Do you know Bret Victor? He’s a universally well-regarded thinker on the topic of how humans work and learn with technology. A lot of smart people consider his Inventing on Principle to be one of the best talks of all time for people who, like, make things, or… do things. I got to see him speak about Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction at Edward Tufte’s See Think Design Produce seminar. His newest talk is called The Humane Representation of Thought, and it is also very good. The subtitle of that talk is “A trail map for the 21st century”. There is a thread through most of Victor’s work, and the way he talks about it, that makes it pretty clear: his thinking and his work are focused at the century level. He wants to do work that’s important enough to be remembered in holo-textbooks of the 22nd century. Maybe if he does a good job, he could have a multi-century impact.
Andy Matuschak’s blog Square Signals is post after post about this sort of thinking, and the values you end up with if you focus on that scale. (Incidentally, I met Andy at that Tufte/Victor event! He borrowed my notebook.)
David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity argues for a worldview in which humans have started down a path of infinite progress, which you can participate in, probably at century scale.
Sheeeeeesh. Okay, so that is an intimidating boggle. Like, if you aren’t making a dramatic difference to people’s lives four generations out, jeez, what are you even doing on this planet, right? But while I was dwelling on all that, I also happened to be absorbing some stuff on vastly larger scales. Numenera, a tabletop RPG set a billion years in the future, when Earth is utterly unrecognizable. Iain Banks’ Culture series of novels, which take place in a galactic civilization so advanced that the only real threat is boredom. And the excellent Wait But Why post about the Fermi Paradox, which takes very seriously the possibility of hyper-advanced civilizations in our own galaxy right now. (Group 2 Possibility 3 for life!)
At scales like that, century thinking seems… quaint? Self-important? How much of a role can you really believe you are playing in the fate of intelligent consciousness in this universe a dang billion years from now? So I started this exercise of trying to zoom out from where I’m sitting to look at as many time-scales as possible, and to think on what seems important to people at each one. This is superbly calming and meditative.
1 hour: I am gonna eat this junk food and it will totally make me happy
1 day: I am gonna be lazy and look at the internet instead of working on stuff; I probably deserve it?
1 year: I am totally gonna be popular in the scene this year
1 decade: I am gonna work hard at my career and reap the appropriate rewards
1 generation: I am gonna raise a kid to be a good and successful person
1 lifetime: I am gonna do things that I believe in, and sustain them for a long time, to make the world somewhat better while I am here
100 years: I am gonna advance my field with new thinking and be remembered in holo-textbooks
1000 years: I am gonna fundamentally change the way our species inhabits the universe by making some world-changing discovery — can any one person really do this, or is the discoverer just the person who happened to be working on it when a leap happened?
10,000 years: Uh, is anyone gonna care in 10,000 years who did a thing? Does it matter which individual person first discovered how to control fire, grow crops, or write?
100,000 years: Oh, hmm, is anyone even gonna be around? Will civilization as we know it even exist anymore? What can it even mean to think and act on this scale?
1,000,000 years: Forget it, who cares
1,000,000,000 years: YEAH NUMENERA
We disapprove when people only see the narrower views, and don’t plan for their own futures. And we admire people who sacrifice those lower levels to tilt toward the higher levels. After writing it all out, I think the natural center is at 1 lifetime. Which is I guess where I have been focused! I really want to use the understanding we have as a species to make tools for people to do meaningful things. But I am also careful to enjoy my own time here. I’m not so sure I want to sacrifice too much on those more individual-human time scales in order to do the truly profound stuff at the longer-term levels. There’s a balance to be found.
Maybe someday I will get a chance to work directly on some century stuff. But I know that things I have helped make, by doing my narrower-scale work, are being used by many people to do century stuff. Which might be even better? Question marks??
I love everything about Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, but it’s best if you go onto it now knowing what to expect. I’ll just say it’s science fiction avec feels. But I’ll gladly talk about how it was written. I love that Leckie shipped it, her first novel, at nearly 50, after having several other jobs and being a stay-at-home mom of two. I love that the whole project started as a National Novel Writing Month exercise, and took ten years of on and off tinkering to finish. I love that what had begun as a project for fun went on to win nearly every major science fiction award. Everything about it denies the narrative of the obsessively creative life, the story that says if you didn’t decide at age 10 to be something and then dedicate yourself utterly to it, you’ll never be great. Some of my favorite artists did follow that path, but it is nice to hear that you can also succeed while being healthy and balanced, and you can try different things at different times in your life.
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