Thursday, October 10, 2019

Teaching The Long Now

I've been involved with The Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to fostering long-term thinking and responsibility, since 02006. Then a year into grad school for futures, I spent a memorable summer at the office in San Francisco, working on various initiatives including Long Bets, as well as a proposal put together with my friend Camron Assadi for something we called Long Shorts; short films about long-term thinking (an idea subsequently adopted at the Foundation as a way of introducing many of its monthly public lectures). I suggested what has since become a Long Now motto, Carpe Millennium. And at the end of that first stint, executive director Alexander Rose invited me to become the Foundation's first Fellow, an association that continued happily over two more summer residencies, and onward through almost a decade and a half to date, spanning many developments in the organisation and its projects, and periodic collaborations.

As it turns out though, this semester, Fall 02019, marks the first chance I've had, after more than ten years of teaching futures, to put together a class on the topic of long-term thinking more broadly. How does it work in different domains? How can we render it accessible and useful? What difference does or should it make to designers? While just a prototype seven-week 'mini', a half-semester course at Carnegie Mellon School of Design, the topic has sparked lots of interest among folks I've discussed it with, so for this post I'm sharing our syllabus (shorn of admin and school policy bits and with links added where possible), in case others may get something out of it.

A few points of context:

• This is my personal and maybe idiosyncratic take on things, rather than an official Long Now Foundation course, but I've made use of some of the rich material the organisation has amassed over the years. For example, we've been using Stewart Brand's version of 'pace layers' (see the diagram below) as a structuring and sequencing heuristic for the curriculum, starting at the longest and slowest register of nature, with a deep time walk spanning the 4.5 billion years of Earth's history, and proceeding upward through the layers of culture, governance and infrastructure, so that by the end we're dealing with the kinds of faster-moving concerns the students are accustomed to thinking about day to day: a lot of design seems to operate on a rapid temporality somewhere near the top. The idea behind this order is to use that exposure to the longer-term early on, to help de-familiarise the familiar short-term, and re-perceive the mundane everyday, by the end.

• I call the classes 'episodes' and the segments within them 'acts', a format idea borrowed from the brilliant long-running public radio series This American Life. Signposting classes this way turns out to make the time easier to plan and pace out, and more legible to students and guests, while also adding a dash of theatricality to typically prosaic matters of course structure and lesson planning. We kick off each episode punctually with a selected 'long short', an intellectual and creative appetiser of sorts, and also partly an encouragement to people to arrive on time, which is helpful when you're scheduled for an 8:30am start in the fall, with days getting shorter and mornings colder. Each week's long short is a surprise beforehand and is added into the syllabus afterwards for reference.

• A monthly series of seminars about long-term thinking (SALT), curated by Brand, has been running since 02003. By this point, the SALT talks represent a large collection of thought-provoking explorations; hundreds of lectures, freely available online, dealing with topics from linguistics and politics to space travel, philosophy and geology. At the start of the course I asked each participant to pick one to add to the syllabus. This touch of curricular co-creation helped tilt the content towards their interests, better than my guesses would, and incorporated deeper involvement by having them run a discussion or activity around their chosen talk. (We have the good fortune in this case to have an intimate class size of eight students, mostly grads, from across the university; some elements would be set up quite differently if the group were much larger.) In case you haven't come across the SALT series before, you might start with the same one that our class did; geologist Marcia Bjornerud's remarkable talk from July this year, Timefulness.


The Long Now
Thinking, Storytelling and Designing with Long Timespans

School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Instructor: Stuart Candy, Ph.D. (he/him)
Fall 02019 // Fridays 8:30–11:20am
Course no. 51819 // Graduate level // 6 units // Aug 30–Oct 11


“Civilizations with long nows look after things better. In those places you feel a very strong but flexible structure which is built to absorb shocks and in fact incorporate them.” –– Brian Eno

The Long Now is about what becomes possible when we engage with longer timespans. We will deal with experiential scenarios and time-based media to enable new perspectives on the anthropocene and beyond; drawing on diverse sources and views from history and foresight, geology, physics, cosmology, indigenous studies, and design – including the design of legal, political and economic systems. You'll never look at time the same way again.

Pace Layers by Stewart Brand (01999), The Clock of the Long Now, p. 37 | Diagram via.


This course takes inspiration from the work of the Long Now Foundation, a cultural organisation dedicated to fostering long-term thinking and responsibility, where the instructor, a professional futurist, has been affiliated for many years.

We examine territory seldom covered in other university courses due to the rarity of long-term thought in the wider culture, with the aim of offering intellectually adventurous students from diverse programs a set of interdisciplinary perspectives to challenge, deepen and enrich whatever else they may be doing.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this course students should be able to:
• See further: Engage with diverse temporalities and patterns of perception at different scales
• Travel more widely: Research, understand and synthesise insights from disparate disciplines
• Be critical: Make the present strange, discerning key ethical, philosophical and cultural dimensions of our era and society
• Be constructive: Use various media to convey and elicit longer-term perspectives

Course Overview and Schedule

Here is an outline of the arc of the course and topics covered week by week.

1. Welcome to the Long Now
2. A Walk Through Deep Time
3. Seven Generations in the Anthropocene
4. Stories and Timespans
5. Design for the Long Run
6. Living in a Material World
7. Creation Crit

There are seven classes in this course, with 3+ weekly reflections, one SALT-based presentation / activity (student selections marked ∆ below), and a final project per student. Guests will be joining us most weeks, from a range of disciplinary and organisational perspectives.

Episode 1: Welcome to the Long Now
Activity: Intro to course
Reading & Media before class: N/A
Long Shorts:
• American Museum of Natural History, Human Population Through Time
• Charles Eames and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten

Episode 2: A Walk Through Deep Time
Class-led presentations begin (25%)
Activity: Field trip –– bring water bottles, comfortable shoes, and a snack
Guest: Professor Mark Baskinger, CMU School of Design & MoonArk
Long Short:
• Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger, Das Rad / The Wheel
Reading & Media (**optional):
• Brand, The Clock of the Long Now [pdf book excerpt]
• Walker, The Art of Noticing [pdf book excerpt]
• Sterling, Pace Layering [pdf chapter]
• Bjornerud, Timefulness ∆ [online audio/video]
• Bjornerud, Timefulness** [pdf book excerpt]

Episode 3: Seven Generations in the Anthropocene
Activity: Field trip –– bring water bottles and comfortable shoes
Guest: Dr. Nicole Heller, Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Long Short:
• Claire L. Evans, The Evolution Of Life in 60 Seconds
Reading & Media:
• Matza & Heller, Anthropocene in a Jar [pdf chapter]
• Nixon, The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea [pdf chapter]
• Brannen, The Anthropocene is a Joke [online article]
• Davis, The Wayfinders ∆ [online audio/video]
• Pinker, A New Enlightenment ∆ [online audio/video]
Class-led presentations continue

Episode 4: Stories and Timespans
Final assignment launches (25%)
Guests: Acharya Adam Lobel, Point Park University; Michelle King, Learning Instigator
Long Shorts:
• Donolinio Studio, 100 Years in 10 Minutes
• Helixaeon Inc., Helix
Reading & Media:
• brown, Emergent Strategy [pdf book excerpt]
• Haraway, Staying With the Trouble [pdf book excerpt]
• Fallows, Civilization’s Infrastructure ∆ [online audio/video]
• Mahbubani, Has the West Lost It? Can Asia Save It? ∆ [online audio/video]
Activity: Meditations on the long now
Class-led presentations continue

Episode 5: Design for the Long Run
Guest: Professor Jo Guldi, Southern Methodist University, author of The History Manifesto
Long Shorts:
• Schich et al., Charting Culture
• Heal the Bay, The Majestic Plastic Bag
• Önduygu, The History of Philosophy [interactive web tool; explore in your own time]
Reading & Media:
• Brockman et al., Possible Minds ∆ [online audio/video]
• West, Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster ∆ [online audio/video]
• Guldi, The Designer’s Role [pdf]
• Guldi & Armitage, The History Manifesto [pdf book excerpt]
Activity: Co-creation in class
Class-led presentations continue

Episode 6: Living in a Material World
Guest: Professor Jonathan Chapman, CMU School of Design, author of Emotionally Durable Design
Long Shorts:
• Madsen, Into Eternity (Trailer)
• Kalina, Noah Takes a Photo of Himself Every Day for 12.5 Years
Reading & Media (**optional):
• 99% Invisible, Ten Thousand Years [podcast]
• Sandia National Laboratories, Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant** [pdf report]
• Christian, Algorithms to Live By ∆ [online audio/video]
• Chapman, Emotionally Durable Design [podcast]
• Powers, The Overstory [pdf book excerpt]
• Urban, Your Life in Weeks [blog post]
Activity: ‘Mattering’ workshop
Class-led presentations conclude

Episode 7: Creation Crit
Activity: Reviews of final project submissions

A few billion years into deep time with Mark Baskinger | Photo: Stuart Candy


25% Participation and engagement in class
25% Presentation and leading discussion
25% Weekly reflections (minimum three required; due the Monday after each class by 5pm)
25% Final project

Selected Bibliography

• Bjornerud, Marcia. (2018). Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
• Borrows, John (Kegedonce). (2010). Drawing out law: A spirit’s guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
• Boulding, Elise. (1990). Building a global civic culture: Education for an interdependent world. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
• Brand, Stewart. (1994). How buildings learn: What happens after they’re built. New York: Viking.
• Brand, Stewart. (1999). The clock of the long now: Time and responsibility. New York: Basic Books.
• Brannen, Peter. (2019, August 13). The Anthropocene is a Joke. The Atlantic.
• Brannen, Peter. (2019, October 11). What Made Me Reconsider the Anthropocene. The Atlantic.
• brown, adrienne maree. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.
• Carse, James. (1986). Finite and infinite games. New York: Free Press.
• Chapman, Jonathan (2015). Emotionally durable design: Objects, experiences and empathy (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
• Chatwin, Bruce. (1987). The songlines. New York: Viking.
• Collins, Jim and Jerry I. Porras. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: HarperBusiness.
• Cullinan, Cormac. (2011). Wild law: A manifesto for earth justice (2nd ed). White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.
• Delanda, Manuel. (1997). A thousand years of nonlinear history. New York: Zone Books.
• Escobar, Arturo. (2018). Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
• Ghosh, Amitav. (2016). The great derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable. Haryana, India: Penguin Books.
• Gleick, James. (1999). Faster: The acceleration of just about everything. New York: Pantheon Books.
• Global Business Network. (2003). Looking Forward To Learn: Future Scenarios For TestingDifferent Approaches To Managing Used Nuclear Fuel In Canada. NWMO Background Papers 8–5. Toronto: Nuclear Waste Management Organization.
• Griffiths, Jay. (1999). Pip pip: A sideways look at time. London: Flamingo.
• Guldi, Jo and David Armitage. (2014). The history manifesto. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
• Haraway, Donna. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
• Haskins, Caroline. (2019, May 6). AirPods Are a Tragedy. Vice.
• Hora, Stephen C., Detlof von Winterfeldt and Kathleen M. Trauth. (1991). Expert Judgment on Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Sandia Report SAND 90–3063. Albuquerque, NM: Sandia National Laboratories.
• Johnson, Steven. (2006, October 8). The Long Zoom. New York Times Magazine.
• Kohlstedt, Kurt. (2018, January 26). Beyond Biohazard: Why Danger Symbols Can’t Last Forever. 99% Invisible.
• Krznaric, Roman. (2019, March 19). Why We Need to Reinvent Democracy for the Long-term. BBC.
• Macleod, Joe (2017). Ends: Why we overlook endings for humans, products, services and digital. And why we shouldn’t.
• Manaugh, Geoff. (2019, April 18). Move Over, San Andreas: There’s an Ominous New Fault in Town. Wired.
• Matza, Tomas and Nicole Heller. (2018). Anthropocene in a jar. In: Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert S. Emmett (eds.). Future remains: A cabinet of curiosities for the anthropocene (pp. 21–28). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
• Morin, Edgar and Anne Brigitte Kern. (1999). Homeland Earth: A manifesto for the new millennium (trans. Sean M. Kelly and Roger LaPointe). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
• Morton, Timothy. (2019). You never know how the past will turn out. Journal of Futures Studies, 23(4): 97–100. doi: 10.6531/JFS.201906_23(4).0009
• Nixon, Rob. (2018). The anthropocene: The promise and pitfalls of an epochal idea. In: Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert S. Emmett (eds.). Future remains: A cabinet of curiosities for the anthropocene (pp. 1–18). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
• Ozeki, Ruth. (2013). A tale for the time being. Edinburgh: Canongate.
• Powers, Richard. (2018). The overstory: A novel. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
• Rao, Venkatesh. (2011). Tempo: Timing, tactics and strategy in narrative decision-making. Ribbonfarm, Inc.
• Sardar, Ziauddin (ed.). (1999). Rescuing all our futures: The future of futures studies. Westport, CT: Praeger.
• Spier, Fred. (2015) Big history and the future of humanity (2nd ed.). Chichester, England: Wiley Blackwell.
• Stapledon, Olaf. (1930). Last and first men. London: Methuen.
• Stephenson, Neal. (2008). Anathem. New York: William Morrow.
• Sterling, Bruce. (2014). Pace Layers. In: Susan Yelavich & Barbara Adams (eds.). Design as future-making (pp. 214–224). London: Bloomsbury.
• Tabet, Michelle. (2013, January 22). The scale of tomorrow: Architects as agents of change. ArchitectureAU.
• Trauth, Kathleen M., Stephen C. Hora, and Robert V. Guzowski. (1993). Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Sandia Report SAND 92–1382. Albuquerque, NM: Sandia National Laboratories.
• Walker, Rob. (2019). The art of noticing: 131 ways to spark creativity, find inspiration, and discover joy in the everyday. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Some Other Media and Resources

• Long Now Foundation, Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT) lecture series (audio and video)
• Godfrey Reggio, Koyaanisqatsi (documentary)
• Jonathan Blow, Braid (video game)
• Randall Munroe, xkcd (webcomic), various timelines
• Ben Robbins, Microscope (tabletop game)
• Lasse Lundin, A Trip Through Time Seen Through The Eyes of a Fir Tree (tabletop game)
• Thomas King, The Truth About Stories. The 2003 CBC Massey Lectures (audio)
• Situation Lab, The Thing From The Future (card game)
• Michael Madsen (dir.), Into Eternity: A Film for the Future (documentary)
• Ainscow, Rae, Woodward et al., Deep Time Walk (app)
• Brian Eno, The Microsoft Sound (composition): original; slowed 4000%; Q&A in SF Chronicle
• Dash Marshall, Very Slow Movie Player (video/design)


Much gratitude to my students, to our fabulous guest informants and colleagues, and to the Long Now Foundation for the inspiration.

Do get in touch with any questions, suggestions, or tales of experiments of your own that this may feed into.

Update 11oct19: Added to the bibliography Peter Brannen's piece published in the Atlantic today; revisiting and reconsidering his previous, sceptical discussion of the Anthropocene, maybe the most controversial reading covered in the class.

> Design is Storytelling (includes a kind of overview of a decade's teaching)
Bringing Futures to Stanford
> American Futures (SAIC project)
> Future Documentary (SAIC course)
> Guerrilla Futures (OCAD course)
> Adopt-a-vision (OCAD project)
> Killer Imps (RCA visit)
> Future-Jamming 101 (UH Manoa project)
Some . early . posts .  written . while . at . Long . Now (02006–08)

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