Skillful Perception at the Scale of Civilization

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Skillful Perception at the Scale of Civilization

Civilization-scale challenges call for civilization-scale perception. Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz

Photo by Jack B

Author: Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz

Civilization-scale challenges call for civilization-scale perception. Such vision is rare, but perhaps it need not be. Perhaps there is a contemplative practice through which a person might develop such vision over time. And perhaps we can establish the necessary symbols and communities for such a practice to flourish. This is the implicit hope motivating many century- and millennium-scale projects. Can we transform our default perception of time? As the writer Stewart Brand phrased it: “The trick is learning how to treat the last ten thousand years as if it were last week, and the next ten thousand as if it were next week. Such tricks confer advantage.”[1]

Many long-term projects I’ve encountered, however, do not explicate their hope in these terms. And yet they should, for reasons I’ll disclose in the following pages. Human beings have attempted to transform their perception by means of deliberate practice for thousands of years—a movement adumbrated by the Greek term askēsis.[2] The specific transformative practice I have in mind here is something called “long-term thinking,” a difficult-to-define concept we will analyze in the first part of this essay. As I’ll demonstrate, interpreting long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis yields a more accurate and complete understanding of multigenerational undertakings.

The philosophical completeness of the supporting narrative behind long-term projects matters to me personally because I’m the Director of Development at The Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit in San Francisco that was founded in 01996 to “foster long-term thinking.”[3] Our inaugural project—still underway nearly 25 years later—is a massive mechanical clock, housed deep inside a mountain, designed to keep accurate time for the next 10,000 years. It offers, among other things, an enduring symbol of our personal connection to the distant future. This and all our other projects hope to help humanity think long-term, but how do they do that? And what does that even mean, really? These are philosophical questions, addressed to a philosophical audience, but the answers we uncover here will shape the stories we are able to tell more broadly.

I’ll begin this essay by dissecting the semantic problematic of “long-term thinking”—a phrase which has come to mean so much that it hardly means anything, unless we get surgically precise with our intention. For this essay, I want our attention laser-focused on the thinking aspect of long-term thinking. Only then can we meaningfully ask what the benefits of such thinking might be. This is a tough question to answer, but we will be helped along by that satisfying Greek word askēsis.

Askēsis encircles a variety of transformative disciplines like fasting, meditation, art-making, and athletics.[4] It’s also the word from which we derive contemporary terms like ascetic and exercise.[5] A full discussion of askēsis is beyond the scope of this essay, but I encourage interested parties to read Adam Robbert’s short overview, Modes of Askesis[6] for a thorough exploration of the topic. Within it lie the raw materials for an interpretive lens through which many practices aimed at shaping the practitioner in ways which give rise to changes in perception can be usefully construed as a mode of askēsis.

And so I argue we should strive to see long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis because I believe that such a reading will enrich our understanding of the whole ecology of impact presented by long-term projects—aspects of which are directed toward distant generations and distant worlds, but other, more implicit aspects of which are undoubtedly transforming ourselves and our world, right here and now.

The final section of this essay will unpack a few of the real-world consequences to such an interpretation. For one, seeing long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis opens up a fresh dialogue about the proper objective assessment of long-term projects, a perennial challenge for grantmakers. It also answers some common critiques increasingly faced by these projects, and it places renewed emphasis on discursive plurality. All of these have significant implications for the foundational theory of change underlying long-term projects, and ultimately, their case for their support.

But before we can get there, we need to get clear about a core concept.

What Is Long-Term Thinking?

Is it thinking about the future? About the past? Both? Is it keeping the long-term in mind? Is it acting for the future? Being mindful of the future? Is it planning for the future? Designing for the future? Preparing for the future? Is it all of these things, all at once? Does it matter? Is this pedantry?

In some sense, it is all of these things. Ultimately, I suppose long-term thinking means whatever a community wants it to mean. And as a proud member of a relevant community of self-selected “long-term thinkers” (member #7495, in fact[7]), I like to think that I know what I mean when I say long-term thinking, but so do lots of other people I talk with, and sometimes we disagree. We tend to agree about what counts as long-term—anything longer than a news cycle is nice, and anything longer than a generation is really starting to get there—but opinions often diverge on the appropriate role and value of thinking.

That’s probably because our organization is mostly known for ambitious feats of doing. As I mentioned earlier, our first project, still underway, is a massive mechanical clock designed to keep accurate time for 10,000 years from deep inside a mountain.[8] Another project of ours created a long-term archive for more than a thousand languages and then placed one onto a comet for safekeeping (there’s a copy on the moon now, too).[9] We run an online betting platform for long-term wagers[10] and a popular monthly lecture series in San Francisco.[11] We’ve had our hands in the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth.[12] Our office doubles as an award-winning cocktail bar.[13] And there’s more.[14]

We keep busy.

All of this doing hopes, explicitly, to foster more long-term thinking. And perhaps just reading about these projects has got you pondering more expansive timescales right now. If so, it’s all working as planned. Each of these projects participates in a virtuous cycle wherein long-term doing inspires long-term thinking (which then inspires more long term doing, which then inspires more long-term thinking) with thought and action in dynamic interplay like alternating engine strokes.

But here we should reflect on these two concepts for a moment to realize how philosophically distinct they really are. Acting long-term—like planting a tree whose shade you will never sit in—strikes me as a subspecies of altruistic behavior, wise action taken with selfless concern for the well-being of others—specifically others in the future. Thinking long-term, on the other hand, feels more like contemplating timescales that transcend the everyday and the human. Such thinking is often occasioned by an encounter with ancient monuments, writings from antiquity, galactic expanses, multigenerational projects, plate tectonics, forest migration, cathedrals, climate change, or bristlecone pine trees.[15]

Despite the obvious chasm between thought and action, I regularly see these two concepts casually conflated. Most people I know would comfortably refer to the earlier example of “planting a tree whose shade you will never sit in” as a fine example of long-term thinking. But if we decline to establish an explicit distinction between thought and action in this context, the unique contributions of long-term thinking qua thinking will continue to elude us whenever we seek to communicate, explicitly, the benefits of fostering more long-term thinking.

Articulating the practical contribution of thinking is difficult, though. The practical case for long-term doing is, in many cases, clear enough—Who doesn’t see the upshot of acting altruistically toward the future?—but what could the benefits of long-term thinking even be? What are the practical benefits of any thinking, any contemplation, any philosophizing? A quotation from the 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger comes to mind.

It is absolutely correct and proper to say that “You can’t do anything with philosophy.” It is only wrong to suppose that this is the last word on philosophy. For the rejoinder imposes itself: granted that we cannot do anything with philosophy, might not philosophy, if we concern ourselves with it, do something with us? So much for what philosophy is not.[16]

Heidegger says of philosophy what I might say about long-term thinking: That perhaps our traditional way of looking at things has us looking in the wrong place. We want to search for the benefits of long-term thinking where we often find the benefits of long-term acting—over there, in the distant future—but the effects of long-term thinking might ultimately be found within us, in the here and now.

If that’s the case, we might find the philosophical discourse surrounding other contemplative practices aimed at self-transformation useful for a deeper understanding of what is called long-term thinking.

The Perceptual Transformations of Askēsis

While there are certainly many ways to go about answering the question, “What does long-term thinking qua thinking even do?” I’m introducing the unfamiliar language of askēsis because it can help us understand a central aspiration shared by many projects working at vast timescales—the desire to change the way we see the world.

Heidegger hinted at this line of approach with his suggestion that an inquiry into the effects of philosophizing should orient itself toward the individual. Following his lead, I’ll suggest that the key to seeing long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis is to notice how the thinking aspect of long-term thinking uniquely effects the individual and their perception. While the action-oriented strands of long-term thinking clearly lead to a desirable outcome “out there,” in the distant future, long-term thinking qua thinking seems to drive an effect “in here,” in the perceptual transformation experienced by an individual engaged in this type of thinking. The goal of such an engagement, as we will see, is a different way of seeing, a different way of being. And for thousands of years now, this sort of transformative practice has been associated with the Greek term askēsis.

The Modes of Askēsis text,[17] which I mentioned earlier, discusses how the general structure of askēsis shares a family resemblance with many different practices which aim to shape the practitioner in ways that give rise to valuable changes in perception. Everything from sitting meditation[18] to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu[19] to philosophy itself can be read as a mode of askēsis—the last of which (philosophy as a mode of askēsis, philosophy as a way of life) was an interpretive undertaking of the French philosopher and historian Pierre Hadot (01922—02010), a major figure in the literature of askēsis.

Hadot reminds us that, “Since ancient times, there have existed exercises by means of which philosophers have tried to transform their perception of the world.”[20] These exercises were originally understood to be spiritual in nature, and were practiced widely in antiquity, from the philosophical schools of ancient Athens to the monastic communities of early Christianity.[21] A brief list of such spiritual exercises would include: “research (zetesis), thorough investigation (skepsis), reading (anagnosis), listening (akroasis), attention (prosoche), self-mastery (enkrateia), and indifference to indifferent things.”[22] Hadot offers a clarification of the word “spiritual” in this context, saying that “The word ‘spiritual’ reveals the true dimensions of these exercises. By means of them, the individual raises himself up to the life of the objective Spirit; that is to say, he re-places himself within the perspective of the Whole.”[23]

An attentive reader can surely see the parallels between this perspectival transformation and the one aimed at by the practice of long-term thinking—especially the one offered by The Long Now Foundation with our eponymous notion of the long now. That phrase refers to a 20,000-year period centered around this present moment, ten millennia on either side.[24] It was coined by Brian Eno as the temporal corollary to his other, spatial, coinage, the big here. Not the here of this room, but the big here of this planet. Not the now of this conversation, but the long now of civilization itself. “That is to say, he re-places himself within the perspective of the Whole.”[25] It doesn’t always seem like we’re participating in an ancient spiritual practice, but we seem to be traversing a similar pathway in a few illuminating respects.

Practitioners in antiquity undertook these exercises as a route to self-transformation. Hadot writes that “such a transformation of vision is not easy, and it is precisely here that spiritual exercises come in. Little by little, they make possible the indispensable metamorphosis of our inner self.”[26] The goal of these exercises has been to cultivate a new way of being-in-the-world. This differs from the standard modern interpretation of something like research, reading, investigation, and so on, which tends to see the upshot of these practices as an increase in our sum total of knowledge or information or order. Hadot glances away from such a reading when he claims that “real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us ‘be’ in a different way.”[27]

Both ancient and modern interpretations of the concept of practice see in it the possibility to effect significant changes over time, but modern readings tend to focus on a difference in degree—more or less of something in the world, like more knowledge or more experience—whereas deeper readings, more familiar to the ancients, tend to focus on a difference in kind, toward another kind of world or another way of being. This latter idea can be succinctly described as an ontological change, in other words, a change in the mode of Being itself; while the former can be referred to as an ontic change, or a change in the number or arrangement of beings that already are.

Ontic changes are typically more familiar to us moderns, but all our truly ambitious endeavors thrum with ontological aspirations. I am somewhat hesitant to introduce this esoteric terminology, especially so late in the essay, but I think this ontic/ontological distinction puts a focusing lens on the register in which askēsis appears to operate. Askēsis addresses the mode of being of individuals, communities, and worlds. It indicates a change—not in degree, but in kind.

Now I can finally say something I’ve been wanting to say for over 2,000 words: I think the appropriate role of long-term thinking qua thinking is to drive important ontological transformations, and the appropriate role of long-term action is to drive important ontic changes for the future. We’ll find the ontic impact out there in the distance, and we’ll find the ontological impact in here, more immediately.

We just need to look for the right thing in the right place.

The Hidden Impact of Long-Term Projects

Seeing long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis is an interpretive choice that reveals new ways of talking about the benefits of long-term thinking. These benefits are often left implicit because it is so much more straightforward to talk about the ontic benefits of long-term action. Therefore, in order to properly discuss the effects of long-term thinking qua thinking, I introduced the term askēsis and showed how, for thousands of years, human beings have undertaken various practices in the attempt to transform their perceptual abilities—and thereby transform themselves and the world around them.

There are real-world consequences to such an interpretation.

One involves the objective assessment of long-term projects. For epistemic reasons, projects working at vast timescales defy easy appraisal. How can you objectively evaluate the success of an undertaking whose stated goals are hundreds or thousands of years out? Well, in this essay I have suggested that these stated goals are, in a particular sense, incomplete; after all, it’s reasonable to assume that someone taking on a project at the century or millennial timescale may be doing so for reasons that are not wholly concerned with a particular effect in the distant future (which is not to say that they are not concerned with such). As we discussed, many such projects, implicitly or explicitly, aim to influence perception in the here and now. This transformation of perception may even, in fact, be a primary goal. Of course, in the reading of askēsis I’ve offered here, such projects cannot transform your perception directly. They cannot “practice for you.” Instead, they act as invitations to practice. They provide the initial spark. Could seeing long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis illuminate new methods for assessing the efficacy of long-term projects in the here and now?

Another real-world consequence involves the commonplace mischaracterization of long-term projects as fundamentally elsewhere-focused, directing resources away from the manifold exigencies of the present. Again, if we choose to limit our attention to the distant future, we will miss the many ways in which such projects effect change more proximally. The gathering-together of bright minds to address a 10,000-year challenge, for example, does much more than just move the needle on said challenge. For starters, the very existence of such a project expands the social imaginary in which such projects were previously thought to be too ambitious or too intractable. Furthermore, everyone involved in such a project will be thinking deeply on an uncommonly-long timescale for an uncommonly-long period of time. The mode of being enabled by such a project is fundamentally different than that of most projects, and promises to reveal new and different things to the individuals involved.

What these particular revelations will be is notably divergent—and this is yet a third real-world consequence of seeing long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis. Ascetic practices offer a perceptual transformation, but what will be ultimately observed with those new powers of perception is completely unconstrained and divergent. Part of our attraction to master practitioners in any domain—jazz piano, basketball, oil painting—is a sense that they are revealing entirely new things to the rest of us, and to themselves, through their unflinching commitment to the practice itself. Science and technology, on the other hand, aim at the discovery of convergent truths which any observer can discover for themselves provided they employ the necessary methods and instruments. The revelations of askēsis are not of this kind. While long-term projects are partially about the discovery of convergent methods and models for efficiently answering a particular long-term challenge, they are also about the divergent discovery of new questions worth asking.

This is where the role of community becomes absolutely indispensable for any long-term undertaking—or any other mode of askēsis, for that matter. Communities of practice and discourse develop around these disciplines to take full advantage of the diverse revelations and questions occasioned by these new ways of seeing the world. Practitioners, as they notice new things, can share and discuss those observations with other practitioners so that the collective effort of the community can continually adapt itself to the ever-changing landscape in which it is situated. As I write this, I note that civilization itself might be read as just such a practice. Hadot once again reminds us that we’re on a path with those who came before us.

Ancient philosophy was always a philosophy practiced in a group, whether in the case of the Pythagorean communities, Platonic love, Epicurean friendship, or Stoic spiritual direction. Ancient philosophy required a common effort, community of research, mutual assistance, and spiritual support. Above all, philosophers . . . never gave up having an effect on their cities, transforming society, and serving their citizens.[28]

Finally, on a reflexive note, seeing long-term thinking as a mode of askēsis has real-world consequences for the way that directors, executives, and fundraisers like myself understand and communicate the theories of change which lie behind our institutions and our projects. Every organization, operating at any timescale, holds an implicit or explicit theory of change—a basic model of how it hopes to impact the world—but most of these theories tend to limit their concern to the more-straightforward ontic contributions and are therefore, especially in the case of grand and ambitious undertakings, fundamentally incomplete. Such standard theories of change tend to adopt a cause-and-effect structure that situates the cause here and the effect there (i.e., do something here and now, observe a change there and then). This is a clear and linear story, and I’m not surprised it dominates. Ascetic story structures, on the other hand, are less linear, and more circular. Here the cause drives an effect, and then that effect drives a return to the cause.

A concrete example might serve to clarify the point: engaging in the practice of meditation (cause) occasions a perceptual transformation in the practitioner wherein they begin to see mere sitting and breathing as both significant and worthwhile (effect). Seeing the world in that new way leads the practitioner back to the practice of meditation. And the cycle continues. The result of this ongoing cyclical process is an ontological transformation—a change in the mode of being. This refinement of being itself is often directly connected with “seeing” the world in a new way. The practitioner practices, over and over again, until things that were once hidden are gradually revealed. And over time, the practitioner becomes a different sort of person. A more complete theory of change for long-term projects would therefore articulate the relevant ontic and ontological contributions—those made by long-term acting and long-term thinking—since their sum total more closely approximates the whole ecology of impact presented by long-term projects.

Conclusion

A more complete story about the impact of long-term projects begins with a broadening of our discourse just as a more complete story about the impact of human civilization begins with a broadening of our timeline. The goal of this essay has been the venue-appropriate introduction of new terms and distinctions to the discourse surrounding multigenerational endeavors. My hope is that the thinkers and writers and artists behind ambitious projects of all types find in these words some helpful direction for the articulation of the transformations they hope to occasion with their work. The conclusion of this paper is only the beginning of a much larger conversation about the appropriate role of the moment, the individual, and the community for the future of long-term thinking.

Notes

[1] Stewart Brand, The Clock of the Long Now (New York: Basic Books, 01999), 31.

[2] A full discussion of askēsis can be found in one of the primary inspirations for this essay, Adam Robbert’s Modes of Askēsis, retrieved online https://knowledgeecology.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/modes-of-askecc84sis.pdf

[3] The Long Now Foundation was founded by writer Stewart Brand, inventor Danny Hillis, musician Brian Eno, journalist Kevin Kelly, and futurist Peter Schwartz. All are still active board members. We use a decamillennial date format in anticipation of the years to come—and to head off a computer bug that will cause issues in about eight millennia.

[4] Robbert, Modes of Askēsis.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The global membership program of The Long Now Foundation constellates nearly 11,000 people across 65 countries (wwww.longnow.org/membership).

[8] www.longnow.org/clock

[9] www.rosettaproject.org

[10] www.longbets.org

[11] www.longnow.org/seminars

[12] www.reviverestore.org

[13] www.theinterval.org

[14] www.longnow.org

[15] Pinus longeava is the longest-lived non-clonal species on the planet. The exact locations of the very oldest of these trees are often kept secret. Many of the bristlecone pine trees alive today were sprouting in North America while the Great Pyramids were being erected in Ancient Egypt. In many ways they are more like solitary stones than trees. The Long Now Foundation protects one of the largest privately-held stands of bristecone pine trees in the world.

[16] Martin Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 02014), 12.

[17] Robbert, Modes of Askēsis.

[18] Jacob Given, “The Hidden Self: Practice, Prayer, and the Aperture of Attention,” retrieved from https://thesideview.co/articles/the-hidden-self/

[19] Michael Tremblay, “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as a Form of Stoic Askēsis,” retrieved from https://thesideview.co/articles/brazilian-jiu-jitsu-as-a-form-of-stoic-askesis/

[20] Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, (Blackwell Publishing, 01995), 257.

[21] Adam Robbert, Modes of Askēsis.

[22] Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, 84

[23] Ibid., 82

[24] Human civilization is roughly 10,000 years old. We can reasonably suspect it will endure for at least that long into the future, barring any conclusive information to the contrary (like an incoming asteroid of sufficient magnitude). This places our present moment agnostically in the center of civilization’s lifeline.

[25] Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life, 82.

[26] Ibid., 83.

[27] Ibid., 265.

[28] Ibid., 274.