SALT: Seminars About Long-term Thinking

SALT: Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Stewart Brand [9.18.14]


It's the case that a lot of the SALT speakers are book authors, and sometimes we get them when they're on book tour. But usually I'm finding them because I want the same body of research and analysis that they’ve done at book scale. These are not tweets. They're not even TED Talks, brilliant as those are. Those are short form; these are the long form. For somebody to hold forth for the better part of an hour, whatever it is they have to say, they have to have mastered quite a bit.  

[31 minutes]


Over the past few years on a nearly monthly basis, Stewart Brand gets on a stage in San Francsico to do a Q&A with an eclectic array of interesting speakers, ranging from world-famous bestselling authors to young researchers and thinkers still under the radar. "My job is curator," he says, "but also I find the people, I get in touch with them, I invite them; they're not getting paid. They do get visibility in a serious context and a fantastic audience. I give a Q&A with them on the stage and then I summarize, which for me is the hardest, in some ways most interesting part because when Steven Pinker or Elaine Pagels or Jared Diamond or whoever talks for an hour, how do you summarize what they said in a couple hundred words and send that out to everybody? It's a form of writing compression that is hard, but I think worth doing. People like it."

The summaries of the SALT Talks, emailed to the membership and then posted on the Long Now website, are a highlight of the program. Check them out, and watch the videos of the talks at the Long Now Seminar page.

Last month I sat down with Brand in San Francisco, at the new Interval Cafe near the Golden Gate Bridge, the latest addition to the many projects coming out of his Long Now Foundation. I was particularly eager to talk to him as it's coming up on the 50-year mark of our first meeting in 1965 at the USCO psychedlic/cybernetic tabernacle in a converted church in Garnerville, NY.  We've been in touch regularly ever since,  talking about ideas, working on an occasional project. It's always interesting.

John Brockman

STEWART BRAND is Founder of the The Whole Earth Catalog, Co-founder and Co-chair of The Long Now Foundation, author of Whole Earth Discipline.

Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page

SALT: Seminars About Long-term Thinking

For 12 years now we've been doing monthly talks to the public called "Seminars About Long-term Thinking" that the Long Now Foundation sponsors in San Francisco. I don’t have a rap about the SALT Talks—Seminars for Long-term Thinking—this is one of those cases where the acronym rules. SALT talks are an ongoing territorial exploration of people who are talking, writing, thinking about things that bear relation—sometimes tangential—to long-term thinking, bearing in mind that the Long Now, as defined by Brian Eno and Peter Schwartz for the Long Now Foundation, is the last 10,000 years and the next 10,000 years. So we're building a 10,000 Year Clock, we’re bringing back extinct species, we’re cataloging all the languages in the world, and we're giving a pretty highly visible stage to current thinkers.

When Steven Pinker writes his book, The Better Angels of our Nature—the book is incredible, his news is fantastic, that things are getting better in terms of violence and cruelty and injustice in a pretty constant long-term way—everyone wants to hear him say it and tell it with words and presence and slides and quizzing on the stage. 

The format that we have for that is we now have live audiences of usually over 500. They all get a card on which they can write their name and their question, and they come to the front. Kevin Kelly goes through the cards, hands them to me as the talk finishes, I go out on the stage and engage our speaker, such as Steven Pinker, with the questions that I have and the audience has. A discussion goes on for half an hour. This format has worked well enough and people are amazing enough that the thing keeps growing. There's a huge online audience. I guess 700,000 downloads a year of high quality videos from and the iPods that people listen to in their cars, and surprising legs. So the early talks such as Jared Diamond way back when, people go back and listen to them.

My job is curator, but also I find the people, I get in touch with them, I invite them; they're not getting paid. They do get visibility in a serious context and a fantastic audience. I give a Q&A with them on the stage and then I summarize, which for me is the hardest, in some ways most interesting part because when Steven Pinker or Elaine Pagels or Jared Diamond or whoever talks for an hour, how do you summarize what they said in a couple hundred words and send that out to everybody? It's a form of writing compression that is hard, but I think worth doing. People like it.

What it allows us to do is not only get the best of current thinking that bears relation to long-term thinking, but it gets the best in current thinkers in a framework that is not their usual one. Their usual one is selling the book that they just finished, or putting out a message that they put out many times and are perhaps running on automatic. For this audience in this framework, the frame is long-term thinking, which may or may not have been the way they think about what they're doing.

Just last week we had a surprising outreach from the National Security Agency—the NSA. One of the senior people there is a young woman named Anne Neuberger. The NSA is going through travails this year, to put it mildly, and they want to engage with the public. One of the first places they turned out to be doing that is by having Anne come out, by my invitation, and give a talk about basically the reality these days that the NSA is facing, both organizationally from inside dealing with the mistrust, which is now one of the major problems that they've helped to inspire and Edward Snowden mainly helped to inspire, and their ongoing world of threats that they face and how that keeps evolving.

She basically talked about the relationship between short-term needs, which is dealing with threats, and long-term needs of privacy norms, of the responsibilities of governance and the role government should be having in relation to its citizens, both to protect their freedoms and to protect their bodies and their digital infrastructure. It's a case where I think an entity like the NSA—a person representing it—is given permission by the framework of SALT Talks to talk about long-term thinking in relation to their daily urgencies and how they think about them. 

Now 10,000 years seems like a long time, and it is for most people. I love it when some people say, "That’s not long enough. Ice ages come and go. Are you guys talking about ice ages coming and going?" Actually, we do get people who come in, and it's quite possible we're now in the Anthropocene, a human-dominated era of geology and climate. Chances are wonderful that we will never see another Ice Age. That's the kind of thing that helps you think even longer term. We just had an engagement with a celestial object, which is last week Comet 67P was rendezvoused by the European space agency rocket called Rosetta. On board Rosetta, even though it launched ten years ago, was one of our Rosetta discs containing what we had collected in about 1500 languages from around the world, and that will go in orbit that comet for millions of years. Any entity in the far distant future—beyond 10,000 years—if they want to know about the languages of earth at a certain point, they know where to go.

The important thing about the Rosetta disc is that it's not digital. It's just teensy. It is microscope readable text of these 1500 languages, so anybody with an 18th century microscope can read the several tens of thousands of pages that are on a disc just a couple inches across. Everything digital goes away pretty quickly, and the tools turn over so rapidly that I think the things that do best at sustaining are the ones that don’t focus so much on the digital aspect of the tools. One of our first SALT Talks was Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia who said that their software was pretty primitive and crude when they started and it hasn’t tried to stay terribly sophisticated. The genius of Wikipedia is in the design of its community—the people—and how they relate to one another. They use a rather antique form of online communication, and it doesn't matter that it's antique. What matters is the quality of the relationships that they have with each other. So I think we're going to keep seeing that the things that work out long-term are going to be perhaps released by new technology. They're not going to be dependent on any particular generation of new technology.

It's the case that a lot of the SALT speakers are book authors, and sometimes we get them when they're on book tour. But usually I'm finding them because I want the same body of research and analysis that they’ve done at book scale. These are not tweets. They're not even TED Talks, brilliant as those are. Those are short form; these are the long form. For somebody to hold forth for the better part of an hour, whatever it is they have to say, they have to have mastered quite a bit.

It is not a contradiction that people want a lot of information fast and they want a lot of information slow. I think it's just a paradox. The more there is—the tweet way to sort of keep up with what somebody is thinking—the more there is a reason to engage somebody in some depth. The advantage of doing that in a theater or even watching a video is you get to watch the person thinking, especially in question and answer periods, which books don’t have in the back. Nothing has that. There's a little bit of it in television interviews, but that's not the same because with question and answer you’ve got an audience who's been listening to somebody explain what they're interested in for a good while—showing a lot of slides or some videos or whatever—and now it's the audience’s turn.

The best questions are rising as we sort through them and then turning up on the stage, the name of the person who's asking the question, they're now part of the show. That's unique to this form, and it bears relation to what musicians have found, which is that the digital form of their music got commoditized to the point where they can barely make any money on it, but the concert form of their music is doing better than ever if they have a strong enough audience to fill the concert hall.

What we're finding is—and this is what you can do with a good series of talks—if you have a number of known amazing people—Daniel Kahneman and Martin Rees and Elaine Pagels and so on, show up and talk and then you invite some people that you know are good but the general audience doesn’t know is good yet, they’ll come with a certain amount of trust. As long as you don’t disappoint them more than once in a row, they’ll keep coming. And so it can be a venue for newer people, younger people. There's an economist named Mariana Mazzucato who's not widely followed, but she's got the best argument to take down the libertarian perspective on the uses of government with her story that basically government is more entrepreneurial than private entrepreneurs, and this is a good strong argument. By the way, she is a highly glamorous, highly energetic person on the stage who can put on quite a show. People come and see someone they haven't heard of like her and then they’ll keep coming back. That's part of my job is to get a mix of ones they know about and ones that people are finding out about.

One of the things that drew me to this medium for a while is, you’ve been finding with Edge, you keep kind of exploring new capabilities what you can do with Edge. Building under the Reality Club and then moving on and including things like these videos and so on. Likewise, with these talks. You can experiment with format. One that we've developed that the audience likes a lot is a debate format, which doesn’t have winners and losers. We had one, for example, between Neil Ferguson, the historian and Peter Schwartz, the futurist, and their subject was basically pessimistic versus optimistic perspective on progress. The historian had a pessimistic view and the futuristic had an optimistic view.

The debate format was this: Right at the beginning I asked the audience "Who do you want to go first?" We had a show of hands and yelling, and one of them goes first. They don’t know which one it's going to be once they're on the stage, so the person who goes first gets 15 minutes to make their case with slides or whatever, and then for ten minutes they're going to be quizzed by their debater—by the opponent—kind of in probing mode. Not in a taking down mode, but sort of interview, "Tell me more. Tell me more about this, this, this and this."

At the end of that ten minutes, the second debater—the one who's been listening all this time—now has to summarize the argument of the first debater so well that the first debater says, "Well, you got it." Then they swap roles and the second one goes up and makes their case and is quizzed by the first debater and then has to summarize their point of view to the point where the second debater says, "I guess you’ve got it." Then I start getting questions from the audience and on we go.

What it does is, instead of that thing you see on television—the yelling and combat approach and the put down approach—this is find a way to converge to where they're actually talking about or understanding the ways in which their language overlaps and the rather small details that they may disagree on. The audience is included in them discovering that process in real time. Audience loves it. Indeed, nobody comes out a winner at the end of the day except maybe with a better understanding and the realization that you can have debates without fighting.

Arguments online tend to exacerbate towards intellectual violence. Some arguments in person, like on the broadcast television, exacerbate in kind of a verbal confrontational violence. Occasionally I think staged debates do that. But if you have the proviso that in person, in real time, each of the characters has got to summarize the other person’s argument, which is against their argument, just stated, something amazing happens. They don’t need to necessarily convince each other away from where they’ve been, but they convince the audience that it's a discussion worth having and that it doesn’t make everybody feel bad because it's gone violent and weird.

I suppose part of the fun of figuring out the range—we've had over 120 speakers in 12 years—is how they relate to Long Now. So one I've got coming up shortly is Drew Endy, who is a leading biotech engineer who's going to talk about the iGEM revolution, this amazing thing going on at MIT where young biotech people from all over the world—by the tens of thousands now—have been creating new organisms and it's not in the news at all. If this is the biotech century, those are the ones who are going to create it.

I've got Larry Harvey, the guy who founded Burning Man, in a couple months giving a talk on why the man keeps burning, how that seemingly unscalable event could just keep on scaling from year to year. It just gets bigger and bigger.

Kevin Kelly is going to hold forth about hopefully his next book, Technium Unbound. Neil Gaiman is coming to give a talk about how stories last, and he's a storyteller who knows a lot about all the stories in history. Recently we had Stefan Kroepelin, an archeologist/climatologist who's spent 40 years wandering in the deepest, weirdest, driest, most forbidding parts of the Sahara and has turned up a new theory basically of how the Egyptian civilization changed, how civilization got started.

We had a colonel from the army, Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who talked about how in the Iraq war when the museum in Bagdad was destroyed and looted, how he was able to work with the local and with the international art antiquities market to basically restore most of that museum and get it back. Those are some of the earliest artifacts in human history. Brian Eno and Danny Hillis had a conversation a while back.

One of the most popular things we do is every year in December is to completely fill Castro Theater, which is one of our biggest theaters, for a film archivist named Rick Prelinger. Rick just collects old footage, film footage of the Bay Area, new stuff every year and he shows it. People call out the things they recognize, and it's like a big community memory fest. Richard Kurin from the Smithsonian did a take on the book that came out of the British museum on the history of the world in 100 objects. He basically did the history of America in 101 objects because we're always going one better. Adam Steltzner came here from Caltech and explained how he and his gang of engineers did the impossible of lowering the Curiosity Rover under the surface of Mars.

Peter Schwartz, who is one of our board members from the beginning, was part of a conference held on how to spend the next 100 years developing starships. He gave an optimistic talk that the starships are coming. Daniel Kahneman explained probably one last time in public about the difference between fast and slow thinking. A fellow named Craig Childs has been examining the various ways that the world convulses, with ice ages and volcanic ages and so on. He goes to places in the world where it's like that now. All that again takes on the long-term. Ed Lu is from the B612 Foundation, where they are developing the technique to detect all potential harmful asteroids for Earth and go out and nudge them so that they don’t get the Earth. In other words, we will prove once and for all that we're smarter than dinosaurs. And so on it goes.

There's always an angle, and that angle can be drawn out. You do enough of this for a long enough time—we're only 20 years into it—keep it up for a few more hundred or thousand years, people will get used to long-term thinking. At least that's our hope.

Back in 1968 when I started the Whole Earth Catalog, I think the whole earth frame is one of the reasons it eventually took off and found an audience and made a difference for people. It was a direct product of the Apollo project, going to the moon. We got photographs of the Earth from space that reframed everything for people, and those Earth photographs basically gave us the "big here" that we occupy. So it seems consistent to me that what we're working on now you might call "the big now," "the long now."

That was the big frame of references in space, this is our big frame of reference in time. Signs are that when people go up a bit, go up a distance in altitude or in time from their daily decadal business cycle, political cycle and news cycle concerns, a certain comfort comes with that, certain optimism comes with that longer frame, and a certain sense of responsibility comes with that longer frame.

There's a feeling of possibility that emerges, we found, so there's no way that we can solve climate change in five year’s time, and people who focus on that just bear. But if you think about it as a 100 or 200-year problem, fitting into a 10,000-year time frame, that seems pretty workable. All you got to do is bear down year after year and decade after decade and do these various incremental things, aggregate the ones that work, they add up and you should get ahead of the problem. That goes for injustice, it goes for hunger, it goes for a lot of things. So the long-term is a problem-solving frame that is encouraging, because you don’t have to understand right now what it's going to take to fix something that seems intractable.

The question with any nonprofit is what's the business idea, what's the business model, if any? In reality those things emerge. I've been working on this for nearly 20 years now. I'm not paid. Danny Hillis, cofounder, is building our 10,000 Year Clock and he's not paid. We're happy to put our time into this thing, which is so rewarding, but obviously there's a lot of things that do cost. Over time we've fallen into something pretty close to what a lot of private libraries and private universities and so on fall into, which is about a third of the income comes from revenue, comes from individuals who get excited about particular things, you know, a chair or a building, a program, and that's the case here.

About a third comes from a gradually built endowment, which in our case came from Pierre and Pamela Omidyar early on. They put serious money into our eventual clock site in Nevada, and that functions partly as an endowment for us. We’d love to build that. And about a third comes, as it does for colleges from student tuitions, ours comes from this membership, which is encouraged by the SALT series speakers. They get free tickets once they're a $100 a year members. They get into the talks for free and they get very good video access for free and various other benefits.

Our brand new bar is the actual business model. This is The Interval in San Francisco, getting great critical reviews on Yelp and in the San Francisco Chronicle. It's the hippest bar in San Francisco. They’ve been using it to hang out, they're using it for events, they're using it for presentations, and we charge for drinks. They are some of the best drinks in the city, so we charge a pretty good price. If we do that, we get a 10,000-year bar going, we’ll be around for a while.

The conceit of the Long Now Foundation is that it, and any kind of service entity, might be around for thousands of years. And we take that as we're obligated to do that if we're building a 10,000 Year Clock, which we are in west Texas, thanks to Jeff Bezos. 

There needs to be something that tends to the clock over that long period of time. Institutions don’t usually last even half of a human lifetime, but some do. So one of the things we do is pay attention to the ones that do. Some religions do. We're really adamant to not be a religion because religions tend to get in fights, and if you get in a fight by and by you win until you lose, and then when you lose you're gone. So one of our guidelines is: Ally with competition, and by the way, don’t become a religion.

I think the fair question is, cults form, and the ones that last tend to come up with some kind of service, they come up with a breakfast cereal, some of them have done that, or they do ancillary bells or they do some other thing, which actually helps them with income and with respect and with carrying on. But they always act as if that's just ancillary to their deep spiritual religious message.

We distrust having a deep spiritual religious message, and so we prefer to come up with services that actually do have value over time, and all we are are those services. And so we will manage all the world’s languages in connection with each other. We have a new service called PanLex, which is in the process of making all the world languages translatable into each other. There may be 4000 documented languages before we're done. We've got the 10,000 Year Clock to maintain, which is a piece of immersive theater and land art, whatever you want to call it, that won't maintain itself, but should be appealing enough in its own right that just taking care of it can help keep us on it.

Bring the wooly mammoth back to life, which is what I'm engaged in right now. There's various de-extinction projects. That's at least a 200-year project to get the wooly mammoths back, to get them back in the herds, to get the herds back into the Arctic and the sub-Arctic so they can start turning tundra back into grassland, which is good for climate. That's not going to happen quickly. We're just bearing down on that service and having that be how people think about long now, that we're just an incubator for those kinds of projects.

That's way different than a religion, and so that can be worked around. Now it requires generation after generation of a certain kind of entrepreneurship, and we won't really know if that plays out until we've actually delivered it. But it's a discipline that hopefully can keep us busy and honest and creative. You have to keep delivering to stay in business. As a religion, you can just keep harkening back to something that happened some while back. We have the opposite perspective. We got to keep delivering new, good, valuable, rewarding services.

If you see on any government scale, it's not government, but if it’s government scale, there's stuff that the president of a country has to know, that is a unique point of convergence. Part of the responsibility of Larry Page CEO of Google is to know a whole bunch of stuff that broadens the frame of what he has to think about, and we want people with considerable skill and gravitas in those roles. And if you're a business and you don’t have that over a period of time, you could go out of business. But governments don’t go out of business. Governments have this other task. Anne Neuberger’s line was, "We are rewriting the social contract that citizens make with their government," and understanding, for example, privacy norms are in flux.

They are in flux with the private sector, with Google and Amazon and everybody, and they're in flux with the government. NSA, for example, is now deciding to apply the kinds of privacy protections they offer US citizens to users of the Internet all over the world. They don’t have to do that, but their sense of responsibility is requiring them to do that. And the transparency, that they did not ask for but got handed to them basically by the ability of Edward Snowden to use the Internet to tell a lot of their secrets, puts them in that position.

So this multidirectional transparency is in the process of discovering the norms that are going to be right for everybody in the long term, right for insecurity of the Internet and the infrastructure and right for people feeling like they have some say in who they are online basically, and rediscovering what we care about. My father was intensely private. He didn’t want anybody to know what he did with money. As a result, I did not know that he paid for my college education. I thought my mother did, which was a stupid misunderstanding to have in the family. Some of these things are getting a little more transparent, and maybe we all need to know what you're doing with your air conditioner.