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Sat Aug 17, 02019, 5:00PM UTC

Esther Dyson, Ryan Phelan, and Stewart Brand

Long Now Boston Summer Picnic

Long Now Boston Summer Picnic

Long Now Boston would love you to join us — Saturday, August 17, from 1pm to 5pm — in celebration of our 5th season of remarkable deep time conversations.

Reflections on the 4th Annual Summer Picnic of Long Now Boston, featuring Stewart Brand, co-founder of the Long Now Foundation,  Esther Dyson, founder of Wellville and chairman of EDVenture Holdings and Ryan Phelan, co-founder and executive director of Revive & Restore, with thanks to our hosts Danny Hillis and Taylor Milsal.

Esther Dyson has devoted her life to discovering the inevitable and promoting the possible. As an investor/commentator, she focuses on emerging technologies and business models, emerging markets and emerging companies. In 1994, she was one of the first to explore the impact of the Net on intellectual property in her own (paid-subscription) newsletter Release 1.0 and in Wired. In 1997, she wrote a book on the impact of the Net on individuals' lives, Release 2.0: A design for living in the digital age. Dyson does business as chairman of EDventure Holdings, the reclaimed name of the company she sold to CNET in 2004. She spends most of her time interfering with the companies listed below, most of them start-ups. In addition, she donates time and money as a trustee to emerging organizations (the Santa Fe Institute, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Eurasia Foundation). From 1998 to 2000, she was founding chairman of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the international agency charged with setting policy for the Internet's core infrastructure (technical standards and the Domain Name System) independent of government control. She also sits on the Russian government's commission to establish a Russian Silicon Valley, to which she contributes both enthusiasm and skepticism.

Esther Dyson
Esther Dyson

Ryan Phelan is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Revive & Restore, with a mission to enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species. Ryan works with some of the world’s leading molecular biologists, conservation biologists, and conservation organizations to envision and develop pioneering genetic rescue projects using cutting-edge genomic technologies to solve seemingly intractable wildlife conservation challenges such as those posed by inbreeding, exotic diseases, climate change, and destructive invasive species. She has organized landmark workshops on genetic rescue bringing together global experts to identify the challenges facing endangered species and identify what genetic tools can be used or designed to help save them from extinction. The Intended Consequences Workshop took place in June of 2020, which led her to the main stage of TED in Monterey 2021 with her TED Talk titled The Intended Consequences of Helping Nature Thrive and the podcast on TED Radio Hour.

Ryan Phelan
Ryan Phelan

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 an Infantry officer.

Stewart Brand
Stewart Brand


A Timely Experience

A great deal of planning and preparation had gone into the afternoon picnic, but the time for planning was over. It was time for the event to begin. Thoughts and questions cross through your mind as you walk into a quiet Cambridge neighborhood.  Will the event be well-attended?  Who will I know?  What questions might be asked of me, and what questions would I like to ask?

At the house, there is a Long Now Boston sign pointing up the drive, to the garden.  As you walk up to the gate, on the right, standing on the remains of a large shipping crate, is a six-foot, cast bronze sculpture of the Equation of Time Cam that sits at the heart of the Clock of the Long Now under construction in a mountain in Texas.

So – what is it?  A piece of art, clearly – elegant, flowing curves, glowing with a goldish brown hue reminiscent of the fires in which it was cast.  But more than that – an artifact of deep technology, engineered to guide the clock on its daily journey for 10,000 years, making adjustments for the slowing of the Earth’s rotation and the precession of the equinox – tiny discrepancies between solar time and clock time.  Finally, it stands as a symbol of what the Long Now movement is all about – taking the long view on our journey to become better ancestors.

Passing through the gate, you are welcomed by volunteers, checked in and given a re-usable name tag. You walk into a lovely enclosed summer garden, warm but shaded, with a profusion of greenery and flowers.  There is a bar, where you sample some wine, and plates of food for snacking.  But mostly, you are immersed in conversation.

There are many pockets of conversation, on the porch, along the pathway, around the table and chairs – with plenty of movement between.  New pockets form repeatedly as newcomers are welcomed.  Engaging in those conversations, you find a collection of minds representing a wide variety of background and interests: art, education, culture, science, technology and business.  Everyone is curious about the world and passionate about the importance of long term thinking in every field.

The Program

Midway through the afternoon, Bill Davison, co-founder and President of Long Now Boston, welcomed the guests and thanked our hosts, and spoke briefly about Long Now Boston.  This event is a significant milestone for us as we try to earn, and to learn, our way to becoming a long-lived organization that stimulates long-term thinking.  The gathering today is the beginning of a community of individuals committed to the ideal of being better ancestors.

Kim Novick, Long Now Boston Board member and productions advisor, introduced Stewart Brown and Esther Dyson, who spoke about the goals, the opportunities and the challenges for long-term thinking in a short term world.  The discussion included insights on the difference between long term planning and long-term thinking, and on the fascinating and critical project of intentionally fostering very long term institutions.

George Gantz, who leads speaker curation for the Long Now Boston Conversation Series,  introduced Danny Hillis and Ryan Phelan for a conversation about Revive & Restore, the non-profit being led by Ryan to champion restoration, recovery and resilience for keystone species: including the tundra’s majestic woolly mammoth, the American prairie’s black-footed ferret and the heath hen of Martha’s Vineyard.

A Sampling of Observations From Guests

M – It was so interesting to see the cam-of-time just sitting in the driveway.  And then later, as I was leaving, I saw a fellow guest hugging it.  It was that kind of object: meticulously functional but strangely alluring and attractive.

G – I am reminded of the great work by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation Series.  Hari Seldon and his band of psycho-historians were seeking to save galactic civilization from a 30 millennia dark age by establishing the Foundation at one end of the galaxy, and the small and secretive Second Foundation far away.  So here we are –  with the Long Now Foundation headquartered in San Francisco, what some might consider the center of the universe, and the tiny little Long Now Boston here on the far side of the continent.  Yet aren’t we all committed to the same thing: to avoid or mitigate an impending dark age for humanity and the potential collapse of the bio-geological systems of this planet.

W – I had such an awesome conversation with Nathan about his art and his new show.  He breaks images apart so we can see the reality underneath. Stewart Brand said art was part of the fashion layer of time, the layer that changes most quickly.  But Nathan is trying to do something else – to have art make us experience the deep and timeless layers beneath.

J – This may seem simple, but I was particularly impressed at the attention that people were paying: both to the invited guests that took the time to spend with us, and to each other. So often at meetings, social events, etc., everyone is on devices, easily distracted, or nodding off.  At this event, people truly cared about what was being said.

M – I was struck by the comment from a psychologist “The three things we all need to survive are agency, meaning and connection.”  Although this was not raised in the context of Long Now Boston, I felt the organization has done well to create the last two and now feel like it is turning to the first one. Making a difference.

C – I was so impressed by the scope of what people are up to—compiling the encyclopedia of everything in the world, for instance—and by what people do when not at their day jobs. For example, Brittany and Sam design large-scale, interactive light sculptures for the Burning Man festival!   And Laura, a friend of Gary’s, makes mixed-media sculptures when she’s not figuring out economic strategies for companies.  The range of people’s talents and interests impresses me very much.

M – I was chatting with Charlie a retired veterinary pathologist. He mentioned One Health,  a cross-disciplinary Initiative of physicians, microbiologists and vets, which aims to address healthcare as a whole environment problem including all life. We were both intrigued by the idea as it scales from the microbiome to inter-species crossover and how far the idea can be stretched.  If we humans are to survive, it’s in our favor to provide healthcare to our whole ecosystem (microbes, plants, animals) for good health outcomes. The concept of maintenance, mentioned by Ryan (Revive and Restore) and Stewart (healthcare/city health) reminded Charlie of One Health’s mission.

W – There was a great interchange about the problem of deliberate deception in our culture today, and I loved Dick’s comment about what everyone is really seeking: agency, meaning and connection.

G – Yes, that comment and the conversations it started reverberated through the afternoon and beyond. How do we achieve and build into a long term organization the capacity to fulfill the deepest human needs.  And also, what do we do about those, like terrorist organizations or populist demagogues, that deliver the semblance of agency, meaning and connection through deliberate deceptions.

M – Overheard in conversation as one guest was introducing another to a friend:  “He works on “lethal autonomous weapons”… Oh that sounded odd! When I introduce you as someone who has done work on “lethal autonomous weapons” I need to make sure to put that in context – your work is on the ethics of lethal autonomous weapons and ways to prevent their deployment.”

R – One thing that I reflected on afterwards was the discussion point between Stewart and Danny about long-term thinking versus long-term planning.  Stewart said that when the Foundation was being set up, some of Danny’s engineer friends had pointed out that Long Now needs to transcend the predilections of the age. If, in 1900, LN had been invented and put in place lots of plans for the future, then they would have advocated for zeppelins everywhere!  I think this is a really important point…but very hard to do in practice! How do we escape the “transient salient” events of the present moment?  For example, it’s very difficult not to get distracted by present-day political news cycles.

M – Every conversation I had with anyone at this event is full of smart and passionate people. And the diversity of their knowledge base and skill set is great. It’s so easy to get siloed in your field (in my case biotech) and not have chats with economists and city planners and app developers and information engineers on a regular basis. What’s great about the Long Now Boston events is the cross-fertilization of ideas with these other perspectives.

Event Summary

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