Sunday, January 2, 2011

New Year's Wisdom: Festina Lente-- The Long Now Foundation--The Planetary Skin Institute

Welcome to a new year, another revolution around the star that warms us, another 5.3 million intakes of breath, another 36.8 million heartbeats.

Another year to peer a little deeper into time itself, and into space, to gain another scrap--small but real and nourishing--of knowledge about ourselves and the world. (Whether we act wisely upon that hard-won knowledge is another matter altogether). At the hinge of the year, we might contemplate the wider "Now," try to imagine the arc of consequence beyond our most immediate heartbeats.

Pause to think about the words of computer scientist Daniel Hillis (born 1956):

"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 02000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 02000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium."

To realize this vision, Hillis (co-founder of Applied Minds Inc., a pioneer in massively parallel supercomputers) in 01996 co-founded The Long Now Foundation with creator of the Whole Earth Catalog Stewart Brand. I encourage you to click here for more on the "Long Now."

To act based on a knowledge of Deep Time, we need to see temporal effects from a new vantage point. Happily, well-resourced players are creating structures for us to do so. For instance, in 2009, Cisco and NASA formed the independent non-profit Planetary Skin Institute (PSI). The PSI states its mission this way:

"Two powerful trends are re-shaping the world as we know it. The first trend is resource scarcity, the result of demand growth (water, energy, food, land, etc) driven by growing populations with rising incomes and increasing constraints on the supply of these resources given environmental degradation, land use change, inherent variability of weather conditions and resource productivity, and the threat of climate change. The second trend is information abundance, driven by a massive increase in data and information processing capabilities, driven by new sensor networks and a host of emerging information and communication technologies.

The...PSI aims to address the challenge posed by the first trend with the opportunity presented by the second. In short, PSI aims to harness the power of information technology and networks to help decision-makers manage scarce resources and risks more effectively in a changing world>"

Click here for more on the PSI.

The Long Now Foundation and the Planetary Skin Institute embody truths known to humans from the beginning, and well stated in Classical Roman and Renaissance Italian terms as "festina lente," i.e., "make haste slowly." Roman emperors favored this adage, as later did the Medicis, Erasmus, Aldus Manutius, Shakespeare.

Festina lente: Aldus symbolized it as a dolphin and an anchor. The Romans visualized it as a crab and butterfly. I think a lobster and canary might also fit the description.

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