Layers

2005-04-26

Over the weekend I read The Clock of the Long Now by Stewart Brand. Much of it is still gestating in my brain (I can feel the neurons firing), but one idea that continues to intrigue me even after having been exposed to it for 3+ years is that human life has different layers, each of which changes at a different rate. The most rapid changes take place in the realm of "fashion" -- not just clothing, but all those things that flutter in and out of popularity and existence every week or month or year (TV shows, celebrities, fads, news, even short-lived ideas). One level below fashion is commerce, which harnesses and filters some of the creative energy that drives fashion into workable products and services. Below commerce we find infrastructure -- roads, bridges, buildings, communications systems, and the like. The next level down is governance -- not necessarily government, but the rules and structures that frame human endeavor at the faster-paced levels of existence. Even slower is culture -- language, ethics, religion, and the like. And the foundational layer is nature -- the slow changes of geology, evolution, and so on.

Brand argues that successful civilizations somehow learn to balance these levels, and to do justice to each (it's an intriguing suggestion, and one that could bear researching -- paraphrasing the title of one of Brand's books, one might call the resulting essay or book "How Civilizations Learn"). But the main point of the book is to challenge its readers to begin thinking long-term. And by the long term he doesn't mean 2 or 5 or 10 years from now, but 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years from now. The number 10,000 is especially interesting, since it was just about 10,000 years ago that humans adopted agriculture and, soon after, everything that is wrapped up with civilization: cities, law, writing, and all the rest. What will life be like 10,000 years from now? Given how fast things change now, it's often hard to look even 15 years ahead (the world wide web was invented only 15 years ago, and do we have any idea where Internet technologies will lead in the next 15 years?). Heck, lots of smart people think that the Singularity will arrive right on schedule in 2035 or so, which is only 30 years from now. What comes after that? It's anybody's guess.

One salient characteristic of modern life is that it gets faster and faster all the time, at least in those aspects of civilization that are driven or affected by science and technology (which is just about everything). How fast can we go? Two hundred years ago most folks were farmers even in the Western world, and you didn't have to worry much about training for a career since you pretty much knew what your lot would be. Nowadays, new careers and fields of endeavor appear with startling regularity. What happens when new careers appear (and old ones disappear) not every decade but every year, when you're out of date if you use last month's programming language, etc. At that point, does everything become fashion? Will we try to make the lower strata like governance, culture, and nature move faster somehow? I don't know, but it's interesting to contemplate. :-)


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