Episodes

Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz on the Long-term View

"Are there ways that we can pick our heads up from this one situation and look at the more general, more open space around, when this is going to happen again, and can we do things to attend to that?"

My guest today is Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, the director of development of the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, CA. The Foundation was created to foster long-term thinking, and in this conversation, Nick and I talk about how a broader time perspective can help us understand difficult times and lay the groundwork for a better future.

A note about context: We recorded this conversation in early March of 2020, before the coronavirus had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and a national emergency by the U.S. government. I’m certain our tone would’ve been more somber if we were talking about this subject closer to the date of publication. Still, I find that adopting a broader perspective helps me make more level-headed decisions, especially during difficult times. Finally, please heed the advice of medical experts and avoid social places like The Interval for the time being.

Listen to the full conversation

Show notes

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Read the full transcript

Jorge: So, Nick, welcome to the show.

Nicholas: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it, Jorge.

Jorge: So, for folks who might not be familiar with you, can you please introduce yourself?

Nicholas: Yeah. My name is Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, and I am the director of development of The Long Now Foundation, which is a nonprofit here in San Francisco, California, that is trying to help people think and practice long-term thinking. So, trying to get people to think on the order of the next and last 10,000 years. So, in today’s ever accelerating culture, we think that a counterbalancing force of the long view has really never been more important, and we’re exploring all the different ways that we can help people think on these longer timescales.

So, we have a variety of projects that range from a large monument scale clock, mechanical clock, being constructed and installed inside of a mountain in West Texas that we’ve been working on for the last 25 years, and it’s still under construction. It’ll probably open in my lifetime. Then we’ve got projects where we’re archiving human language and landing some of these archives on the moon, or on a comet. Two years ago, we landed an archive on comet 67 P. We’ve had a hand in the de-extinction of the wooly mammoth, and we have a long-term betting platform and an award-winning cocktail bar, a monthly lecture series, and a bunch of other things too.

So, we’re really trying everything we can to get the conversation steered in the direction of longer timescales, paying attention to the longer arcs of things.

Jorge: What is your role in the Foundation, specifically? What do you do there?

Nicholas: So, the Long Now Foundation has four directors right now, and I’m the Director of Development, which means, in the near-term, a lot of the work that I’m doing is handling a lot of the administration around fundraising and also working on a lot of community-building. And so, I’m really trying to find the people in the ideas that really matter for continuing a Long Now Foundation beyond this first 25 years and into the next generation as well, and kind of beyond that.

So kind of looking at what that next 25 years is going to need from an organization like the Long Now Foundation, who we should be hearing from, who we should be asking for their perspective and their ideas to come into the seminar series, but then just enter the community and have conversations with us at The Interval or elsewhere.

And then of course, again, in a small organization like the Long Now Foundation, you wear a lot of hats and so, as much as we have a big cultural footprint, the Long Now Foundation has something like eight full-time employees, some part-time employees, and a whole lot of volunteers. So, it’s pretty small organization. We do a lot of different things.

Jorge: You made a passing reference to The Interval, and I just wanted to clarify for folks who might not be familiar with it, it’s a fabulous bar that doubles as the headquarters of the Foundation. Or is it the other way?

Nicholas: I think the other way around. It was the headquarters, and then later on we realized that we could turn it into a gathering space and a public space for people to talk and think about the long-term. And then the cocktails showed up, and then talking about the long-term got even more interesting. And it’s been open as The Interval, which is an award-winning cocktail bar. You know, graces top-10 lists every year, and it’s been open since 2014.

Jorge: We are recording this at a time when there are lots of stories in the news that are urgent and critical. In particular, there’s the outbreak of the coronavirus that’s going on right now. And I went today to my local drugstore and I try to get hand sanitizer, and of course they were sold out. I’m telling the story because I’m thinking, in a time when we get so much information from our news sources that forces us to think kind of short-term, how does an organization like the Long Now encourage or help people make the bridge to thinking about something like a 10,000 year time span, which is well beyond the lifespan of any one human being?

Nicholas: Yeah. So, there’s a couple of different places we could take that question. I think on the one hand, you know, speaking specifically to something like this coronavirus epidemic that we’re in the middle of, I think when you think multi-generationally about something like this, you start thinking about institutional development and how can we build and steward institutions that could serve us well for these kinds of circumstances in the future.

So, in America we have institutions like the CDC. We have things like the WHO. These organizations that have been set up for situations like this. And I think that’s kind of the Long Now play on something like the immediacy of this particular moment is, what can we do to make sure things like this epidemic aren’t isolated incidents?

We should expect lots more of this in the next 10,000 years, and addressing something at that scale isn’t going to be the kind of thing that we’re going to be able to do inside of one human lifetime. The odds of Elon Musk coming along and just solving epidemics for us, so we never have to worry about it ever again, it’s pretty slim. It’s much more likely that this is an ongoing perennial issue that human beings deal with and have to face.

And so, the question is, sure, we can go and clean the local bodega out of hand sanitizer and that might solve the problem today. But that’s addressing a certain symptom of a larger issue, which is, do we have the institutions, the infrastructure, that will allow us to weather these kinds of things as they come along? Which they will, you know. Again, this isn’t going to be the last epidemic that we face. Probably not the last epidemic we face even in my lifetime, right? So, are there ways that we can pick our heads up from this one situation and look at the more general, more open space around, when this is going to happen again, and can we do things to attend to that?

So, in a certain sense, this is always a long-term thinking has been about. You know, it’s been saving some of your corn for seed corn. And the whole idea of agriculture and civilization is built on this idea of doing things for tomorrow, making sure that tomorrow, things are a little bit better than they are today. So, we feel unprepared in this moment. If a lot of the news is around our lack of resources, lack of infrastructure, lack of ability to handle something like this, that can be both a reason to panic and get more focused on the now and go stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer and canned beans, and it’s also a moment to reflect on, “Okay, what are we doing right now and how do we be allocate resources in a way that means that we’re not in this position, or maybe our children aren’t in the same position? How can we do this a little better next time?”

Jorge: So what I’m hearing you say there is that there is a kind of near-term need for us to address the problem as it’s coming to us, but even as we do that, we’re on the hook to build the institutions and governance processes that will help address those needs in the long-term, knowing that they’re coming down the pipeline. Is that right?

Nicholas: Yeah. It’s like a mixed strategy, right? You don’t have to 100% be concerned about today or 100% be concerned about the next 10,000 years. But there’s almost like… You can think of it as, there’s a tithing opportunity to take some small fraction of your attention and apply it to the long-term. And I think if you’re constantly taking some part of your attention and you’re focused on things beyond your lifetime, then these things will come together in a way that they aren’t right now.

Jorge: We’re discussing about the effect of something like the coronavirus. And we learn about things like that through the news, which has all the incentives in place to have a very kind of near-term focus. And even, even in my lifetime, I’ve seen things like the cable networks come up, where they’re incentivized to keep us tuned in. So, there’s constantly a need to bring stuff to our attention. Right? And it has this flattening effect, where everything becomes… There’s a growing degree of urgency to pretty much everything.

And it’s not to diminish the importance of this virus, but my sense is that so much of how I learn about what’s going on in the world happens through this medium that is incentivized to focus more on the short-term than on that longer-term perspective. And I’m wondering if there are ways for us to become more long-term infovores, if there’s such a thing.

Nicholas: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think that’s kind of a role that’s not… Like you said, the news is really incentivized to be addressing things in the here and now, but there’s always a context around every news story, right? And then really good journalistic outlets help supply that for people, right? People that aren’t familiar with the history of epidemics and the history of these institutions, or even the history of things like the coronavirus. There’s always really good reporting that provides more of the broad narrative around it.

And so, I think for us, the larger infovore thing ends up looking like kind of a self-education for people actually seeking out. You know, they’re doing their own research, reading books on these topics, that’s usually not going to be provided by the news. So, it’s kind of like an educational piece. And of course, some people understand how to do research and know where to go, looking for good information on these kinds of things that’ll help round out their narrative, and I think for other people, they need more guidance, they could use more help. And I think the news, when it’s doing what it does best, it’s informing those people who aren’t otherwise going to go hit the library or go hit a bunch of medical journals to do their own research and homework, that’s going to kind of help provide that information to them.

Jorge: I’m wondering if there are any sources for such information… Are there any that you find useful to broaden your time perspective when looking at a story like this one.

Nicholas: With coronavirus, I don’t know. I mean, I’m certainly far from being an expert in the area, and because I’m so un-expert at this area, I really just relied on other people to kind of digest and provide me with information. I’m really lucky in San Francisco, I’ve got a really great group of really smart people who know their stuff in this department that have been amazing to talk with and discuss for this kind of stuff.

So, I have more of a social library of humans that I lean on for things like this, like coronavirus. I’m going to get a lot of my information from folks who are experts in this space. For me, you know, another kind of contemporary topic that I can provide a better answer for, is when we, in the beginning of January, when the U.S. and Iran had all that tension around Soleimani.

For me, that was an impetus for me to finally pick up Herodotus, which for anybody who’s not familiar with what the impetus for that piece of literature was, it was basically to figure out the origins of the tensions between the Persian empire in the West. Right? So, this kind of tension that was flaring up in the news in January, 2020 is going back thousands of years. Right?

And even in Herodotus’s day, you know, he was one, two generations after the people that fought in the Greco-Persian Wars. And he was talking with these folks who were kind of like our grandparents’ age, you know, they were kind of sunsetting their lifetimes, and had direct experience in some of those ancient, legendary battles.

And he was trying to just understand exactly where this tension began. And so, I kind of took that as an excuse for, “Okay, I could spend a bunch of hours listening to NPR and going and doing my own homework on this contemporary idea, but the roots of this thing go back so far, and there’s this text that’s been around for thousands of years, Herodotus’s Histories. It’s a great time to pick it up and check it out.

And so, I enrolled in an online class on Herodotus and picked up a copy of The Landmark Herodotus, which is the copy I recommend anybody check out. And you know, that’s, I think, one way to compliment the immediate narrative in the news with something that goes back a little further. These things generally don’t come out of nowhere. There’s a history and a context, and if you know what to suss out, where to seek it out, you know, it’s out there.

Jorge: What did you learn from Herodotus about our current moment?

Nicholas: That basically nobody knows who started it. Like even going back there, the Greeks thought the Persians kicked it off by stealing a woman, carrying her across a large body of water. And the Persians thought the same about the Greeks, and they couldn’t get a straight story as he traveled around the three continents at the time, right. Which was a Europe, Asia, and Libya. As he traveled around those three continents and talked to people, these were the two competing stories. And even back then, there was this fake news concept of, “No, the other person’s, the other out-group’s narrative is just, kind of a disingenuous framing of the actual truth.”

And so, people were either, you know, they were competing on narratives back then. It just seems like it’s one of those things that’s just been around forever, this tension. And it’s always been this other-izing thing, and it usually explodes into these very violent battles. People end up dying, and the common people sitting on the sidelines kind of get screwed.

Jorge: Sounds recognizable, right? Like that pattern still plays out.

Nicholas: Yeah. It’s amazing what doesn’t change across thousands of years.

Jorge: You know, one thing that you’re making me think of by talking about Herodotus is this idea that books that have stood the test of time have stood the test of time because they say something that speaks to people across generations.

Nicholas: Hmm, in an unbroken line.

Jorge: In an unbroken line, right? Like, Herodotus has been read kind of continuously since it was written, which is like 400 and something before the common era, right?

Nicholas: Hmm.

Jorge: So that means that there must be some kind of insights, or it must speak to the human condition in a way that manages to remain relevant, even when more superficial things change over time. First of all, I want to kind of bounce that idea off you and just reflected whether the longevity of a text is somehow a testament to its usefulness.

Nicholas: Okay. Yeah, I do think it is. I think what’s interesting, given the context of this conversation that you and I are having, it’s kind of framed around information, right? And information theory is like… There’s a temptation for us moderns to think of the texts like Herodotus’s Histories as maybe having better, higher quality information. That somehow it’s a container with some really good stuff in it.

And that’s both sort of true and I think possibly not the whole or the most important truth about these kinds of books. I think spending, you know, God, what, probably a dozen or two dozen hours with a book like Herodotus’s Histories, it puts like training wheels on your perception, and helps you start seeing the world in a very particular way. You kind of step into Herodotus’s shoes and step into his perspective on things, you know, from the time that he’s in and you’re taking up his mission as your own, as you kind of follow him along, as he’s kind of trying to figure this thing out and trying to describe the world to you.

And so, what it does is it trains you to see the world in a particular way, and that perception is valuable. I think once you experience what it’s like to see the world that way, you realize, “Oh, this is really awesome. We can’t let this thing disappear.” You know? So people pick it up and decide to translate it, or they decide to teach a course on it, or they decide to do a new version of it with maps and additional things, or, you know, or just like me, they read it and then they talk to their friends about it and suggest that other people find the time to finally get around to this really awesome text.

And so, I think it’s a perceptive thing. It’s less that it’s going to give you some kind of life hack that’s going to change things for you. You know, it’s not cheat codes for living in 2020, but what it is, is a very unique perspective that if you take the time to put it on, you can kind of start to adopt. And now you have this other perspective available to you to look at things. Now you can go back to the news, you go back to NPR, you go back to whatever your news source is, and now you see it with a new set of eyes, ones that are informed by this person who is trying to help you see something thousands of years ago.

And that’s a bit of a trip. And I think for me it provides more context, it helps me care more about different things that I hear. So, my filters are a little bit different. And I think overall it just means I’m more nutritively digesting the information that’s coming to me from 2020. You know, you hear about like certain nutrients are more bioavailable than others, right? You can be eating the same thing, but the bioavailability is going to limit what you’re actually able to do with it. And I think things like Herodotus makes certain information bioavailable, if I can press that metaphor that far, you know. You can get more out of it.

Jorge: In hearing you describe this, I’m imagining it as a sort of virtual reality experience where you’re getting to inhabit the mind of somebody, obviously a very smart person, from that culture and time. It’s kind of an invitation to inhabit their mind for a little while. And as with some virtual reality experiences, you come out the other end somehow transformed.

Nicholas: Yeah. I think literature of this type is totally the first virtual reality experience, right? That’s why storytelling is so captivating. You know, you get to inhabit a whole other world. You get to have other friends. You know, I don’t know if you’ve ever felt sad closing a book of fiction because you’re, you’ve kind of had your last conversation with these characters, you know? But that’s a real feeling that I think the people that read a lot are familiar with.

Jorge: Are there any other books you can point us to that have had that effect, especially as they help us navigate and understand the current moment?

Nicholas: Yeah. One in particular was a project that I undertook last winter, was reading Plato’s Republic and looking for various blockchain projects. So, all these different governance models were coming out. This is like in the heat of the blockchain stuff. And everybody who I was talking to had a different idea for how to just basically govern a commons, govern a resource pool. “Here’s how we’re going to do it. This is why it’s novel. This is why what we’re doing is different than everybody else. And here’s why it’s better.”

And I was rereading Republic, and on almost every page there’s some stab at how you would do governance. And then of course, the arguments forward against it and all that stuff. And I think it would just be very instructive if a lot of the folks working on these governance problems would go back to the classical literature on some of these topics about governing the commons. You know, there’s been a lot of thought on it, which is, I think, for us moderns, we’re always tempted to think that everything that came before science is somehow outdated or it’s been superseded or supplanted by new modern thinking. And of course, in some areas that’s totally true, right? You don’t need to go read a book on how people are suffering from unbalanced humors or something. You know, if you’re a medical student, you don’t need to go back there for that particular model of how the body works.

But there’s so much rich thought. And these are people that weren’t distracted by Facebook notifications, they weren’t distracted by billboards or the football game on at the restaurant. These are people that had unbroken large swaths of time to do nothing but think, nothing but meditate, nothing but walk, nothing but ponder. And you know, obviously most of them are written by economically independent people who were not working day jobs either. So, you’ve got texts that were written by people who had more focused time to think about these topics, than you and I will ever have in our lifetime.

And just because they didn’t have, say, the scientific method in the form that we recognize it now, or they didn’t have electricity or something, doesn’t mean that the thoughts they were thinking on things like governance, philosophy, politics more broadly, it doesn’t mean that those thoughts are not useful or outdated or outmoded. A lot of it can be really, really instructive and interesting.

And then the challenge is, of course, to grapple with it, right? It’s both relevant and informative and probably in some places totally outdated and needs to be updated. That’s our challenge, right? Us people here in 2020, we’re supposed to read these things and then engage in that conversation if we have something interesting to say to Herodotus or Plato.

Jorge: I’m trying to place myself in the position of a listener who maybe is busy with work and they have family duties and they want some entertainment in their lives. So, they might want to watch some TV or go to the movies. And reading something like Herodotus — which, by the way, I need to say, I read Herodotus some years ago, so I’ve gone through this experience — and it took a while. It’s not a text that you dive into casually. It’s kind of a project.

And I’m wondering how these texts that have stood the test of time, as we were saying earlier, how they can be made more palatable, or how this experience that you’re describing can be raised to the level of importance that would merit somebody spending the sort of time that it takes and the effort that it takes to go through one of them.

Nicholas: Well, I think this is the role of these intermediaries: teachers, translators, people that are editing new texts or new works around these things. For me, my Virgil through the entire Herodotus experience is a woman named Elizabeth Vandiver, who taught for the Great Courses series, and she does a Great Courses course on Herodotus. I think it was 12 hours of lectures on the text going section by section and walking you through exactly what you should be paying attention to and what seems peripheral but isn’t. So, you need to pay attention to what’s peripheral in his peripheral. And she kind of walks you and guides you through it.

And then the copy of the book that I purchased, The Landmark Herodotus, is appended with a bunch of maps, other diagrams, and other things to help you understand what’s going on. So, these intermediaries have done the hard work of digesting just the raw textual work in the original language, they pulled it into language that you and I speak. And in the case of Elizabeth Vandiver, she’s rhetorically presenting it in front of a class, in a lecture format, which is useful for some people. You don’t even need to have a copy of the book; you can just enjoy this lecture on this book.

And then when you have some big Landmark copy, you can go through and look at the maps and you can trace his routes through Egypt and get a sense for exactly what’s going on. So, if you’re more of a visual learner, or if you’re somebody who just kind of gets lost in all this conversation about where he’s going or something, or all these different, you know… The accounting of all the different battleships or something. This just loses you and you can see it in a different way.

And so, I think that’s the role again of the people having the conversation with these ancient authors in modernity is like, “Okay, what is needed to make this nutritive and helpful and useful and pertinent to people today?” This is what I wish our news would do a little bit more of. It would be nice if there was somebody from a humanities department in a college somewhere commenting on things like when we’re in conflict with Iran, talking about the longer arc of conflicts with just kind of providing more… I don’t know. I guess more of like an umbrella of context so that people can understand where, where this fits in the larger story, right? So, it’s all about this moment, but in the broader context is really kind of the idea there.

You know, I think when journalism is being done really well, they’re doing that, right? They’re walking you through the context, letting you orient yourself in the larger story. But of course, nowadays, you get 140 characters, you get a quick update on your commute or something, you know, a ten second spot. So, it’s harder now.

 Jorge: One that I can think of that I had a really good experience with –and it’s just a different take on this idea — was an audiobook of The Odyssey read by sir Ian McKellen. And because Ian McKellen is a classically trained actor, he really made that text come alive. Right? I sometimes feel a little guilty about listening to books, but in this case, you know, those texts were originally spoken. So, I felt like it was, in some ways, almost more authentic than reading the actual text in a page.

Nicholas: Yeah. An orally transmitted text on audiobook is just the appropriate format. I can see that.

Jorge: And I also wanted to mention this, I had a very similar experience to what you’re describing with Herodotus, with the Divine Comedy. We live in a wonderful time when you can do things like look at videos of entire semester’s worth of university-level classes taught by some of the world’s best instructors on these things. And I read that book while following along a set of university lectures taught by someone who was an expert on Dante. And it really made the text come alive for me and it brought home the relevance of some of the things that I was reading. I just suspect that it’s not something that a lot of people are up to, the challenge of investing 30-something hours to go through a university-level course when, there’s Game of Thrones beckoning or whatever it is that is on TV at the moment.

Nicholas: I think in a day and age in which you could rely on other people to do this work for you, and you could just specialize and offload any responsibility you would ever have to read and understand Herodotus or Plato to somebody else. Right? This is somebody else’s job. I think in a day and age when that was the case…

You know, and think about it, we’ve had thousand-year swaths of time where that was the clergy who were worried about scholasticism and reading books and philosophy and history. But if you’re a butcher, baker, candlestick maker, this isn’t something you need to sweat. You know what I mean? But you also couldn’t rely on the butcher, baker, candlestick maker, the citizen in a democracy, like in the same way, right? Where their opinions are being relied upon and where they’re basically appointing someone. So, we end up in a certain situation where in modernity, we say things like, “Oh, well what about somebody who doesn’t have the time for this stuff?”

And it’s like, well, that’s kind of the argument is you kind of need … You do need to have time, in the same sense that we don’t have time to maintain our infrastructure. We don’t have time to think long-term. It’s like, well, of course we have time. We all have time for things. You and I were talking before we started this conversation about just how do we get done what we get done in this lifetime? And it’s like, yeah, you have to keep a really sharp hatchet, on one end. And you have to be really careful with your time and intentional with it. And if you do those things, you can get massive quantities of work done, but you just need to think about it. You need to be conscious about it.

And I think the argument for people being more conscious of what they’re doing is like the enlightenment argument, right? This has been an argument for hundreds of years is, things will be better if you dare to reason, if you think for yourself, if you know yourself, you know, these are older, older arguments for people being responsible for their own minds, their own ability to understand the world they’re living in.

So, yeah, I guess I have some sympathies for the people who are working lots of jobs and stuff, but that’s where audiobooks are amazing. Because if you’re driving, or if you have a commute, there’s always interesting hacks and ways of getting this stuff in.

Not to say that everybody’s has just as easy of a time with it, you know. Some people are going to suffer and struggle more, but I think it’s the thing that culture can emphasize the importance terms of it, because we are in this golden age where we have access to so much, it’s so cool. And if you know it, it’s like you have this crazy superpower. You can go onto YouTube and learn how to repair anything in your house. If something breaks, it’s like, go on to YouTube, somebody else probably broke it, probably figured out how to fix it for like a dollar, you don’t have to throw this thing away. It’s like, that’s amazing. We have an entire. Informational infrastructure, like there’s a rhizome of things out there. It’s like it’s just there. It’s free. You just open it up. But it takes, it takes time and it takes attention, and that’s the scarce resource for a lot of people.

Jorge: That strikes me as a great place to wrap up the conversation. So, Nick, where can folks follow up with you?

Nicholas: I think the best place to follow up with me is probably just through the Long Now Foundation’s website, which is longnow.org. I’m on there, if anybody wants to contact me, you can find all my contact info there as well. But then there’s some more information about our organization and our projects and our public space, The Interval, in San Francisco, if anybody wants to come by for a drink.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you so much for what I’m parsing as an invitation to broaden our time perspective.

Nicholas: Thanks so much, Jorge. I appreciate you having me on the show.