it, and it’s gonna take a while, and maybe it’s gonna take you 10 years, but like, to those people, don’t you want to say, well, please try, please try to be as a gentle as possible. I would love it, if you were able to achieve the impossible, that would make things a lot better for us. But then again, I think there’s situations in which people have a lot of hubris about what they’re able to do. And I think there’s also some wisdom and maybe knowing when you do or don’t want to intervene, like maybe even if you could you don’t, I think reticence is also one of these skills that could be the you could counsel for people to So again, I’m just I hate to feel like such a Dodge on these things. But I think I think these are good questions, but they’re part of richer complexes of questions, you know? Yeah, absolutely.

William Jarvis 22:18
No, that’s, that’s super. Going off the agency question. You’ve had a really awesome career, you know, from music to working on very long now. And I’m curious, do you see them as fitting together in some way? Or? Do we just tell ourselves stories about how things go together? You know, I’m saying it’s, it kind of goes along with, I think you were just talking about?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 22:44
Yeah, no, I think you’re you’re hitting the nail on the head. I have a story in my head about how it all fits together. But that’s but that’s what it is. It’s It’s It’s sense. Making that Well, I can tell you was not obvious in the moment. That is for sure. I this is not part of a extensive architecture, of a career that I’ve plotted out when I was like a teenager. And now I’m just, you know, I’m not just executing on the plan, I’ll tell you that. That said, there’s a lot of ways in which it does make a lot of sense. And one piece leads into another piece leads into another piece in a way that is just very satisfying narratively for me, you know, and that’s kind of a story that, of course, I latch on to, there’s also ways, you know, and things I could focus on, that make absolutely no sense are completely bonkers discontinuous, like, absolutely just anomaly ridden chapters in my life that I couldn’t really explain. And in both directions, good and bad. And so again, I think sense making is important, it allows me to tell you, where I came from, where I am now, where I’m going. The long now project, you know, this, this long time scale of concern is this. It’s a sense making, you know, practice. It’s, we’re saying, Okay, this is what happened across the last 10,000 years. Now we’re here. Now there’s 10,000 years coming, you know, up ahead. And, and here’s the story. But it really is just that it, but the stories have uses, right? If I really felt like I woke up every day, and there was no connection, no sense between where I went to bed and where I woke up, or like what I was doing yesterday, and what I’m doing today, if it all just seems like absolute chaos, that’s not going to be very helpful. I think it all either, like even to the extent that it might be intellectually honest that there’s a lot of chaos, a lot of noise in the system. Maybe maybe the signal that I’m latching on to is a really weak signal, and a really strong sea of noise. Maybe that’s true, but I think perhaps maybe part of the project as I see it, is amplifying the signal within like the loud noisy space. It’s it’s how do we how do we make the signal more identifiable? How do we how do we track it and then how do we how do we tune it You know, where’s the signal going? So again, to the agency questions, it’s all kind of comes around together, which is like, yeah, when you’re when you’re looking at all of the infinity of things going on in the world that don’t seem to make sense or hang together, can you find a through line? Through all of it? And can you do that in your own life, I think it’s a practice, I think, you know, whether it’s whether you get there through journaling, or through psychoanalysis, or through talking at the pub with friends, or you know, writing a memoir, or whatever it is, that helps you iron that story out for yourself, you know, good for you, whatever helps you, we need all those good sense making practices that we can get. For me, it hangs together mostly in the realm of aesthetics, and appreciating a certain felt sense for things being better, with a certain amount of like, adjustments to them, like critical adjustments. And so you know, long now is a is a critical adjustment on our default sense time. You know, my felt intuitive sense is that we are, we are a little too attuned to the short term, and we’re a little we are need of more attunement to long term phenomena. You know, we’re very good at noticing things that happen on, you know, one day timescales are now with Twitter and stuff like even like minute or hourly timescales. We’re pretty good at attuning ourselves to this kind of information, are we good at attuning ourselves to kind of information that rolls in across a decade, or across a century, or maybe maybe even like a millennia, I would argue we’re not really good at that we haven’t really built that skill set, mostly because we haven’t had to, you know,

like think, you know, predators in our environment, things like, you know, lions or something. They they act, and they threaten us on a timescale that we are attuned to, you know, like, like that kind of movement, the movement of a jaguar in a jungle is movement, that my like organism is going to be pretty well attuned to, hopefully, hopefully, to avoid, I would hope. But you know, the movement of something like climate change, or antibiotic resistance, or think about pandemics, right like pandemics, kind of pandemics that occur once in a century. Or, you know, even worse, once in a millennia, you end up in situations where we’re not really attuned to that we don’t know what it is to develop a civilization scale awareness that transcends individual generations, individual lifetimes. So does that seem like something we should get better at like, that’s my felt sense is, is the aesthetic sense that this is under emphasized, and could do for more emphasis. And, you know, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a worthy thing for me to commit my time to is, to what extent can I be how can I be helpful here, and helping civilization better attune itself to long timescale phenomena. But when you’re making art, when you’re making music, when you’re writing, when you’re doing philosophy, or any of this kind of stuff, what you’re looking at is all the prior work that came in front of you. And you’re seeing what’s good in it, all the stuff that got you into it, you know, all the music you fell in love with is the stuff that made you a musician, all the philosophy that you read and fell in love with is what makes you want to write philosophy. But there’s adjustments, right? There’s like certain differences that you’re like, well, this would be even better if and the question is like, Okay, now it’s now here’s where agency comes in? Are you going to make it better now that you’ve noticed both what’s great about it, and the opportunity there? It’s your chance to seize that opportunity. So with music, you know, it’s musical stuff. But it’s fundamentally a sense that this is good, but it could be better. With long now, it’s temporal, it’s like this is good, could be better. You know, how could it be better? That’s an interesting question. Let’s play with that. Let’s experiment, let’s see what we’re capable of. Let’s see how far our agency extends to get people better at this. And then for philosophy, too, it’s like, you know, there’s so much good philosophy out there, I’ll never read all of it. And most people will never get around to all of it. But you know, there’s stuff in there, it’s really good that, you know, maybe you want to build on maybe you want to add to, and then that’s, it’s a worthwhile place to jump in.

William Jarvis 28:51
Definitely. I love that. And I think it’s a great reminder to, you know, very few people think about the long term, even like 10 years out and let alone hundreds or 10,000 years. But it seems very important for our future as a species to think about it, because it seems like we’re pretty good at solving problems, if we can name them and talk about them. You know, we seems like we’re usually able to get through them. And although there’s plenty of exceptions, but do you think that’s a really important part of the process of kind of the the process is just just let’s think about it, let’s sit down and at least be thinking about these problems? Is that kind of, do you think that’s integral?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 29:34
Absolutely, no, I think I am blown away by how good we are at problem solving, right? Once we do sit down and notice what’s happening, but it does take this moment of stopping. Right, and there’s a stopping and thinking, you know, and before they kind of precedes action, there’s a moment there’s an opportunity to stop and reflect and say, Okay, what, what is, well, like I just said, what is what is going on right and what is not going all right How do I jump in? Where’s my point of intervention? When we do that? Well, we do that really well as a species we do. And so yeah, that’s my attraction to long term thinking. It’s, it’s, there’s a space, and a conversation around long term action as well about acting so as to influence the next 100 years or 1000 years. But really, for me, the the the deep attraction, I think comes from the space of thinking, and reflection and contemplation and saying, if we stop, you know, stop what you’re doing on any given day, Tuesdays, Tuesday today, stop on a Tuesday. Think about all the things that are going really well. Anything you can do in there to keep those things going, keep those things going in the right direction. And then think about the things that aren’t going well. Think about the things that aren’t going to change. Think about your point of intervention, the more thoughtful and reflective you can be about how you spend your time and energy and resources. I think the better the outcome is, I think that’s kind of almost the definition of thinking in a certain way. Right is like actually pausing to consider all your different options and choosing, you know, quote, unquote, better option. So yeah, I do think it’s important to stop. And I do think it’s important to give it a name, I think we can’t really solve, we struggle to fix things that don’t have names as problems. But as soon as people do, kind of coin a term or, and people, this is an aesthetic thing. Two people have a general, they have a they have an intuitive sense, when you name something just right now, like that’s the thing. You know, I think for a lot of people long now it touches that kind of thing, where it’s like, oh, yeah, you know, Stuart Brand wrote, civilization is revving itself into a pathologically accelerated pathological acceleration. And it’s like, oh, yeah, it’s, that’s a that’s a real feeling that a lot of people have. They’ve had it for now, for 25 years. It hasn’t left. For me, I still think we’re wrapping ourselves into a pathologically short attention span. And I want to address that. So but but naming it is an important part of that process.

William Jarvis 31:59
Yeah, making it legible. Seems really important too. Because you know, you can’t even discuss anything if you don’t have a common knowledge around what it even is. Mm hmm. I’m curious, for the listeners that might not be familiar with long now. You guys have a lot of really cool projects. And so I don’t want to pick, you know, make you pick, pick your favorite child. But you know, what are you particularly excited about about what you guys have been working on? recently?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 32:25
I mean, yeah, I’m gonna resist saying everything. Yeah, since we kind of jump right into this with the bio, and some talk about anything, I touched on this clock of the long now project, but that was really the inaugural project that got all of this started. It was this idea that we needed a monument to the future, the same way, just pyramids of Giza are a monument to the past. What does it mean to even build a monument to the future would like what does that even look like? In a certain sense, a clock is that a mechanical clock, especially the future states in 1000 years and 10,000 years are there presently, like if you and I were to go visit right now, those states of the world are baked into what we’re encountering here in the present moment. And yet, and yet not right, in this really kind of interesting way. You know, the pyramids themselves are inert, they’re, they’re static, and the past is static in a certain way. But the future is a lot more dynamic, it’s a lot more mysterious, and the clock is a lot more dynamic, and a lot more mysterious, you know. And so I love that project. I love the mythic aspects to it, I love, I love the aesthetics of building something deep inside of a mountain, where it’s going to remain for a while, before people, you know, get to explore and discover it. And it’s, it’s it’s a really special project. And so I can’t not mention that one here when we’re talking. But out of that project came, you know, our seminar series where we started inviting experts to come talk about their work in the context of the next and last 10,000 years. And so, at this point, I think there’s been about 250 seminars, where people, you know, Nobel laureates, science fiction, authors, artists, you name it, have come to talk about their work in this larger context. And this is an opportunity for us to learn. I mean, I’m incredibly grateful for all the different perspectives that people have been able to bring to bear on this long Now, question this long now framework. So that’s always, you know, always enlightening, and it continues to be enlightening. We have one of these talks just about every month. Now. They’re almost completely virtual, virtual and available online for people to join us all around the globe. And I encourage all of your listeners to join us for one. There’s a seminars project, we run an award winning cocktail bar, here in San Francisco called the interval, which has a two story floor to ceiling library with every book you would want to jumpstart civilization. It’s called the manual for civilization. Yeah, it’s everything from how to make steel how to get penicillin, to Shakespearean sonnets and Socratic dialogues, science fiction books, the whole the whole gamut. There’s also a Some scaled down prototypes of the clock project there, as well as a bunch of other easter eggs too, for anybody that pays us a visit here in San Francisco sets the interval. I love that project as well, because it creates a center for a lot of community. And this a morphus community that doesn’t quite have a name. I mean, long term thinkers is a name for people, but it really pulls all different kinds of folks together. There are so many different things that

there are so many different areas of concern that are rich for long term thinking, whether you’re working in public health, or whether you’re an entrepreneur, technologist, whether you’re a philosopher, whether you’re a linguist, you know, you start thinking about languages on long timescales and certain things become apparent. That’s a project that we have two that I really love is the Rosetta project. The Rosetta project is inspired by the original Rosetta Stone, but the idea was, you know, in this time that we’re living in of rapid linguistic extinction, you know, we’re losing a language every couple of months now are, is there some way we can preserve human languages in documentation for posterity. So things like dictionaries, grammars, vocabulary lists, parallel text translations, we gathered 1000s of languages 1000s 1000s of pages of documentation, and then work to etch it onto a nickel disk, called the Rosetta disk. And we have some smaller versions too, which are wearable, but one of those Rosetta discs, there’s about 100 copies, one of them is on a comet, comet 67 P, that rubber ducky shaped shaped comet that the European Space Agency landed on a few years back, and then another one is on the surface of the moon, the beresheet mission, landed a copy there, and then we have a bunch of terrestrial copies as well. And so in long term archiving, there’s this phrase locks Loc, K. S. ‘s, lots of copies keep stuff safe. And so the idea is have as many copies in as many places as you possibly can. And so that’s what we’re working on with Rosetta project that that is another one that’s really near and dear to my heart. We have a betting platform. There’s the woolly mammoth project that gets a lot of attention. There’s so many things that long I was involved in. And I think they’re all really interesting. At some level. For me, the most interesting thing about all of these is what other people bring to them. It’s it’s, you know, it’s there was other projects interesting. What’s almost infinitely interesting, then, is what people think about when they hear about the Rosetta project. What does that make them think about? How do they think about their their language differently? Or how do they think about archiving differently, or just just the first time they’ve ever thought about archiving on Millennial timescales? So it’s really what people bring to and this is the idea of this stuff is it’s less that the clock is how you think long term. That’s not what it’s for. What it’s there to do is to inspire you to think long term to expire future generations to think about this. And what’s possible. Again, it’s this tension between the finite and the infinite for me, where there’s an infinite number of answers to that question of like, what occurs to you when you think on a 10,000 year timescale? So for me, it’s endlessly interesting just to hear to learn from other people, what it is that opens up for them when they get permission, you know, and for a lot of people, you know, they come into the interval, for example, it might be the first time they’ve had permission to think about 1000 to 10,000 year timescales, it’s not really something that’s asked of everybody, usually, your job, you know, you might be tasked for like, some kind of a forecast that maybe goes into the next quarter, the next year, may be made in the next couple of years. But rarely is anyone ever asking you for your thoughts on what’s going to happen in 4000 years, you come to the interval that’s a little more common. And so I’m endlessly interested just with what other people are discovering, listening to those voices from all around the globe, from all these different backgrounds, pulling that constellation of thinkers together is probably the thing that most interests me amongst all the stuff that we’re doing. It’s, it’s not really its own standalone project, although we are working to build standalone projects that will serve this kind of a global community of long term thinkers, kind of build a field of long term thinking that, you know, is more than just a Bay Area affectation at a cocktail bar, you know, information, but it really is this thing that includes all kinds of people representing all kinds of aspects of civilization, thinking about Yeah, what what do we want to see in the next few 1000 years? Like, what are we concerned about? What do we wish we were paying more attention to all of these kinds of things? It’s an almost endless field of, you know, of considerations. And that, for me, is really the richest part of all the projects that we

William Jarvis 39:47
do. I love that. I love that. I’ve got one more big question for you. Yeah. existential risks. How worried are you about them? And do you think we should be worried about them more?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 40:01
Well, okay, how worried Am I have existential risks? super worried, they’re existential risks. They’re existential, by definition, who’s not worried about, you know, the possibility of a non existence? X risks are our real thing. Should we be more worried about? Well, I don’t think people should be anything. I’m I’m a little averse to telling people what they should be. I know people that are extraordinarily worried about x risks. Sometimes it’s the people that are extraordinarily worried about these things that helped me be less worried. You know, we’ve, like someone’s worried someone’s working on it. Yeah, somebody, somebody, somebody is thinking about it at least. But what I would add to the, to the conversation is that, I don’t know if there’s ever been a time in civilizational history where there haven’t been serious, effectively, existential risks. Now, I know, like, from a definitional standpoint, existential risks aren’t catastrophic risks. And so there’s some distinctions that I’m sure your listeners you’re probably sensitive to. So I don’t want without tripping in the definitional problems around what is an X risk? What is a catastrophic risk? What is, you know, what are these different degrees? I think, like,

civilization is a fragile thing. It’s not a table stakes, baseline thing. It’s an achievement. And it takes effort, and it takes maintenance, and it takes renewal. And so x, x risks existential risks are real, but they’ve always been real. There’s never been a time where we haven’t been threatened with non existence, in the same sense that you and I personally, you know, there’s never a day where you’re not, like, in some way, theoretically, at least, threatened with non existence, all of us hope it remains theoretical. But the truth is, like, you know, like, yeah, non existence is a real thing to be concerned about. Should we be more concerned about it? Like, should people be allocating more resources to more time and attention? I, I think, when you start thinking about 100, year, 1000 year 10,000 timescales, you get two categories of phenomena that start to reveal themselves. One is these threats, these like, things that you didn’t even know you were supposed to be losing sleep over, right? Every time you go to, like, you know, crack a new book on X risks, you’re gonna learn about a couple of things that you didn’t even know, you should have been worried about this whole time. And it’s fascinating. And it’s, it’s mind blowing, and it makes you want to address these things. Because, you know, again, you name a problem, you identify a problem, now you can solve the problems to go solve the problem. At the same time, you also notice this whole suite of opportunities that rise up on 100 Year 1000 year timescales, there are things that we’re going to be able to do in 100 years that we can’t even touch right now, right? In the same sense that you and I are recording this conversation through wireless waves in the sky, that are going between my computer and your it’s absolutely mind blowing, if you were explaining somebody, you know, in the quarter, Louis the 14th. And so there’s a certain sense in which well, when we look down a few 100 years from where we are right now, what else is going to seem like, you know, what are these huge opportunities, we don’t even know, the threats, you know, can be addressed and should be addressed. And I’m glad people are addressing them. And I think if, if what occurs to you, when you think about 1000 year timescales is just all of these extra scripts, that’s probably a good sign, that that’s what you should go do, you should go work on that if that’s, if you can’t stop thinking about asteroid impacts, you know, go go reach out to the B 612. Foundation you’re working on that maybe you can help them out, they probably appreciate the help. And so there’s a sense in which of this stuff is calling out to you for your attention. Pay attention to that and go attend to it. And thank you on behalf of all the people who are going to hopefully live in a future where you’ve deflected the asteroid, right? Meanwhile, if what calls out to you is opportunities for working on other things, I don’t think you know, the, the math of existential risks is so absolute, that it almost galvanizes the argument of how could you do anything other than work on this? Right? There’s just it’s very compelling, right? So how could you How could you do anything other than do this because it ends up being the only thing that matters. But I think there’s a large, there’s a large set of things that if everyone just worked on them, they they’d get solved, right, like and so the solution can’t always be just like, by force by by by edict, everyone now needs to work on asteroid deflection or something. I mean, that’s both both compelling in one register, but another register, not the most realistic way to go about this. So I tend to lean on the side of open endedness of saying, Well, if you think about long timescales, what sticks out to you, maybe it’s the threats, maybe it’s the opportunities, whatever that is, if it resonates with you and you feel up to the task of intervening and working on it, please do we need more people working on this stuff? Because right now, there’s a lot of bright minds and a lot of money going towards better attuning us to short term phenomena. whether it’s social media, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly all that ad tech, high frequency trading. I mean, there’s so many things that are just like dependent on these really short timescales, we’re doing a pretty good job there. As far as I can tell, again, this isn’t a static judgment. I’m saying, hey, if I had, if I had to put my thumb on the scale for one side, I’d absolutely want to put it on the side of more long term thinking, more long term thinkers. And that includes people who are working on and thinking about the threats and the opportunities, I think they’re both really important.

William Jarvis 45:29
And I really love that because I think it’s it’s very actionable. You know, it’s very, it’s a very actionable stance, very actionable advice. It’s like, well, you know, look at the long term, and and think about, you know, what really sticks out is something you say should have an impact on and you think it’s important. Well, Nick, thank you so much for coming on. Where can people find your work?

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 45:48
Absolutely. A long now.org is the place to find all of the information about our projects, both the ones that we’ve been doing these last 25 years, as well as all of our plans for the next 25 years. That’s L O, N G, and O W dot orgy long now.org. And he should also, you know, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel, or check us out on Facebook or Twitter, we’ve got social media channels there as well. And if anyone’s ever in San Francisco, I highly recommend they stop by the interval for a drink. And they can check out some of our museum artifacts in our library. There’s a wonderful installation by Brian Eno and a chalkboard drawing robot and a bunch of other a bunch of other really cool things you’ll discover on your visit.

William Jarvis 46:28
That’s awesome. I can’t wait next time. I’m in town. I’ll check it out.

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz 46:32
Looking forward to uh, well, thanks so much for having me on.

William Jarvis 46:34
Thanks so much, Nick. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of narratives.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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