The Art of the Really Long View (MP3 audio) | Peter Schwartz | Dec. 12, 2003 | Long Now Foundation

Better futures, says Peter Schwartz, means creating and having more options for the future, leaving the future better than we found it.

Peter Schwartz

[06:50] How do you take the really long view? What do have to do if you really want to take the long view seriously? And, so, I set out to try and rethink about the ways that I approach the future, if one takes a much longer time frame seriously. Centuries. Millenia, maybe, rather than than a decade or two or three or four.

[7:20] So, I’m going to try to set out some notions about how one approaches that problem. What do you think about, and why. How do you do it, and what do you do about it, as a result?

[07:30] I take, as a kind of fundamental premise, that the future exists, but it exists in our mind. The future that actually is, is the future that we believe, about the future. What’s going to happen tomorrow? Maybe someday, physics will discover that the future is actually exists out there, and you could travel there in time. It not too hard for me to imagine that the past actually exists. But, in fact, the past is no more substantial than the future. It exists at the moment, only in our mind. It’s irretrievably gone. That moment, a few seconds ago, it’s gone. The future hasn’t happened, yet. So both the past and future are there in our minds, and we act only in the present, based in part on our experiences of that now imaginary past, and that future that has yet to come to be.

[08:20] So all of this is really, in the end, about the present. It’s about what we draw from the past, and what we imagine about the future, and how that influences what we do, right now. That’s what this is really all about.

[08:35] I ask the question then: so, why bother? Why bother thinking about all of this? At the most mundane level, the world can be a better place or a worse place in the future. Put most simply, that’s the bottom line of it. We want to make a better future. But what do we mean by better, first of all?

[08:50] First of all, in the personal sense, the level of the individual, at least in two ways. A better material life, and the usual sorts of things: health, security, comfort, pleasure, the kinds of things that money can buy, to some extent, as it were. And then a better inner life, if you will: purpose, community, sense of belonging, intimacy, all of those things that make a person feel like life is worth living. And so, it is the combination of those things, and a personal sense.

[09:20] But better isn’t enough if it’s just, “life is pretty good for me, but screw the rest”. That’s obviously not what we mean. What we also mean it’s better in social sense, in a much larger sense.

[09:30] Here, I mean one idea above all else, over the long run, as opposed to in the world immediately at hand, and that is, better means having more options for the future, creating more options for the future. Put most simply, it is leaving the future as good or better than we found it. It’s about leaving the future, preferably, better than we found it. And this is where, a lot of what now follows, comes from, because we may actually be failing at this task.

[10:00] Our forefathers … my parents, gave me a great future. In the future that I inherited was really fabulous. And I’m not at all convinced that the future I’m passing on to my son is a great future. And I think that’s what we’re worried about. You know, there have been other generations that have screwed up. The generation that probably created, and then settled World War I, they deserve a lot of blame for what happened over the next several decades, in Weimar, depression, World War II, and fascism and all of that kind of stuff. They blew it. They left a pretty bad future behind them. We’re at risk of doing the same thing, of not leaving a better future for our children.

[10:45] So, then, the next question is: if that’s really what you’re trying to accomplish, can you really do anything about it? Does what we do actually matter? Does human fate actually matter? We had a little seminar last night of some of the sponsors of this series, and some of the Long Now people. Danny Hillis put it very well. He said: “We might as well do something about the future, because it’s the only thing that we can do anything about”. At the most mundane level, that is absolutely true.

[11:15] Now, whether we can do anything about the future really depends upon what our view of history is. How we understand how and why the world happens as it does. And here, in part, it’s how long is your now, and on how big is your here. That’s part of what one wants to take into account. And, as I said earlier, it really is, in my case tonight, centuries, maybe even a few millenia, not decades.

[11:45] How many of you are old Whole Earth geeks? Some of you may remember the name Dick Raymond. Dick was the founder of something called the Portola Institute in the 1960s. It was the first institutional home for the Whole Earth Catalog. And Dick said something very wise. He said, and this was a while ago, he said “If it doesn’t take 50 years, it isn’t worth doing”. And more recently, he’s been saying if it isn’t going to take 200 years, it isn’t worth doing. I think that that’s actually a very important idea, because it takes one’s ego out of it. Somebody just brought me a great idea for changing the world, and they said “We’ve got to do it right now. This has to be done right now. This is the moment it’s got to be done”. There’s only one reason that this is the moment that it’s got to be done. It’s his moment. His now is very short. Very short. The things that really matter take a long time.

[12:40] As far as whether human agency actually makes a difference, one of the kinds of acts of history that I enjoy is virtual history. Ask the question: what if it had been different? There’s a British historian, Niall Ferguson — very conservative … controversial and conservative — [who] wrote the book Empire, arguing why the British Empire was good thing, and why we ought to have an empire but we’re lousy at it. So, you Americans can’t do empires, is his hypothesis. But he wrote an earlier book, called The Pity of War.

[13:10] In The Pity of War, he asks a very interesting question. What would have happened if Britain had not entered World War I? He basically comes the conclusion — interestingly enough, and whether you agree with him or not is another question — but it begins to address the question of human agency. And that is, he says, suppose they hadn’t entered the war? Well, what would have happened? Well, Germany probably would have won and unified Europe, in an EU — maybe a German-speaking EU, but an EU 50 years earlier. The Brits would have kept their empire. Six hundred thousand young British men — creative energies and talents — would have been applied to the further fruits of British society. Britain would not have been empoverished. No Weimar, no depression, no fascists, no holocaust, no Hitler, et cetera, et cetera.

[14:05] Really bad choice to go into World War I, wasn’t it? Well, of course, at that moment, one didn’t see it that way. But it does say something about human choice, and how one frames the problem, how one frames the context, and what it means in the long run. I’m not arguing that he’s right, I am simply arguing that it raises fundamental questions about some of kinds of the long term choices that we make.

[14:25] Now, I would say that the history of the last millennium — and certainly, at least probably the last 10,000 years — suggest that what people do matters. By and large, we’ve made progress. Just think about: would you like to go to a dentist, 100 years ago? You could answer that one pretty quick. On the other hand, think about this: my bet is you’d much prefer to go a dentist 100 years from now, too, than today. Human progress, I think, is very real. It’s very real. It’s been true for the last 10,000 years. It’s been true for the last 1,000 years. It’s probably been true for the last 100 years. Now, we’re beginning to question many elements of that, but, by and large, more people live better today than have ever lived well in human history. Literally, several billion people, despite the fact that several billion people live in desperate poverty, several billion people living reasonable well.

A theory of long term dynamics can come from a theory of history.

[17:45] What we going to do tonight is not scenario planning. But most of the ways of looking at the future have something in common. This is true for the kind of work that I do, as well. Every time you look at the future, you what to figure out, what is the question? What are you trying to answer? A very simple idea. What are the long term forces, and how do they interact? What are the big uncertainties? How do these forces play out, in light of these uncertainties? What might all of that might mean, and what should I do, as a result of that?

[18:10] So, in this particular context, what we need is a theory of long-term dynamics. Why do things happen the way they do? Some way to play those out, and validate those theories. You need some kind of sense of what the consequences of all that are. And then, what should I do, as a result?

[18:30] So, I’m actually going to try to go through that tonight, and try to answer some of those questions. What is the way of thinking about the long term future? How might all that play out, and what should we do?

[18:40] So, first of all, theory of history. I get a lot of my sense of dynamics … I read a lot of history and science. Those are the two things I like to read. I see history as a long run struggle — in which humanity is involved in this constant struggle — to create human systems that help us avoid killing each other too much — sometimes, it’s not a bad idea; exceeding the ecological carrying capacity, we’ve got to avoid doing that; we have to give meaning to life; and enabling us to do great things.

[19:15] Those are the struggle. Don’t kill each other too much. Learn to live within your ecological capacities. Give meaning to human life. And be able to do really cool things: build cathedrals, go to the moon, do great art, et cetera.

[19:30] Now, my hypothesis is not novel. It’s the very obvious one, that over the long run, it is powerful, and sometimes even good, ideas that have been humanity’s most powerful weapon in this never-ending struggle. Now that’s not a new idea. Lots of people have argued that. Hegel, et cetera, in philosophy, and many others, that really human progress is really about the progress of ideas. Ideas about nature, how nature works. Ideas about how societies ought to be organized. And about the nature of human beings, and lots more.

[20:00] So, it’s really about the history of ideas. If you think back, historically, we have lots of examples from history. Imagine the first guys doing cave painting, and mixing pigments. It’s one thing when you take a slab of rough chalk and you spear it on the wall. But there’s someday, one day, said if I take this ochre and this hematite, and this charcoal and some chalk, and I mix it together, I can do cool painting on the cave. [….] Think about the act of sitting there, 14,000-15,000 years ago — we were mining ochre for pigments, 42,000 years ago in Africa — that somebody there was sitting there mixing pigments and putting art on the wall.

[20:50] The first counting device is 37,000 years ago. The first tool is 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. We got stone block buildings 10,000 years ago, in Persia and India. Bow and arrow about the same time. Agriculture in Asia about the same time. The plough is happening about then. Domestic sheep in Iraq, about that time, 8700 B.C.

[21:20] Now all of that, interestingly enough, by the way, is of course triggered by global warming. Global warming is the beginning of civilization, and maybe the end of civilization. It may be the end of civilization, but it’s also the beginning of civilization. It’s coming out of the ice age, being able to settle down, create agriculture, create cities and villages, and so on, for the first time, instead of fleeing the glaciers all of the time. Before that, we were living in a very volatile climate. So, in fact, global warming triggered modern civilization.

[21:45] Around 5,000 B.C. we got our first cities. […] Writing … about 3500 B.C. […]

[21:50] The wheel, 3000, in Mesopotamia. Afterlife in Egypt comes along about the same time. Hammerabi comes up with, basically, the written code of conduct in Babylon in 1790 B.C. Monotheism, one of the interesting inventions. […]

[22:15] Then, of course, there are these great ideas that vanish. The Minoans. [….] You can have great ideas and bad luck, which is what happened to the Minoans.

[22:45] In this sense, as well, some ideas matter a lot, in what we imagine in the history. Cosmology actually matters in the long run. In the geocentric universe, you did one set of things. Suddenly, when the sun is at the center, and you’re going around the sun, you start answering those questions differently. You imagine different possibilities. The future looks very different. [….]

[23:35] Another list of these kinds of ideas, which is suggestive, is in a new book by Charles Murray, Human Accomplishments. I don’t really like the book. It’s basically a statistical defence of dead white European males, why they are the source of most good ideas. Not surprising, coming from Charles Murray. But, his list of interesting ideas is interesting. And this is part of the list. I’ll give you the rest.

[24:00] From the arts: artistic realism, linear perspective, artistic abstraction, polyphony, drama, the novel, meditation, logics, ethics, Arabic numerals, the mathematical proof, the calibration of uncertainty — I really like that one, statistics — the secular observation of nature, and the scientific method. Now, all of these, he called meta-inventions, because they liberate other inventions. They enable people to do more with them. They are not static inventions as such.

[24:30] So, this is part of what we’re talking about when we talk about the evolution of ideas. Now, in the realm of ideas, I want to talk about what we actually think about, not instinctual behaviors. So, the divinely endowed king, versus the top dog in the tribe. The guy who got there because he was bigger and meaner than everybody else, as opposed to the king who inherited his mantle from his father, who inherited from the gods, and there’s a whole story about. So, it’s that kind of difference. Agriculture versus hunting and gathering. So, I plant these seeds, and that thing grows, as opposed to, oh, that red thing on the tree is really cool. It’s a different model. It’s that actual cognitive thought process, self-aware developmental process, which is what I mean by the realm of ideas.

[25:25] We’re interested in two classes of ideas, powerful ideas and good ideas. And they’re not necessarily the same. Powerful ideas persist and spread, over centuries. That’s one of their important characteristics. They take hold. They’re infectious. Sometimes, these powerful ideas cooperate with other ideas, and sometimes they compete, successfully or not, with other ideas. Science and technology mostly cooperate. New scientific principles create new ways of discovering new science. So, you learn about optics, you make telescopes, you discover astronomy, and so on. They feed on each other.

[26:00] In that world, religion is simply the object of cultural anthropology. But science and religion mostly compete. In that world, science lives inside a much bigger box that it cannot explain, called religion. Very different views on the nature of both of these, and their relationship, depending on which way you approach it.

[26:20] Now, in powerful ideas, we’re also interested in evolutionarily powerful ideas. These increase options, and they have to be many and diverse. So, if we really want a lot of powerful ideas, we need lots of them. We want evolution. There’s can’t be just one set of ideas, and they need to be highly competitive. Now, we also need to protect options we already have, as well as to create new ones.

[26:45] But it’s important to realize that powerful ideas are not necessarily good ideas. Indeed, very bad ideas can be very powerful. Consider them a type of collective hallucination, if you will. France and 9/11, just to take bad example, for a lot of French. Many of you will know about a book that is very popular in France that explains 9/11 in very different terms. Kathleen will remember the dinner we had with a very dear friend, a prominent French businessman, well-educated, travels the world, speaks English fluently, written several books, vice-chairman of one of France’s largest companies. A man of enormous sophistication, married to a Korean wife at the time. We were having dinner, and he says, “You don’t really think that a plane flew into the Pentagon, do you?” “What do you mean, Robert?” “Well, of course, it was the CIA. They sent a cruise missile. This was actually an internal war inside the CIA and the Defense Department. That’s what really happened. You Americans are under a profound delusion that this was the Arabs. They couldn’t have done this”. This is a man of profound intelligence. This is a bad idea. A very powerful bad idea.

[27:55] The culture of victimization in the Arab world. The final solution. Maoism during the Cultural Revolution. Colonialism. Bad.

[28:05] Now, colonialism tells you something about some bad ideas change. One could have argued — I wouldn’t, but some would — that colonialism was a good idea for a while, but how did it end? It ended when we delegitimated the idea. We stopped believing in it. Somewhere in the 1930s, colonialism went from being a legitimate institution by which governments could organize the world, to no longer being legitimate. And people stopped defending colonialism. It only became a matter of how quickly and what means you decolonialized. The idea became delegitimated. And that’s what happens to ideas. Powerful ideas become legitimate, “oh, yeah, it was the CIA that attacked the building” in France, or they become delegitimated, as in colonialism, for example.

[28:55] By the way, a good target for delegitimating right now is intelligent design. Put that one on the list. Another bad idea.

[29:05] Good ideas, on the other hand, improve the lot of the human hosts that host these ideas, in terms of better, I mean all of the things I said earlier about better. And what we’re trying to do is increase the good options, and help humans host adapt over the long run. That’s really what it’s about. And good ideas are affirmed over the long time. They reveal reality. They’re not a hallucination. Reality ultimately conforms to the ideas, or vice-versa. But they ain’t the kind of collective hallucination.

[29:30] For a good idea, it also has to be powerful. So you need powerful good ideas. Examples are science, art, law. These are all powerful good ideas.

[29:45] Now, if that’s the case, so, where do good ideas come from? Why and how do good ideas develop? Well, obviously for one thing, they come from the ideas before them. We’re sitting on a big mountain of ideas. We don’t have to worry about where the original idea was. The ur-ideas somewhere x thousands of years ago. In the past, someone had an idea. We’re beyond that point. We don’t have to worry about that. But the path dependency of ideas is important, that is, the sequence of development of ideas. You can’t get to molecular biology, until you’ve had biology and chemistry, as it were. You need both to create molecular biology.

[30:25] So, the history of ideas is a long one. And we’re going to come back to that to what we think we should be doing.

[30:30] Now, another source of big ideas is the problems to be solved. So, where did the moon go, when it disappeared? Why did that tree grow? How are babies made? Why should I protect those other people? We ask ourselves lots of questions over human history. And that’s where a lot of ideas come from. [….]

[30:10] Another important source of big ideas is new tools. You couldn’t do astronomy until you had a telescope. Or microbiology, until you had a microscope. But tools can be conceptual. Einstein needed modern mathematics to do general relativity. [….] So, the new instruments, conceptual and physical, give us new ways of developing ideas.

[32:00] And, here, I’m not going to say too much more about this going into the future. We’re going to be pretty confident about going into the future. On, well into the future, our conceptual tools will become ever so more sophisticated, mathematics more complex, more subtle, higher dimensionality, and so on. And our instruments, things like microscopes and telescopes, and so on, cameras, will enable us to see much further. [….]

[33:00] And then, of course, the final source of great ideas is the eureka moment of an individual. Whoa, what a big idea. And a wonderful book, if you haven’t read it, is Einstein’s Clocks and Poincare’s Maps by Peter Gallison ….

Can we deal with some of the big issues?

[43:45] Another big issue that we have to solve is citizenship and governance in mega-society. I really enjoyed the San Francisco mayoral election. [….] It was democracy at a scale that people could really relate, to their communities, to their choices. There was a meaningful sense of democratic participation. Gosh, it’s really hard in America, to feel that at a national scale. And essentially impossible, so far, to feel that at a global scale. How do you create real global citizens? How do you create institutions at a global scale? When we created the constitution, it was 3 million people, 13 colonies. Europe might be a more interesting example. Here, they’re creating a new system of governance with 500 million people, very highly developed, and on a continent where they’re used to killing each other in very large numbers, for most of the last couple of centuries. And really, the European Union is about peace and war, not about economics. That’s what most Americans don’t realize. It’s about the French not killing the Germans, and vice versa. [….] But we haven’t developed those type of mechanisms at a global level, and that’s one of the really big problems. How do you develop that? How do you build countries? And how to you fix broken ones? [….] We don’t know how to do that. Another big problem.

[45:55] I think that one of the really big ones, for the long run, is that we need an equivalent of the rule of law for human relationships to ecosystems. We developed the rule of law to organize and constrain relations amongst people. Law defines and ensures our basic rights, tells us what are human rights are, it prevents the strong from dominating the weak, it embodies a sense of fairness. It embodies a view of the human condition, divinely endowed rights, for example. [….] Law is about breaking the tyranny of arbitrary power. And right now, our relationship to ecosystems is arbitrary. In that sense, we don’t have a theory of law, an underpinning of relationship to those ecosystems. Sustainability may be the objective, but we don’t know what that really means, except for increasing options. Maybe the evangelicals for the environment have the right answer, it’s thou shalt not destroy God’s creation. That’s a kind of statement of law, if you believe in God. And if you believe in that, that could be a kind of relationship. Maybe they’ve got the right answer.

[47:45] But history tells us that conflicts arise among people for three reasons, fundamentally: honor, fear and interest. It’s about honor, it’s about fear, it’s about interest. You want to read about it? Donald Kagen’s book On the Origins of War gets into this plight. The rules of law in a conventional deal, sets deals with the first and third. We can deal with honor, we can deal with interests. We respect the law. But fear, fear is really about exceeding our carrying capacity, not having enough. Not having enough. And a wonderful book that Stewart Brand just turned me onto, and everybody at GBN, is called Constant Battles, by Stephen Leblanc. And it’s about the history of exceeding our carrying capacity and going to war, as a result. And that has been the normal human condition.

[48:30] So, I’m not worried about the near term. I think that we can deal with a lot of our short term problems with technology. But it’s the really long run, where we need a fundamental new sense of an equivalent of the set of law, the rule of law. And this, I consider one of the great intellectual problems that we need to address. That the idea, the really big idea, that we need, that we don’t have.

[49:50] I think another interesting one, is knowledge organization and access. We’re just learning so much. [….]

[On Soundcloud, downloadable MP3 audio]

[Intro at Seminars on Long Term Thinking]

Peter Schwartz, considered by many to be the world’s leading futurist, will be trying out new ideas in public in a talk titled, “The Art of the Really Long View.” He’ll be talking about ways to engage the next several hundred years.

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