Milliongenerations:Presentation 15 Jun 2011 at LongNow Brussels

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LongNow Brussels is a forum for fans of The Long Now Foundation and its efforts to promote long-term thinking. It meets monthly for a series of open-ended conversations, a group exploration of big ideas. On 15 June 02011, Trey invited Chris and Michael, contributors to milliongenerations, to discuss the ideas around milliongenerations at a meeting in Brussels for about 30 - 45 minutes, during which they should expect questions, and discussion afterwards. The meeting starts at 19:00 and runs about 2 hours.

What should they talk about? Discuss below:

Introduction - what is milliongenerations?

  • is a small effort to make lasting civilization more likely
  • based in Utrecht
  • started in 2008.
  • Foundation set up in 2009 for a limited period of 25 years
because this seems a critical period for the future of human civilization and
because if its approach has not had useful results it probably won't after that, either.

milliongenerations hosts a few efforts at the moment

  • an open source think tank around an unusual perspective that might be helpful
  • a guided research project
  • a poem without end
  • an effort to identify, collect and connect to similar thinking
  • an effort to give rights to possible future generations
  • a competition around the question how there can be most happiness, and an environment around such a competition

Let's introduce them, and first the thinking behind them.

Remember that the purpose of milliongenerations is not to promote milliongenerations nor any particular approach but to make it more likely that knowledge continues for the benefit of those that can possibly be alive.

A major purpose of meeting Long Now Brussels is to connect to like-minded people, get their views, perspectives and new ideas, especially feedback on milliongenerations' efforts an environment better suited to an open source think tank.

Motivation: why milliongenerations?

Good ancestors

  • Jonas Salk is now famous for the polio vaccine.
  • In the long run I think he will be remembered for something else
  • He thought the most important question we must ask ourselves is “Are we being good ancestors?” Given the rapidly changing discoveries and conditions of the times, this opens up a crucial conversation – just what will it take for our descendants to look back at our decisions today and judge us good ancestors?"

We all hope our children are happy and have a good life. And their children, too...

  • Conscious experience is a puzzle
  • it certainly seems a worthwhile use of energy.
  • While we enjoy it we can make it more or less likely that others can do so, too.

Resources and knowledge, predicting the future

Resources we use seem likely to become scarce, yet it is difficult to predict gains in knowledge and their effects.

Predicting the future of civilization is difficult, because we don't know what we will know some time in the future. But we can make sensible assumptions on conditions for life on this planet. Life seems to have been on this planet for about 3.5 billion years, multicellular life for about 1.5 billion years, and it has been resilient in face of amazing challenges. Physics suggest that the sun is going to provide a suitable environment for about 5 billion more years, so we should expect that life can continue for most of that time. Of course we can't know that. Things could happen that prevent that. But it seems rather unlikely that we'll have a black hole gobble us up or a passing star throwing us out of orbit or a supernova nearby blow us away or the creator of the universe could decide that it should end. So it is a useful assumption that life will be possible for a long time to come. So if someone wants to save the earth, I think it's fair to say "don't worry, the earth will stay."

Culture, civilization is usually understood to contrast differences between cultures. The perspective at milliongenerations looks at civilization from the point of individuals advancing and communicating their knowledge. That seems to have been going on on this planet in a noticeable way for only a few ten thousand years.

Knowledge seems beneficial, mainly because it allows more individuals to exist. Human population has grown 7 fold in the past 200 years, about 1% per year on a global scale. Resources have an influence, but they were there before industrializtion began. We rightly perceive population growth as threatening, it can not continue indefinitely. But let's face it, most of us wouldn't be here. I wouldn't trade existence, or rather the concsious experience of it, for anything else. So I have to consider it a good thing. I know it won't last, at least in this way, but I hope that others will continue to share it. So population is a good thing. Population is the goal, not the problem.

So knowledge is beneficial, and as it grows, things become ever easier, and a higher population can be sustained. And some, like the rational optimist Mark Ridley, argue that this process will never stop, it will solve all problems.

On the other hand all our traditions speak of an apocalypse of some sort or other. We've been warned of the imminent end of the world many times. As Trey noted, Danny Hillis conceived the clock of the Long Now to counter fears that the turn of the millenium would be the end of the world. Civilizations like the Maya's and Easter Islands have vanished with hardly a trace, killing most of their people and leaving the few survivors unable to read or do what their ancestors had done. Many people casually say that it's a good thing if the earth rids itself of humans. I don't think they realize the horrors that such a scenario would inflict on those alive. I find such statements amazingly cruel, careless, lacking any empathy. As we enjoy life, we can help to make it more likely that others can to. As Jörg Tremel has said, we can enable advancement.

Is everything going to be all right?

Maybe everything is going to be all right. But unless there are automatic mechanisms, that is unlikely. Threats like finite resources or conflict certainly exist. So as long as we don't know if automatic mechanisms are in place that ensure that everything is going to be all right, I think there's work to do.

Projects: what's going on?

The open source think tank

a collaborative slow thought movement?

Knowledge seems beneficial, so we should undertake everything within our control to increase the chances that useful knowledge remains available (and mitigate the threats posed by knowledge itself).

To this end it should be helpful to identify necessary conditions for lasting civilizations. Some of these can be deducted by assuming a desired outcome: lasting civilization. So simply assume that civilization still exists on this planet an astronomical timescale from now and then work backwards.

So milliongenerations hosts a discussion to try to deduct required conditions for lasting civilizations. It starts with the simple assumption that there still are conscious individuals on this planet exchanging information in, say, a billion years. The assumption should be simple to allow useful insights even when faced with rather big changes like a technological "singularity".

Civilization can be seen as the basis on which individuals exchange and learn information. So the assumption of lasting civilization can be reduced to that of the existence of individuals exchanging information, no assumptions on the specific nature need to be made. Obviously, the fewer assumptions are made, the more valid the conclusions will be.

To clarify with an old example. When you see a hungry man, they say, you can give him a fish. Or teach him to fish (exchange of information). More recently entrepreneurial solutions such as those proposed by the Unreasonable Institute - strive to implement ways so that all who are hungry get fishing poles. These are important, and many worthy efforts exist.

The assumption here is different. This is like assuming that a very long time from now there still is a man who can fish.

What can you deduct from that? From the assumption it is clear that the man knows how to fish. But also that there still are edible fish in the water. If you think about giving everyone fishing poles or nets or trawlers, these are not likely to come about together automatically. So we look for what is needed so that they will.

The perspective would seem to be helpful in answering questions like

  • How much did each generation/each year consume?
  • Where did the waste go to?
  • Which materials were used?
  • What was the average population growth?
  • What was the average economic growth?
  • Where does the energy come from?

Even if the perspective does not answer all relevant questions, knowing some conditions might help to implement them and leave more time to work out remaining questions.

It would seem useful to spread the perspective of our obligations to future generations and the idea that as knowledge grows future beings will know essentially everything about us. So that we will want to collaborate not only for others to benefit but because we care about our reputation.

Guided research project

Million Generations is about philosophy and awareness as much as it is about knowledge. To this end, we are developing a guided thesis discovery project for up to 5 Utrecht University graduate students who wish to take on a difficult--perhaps even nebulous--question, and translate it into empirical research that can help guide our way forward. Students will be given access to collaborative workspaces throughout the Netherlands, have facilitated group discussions every week to discuss their research and the philosophical questions that surround it, and will be given opportunities to meet with people and institutions that work on aspects of future generations and the longevity of human society.

The guided thesis projects will last for 4-5 months and will also include an optional opportunity for participating students to work together on a project that raises the level of thinking about future generations among local business leaders, civil society, and policy-makers.

The challenge here stems from what I'll call the "not my future child now" mentality, whereby young people hardly want to waste the present stressing about their potential future children, much less their ancestors 20, 100, 1000 generations down the road. In a sense this time scale is incomprehensible, even meaningless in a sense, in that there's no way to know which current actions will significantly affect the future. But there is an inherent value in more and more people considering future generations and related values when making decisions. Political and, to a greater extent, economic systems are responsive to the values and principles of their constituencies. Figuring out how to translate abstract philosophical valuation of future human generations and the harmonized existence of an intellectual society into current societal shifts is the aim of this research. Participating graduate students will investigate:

  • How the economy can work over long periods, why it needs to grow, and how it can grow without increasing material and energy consumption.
  • Which rights for future generations currently exist in varying forms, which rights should inherently exist for future generations, and how they can be formulated.
  • What governs population growth and carrying capacity? Which measures can work to uncouple the two?
  • How can measures of well-being win influence on our decisions from the longing for relative status?
  • How can people be encouraged to consider the long-term?
  • What kinds of technical and technological innovations can help us preserve knowledge and resources over the long term?

The program also offers a great opportunity for students to work in collaborative environments that hold similar values, meet critical thinkers and institutions working in this field, and work out some of the more difficult questions, both pragmatic and more abstract, in group discussions.

One example: Embodied Energy Calculator/System. Something that is already widespread for use in building and construction. What's better for the environment? Locally produced chicken or vegetables produced in Latin America? By how much? By what standard? How can we use such a system to help people make more informed consumption choices--to bypass varigated labels and other such signifiers.

poem without end

Milliongenerations:Stone clock project The stone clock project--or poem without end might be a better name--provides a visible representation of the long-term passage of time.

Rather than the clock of the Long Now this one requires constant human attention to function, and consists of a line of stones placed at a rate of one each week.

The plan, suggested by poet Ingmar Heytze, is that a guild of poets in Utrecht, the dichtergilde conceives a poem but keeps it secret. Only one letter is published per week by placing a stone with the letter on it in one of the streets in the city. The following week another stone with the next letter next to the previous one. The poem is published at a rate of about one sentence per three years. The guild will extend the poem before it is published. The idea is to place it in a central location, such as beginning in the center of Utrecht, with a new stone placed every week.

The project hopes to add to the collective consciousness an element of long-term thinking that has a compound effect moving forward. The curiosity instilled in the local people of Utrecht could likely compel more discussion based around long-term thinking, and as the project grows larger and larger over the years, so would the effect.

The project could be an entry for a competition that Trey proposed, and probably will tell you about soon.

an effort to identify, collect and connect to similar thinking


Rights of possible future generations

A Bill of Rights of Future Generations implore us to ask which rights we should guarantee future generations and how those rights should be weighed against current living beings. Natural rights have evolved over time, and it is logical to believe they will evolve further still as social norms, technology, and scarcity shift as time moves forward.

There have been various attempts to define these rights, but with little ability to guarantee them or to establish a punitive or regulatory framework to maintain them. A challenge worth taking on is for us to establish our own bill of rights that inspire our current generation to take the rights of future generations as seriously as we take our own rights. a competition around 'how can there be most happiness?' (or any other question)

The question 'how can there be most happiness?' and the assumptions that happiness requires existence and knowledge is useful started milliongenerations. At least for some, milliongenerations thus gleans a lot from utilitarian or consequentialist thought.

  • whether something is good or bad is determined by the results it causes
  • It would be nice if governments did what is likely beneficial for its citizens, and future citizens rather than what is determined by a fight for status and power. That will not be easy to change. Reputation in a prehistoric (and historic) human society would probably be selected for, happiness much less so.

...competition around a question and an environment around such a competition

Milliongenerations plans to organize a prize question asking submissions on the question "How can there be most happiness?". and Milliongenerations:How can there be most happiness?

The question hopes to encourage people to think and act in directions that will result in more happiness, old ideas and recent research might be presented in ways that make them useful and accessible and there is always a chance that new and useful ideas come up. Asking the question certainly also hopes to draw attention to ensuring the possibility for life of future generations and also to the benefit of judging actions by their consequences. A focus could be on individual happiness (on earth and/or in the hereafter), the benefits of awareness, or differences between status, happiness and other motivations. Some might debate comparability or ideal society and economy, and the rights of other and future beings. Any of these would have a chance to actually be beneficial.

The requirement of "most", and linking the prize to it, should open the view to whatever people come up with. Selection should be by reviewers instructed to rank randomly selected entries according to which they believe have more practical benefit. To create a shortlist for the prize, entrants would be required to name at least two unrelated reviewers who offer to review and rank several entries other than his/her own.

Entrants and Entries

  • The contest is open to everyone. Only one entry per author. Several authors can collaborate to produce one entry, but will have to share any prize or reward.
  • Entries must be received before the deadline by email to answer (at) or links to
  • Entries should have the form of short video's of ca. 1 - 2 minutes (rather than the text of 1,000 to 10,000 words suggested earlier). The video should be uploaded to youtube or vimeo and a link entered to compete. Video rather than academic text should make it easier for a broader range of people to participate. Mobile phones, camera's and computers with the ability to upload video are fairly widespread. Academics might have to acquire new skills to complete the task. To compete, video's obviously need to remain on the site and must not be changed after submission.
  • You must find at least three (not two) reviewers who agree to review at least three rounds with each at least ten entries (rather than two). Reviewers will not review yours.


All information on the effort can be found at - though site (and effort) could be much improved. This is an open source effort. Ideas are welcome.

A major purpose of meeting Long Now Brussels is to connect to like-minded people, get their views, perspectives and new ideas, especially feedback on milliongenerations' efforts an environment better suited to an open source think tank.

an environment better suited to an open source think tank

Milliongenerations:Environment for the contributions

might help to look in the direction of Cohere, Collaboratorium or Global Sensemaking