Longplayer Letters: Volume I

Read a chain of written correspondence on the subject of long-term thinking. Unfolding slowly over time, the Artangel Longplayer Letters are forming a written conversation in which each conversant is both answering his or her predecessor and thinking toward his or her successor.

From: Brian Eno, London 
To: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, New York

30 April 2013

Dear Nassim,

We're all used to the idea that actions and thoughts take on different values when we expand the 'picture' within which we frame them. We realise that something which makes sense in a local frame may make less sense in a broader frame: dumping your waste in the river is fine as long as you don't think too much about the people downriver. When you do, you might decide to stop dumping. Government ought to be the process by which such overlapping 'bigger picture' considerations are negotiated: good government should make empathy practical.

Indeed our geographical 'circle of empathy' grows decade on decade: a hundred years ago it would have been impossible to imagine millions of people raising hundreds of millions of pounds for tsunami victims on the other side of the world - people they didn't know and would almost certainly never meet. In terms of geography, we inhabit a much bigger picture than we used to, and we sense our interconnectedness within it.

In terms of time, however, the picture seems to be narrowing. Public attention is increasingly focused on very near futures: businesses live in terror of the bottom line and the quarterly results, while politicians quake at tomorrow's opinion polls and formulate policy in terms of them. We've heard tales of farmers planting olive trees or vineyards for their grandchildren to harvest, or of foresters cultivating groves of oaks to replace a chapel roof hundreds of years in the future, but by and large, we don't do that anymore. We have less active engagement with our future than our ancestors did.

This diminishing future horizon is mirrored by an equally shrinking backwards view. We find ourselves left with prejudices and opinions that were hastily and emotionally formed at the time and not revisited and re-evaluated, drowned under a relentless stream of new stories and panics. We seem to be so thoroughly submerged by new impressions that we don't have time to digest our own history.

To illustrate this, think about nuclear power. Start with FUKUSHIMA, that dread word. As a result of over-excited media reporting ('great story!' I heard one journalist say) that single word has probably condemned nuclear power for another generation, when in fact the accident produced no radiation-related deaths (and it's doubtful that it will produce a discernable statistical blip in cancers in the future). In a conspiracy which seems almost dishonest, most Green groups failed to acknowledge this - it was too good as propaganda for them to let the facts get in the way - and of course the press never returned to the subject with any correctional follow-up. It became one of those little nuggets of received, and totally incorrect, wisdom: Nuclear=Fukushima=Catastrophe.

That received non-wisdom has persuaded Green Germany to begin decommissioning its nuclear reactors - which means more coal-fired plants. Japan too will probably turn back to coal. Coal is - even Greenpeace would agree - the worst option, though they'd claim that the gap can be filled by renewables. It can't, not now and probably not for decades. In the meantime - and it may be a long, mean time - we'll use coal. It's cheap and very, very dirty.

So the real catastrophe of Fukushima is in the future, waiting for us in the form of vastly increased atmospheric CO2. An emotional over-reaction to a media storm has produced a thoroughly bad decision with longterm global consequences. It's a classic 'how not to' scenario. Is this how our future is going to be - lurching from one panic to another in a daze of 'just coping' and without the benefit of any long-picture wisdom within which to frame our actions? What would help us break out of that trap?

Those olive farmers and church builders mentioned above had something we don't: a sense that the future would quite likely be similar to the present. We, on the other hand, can be sure this won't be the case. So the question is really this: how can we even think about designing for a future that we can't imagine?

Where we have seriously addressed the long term at all, our efforts so far have tended towards 'robust' solutions: if we can't predict the future we'll defend against it by building super-robust structures. An example of this philosophy would be the now-abandoned megaproject for the storage of America's nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. It was designed to resist anything the Universe could conceivably throw at it (or rather anything its designers could conceive, which is quite different). It had no adaptive capacity: it was a fortress, hardened, inert, requiring constant upkeep. But as you point out, 'robust' is not actually the opposite of fragile, but a point on the spectrum between 'fragile' and 'anti-fragile'. The project was abandoned for political reasons and the problem of waste storage is still regarded as unsolved.

In the meantime, however, the waste is being stored: in huge drums beside the plants themselves. It's intended as a temporary measure, but it might turn out to be a better one anyway. I think it offers a hint to the solution. Like this, the material is easily accessible should any better storage or recycling ideas appear in the next several millennia (quite likely, I should have thought...there must be Golden Swans as well as Black ones). It leaves open the possibility of easily adopting better solutions as they appear, and, because it is widely distributed rather than concentrated, it can be seen as dozens of separate experiments in waste storage being conducted simultaneously. Some of them will be better than others: evolution will take place. In that sense it seems to me a more antifragile solution. In a changing landscape what is needed is evolvability - the possibility of running a number of solutions at the same time and letting the better ones win out.
 

But there is a huge psychological appetite for robust solutions: it's very natural to think that the best way to defend any system is by hardening it so it becomes unassailable. That looks like a good strategy partly because it entails more quantifiable activity on our part - and we tend to trust things if we think we've designed them (rather than if they've evolved by some process we don't quite understand) and if we can attach lots of numbers to them. The problem is that 'robust' only works if the threats to the system are predictable - if you know what to harden against. The fact is, we don't - and the hardening process itself reduces evolvability.
 

The nuclear issue - which I've used as an example in this letter - is only one of many I could have chosen. The fact is, we're facing a lot of complex and interrelated problems which demand that we take positions now. To some extent, that position is going to have to be 'let's improvise' because there's a distinct limit to how well we can make predictions. The de facto nuclear storage arrangements currently in use in America are examples of 'let's improvise' and in this case seem to be a not-too-bad arrangement. But 'let's improvise' has its limitations: in fact it's sort of what got us where we are now, in a place that's both wondrous and problematic. We might need some other intellectual weapons in our arsenals, no matter how good we become at jamming.
 

Best Wishes
Brian
© Brian Eno and Artangel, 2013 


Brian Eno is a composer, producer and visual artist. A founding member of Roxy Music in the 01970s, his solo albums and collaborative musical compositions with John Cale, Robert Fripp, David Byrne, Jon Hassell and David Bowie have been in circulation world-wide over the last 30 years. Eno has also been involved in the design and production of audio-visual gallery installations since 01978 and is a board member of the disarmament group BASIC (British American Security Information Council) and the environmental NGO ClientEarth. Recently he has produced (with Peter Chilvers) Bloom, a generative music piece - and one of the most successful musical apps for the iPhone - and Scape, a new form of album which offers users deep access to its musical elements. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a modern philosopher, a former trader and is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University. With a polymathic command of subjects ranging from mathematics to ancient history he also speaks many languages. He is also the author of Fooled by Randomness, Antifragile and The Black Swan, an international bestseller which has become an intellectual and cultural touchstone which has been published in 33 languages.

From: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, New York
To: Stewart Brand, Sausalito

2 July 2013

Dear Stewart,

I would like to reply to Brian Eno's important letter by proposing a methodology to deal with risks to our planet, and I chose you because of your Long Now mission.

First let us put forward the Principle of Fragility As Nonlinear (Concave) Responseas a central idea that touches about anything.

1. Principle of Fragility as Nonlinear (Concave) Response

If I fall from a height of 10 meters I am injured more than 10 times than if I fell from a height of 1 meter, or more than 1000 times than if I fell from a height of 1 centimeter,hence I am fragile. Every additional meter, up to the point of my destruction, hurts me more than the previous one. This nonlinear response is central for everything on planet earth, from objects to ideas to companies to technologies. 

Another example. If I am hit with a big stone I will be harmed a lot more than if I were pelted serially with pebbles of the same weight.

If you plot this response with harm on the vertical and event size on the horizontal, you would notice the plot curving inward, hence the "concave" shape, which in the next figure I compare to a linear response. We can already see that the fragile is harmed disproportionately more by a large event (Black Swans) than by a moderate one.

[See figure 1 - The nonlinear response compared to the linear.]

The general principle is as follows:

Everything that is fragile and still in existence (that is, unbroken), will be harmed more by a certain stressor of intensity X than by k times a stressor of intensity X/k, up to the point of breaking.

Why is it a general rule? This has something to do with the statistical structure of stressors, with small deviations much, much more frequent than large ones. Look at the coffee cup on the table: there are millions of recorded earthquakes every year. Simply, if the coffee cup were linearly sensitive to earthquakes, it would not have existed at all as it would have been broken in the early stages of the graph.

Anything linear in harm is already gone, and what is left are things that are nonlinear.

Now that we have this principle, let us apply it to life on earth. This is the basis of a non-naive Precautionary Principle that the philosopher Rupert Read and I are in the process of elaborating, with precise policy implications on the part of states and individuals.

Everything flows —by theorems — from the principle of nonlinear response.

2. Precautionary Rules

Rule 1 - Size Effects. Everything you do to planet earth is disproportionally more harmful in large quantities than in small ones. Hence we need to split sources of harm as much as we can (provided these don't interact). If we dropped our carbon by, say, 20% we may reduce the harm by more than 50%. Conversely we may double our risk with just an increase of 10%.

It is wrong to discuss "good" or "bad" without assigning a certain quantity to it. Most things are harmless in some small quantity and harmful in larger ones.

Because of the "globalization" and the uniformization of tastes we now concentrate our consumption across the same items, say, tuna and wheat, whereas ancient population were more opportunistic and engaged in "cycling", picking up what was overabundant so to speak.

Rule 2 - Errors. What is fragile dislikes the "disorder cluster" beyond a point, which includes volatility, variability, error, time, randomness, and stressors (The "Fragility" Theorem).

This rule means that we can —and should— treat errors as random variables. And we can treat what we don't know —including potential threats— as random variables as well. We live in a world of higher unpredictability than we tend to believe. We have never been able to predict our own errors, and things will not change any time soon. But we can consider types of errors within the framework presented here.

Now, for mathematical reasons (a mechanism called the "Lindy Effect"), linked to the relationship between time and fragility, mother nature is vastly "wiser" so to speak than humans, as time has a lot of value in detecting what is breakable and what is not. Time is also a bullshit detector. Nothing humans have introduced in modern times has made us unconditionally better without unpredictable side effects, and ones that are usually detected with considerable delays (transfats, steroids, tobacco, Thalidomide, etc.)

Rule 3 - Decentralizing Variations (the 1/N rule). Mother nature produces small isolated generally independent variations (technically belonging to the thin-tailed category, or "Mediocristan") and humans produce fewer but larger ones (technically, "fat tailed" category, or "Extremistan"). In other words nature is a sum of micro variations (with, on the occasion, larger ones), human systems tend to create macro shocks.

By a statistical argument, had nature not produced thin-tailed variations, we would not be here today. One in the trillions, perhaps the trillions of trillions, of variations would have terminated life on the planet.

The next two figures show the difference between the two separate statistical properties. 

[See figure 2 Tinkering Bottom Up, Broad Design. Mother Nature: no single variation represents a large share of the sum of the total variations. Even occasional mass extinctions are a blip in the total variations.]

[See figure 3 Top-down, Concentrated Design Human made clustering of variations, where a single deviation will eventually dominate the sum.]

Now apply the Principle of Fragility As Nonlinear (Concave) Response to Figures 2 and 3. As you can see a large deviation harms a lot more than the cumulative effect of small ones because of concavity.

This in a nutshell explains why a decentralized system is more effective than one that is command-and-control and bureaucratic in style —it is that errors are decentralizedand do not spread. It also explains why large corporations are problematic, particularly when powerful enough to lobby their way into state support.

This method is called the 1/N rule of maximal diversification of source of problems —a general one I apply when confronting decisions in fat-tailed domains.

Rule 4 - Nature and Evidence. Nature is a better statistician than humans, having produced > trillions of "errors" or variations without blowing up; it is a much better risk manager (thanks to the Lindy effect). What people call the "naturalistic fallacy" applies to the moral domain, not in the statistical or the risk areas. Nature is certainly not optimal but it has trillions of times the sample evidence of humans, and it is still around. It is a matter of a long multidimensional track record versus a short low-dimensional one.

In a complex system it is impossible to see the consequences of a positive action (from the Bar Yam theorem), so one needs —like nature— to keep errors isolated and thin-tailed.

Implication 1 (Burden of Evidence). The burden of evidence is not on nature but on humans disrupting anything top-down to prove their errors don't spread and don't carry consequences. Absence of evidence is vastly more nonlinear than evidence of absence. So if someone asks "do you have evidence that I am harming the planet?", ignore him: he should be the one producing evidence, not you. It is shocking how people can put the burden of evidence the wrong way.

Implication 2 (Via Negativa). If we can't predict the effects of a positive action (adding something new), we can predict the effect of removing a substance that has not been historically part of the system (removal of smoking, carbon pollution, carbs from diets).

3. Policy Implications

This tool of analysis is more robust than current climate modeling, as it is anticipatory, not backward fitting. The policy implications are:

Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs. Top-down modifications to the system (through GMOs) are categorically and statistically different from bottom up ones (regular farming, progressive tinkering with crops, etc.) To borrow from Rupert Read, there is no comparison between the tinkering of selective breeding and the top-down engineering of taking a gene from a fish and putting it into a tomato. Saying that such a product is natural misses the statistical process by which things become "natural".

What people miss is that the modification of crops impacts everyone and exports the error from the local to the global. I do not wish to pay —or have my descendants pay — for errors by executives of Monsanto. We should exert the precautionary principle there —our non-naive version — simply because we would discover errors after considerable damage.

Nuclear. In large quantities we should worry about an unseen risk from nuclear energy. In small quantities it may be OK —how small we should determine, making sure threats never cease to be local. Keep in mind that small mistakes with the storage of the nuclear are compounded by the length of time they stay around. The same with fossil fuels. The same with other sources of pollution.

But certainly not GMOs, because their risk is not local. Invoking the risk of "famine" is a poor strategy, no different from urging people to play Russian roulette in order to get out of poverty. And calling the GMO approach "scientific" betrays a very poor —indeed warped —understanding of probabilistic payoffs and risk management.

The general idea is that we should limit pollution to small, very small sources, and multiply them even if the "scientists" promoting them deem any of them safe.

*

There is some class of irreversible systemic risks that show up too late, that I do not believe are worth bearing. Further, these tend to harm other people than those who profit from them. So here is my closing quandary.

The problem of execution: So far we've outlined a policy, not how to implement it. Now, as a localist fearful of the centralized top-down state, I wish to live in a society that functions with similar statistical properties as nature, with small thin-tailed non-spreading mistakes, an environment in which the so-called "wisdom of crowds" works well and the state intervention is limited to law enforcement (and that of contracts).

Indeed, we should worry about the lobby-infested state, given the historical tendency of bureaucrats to produce macro harm (wars, disastrous farming policies, crop subsidies encouraging the spread of corn syrup, etc.) But there exists an environment that is not quite that of the "wisdom of crowds", in which spontaneous corrections are not possible, and legal liabilities difficult to identify. I've discussed this in my bookAntifragile where some people have an asymmetric payoff at the expense of society: keep the profits and transfer harm to others.

In general, the solution is to move from regulation to penalties, by imposing skin-in-the game-style methods to penalize those who play with our collective safety —no different from our treatment of terrorist threats and dangers to our security. But in the presence of systemic —and branching out —consequences the solution may be to rely on the state to ban harm to citizens (via negativa style ), in areas where legal liabilities may not be obvious and easy to track, particularly harm hundreds of years into the future. For the place of the state is not to get distracted in trying to promote things and concentrate errors, but in protecting our safety. It is hard to understand how we can live in a world where minor risks are banned by the states, say marijuana or other drugs, but systemic threats such as those represented by GMOs encouraged by them. What is proposed here is a mechanism of subsidiarity: the only function of the state is to do things that cannot be solved otherwise. But then, it should do them well.

*

I thank Brian Eno for the letter and for making me aware of all these difficulties. I hope that the principle of fragility helps you, Stewart in your noble mission to insure longevity for the planet and the human race. We are not that many Extremistan-style mistakes away from extinction. I therefore sign this letter by adopting your style of adding a 0 to the calendar date:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb,
July 3, 02013

With thanks to William Goodlad.

© Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2013


References:

Bar-Yam, Y., 1997, Dynamics of Complex Systems, Westview Press, p 752

Taleb, N. N., 2012, Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder, Penguin and Random House.

Taleb, N. N., and Douady, R., 2012, Mathematical Definition, Mapping, and Detection of (Anti)Fragility, in print, Quant Fin, Preprint: http://arxiv.org/abs/1208.1189


Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a modern philosopher, a former trader and is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University. With a polymathic command of subjects ranging from mathematics to ancient history he also speaks many languages. He is also the author of Fooled by Randomness, Antifragile and The Black Swan, an international bestseller which has become an intellectual and cultural touchstone which has been published in 33 languages.

Stewart Brand is co-founder and president of The Long Now Foundation and co-founder of Global Business Network. He created and edited the Whole Earth Catalog (National Book Award) and co-founded the Hackers Conference and THE WELL. His books include The Clock of the Long Now; How Buildings Learn and The Media Lab. His most recent book, titled Whole Earth Discipline, is published by Viking in the US and Atlantic in the UK. He graduated in Biology from Stanford and served as a Infantry officer.

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Figure 1 - The nonlinear response compared to the linear.

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Figure 2 – Tinkering Bottom Up, Broad Design. Mother Nature: no single variation represents a large share of the sum of the total variations. Even occasional mass extinctions are a blip in the total variations.

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Figure 3 — Top-down, Concentrated Design Human made clustering of variations, where a single deviation will eventually dominate the sum.

From: Stewart Brand, Sausalito
To: Esther Dyson, New York City

28 November 2013

Dear Esther,

Ghosts don’t exist, but ghost stories sure do. We love frightening ourselves with narratives built around a horrifying logic that emerges with the telling of the tale, ideally capped with a moral lesson.

The Monkey's Paw is a three-wishes fable where innocent-seeming wishes go hideously astray. A mother mad with grief wishes her dead son alive again. When the knock comes at the door, the father realises that the thing knocking is horribly mangled and rotted, and he uses the third wish to destroy it. Powers that appear benign, we learn, can have unintended consequences.

One of the classics is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, born in part from her belief in "the Romantic ideal that misused power could destroy society." [1] The ambitious scientist Victor Frankenstein, trying to create life, creates a monster. "I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts," Shelley recalled, "kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion." We shiver, and we learn the fruits of hubris. The monster kills Victor Frankenstein's friends and family and blights his life.

What happens when we apply stories like these to thinking about complex issues such as how to deal with new technologies? Nassim Taleb advises that we watch out for what he calls the 'narrative fallacy'

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding. [2]

For illustration, Taleb notes how the bare facts "The king died and the queen died" are much more compelling, and perhaps misleading, as a story: "The king died, and then the queen died of grief."

Daniel Kahneman has dissected our cognitive bias for simple story over complex facts. Elaborating on Taleb's idea of the narrative fallacy, he writes:

The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Any recent salient event is a candidate to become the kernel of a causative narrative. Taleb suggests that we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing they are true.[3]

Such flimsy accounts and foolishness are the norm. We haunt ourselves with ghost stories, often in the service of bigger simplistic narratives such as 'The Tragedy of Human History' or 'The Greed of Business Titans' or 'The Hubris of Arrogant Scientists'.

The habit of viewing with alarm and condemnation yields the satisfaction of a closed system, always self-coherent, but it has to suppress curiosity, because, as Kahneman points out,

it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.[4]

In this letter I want to make the case for an opposite approach, a non-narrative embrace of complexity through close observation of how skeins of related evidence-based arguments play out over time.

Conveniently, the previous correspondents in the series of letters you are joining (Brian Eno and Nassim Taleb) wrote about matters (nuclear power and GMOs) that I studied in some detail for my book, Whole Earth Discipline.[5] To make his general point about always defaulting to the longer-term frame of reference in order to think most usefully about something, Brian notes that 'Fukushima' has become a classic instance of the "lurching from one panic to another" that characterises short-term thinking, with the result that some nations are turning away from something which offers the best hope of averting the long-term calamity of climate change, nuclear power.

To my eye, the ghost in the Fukushima ghost story is the belief that all radiation is harmful. Horribly, we can’t see it or smell it, but it can kill us.  In fact, radioactivity is so easy to detect accurately with dosimeters that no deaths or illness resulted from exposure at Fukushima. The ghost replies, "I’ll haunt you forever! Even low dosage will kill you with cancer sometime in the future." In fact, life evolved from the very beginning to manage the low dosage of background radiation, and none of the many long-term epidemiological studies of moderate increases in radiation have detected measurable cancer effects.

Nassim's letter takes on the important mission of helping develop antifragility at the societal level. He encourages widespread small-scale tinkering, where failures remain local but successes can be adopted widely, versus top-down large-scale tinkering that can unleash systemic threats that are very much Black Swans indeed. He cites GMO crops as such a top-down threat.

I agree profoundly with his goal, and not a bit with his example. The mechanism for GMOs is the moving of a gene from one species to another. This has been going on at a massive scale among all microbes (meaning, most of the biomass on Earth) for 3.8 billion years; it goes on hourly and massively in our own guts. It is one of the most bottom-up mechanisms in all of life. Human bioengineers have been doing modest versions of the same thing since the mid-seventies. The technique is now the engine for medicines such as insulin and artemisinin, foods such as cheese and beer, and crops such as corn, soybeans, and sugar. Countless tons have been consumed by billions of humans. Exactly no harmful effects have been proven, despite constant efforts to find some.

Nassim vaunts "mother nature" as the wise source of safe small-scale tinkering. There are indeed Black Swans — civilisation-scale systemic threats — that have come from genetic tinkering. Every one of them was concocted by mother nature — bubonic plague, the 1918 flu, AIDS, malaria, smallpox, and dozens more. No new diseases whatsoever have come from human laboratories. Cures have, however. Smallpox is gone now, thanks to top-down efforts by science and government. Guinea worm is about to be eradicated permanently. Hopes are high to do the same with polio and even malaria. In the domain of disease, science is antifragile.

The same is true in agriculture. The science of genetic engineering is far more precise than blind selective breeding, and for that reason it is even safer.

I think that the ghost in the GMO ghost story is a misplaced idea of contagion. Any transferred gene, people imagine, might be like a loose plague virus. It might infect everything, or it might hide for years and then emerge catastrophically. But genes don’t work like that. They are nothing but extremely specific tools, operative in extremely specific organisms. A gene is not a germ and cannot act like a germ.

Nassim evokes what he calls a "non-naive Precautionary Principle" to warn about all manner of human innovation. Daniel Kahneman takes an opposing view:

As the jurist Cass Sunstein points out, the precautionary principle is costly, and when interpreted strictly it can be paralysing. He mentions an impressive list of innovations that would not have passed the test, including "airplanes, air conditioning, antibiotics, automobiles, chlorine, the measles vaccine, open-heart surgery, radio, refrigeration, smallpox vaccine, and X-rays." The strong version of the precautionary principle is obviously untenable.[6]

To achieve Nassim's goal of an antifragile society, I think we can build on his core idea, which is that, over time, whatever is fragile inevitably breaks, while systems that are antifragile use time to grow stronger. The question is, how do we mix innovative boldness with caution in a way that gradually reduces fragile ideas and systems while promoting antifragile ideas and systems? How do we think ahead without paralysing ourselves with ghost stories, or indeed with any simplistic narrative?

I've been proposing a process I call "Cautionary Vigilance." It’s a form of issue mapping. Any new technology, any innovation, can be thought through by dissecting the full range of its complexity into an array of specific arguments whose outcomes are determined by evidence that emerges over time. The narrative fallacy is headed off with the open-minded embrace of complexity. Paralysis is headed off by focussing on arguments that can have outcomes. Policy can be guided toward antifragility by ongoing net assessment of the aggregate direction of the arguments over time. Are the worries proving out more than the hopes?

With nuclear power, radiation is just one of many issues to bear in mind while assessing benefits and harms. There are matters of air pollution; of greenhouse gases; of cost; of new designs; of fuel type; of waste storage; of weapons proliferation; et cetera. The list is large but finite. The same goes for GMOs. Along with the health questions are considerations of productivity and land sparing; of pesticide use; of herbicide use; of no-till agriculture; of medicinal foods; of more precise techniques (synthetic biology); of adaptive weeds and pests; of gene flow to other crops; et cetera.

The arguments that interest nuclear engineers now are completely different from the arguments of the 1950s, when the technology was first developing, but the public discourse has not kept up. Likewise with GMOs. Agriculture professionals who had one set of worries and hopes in the 1990s have a quite different set now, but the public debate seems stuck in 1996.  "Time," Nassim noted, "is a bullshit detector." As evidence accumulates, discussion moves on.

Ideology and ghost stories are timeless. What I'm proposing is the difference between fiction and nonfiction, between imagination and reporting. The questions about What-Might-Happen convert, over time, into answers about What-Happened. As that occurs, our hopes and worries about What-Might-Happen should shift, building on the new baseline of What-Happened.

Esther, you (and your father Freeman and brother George) have been exceptionally insightful about emerging technologies and ways to think ahead about them in a long-term framework. You've now read my thoughts, Nassim Taleb's, and Brian Eno's.

How do you think responsible foresight works best?

Fondly as ever,

Stewart


1. Betty T Bennett, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: An Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. via Wikipedia.

2. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. London: Allen Lane, 2007, p.43

3. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p.199

4. Kahneman, Ibid, p.201

5. Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. New York: Viking Penguin, 2009

6. Kahneman, Ibid, p. 351


Stewart Brand is co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, Global Business Network, Hackers Conference, and also The WELL, one of the longest running continually operational virtual communities. He created and edited the Whole Earth Catalog and his most recent book, Whole Earth Discipline was published in 2009. It was he who first spoke the now iconic phrase "information wants to be free" at the first Hackers Conference in 1984.

Esther Dyson sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation, as well as the Eurasia Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy. She is chairman of EDventure Holdings and an investor in a number of start-ups concerned with health care, biotechnology and space travel. Originally a journalist, she wrote Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age in 1998 and trained as a backup cosmonaut in Russia from 2008 to 2009.

From: Esther Dyson, New York City
To: Carne Ross, New York City 

8 April 2014

Dear Carne,

Through a telescope, darkly.

I've been reading Stewart's letter about science and technology and the long term, but the thing that concerns me more – and that you, Carne, understand – is how society can work collectively to make long-term decisions in the first place. There are big issues that we need to address, but first we need to find the wisdom to address them together.

Right now, we are getting better and better at manipulating the world with finer and finer precision towards local optima, sacrificing longer-term gains we may discount or be unaware of. We think in examples rather than in statistics. We are intrigued by stories and narratives rather than structures and dynamics. We study techniques of manipulation to acquire power rather than to produce empowerment. The Internet lets us see the whole world across distances with greater precision, but – like a telescope – with a smaller field of vision.

How can we think and then act long term? 

Government

In the last few months, we've seen a variety of big-deal political moves: revolutions (Ukraine), reversions to authoritarianism and censorship (Turkey), revolutionary backsliding (Egypt), civil war (Syria) and a variety of conflicts so messy they don't have recognizable descriptions.

When things get too bad, there is a revolution or some kind of power change at the top, but neither generally does much good. Often the new leaders negotiate with the ousted incumbents for ruling roles, bargaining among themselves over the spoils, while the people who supposedly chose them to lead have little say in the process. The people have enough power to get rid of the old guys, but they don't have the institutional capacity to head the government or to take over its body, its administrative institutions.

As Martin Wolf says in the Financial Times, liberal democracies need responsible citizens, disinterested guardians, open markets and just laws. But beyond that, they need to deliver effective services. They must provide schools, infrastructure (this now includes broadband internet), courts, police, garbage collection, health care and street lights. These bureaucracies work more or less, even though they are often corrupt, but you can't clean them up and replace them from the centre as easily as you can trade power from one autocrat to another. Indeed, in most places I see little hope of good, long-term-focused government emerging from within federal governments and national parties, which are too big, too ponderous and increasingly too distant from the daily lives of most people. National governments are not fertile ground for effective governance, nor are they close enough to the people to deliver services effectively. 

Scale and Scalability

By contrast, cities are beginning to take on more of the task of delivering services that matter and are becoming increasingly accountable to their residents. They cannot fulfil all the functions of a central government, but perhaps cities can show us the way. It is in cities that a new set of trained, uncorrupted politicians and public servants can emerge, under the closer watch of each city's residents.[7] Like entrepreneurs, cities can innovate, in a way that central governments (and large businesses) cannot.

I see lots of interesting initiatives being taken by cities and their mayors, who often don't follow national party lines or interests: from former Mayor Bloomberg in New York City, trying to improve the city's eating habits; to London's congestion zones which charge fees for cars entering the city to Stockholm's toll bridges (where polls taken before the toll was imposed showed a majority against the change, but I heard of one poll taken after the change reporting that a majority had supported the change from the start!).

There's also a new interest in cities among good-government advocates, philanthropies and other long-term actors. From economist Paul Romer, with hisCharter Cities project to the New Cities Foundation; from CodeforAmerica to CityMart and Urban.us, two online marketplaces for city services; from Michael Bloomberg to Ken Livingstone, practical idealists are focusing on building city governments rather than overthrowing national ones. When some future revolution comes, perhaps these city governments will scale up and create the systems that can both govern and deliver on a national scale.

Cities can make rules that would be intrusive if imposed by a national government, such as building codes, control of the provision and pricing of internet bandwidth, requirements for posting nutritional information and the like. Because people are free to move from city to city in a way that they may not be able to move from country to country, both legally and practically, cities are constrained by competitive forces that do not apply to national governments.

At the same time, locally or nationally, government activities and the behavior of government officials are both becoming increasingly visible with much help from the internet and social media. While national-scale data may seem irrelevant to many people, local data are endlessly fascinating, whether these relate to how much some politician paid for a particular piece of real estate – and amazingly, it just happens to be near a new transport hub – or the relative test scores of five local schools.

Whether longtime residents or a new generation of CodeforAmerica techies, city voters can check their phones to find out when the next bus will arrive and they can check a website to find out how many buses are late each month. They can pay for their monthly transit pass with a credit card, and they usuallly pay less than people from out of town who buy just one ticket at a time. They can find out what percentage of their neighbors consume more or less electricity than they do, and they can compare this year's statistics with last year's.

Transparency at this level is more meaningful than either national statistics or neighborhood gossip. It gives people the ability to see the present in context, both in the local context of one's neighbors and also the larger context of the wider world. Ideally, it also gives them the ability to see the present in the context of the past and of the future.

Data that you can change – by how you behave or vote or agitate – may have more meaning yet. The moment people feel they have a finger on the scale - not the scale of justice, but the one that measures out the benefits they receive - they will take more interest.

With luck, people will develop a taste for government that is transparently responsive rather than corruption-driven. Civil servants will grow to become customer-driven, just as businesses are. That still leaves the challenge of getting those citizens to think long term: to demand good schools rather than lower taxes, to favor public transit over parking lots.

In fact, it's all about interactions of scale: The world has become overwhelmingly large while the data are becoming increasingly fine-grained. When the data are relevant, they make more sense to people. When the data are local, people see something that they could influence. But people also need to add the fourth dimension: If you can measure short-term performance too precisely, you may forget about long-term impacts.

The Way to Wellville: Health as an Example

As it happens, I'm using cities – or small towns, anyway – in a crazily ambitious experiment to get people to think and act long term for the sake of their own health. After much thinking on how to encourage people to think long term – which of course they all know they should do – I concluded that the best way to change the time scale of people's thinking about their own health was to show the impact of health-producing measures. Ideally the data can work both as evidence, guiding society in the infrastructure and perhaps even regulations it creates, and also as inspiration to individuals struggling to resist temptations.

The basic mechanism is a contest, called The Way to Wellville and loosely modeled on the X Prize, of five places, with five metrics, over five years. It's a cheesy publicity-seeking stunt designed for our short-attention culture, but with underlying long-term premises. The metrics on which the communities will compete include both 'health' measures such as health-care costs per capita, transitions to diabetes, measures of dental and mental health, and the impacts of health, such as high-school graduation rates and absenteeism.

The way to change, we believe, is not just with things like quantified-self tools, which let you examine your own health and activity levels, but with something closer to 'quantified community', examining and changing the role that a community plays in its members' health. The contest, The Way to Wellville, will get the five communities to compete to improve their own health. We're not telling them what to do; we're just supplying a goal and managing the measurement process. We'll help the communities track themselves – and their competitors – to see the impact of each community's collective behavior.

Five years may sound pathetic in terms of long-term thinking, but it's longer than the span most health-insurance companies use in their calculations, and my hope is that the improvements visible after a mere five years will encourage people to recognize the value of long-term thinking about health and therefore to think longer still.

It turns out that community affordances have a huge impact on individual outcomes, but until now most of that hasn't been visible to the naked eye. Studies show that walking to a bus makes people healthier than driving a car, that children whose parents are afraid of crime tend to stay inside and get obese, that people who live in polluted areas get respiratory diseases or even cancer, and of course that people who live in 'food swamps' (with bad food, as opposed to 'food deserts' with no food) tend to be unhealthier in the long term. Indeed, their medical care over time will cost more than good food would have cost in the first place.

On one of our field trips to Niagara Falls, we discovered that the smoking rate there is thirty-seven percent versus a United States average of around eighteen percent. Why? Because there's a Native American casino nearby that benefits from a federal US tax exemption that allows them to sell cigarettes tax-free: A national policy that has horrible consequences locally! It proves, for better or worse, how closely behavior is connected with incentives.

Manipulation 

As I noted, one of the big problems of the current age is our collective ability to manipulate people. I am not referring just to politicians: Advertisers and food manufacturers can influence our tastes and even use our body chemistry, evolved though millennia of shortages, to like foods that are not good for us in their present abundance. The fitness landscape has changed, and we are all stuck in local optima, consuming more than enough to survive in the short term and reducing our health prospects in the long term.

Thinking long term, we can understand how we're manipulated. Thinking collectively, the people in the Wellville communities can decide to manipulate themselves positively rather than negatively.

This is not a process of surreptitiously manipulating people into healthy behavior, but instead doing so openly and with those people's active engagement. Just as a dieter is advised to remove unhealthy foods from their house, we want people to remove unhealthy foods from their communities or at least to put them on the virtual top shelf, and to support and benefit from subsidies on the good stuff.

That means changing the food supply to make healthy food a default rather than a difficult choice. We're not crazy enough to talk about taxing sugar, for example, but rather about subsidizing healthy food, spending on refrigeration rather than chemical preservatives, and so forth.

So, in practical terms, how am I hoping to get people to think and to act long term without manipulating them?

Children are key. Most of us can probably agree that it's okay to constrain what children eat and to educate them; that's not an undue abridgement of their freedom. So many of Wellville's suggested tactics – to be selected and implemented by the communities themselves, not by us – will start with children. School lunches will be healthy, and they'll be supplemented by classes in nutrition and cooking and agriculture.

To be sure, there will be arguments over what is healthy and what those constraints should be. Different communities will probably impose different constraints, either communitywide or with subsets of people trying different diets or levels of exercise. 

That's okay: We know some of what works, but we don't know the details. Learning is a major purpose of Wellville: to take the risks and time to find out what works in the real world so that in the future people can make better-informed choices. For example, not Does such-and-such a diet work? But, also, Can a normal group of people actually stick to such-and-such a diet? It may be that changing the timing of food consumption – the breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper approach – matters more than meticulous calorie counting, and is easier to do, especially if your neighbors do it with you. Let's find out!

And finally, there's education. Not brainwashing, education! My favorite idea is the mouse house: Every first-grade class should have its own set of four mice, kept separately. Two get a running wheel, and the other two are sedentary. Of each pair, one gets a healthy diet, while the other eats cookies, ice cream and hot dogs. The class gets to feed them and watch what happens to them. Of course, they'll be reporting all this to their older siblings and their parents.

Fortunately for first graders, less so for mice, mice are not as long term as people, so the effects should be visible in a couple of months. After, say, two months, the children can vote to 'rescue' the mice from mistreatment. Or if we get lucky, they'll be sued by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals!

Wellville, in short, is not a thought exercise. It's a practical, real-world attempt to make long-term impacts visible, both to television viewers and to data scientists.

Long-term thinking and collective action are two sides of the same coin. Each moves from the constrained center to a broader view of the impact of one's behavior, on oneself over time, or on other people whom one can encompass in a broader sense of self.

Carne, can you help us spread Wellville outside the US? We'd love to see it copied worldwide, but long-term thinking starts at home.

Esther
 


1. Yes, this argument applies somewhat differently in smaller countries that are akin to cities with federal courts and foreign policy. Some behave more like national governments, others like accountable cities. Switzerland, for one example, has as little national policy as possible for a nation-state – and a fairly satisfied, mostly middle-class citizenry despite some flaws – and some financial help from foreign businesspeople paying local taxes for precisely that lack of political volatility.


Esther Dyson sits on the board of the Long Now Foundation, as well as the Eurasia Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy. She is chairman of EDventure Holdings and an investor in a number of start-ups concerned with health care, biotechnology and space travel. Originally a journalist, she wrote Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age in 1998 and trained as a backup cosmonaut in Russia from 2008 to 2009.

Carne Ross founded the world's first not-for-profit diplomatic advisory group, Independent Diplomat. He writes on world affairs and the history of anarchism, recently publishing The Leaderless Revolution (2011), which looks into how, even in democratic nations, citizens feel a lack of agency and governments seem increasingly unable to tackle global issues.

From: Carne Ross, New York City 
To: John Burnside, Berlin

8 December 2014

Dear John,

We are bidden to consider the future. What a privilege to be asked! What a nightmare to contemplate!

Esther Dyson wrote to me to propose an appealing scheme of how to inspire communities to be healthier. She spoke too of how data and technology, on which she is more than expert, enable government to provide better services and be accountable to citizens.

Of course she is right on this point, but I think you and I would want to take it some way further. Esther's model is the familiar archetype of representative democracy, where the many elect the few to provide services for them. It is a transactional model, technocratic, with success or failure assessed with measurement and metrics. What's missing are some essential questions: Who is doing what to whom? Who has power and who does not? Indeed, what is it all for? Like Esther, I want better and more accountable services for everyone. But this is not enough. The contemporary architecture of representative democracy and a capitalist economy, within which these reforms would take place, is to me, and I suspect you, deeply inadequate. Its flaws – inequality, environmental destruction, to name but two – are all too evident.

Let us look to the future, which is the challenge posed by this series of letters. I tried to cast my mind ten thousand years hence, or a thousand. Of course it was impossible. I could imagine space colonies and eternally-pickled brains whose contents are stored in data clouds. But what's the use of such piddling fantasies? It seemed more worthwhile to fantasize about an ideal. How would humans live in an ideal world? I did not imagine a blueprint of such a world: if the twentieth century has taught us anything, it must be that utopian designs are inherently despotic; whether communist, fascist or even neo-liberal. Humans are forced to fit the design, and not the other way around. I tried to imagine how a human would ideally live, a thought experiment which proved one thing: how pathetically distant our current "civilisation" is from ideal. But the vision thereby also provided a kind of target.

How should humans ideally live? They would be fed and housed in as much comfort as they wished. They would live as long as they wanted in beauty and perfect, athletic health (you and I, I fear, are some way from this ideal already). They would be free to die as they choose, for eternal life would, I suspect, be its own kind of hell (though I would be willing to give it a go). They would live in peace, without hatred or resentment. They would wallow in mutual love with other humans (perhaps they could enjoy the permanent sensation of being "in love"). I have long doubted the idea of living in "harmony" with heartless, brutal nature, but humans in this ideal conception would enjoy their planet, unthreatened by its depredations, and reaping from it all that they needed. They would be free of all coercion: no one would have power over anyone else. There would therefore be no government.

Their material needs and desires thus satisfied, humans would be free to indulge in what for me is the ultimate "point", if there can be said to be such a thing, which would be the expression and enactment of all that is sublime and joyous of the immaterial: art, music, poetry (yes, John, you have a place there), love, sex (needless to say), pleasure, literature, voluptuous languor. There are not sufficient words for this fabulous realm; there is certainly no measure, which is why I recoil at our current obsession with metrics and measurable targets, and data: the things that matter most have no measure! It is there to be endlessly explored, imagined. It is the infinite.

Writing this today, I feel terribly sad and a little bit desperate. My expectation is that this ideal is, in reality, wholly unattainable. Looking forward once more, I fear that much more likely is that within a few hundred years, if not less, humanity will have successfully annihilated itself in ways already all too clear. Nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented. It seems implausible to expect that the bombs will never be detonated. We have already come very close to nuclear war on several occasions in the few decades since their invention. The supposedly stable framework of strategic theory – "mutually assured destruction", deterrence etc. – seems flimsy at best, likewise, is the reliance on lots of buttons that must be pressed, or keys that must be turned simultaneously, as launch devices designed to prevent an accidental launch. Most worryingly, the proliferation of these ghastly weapons has already put them in the trembling hands of nutters like the Kim family tyranny of North Korea, and under the control of governments which could tomorrow be overthrown by millenarian extremists, whether religious or secular.

Then there is "the environment" where credible scientific forecasts of global warming are already painting a future of planetary catastrophe. A thousand years hence? Even getting through a hundred without mass starvation, war and species loss seems unlikely at this rate. God, I feel like should stop writing, pour myself a Highland malt and lose myself in your fine poems. No, I feel obliged to continue.

What is to be done? Metrical improvement of government services doesn't quite hit the mark, does it? I am not preaching revolution, for Hannah Arendt was right to say that revolution merely brings us back to where we started, usually, with much bloodshed and misery along the way. I don't believe in violent overthrow or hostility. Together, we might just make it. Divided, we most definitely shall not.

I do believe that a cultural, political, and economic reformation is possible; a profound and magnificent reimagining of how we live and how we get by with one another. Humans survive together. Alone, we are nothing: life is not worth living. The most important question is not what we believe, where we're from, what sex we are, or what kind of music, or food, or sexual partner we like. It is: how do we deal with Other People? Get this right, in the economy and in politics, and we might just make it.

If the ideal is humans who are comfortable, healthy, free from violence or coercion, then that is where we should start. This is not impossible even today. Put people first and central in politics and the economy. In ancient Athens, many citizens played an active part in deciding the city's future. Today, "participatory" processes allow the mass – sometimes tens of thousands of citizens, men and women – to decide things like budget priorities. When all are included in these decisions, the resulting policies reflect all of their interests; they are more equitable. In comparison, supposedly "representative" democracies will inevitably create elites (the few elected by the many) who are inherently susceptible to the influence of – if not corruptible by – the most powerful, thereby exacerbating, rather than reducing, any existing power imbalance.

Inequality supercharges this problem. The rich are already powerful. The evidence clearly shows that "democratic" legislation reflects their interests (literally: interest on capital is taxed at a lower rate than earned income, so a wealthy hedge fund owner is taxed at a lower rate than his cleaner). As Thomas Piketty has so convincingly demonstrated, the rich are indeed getting richer, because, as he shows, the returns on capital are, in general, greater than the returns on labour. Not only are the rest not getting richer (at all), the poor are, astonishingly, actually getting poorer. We are living in the age of the globalized, mega-wealthy plutocrats who control vast sums of money, and thus vast numbers of people. They control politics, philanthropy, culture, and even ideas (the musings of a billionaire are deemed, in publications like The New York Times, much more worthy of publication than the musings of, say, a street sweeper).

Fixing democracy is only half the solution. We must also promote new forms of economic activity, where profits and agency are shared, not concentrated in the hands of a tiny few. Employee-owned cooperatives, whether a bakery or a bank, can be as successful as the egoist entrepreneur (an archetype that is much too celebrated in contemporary culture; every successful individual stands on the shoulders of many). This is not state control, or redistribution by taxation, which of course is a kind of coercion, something we wish to avoid. It is altering the form, and thus the outcome, of economic activity at source. If widely implemented, with good will, patience and perseverance (for nothing human is ever perfect), such methods may have rapid effect, especially since humans are now so thoroughly connected with one another, and ever more so. Changing the method is tantamount to changing the outcome because, as Gandhi stressed, the means are the end. Change the manner in which we interact with one another, how we govern ourselves, how we make things, how we flourish, and we change everything. We are no longer mere outputs of an ideological system, we are in control, at the centre, the point.

John, I know that you share these sentiments. The question now that I cannot answer is how do we foment this transformation. Stalin imposed Marx's revolution, causing untold horrors. Our reformation must come by suasion, not coercion. It's clear that the disillusionment with the current status quo is rampant. But it is a different matter to turn that negative into a positive impulsion to build new things, new companies, new forums for decisions. Expert craftsman of words that you are, I suspect you would also agree that words alone are not enough. Are we to be dragged under by our own cynicism? Or will hope come to our rescue?

My hope is succoured by the hundred tales I hear of people of similar mind taking their own course, building businesses, starting communities, tending to the vulnerable, sharing their labour, love and resources for goals far greater than mere money, for solidarity, for compassion, for mutual aid; they who celebrate the best of humanity, not the most selfish: a thousand paths in the same direction, towards lives that are lived fully, marching forward in step alongside other humans, respecting and loving them and in common purpose with them. These stories move me to the quick. There are legion. May they prevail.

Over to you, my friend,

Carne


Carne Ross founded the world's first not-for-profit diplomatic advisory group, Independent Diplomat. He writes on world affairs and the history of anarchism, recently publishing The Leaderless Revolution (2011), which looks into how, even in democratic nations, citizens feel a lack of agency and governments seem increasingly unable to tackle global issues.

John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.

From: John Burnside, Berlin
To: Manuel Arriaga, New York

7 April 2015

Dear Manuel,

When Carne Ross posted his letter in this series to me, I was just re-reading your marvellous, thoughtful, inspiring book, Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen's Guide to Reinventing Politics. For some time now, Carne and I have been discussing the question of how we might move from so-called 'representative democracy' (which, in our time, is highly unrepresentative and far from democratic) towards, not so much a fairer model, but the only possible political model that could be considered just. For my entire adult life, I have used the terms 'anarchy' and 'anarchism' when referring to that model, and I have considered myself an 'anarchist', but for mainly historical reasons, Carne and I (and many others) have debated whether or not this is still a useful appellation when it is used in dialogue with a broad community for whom the word anarchist has been tarred and very thoroughly feathered with a whole series of deliberately misleading associations with everything from bombs to bad hygiene. I will come back to this semantic problem later, but first I'd like to say a little in response to Carne's letter.

"We are bidden to consider the future", he says – though how immediate, and what manner of future this might be has varied across the letters in this series. Carne thought it worthwhile to fantasise about an ideal in his letter, a world in which all people would be well fed, well housed, healthy, free to die as they chose, but until that time would live in peace, free of hatred and resentment. Then, given these basics, we would all be able to pursue the expression and enactment of art, love, pleasure – in short, a rich and diverse culture. He continues by saying that he feels sad and a little desperate, at times, when he sees how far our own, ostensibly rich society stands from that ideal, though he finds grounds for hope in the ways that some groups and individuals have tried to build real democracy and economic models that would not only reward and enrich all those involved in production, but also produce better quality goods and services.

If I was asked to propose an ideal world, I suspect I would not depart very much from the vision Carne outlines. What I want to do in this letter, though, is to propose an outline model of governance that might bring us closer to that ideal and, to do so, I have to take issue with my friend's note: "I have long doubted the idea of living in harmony with heartless, brutal nature", not because I think 'nature' is kindly, or human oriented, (as James P. Carse says, in Finite and Infinite Games, "Nature offers no home") but because I believe that careful observation of natural actions and patterns is the basis of true anarchism.

It appears that there are – in the broadest terms – three ways in which human societies are governed: one, by force, that is, by sheer weight of money, physical prowess or numbers, 'traditional' privileges and superstition; two, by an ideology of some kind (this includes religions, of course, and even where it does not, it is always enforced by a priestly elite of some kind; I would include 'community', so called, i.e. in its usual forms in capitalist societies, as an ideology here, as communities all too rapidly become hierarchical in such a society); three, by representative democracy. What anarchism proposes is, first, a critique of all the above and, second, a means by which the ideal model of self-governance can be brought about. In this model, the group, guided by certain principles, (drawn from nature), spontaneously arrives at decisions and acts to promote the greatest possible good, not just for that group, or for humankind, but for the land, the waters, the skies, the other creatures with whom we live and the creatures of all species yet unborn. The word 'spontaneously' is important here: anarchism is closely allied to emergence as a natural, organic model of order and, in its most achieved form, an anarchic society (or individual) does not think, then do, it simply is, responding to circumstances spontaneously, and only where necessary. (I'd note in passing, however, that it takes years of practice and discipline to become spontaneous.)

No doubt this really will sound like an ideal, perhaps an impossible one. But does it need to be possible? As it works on the individual level, then so might it work for the group and it is clear that when, as individuals, we pursue the discipline of spontaneity, responsiveness to natural order and avoidance of action for its own sake (Taoists calls this wu-wei) certain principles emerge. By principles, I mean something different from the bases of ideology in that an ideology is a set of beliefs, whereas a principle is founded in observation of how things work in the world around us. Observations about the basic ground of being: place, time, matter, the elements, other creatures and – by your leave for now, and not seeking at all to get mystical – whatever we think of as 'the angels'. There are two kinds of principles: universal and temporal; the universal are based on universal conditions such as the conservation of energy, the understanding that any action causes an equal and opposite (or complementary) action, that is central not just to Newton, but also to the Dialectic and Chinese wuji philosophy, (yin and yang in constant play as the whole tends towards an ever shifting, greater or lesser equilibrium). As I say, I don't wish to be mystical here – and in fact, Taoist thought eschews mysticism by saying that we cannot know, or even name the 'way' that governs things; we can, however, see it in action, constantly, by carefully observing the world around us. For centuries now, human observers – supposedly 'objective' ones included – have imposed our own, often fantasised values and patterns on the world – that bee colonies are hierarchical, governed by a 'queen' for example – instead of paying attention to things as they are. Tao Te Ching and other Chinese classics show us that, if we can only observe with detachment, we will see that the natural world is spontaneous, emergent and self ordering. When we apply force to get what we want, that force is eventually cancelled out and we lose what we gained and more. When we cling to passing ideas, possessions or conditions, we lose everything. This is important, politically: when we observe the real world, we begin to see that what we have been persuaded to think of as necessary power structures are neither natural nor necessary at all, and in fact, because they are susceptible to attachment, excess and imbalance, are the most susceptible to corruption.

These principles are shared by an-archism which acknowledges the need for order but refuses to accept an imposed order. Instead, anarchists, like Taoists and true students of the Dialectic, suggest that, if we would only wake up and pay attention, we would see that order is steadily and spontaneously emergent, and we can shape human activities, including self-governance, to that order. Then, by observing nature, we see how emergent order happens and so let go of the temptations that plague us: to force the issue, to push our theses with no regard for their antitheses, to assume power. As I said, the word anarchism has been besmirched, as we know, by the powers that be. Time to abandon it? Paul Feyerabend seemed to think so, calling himself a 'Dadaist' instead, and he is only one of many who feel that, by using the term anarchism, we risk being dragged off into pointless side arguments that add nothing to the central debate about self-governance. As it happens, I think Dadaist carries its own baggage but, semantics aside, I fear we may be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

I have gone on long enough, but I do want to throw in some random final thoughts for your consideration. Why I do so is this: having admired Rebooting Democracy, and while I feel it has much to offer the debate, I wonder if we can really reach a state of real, just self-governance (which would have to be universal to be truly just; it would also have to hold to the central principle of respect for organic order above all things) by working with the present system? You are right, I think, to trust to the intelligence and goodwill of informed citizens and community groups – but I think we are far from having an informed citizenry, other than in pockets here and there (something Carne also seemed to be pointing to in his letter). Can we tinker with this vile system and so fix it? Or do we need to find principles that will help guide capitalist-consumer society out of its attachments to comfort and relative power?

I hope my saying this will not lead you to see me as one of those you so rightly criticise in Rebooting Democracy for thinking that "the people" are too dumb, or too selfish, to govern themselves. I certainly agree that this is not so, and I also would vehemently support the notion that nobody else should govern us. However, having seen, even in my own lifetime, a history of massive environmental degradation, I feel that many of us will need time to recover from the assumptions, lifestyle and comforts of a Big Capitalist-Big Consumer society. Some of us will need time to overcome our desire for unnecessary goods, services and 'developments'; others, though, will need time to shift away from an ideology that, having started out to look for alternatives to the Big CCs, have all too often compromised, or even strayed into the enemy's ranks. Not long ago, for instance, I asked the opinion of a fairly well known nature writer about the proposed erection of wind turbines on an estuary famed for its birdlife; the response was "sacrifices have to be made." I have had similar responses from people who should know better, when protesting wind turbine developments on Shetland (103 turbines on precious peatland) and in Scotland's flow country. Fossil fuels bad, any renewable anywhere good, is the slogan, Animal Farm style. But all common sense and fidelity to natural principles cries out that it is a ridiculous and tragic policy to destroy peatland (which sequesters carbon, amongst other things) and raise massive structures within shouting distance of rare bird colonies. If you want them, put them elsewhere – and if you are as green as you claim to be, defend the birds, the land and the future from all inappropriate developments and not just some.

I am reminded, often, of the conclusion to David Owen's book, The Conundrum. He says:

It's easy for wealthy people to look busy on energy, climate, and the environment: all we have to do is drive a hybrid, eat local food (while granting ourselves exemptions for anything we like to eat that doesn't grow where we live), remember to unplug our cell-phone chargers, and divide our trash into two piles. What's proven impossible, at least so far, is to commit to taking steps that would actually make a large, permanent difference on a global scale. Do we honestly care? That's the conundrum.

I feel the same could be said about other things, including justice, prosperity and self-governance – if I have these things, do I really care if others have them? The paradox is that if others are not free, then neither am I. What freedom I think I have is short term, and mostly illusory.

By observing natural principles – and by, most importantly, placing deep ecology principles at the heart of all our governance – we may make it to a genuinely self-governing world. First, though, we have to learn how the world really works. We have the key texts, images and narratives to help us do so, from the Tao Te Ching to the work of Félix Guattari, André Gorz, Aldo Leopold and many others – I hope I have not suggested at any time that anything I am saying here is original – what we must do is formulate, abide by and, where necessary, uphold those principles. The central one, for the moment, must be that, where sacrifices must be made, we in Big CC land must be the ones making them. As we do, we will begin to recover from our sickness, and at the same time, exert less pressure on other societies and the natural world. But the principles are key to that shift. I'll close with some advice from Ruskin, who may have been talking about art, but was also talking about how to live well:

go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remembering her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing.

Over to you, my friend,

John 


John Burnside is a novelist, short story writer and poet. His poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, won both the Forward and the T.S. Eliot Prizes in 2011, a year in which he also received the Petrarch Prize for Poetry. He has twice won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year award, (in 2006 and 2013). His memoir A Lie About My Father won the Madeleine Zepter Prize (France) and a CORINE Belletristikpreis des ZEIT Verlags Prize (Germany); his story collection, Something Like Happy, received the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. His work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Chinese. He writes a monthly nature column for The New Statesman and is a regular contributor to The London Review of Books.

Manuel Arriaga is a visiting research professor at New York University and a fellow at the University of Cambridge. In 2014, he published Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen's Guide to Reinventing Politics, which, by the end of the same year, had become thenumber one best-selling book on democracy on Amazon UK. He is currently working on a film project on democratic innovations.

From: Manuel Arriaga, New York
To Giles Fraser, London

16 November 2015

Dear Giles,

Reading the earlier letters in this exchange, it strikes me that the issue of long-term thinking is twofold. Its challenges make themselves felt at two very different levels: the individual and the collective.

As individuals we are notoriously prone to myopic decision making. The work of cognitive psychologists such as Tversky and Kahneman, whom Stewart Brand quoted in his letter, abundantly documents the biases that plague each of us as we try to act "rationally". When the temporal horizon expands and making a good decision today depends on properly weighing benefits and costs that are far into the future, we do a particularly poor job. It doesn't help that, when we look into the more distant future, such consequences are probabilistic rather than certain.

A second, distinct problem has to do with collective decision making. How can we, as a society, adequately handle issues that have long-term consequences? Obviously, different people will list different concerns, but there is a widespread perception that our political life is too caught up in the ephemeral, all the while neglecting to pay proper attention to a number of looming structural challenges.

Why does this distinction between the individual and the collective matter? Because the pathologies that afflict us as a society are not simply the sum – nor the inevitable consequence – of our limitations as individuals. Instead, we have put in place specific procedures and collective decision-making mechanisms that ensure that our individual-level myopia will be amplified when we collectively make decisions. (It is in this sense that, as Esther Dyson wrote, "long-term thinking and collective action are two sides of the same coin.") Our political system(s) almost seems designed to take our innate biases and ensure that, as a society, we act in a way that would make the most foolhardy and impulsive teenager seem wise by comparison.

Consider elections, perhaps one of the most celebrated institutions of modern times – the only widely-accepted way for the public to delegate power into the hands of a small number of politicians. This provides a way to hold those we elect accountable and gives (some measure of) protection against authoritarian abuses of power.

However, as is painfully evident in 2015, elections also foster shortsightedness in a myriad of ways. Politicians are immersed in the media and electoral cycles, unable to extend their vision beyond the dual horizons of the day's media coverage and the forthcoming election. Citizens are invited to pick representatives (and occasionally to vote on ballot measures) with little to no serious reflection and on the basis of a wholly inadequate information diet. Finally, journalists find themselves working in an ever-accelerating environment, where they often feel that careful, in-depth coverage of policy issues no longer has a place and must be sacrificed at the altar of sensationalism, high ratings and social media buzz. To borrow Brian Eno's phrase, the whole system seems geared towards "increasingly short nows".

Needless to say, we should be doing the opposite. We should be devising collective governance mechanisms that bring out the best in our thinking, creating ways to make decisions that will help us, as a society, overcome our innate myopia and the biases that plague our reasoning. The good news is that I sincerely believe that we have at our disposal a concrete, albeit little known, way to do just that. Its wider adoption promises to make the collective more, rather than less, intelligent than the individual – in short, the kind of change of method that would, as Carne Ross put it, be "tantamount to changing the outcome" in matters of policy that require deep long-term political thinking.

One way to achieve this is through a practice known as citizen deliberation: the use of large panels of randomly selected people to carefully reflect and decide on complex policy matters. Unlike professional politicians, such a representative sample of ordinary citizens has all the incentives – and close to none of the disincentives – to properly think through the long-term consequences of different policy choices. Furthermore, if the deliberation process were rigorously conducted, these citizen panels would be able to see through the "ideology and ghost stories," as Stewart Brand puts it, that typically plague such decisions.

Greater use of citizen deliberation in policy making could be a powerful antidote to many of the ills we have been identifying. However, in my short book Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics, a specific concern over our difficulty in making reasoned long-term choices prompted me to suggest a blueprint for a particular kind of institution. A "Long Now Citizens' Assembly" (the name was meant as a not-so-subtle nod to the inspiring work of the Long Now Foundation) would be a large citizen panel that would convene every ten years. These citizens would be tasked with defining a collective political vision, thereby setting out some key choices in terms of the direction their nation, region or city should take, subject to approval in a referendum. The decade between meetings would make it unambiguously clear that the panel existed in a different temporal plane from that of electoral party politics.

Although citizen deliberation dates back to ancient Greece, the idea of involving ordinary citizens in real-world policy making invariably comes as a shock to many. However, skepticism dissipates as people come to understand how citizen deliberation works in practice. The citizen panel carries out an in-depth study and analysis of the issue(s) at hand, including consultations with policy makers, interest groups, scientific experts and others. They deliberate, at length and with the assistance of skilled facilitators, about the available policy choices and their possible impact. The process has nothing in common with the rowdy scenes and uninformed shouting matches that characterized, for example, the town hall meetings on healthcare reform in the United States back in 2009.

A commonly-voiced concern is whether ordinary citizens have what it takes – are they intelligent enough to address complex policy issues? Here, too, doubts prove unfounded. Stanford Professor James Fishkin, one of the world’s foremost experts on citizen deliberation, writes that "the public is very smart if you give them a chance. If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study, … ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70% change their minds in the process." He assures us that "citizens can become better informed and master the most complex issues of state government if they are given the chance."

The promise of citizen deliberation is that it could free policy making from the well-known biases that plague professional politicians. Ordinary citizens, chosen at random and for a single, non-renewable term, can act – just like a jury in court – in what they perceive to be the true long-term public interest, free from the pressures of facing reelection. They don’t have to worry about how necessary-but-unpopular measures will adversely impact their popularity ratings.

But perhaps the most exciting aspect is that none of this is idle, academic speculation. Recent experiences show how well citizen deliberation works in practice. In 2004, a randomly-chosen panel of 160 citizens was tasked by the government of the Canadian province of British Columbia with reforming the province's electoral system. After drawing on the input of a wide variety of experts, consulting the public, and deliberating at length, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform ended up suggesting a type of electoral system that, in the words of Professor David Farrell, a renowned expert on electoral systems, "politicians, given a choice, would probably least like to see introduced but which voters, given a choice, should choose." The assembly’s proposal was later approved by 58% of the popular vote in a referendum, yet regrettably failed to meet the strict requirements imposed by the provincial government for its results to be considered binding, and therefore has yet to be implemented.

Similarly encouraging results are reported from the U.S. state of Oregon. Since 2010, citizen deliberation has been used to assist Oregon voters in state-wide ballot initiatives. In a process known as the "Citizen Initiative Review," a panel of about twenty-five randomly chosen Oregonians is tasked with carefully researching and deliberating on the ballot measure up for a vote. At the end of this process, an accessible and highly informative set of "key findings", as well as an indication of how many panelists ultimately supported and opposed the proposed measure, are presented as a "citizens' statement" in the pamphlet that voters receive in the mail before a ballot. Research confirms that this citizens' statement not only makes voters better informed, but also has a substantial influence on the voting behavior of those who read it.

In his letter, John Burnside rightly wonders if – in light of the substantial social change that would be required just to bring rampant environmental destruction under control – it might be too optimistic to place that much faith in the abilities of our fellow citizens. When one pauses to consider what is at stake and how far we are from attaining that goal, it is impossible not to share his concern. Yet, I can think of no other collective decision making system better equipped to handle such a challenge. After all, the kind of major lifestyle changes that seem necessary are utterly indefensible by professional politicians seeking (re)election. We can also hope for the success of NGOs and other groups in civil society trying to promote greater environmental awareness, yet their odds of effecting major changes seem awfully limited as long as our so-called democracies remain deaf to voices other than those stemming from powerful economic interests (or, perhaps just as depressingly, focus groups). Our best hope perhaps lies in the abilities of ordinary citizens to collectively engage with these difficult issues and then share their findings with the broader public.

Giles, in this letter I deliberately adopted an "engineering" perspective – that of a self-confessed geek who asks himself how we might reform a system so that it can generate what I consider to be better outcomes. I did so aware of the violent oversimplification entailed in this process, any hopes of true change ultimately depending on our values and how they come to evolve over time.

As argued above, I believe that citizen deliberation offers us a powerful way to cut through the everyday froth, to reflect on and articulate what our values truly are and which reforms are needed so that, together, we can build a future that is true to those values. Yet, this is at best a tiny piece of the puzzle. I very much look forward to seeing where you will choose to take this conversation next.

All my best,

Manuel


Manuel Arriaga is a visiting research professor at New York University and a fellow at the University of Cambridge. In 2014, he published Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen's Guide to Reinventing Politics, which, by the end of the same year, had become thenumber one best-selling book on democracy on Amazon UK. He is currently working on a film project on democratic innovations.

Giles Fraser is a priest of the Church of England and a journalist. He is currently the parish priest at St Mary's, Newington, near the Elephant and Castle, London, and writes a weekly Saturday column for The Guardian, as well as appearing frequently on BBC Radio 4. He is a regular contributor on Thought for the Day and a panellist on The Moral Maze. He is visiting professor in the anthropology department at the London School of Economics. He was previously Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral and director of the St Paul’s Institute from 2009 until his resignation in October 2011. As Canon Chancellor, Fraser was a residentiary canon with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre.