The scarcity of the long term

121 points5
nonrandomstring5 days ago

Scarcity of attention is one thing. It is complemented by scarcity of commitment. The digital world gives the illusion that everything is possible and easy. In such a world, why bother to do anything?

Over the years I also noticed students getting ever more abstracted into wishful thinking. They hugely underestimate research and development. Proposals are filled with the word "just... ". On realising that something is difficult, they recoil and abandon the whole project.

Although the article talks about the hubris of planning over multiple lifetimes, we have more serious and immediate problems of getting people to plan over mere weeks or days. Everything seems to be making that worse, "AI" in particular.

graemep2 days ago

Take a look at would be start up founders and software projects. "I have a great idea, I just need it implemented", "I have a design done, I just need someone to make it work".

denton-scratch2 days ago

> The only real scarcity would be of a long attention span.

I get the author's drift, and broadly agree. But I don't think it's really a long attention span that would get in the way of (e.g.) a Mars colony, or interstellar travel; it's that people's views change from one generation to the next. My kids have been imbued with some of my attitudes, sure; but I've not had much of a hand in the raising of my grandchildren. And kids rebel against their parents' views, even if they're objectively less sensible than the latest kids' fashion.

The Death Star, to take the author's example, is the product of a particular hypothetical society that looks a lot like fascist authoritarianism: a Glorious Leader, militarization, and oppression. But how many societies like that have lasted 500 years? The Golden Horde lasted about 250 years; the Roman Empire lasted about 200 years. Chinese imperial rule lasted much longer, maybe 1,500 years? Egyptian pharoahs about the same, if you treat the Early, Middle and Late as distinct empires. But these empires changed their character as the centuries passed, and were not characterized by any particular continuity of social outlook or collective goals.

I have only a vague knowledge of what the attitudes of my grandparents and their generation were - too vague for me to either support them or to rebel against them. So I think it's not so much a matter of attention-span, and more a question of plain old memory; history lessons and books are no substitute for talking to the people who were there, and after 200 years there's nobody left who "was there".

pbw1 day ago

> people's views change from one generation to the next

I think that's what Kevin Kelly means by attention in the essay.

He writes:

> It is much easier to build a rocket that will sail 500 years to the nearest star, then it is to ensure that the future generations of people born on board that 500-year rocket maintain the mission

So he doesn't mean we'll flake out and flit our attention to something else on a whim. He's saying if we drop a project due to changing beliefs, opinions, and goals, that's "not having a long attention span".

I don't love his use of the word "attention" to mean that, but I think it's pretty clear what he means by the word from the essay.

yen2231 day ago

To be fair would you expect people to spend 2 minutes to read all those words? We've got other things to be distracted by!

KineticLensman2 days ago

> the Roman Empire lasted about 200 years. Chinese imperial rule lasted much longer, maybe 1,500 years?

The Roman empire lasted considerably longer than 200 years - perhaps 500 years in its best understood form going from Octavian becoming emperor in ~30BCE to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in approx 470CE. The eastern end of the empire lasted in various forms for another 1000 years (!) until the fall of Constantinople.

denton-scratch2 days ago

Thanks for the correction.

The upshot, however, is that few empires last as long as 500 years, and only a couple lasted as long as 1,500 years. And those empires change a lot over the course of their existence; they weren't effective vehicles for a collective effort at, say, colonising Mars.

KineticLensman2 days ago

> And those empires change a lot over the course of their existence; they weren't effective vehicles for a collective effort at, say, colonising Mars

Completely agree!

NoraCodes1 day ago

> Chinese imperial rule lasted much longer, maybe 1,500 years?

This is true only if you consider many dynastic orders with significant periods of instability in between to constitute a single uninterrupted period "Imperial China". No single dynastic order lasted more than 500 years, arguably none more than 300.

robinzfc2 days ago

> the Roman Empire lasted about 200 years.

The Roman Empire lasted about 500 years - from 31 BC to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476. If we include the period of existence of the Eastern Roman Empire it would be almost 1500 years - until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

JackFr2 days ago

And that ignores the five centuries of the Roman Republic, before the empire.

AndrewKemendo2 days ago

This nails it I think

The basic unit of humanity, the human, does not have consistent long term desires or goals.

In fact within the span of a lifetime the same individual is expected to have completely divergent goals and conception of reality when they are 20 versus 50 versus 80.

In effect this means that a consistent, coherent goal state for human action is not possible to define that would satisfy the self-reported desires of any individual.

psychoslave2 days ago

I don’t know, look at how Knuth is still at work on TAOCP. Sure not everyone is Knuth (I am definitely not at least).

Having a life long goal require a conjunction of passion for a topic that requires that much attention span and relevant available resources to explore it. I dare to say that having enough resources at hand including not being interrupted too often with other hassles and hazards from life is the biggest source of scarcity.

AndrewKemendo2 days ago

I’d argue that is something different than I’m suggesting, though I certainly agree that having a consistent project across a lifetime is rare but not that rare.

The difference is that Knuth is providing something of value to others, while your grandmother’s fully complete American Girl doll collection she started at age 5 is of limited value.

Your last point is really the key takeaway: How do we create a global society that gives every single human the freedom, opportunity and resources to produce their version of the computing bible? We have more than enough natural resources to make that happen

WillAdams1 day ago

I would settle for a society which:

- afforded every citizen access to whatever education which they might choose/be interested in

- the chance to become the best version of themselves which is possible

- the leisure time to apply their talents to a project which makes the world a better place

It's kind of hard though, when the best school I ever attended, one which separated academics from social classes and allowed students to work at their ability level (up to 4 grade levels ahead through 4th grade, but after, one could work as far ahead and as fast as one's abilities allowed, and faculty members were dual-credentialed as high school teachers and professors at a local college, so students could easily graduate high school _and_ be conferred a 4 year degree, some students received multiple college degrees when graduating at age 18) which excelled at education was deemed an illegal arrangement by the Mississippi Supreme Court because it conferred an unfair advantage to those students who were able to apply themselves and take advantage of it, with no commensurate compensation for those who were unable to do so.

lloeki2 days ago

So essentially the problem is one of being able to foster a meme+ that outlives the scale of an individual's life.

+ the original meaning, not the internets one, which is only an extremely short-lived subset.

denton-scratch2 days ago

> to foster a meme+

So, I guess, pyramid-building; that's a collective project spanning a few centuries. I struggle to think of any collective project that spans centuries, that isn't fundamentally a religious enterprise.

0823498723498721 day ago

> In the Western world, 66 institutions have enjoyed a continuously visible identity since 1530. Among those 66 are the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church and the Parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man. What makes these 66 so interesting —and I owe the knowledge of this fact to our President Dr. Berdahl— is that the remaining 62 are all universities!

pm2151 day ago

It depends a bit, I think, on how much drift you accept without considering the project to have changed so much it's not the same thing. But for instance some of the older universities in Europe are pretty much the same institutions working on the same goal (educating people) in the same buildings for many hundreds of years. The details of what the education provided ought to be, the balance between education and research, and the administrative details have changed quite a bit, but I think you can still make a case for this being the same non-religious collective project.

NeoTar2 days ago

> I struggle to think of any collective project that spans centuries, that isn't fundamentally a religious enterprise.

Certain parts of mathematics and science may qualify.

Yes they have practical outcomes (as do certain religious projects - building a cathedral will employ craftsmen), but isn't the pursuit of 'pure' mathematics a collective project which serves no purpose apart from intellectual satisfaction.

lloeki2 days ago
pfdietz1 day ago

In my head canon, the authoritarianism of the Star Wars imperium is there because they got a bee in their bonnet about long term megaprojects, and decided the only way to make them succeed was suppress freedom of thought and change in the society as a whole. After the revolution the engineering visionaries responsible are put up against the wall.

kjkjadksj1 day ago

Take a peasant in italy in the year 600 bc, 600 ad, and 1600ad. Does life look any different really? Probably not. Multiple different rulers in this time but life had been basically continuous with respect to how the majority of people lived through these ages. I’d wager you could go up to the early 1900s in some Italian villages and still see an overwhelming amount of similarity in how daily life played out.

lainga1 day ago

There is an apocryphal story from the Greek War of Independence in 1821 - when it was won, messengers were sent out to the various Aegean islands to tell them that Greece had won its independence from the Ottomans. On one small island, the response of the villagers was "well, that's nice, but why are you telling us? we aren't Greek, we're Romans (Ῥωμαῖοι Rhomaioi)"

alanbernstein2 days ago

> people's views change from one generation to the next

Or in other words, our society itself currently has a short attention span.

lukas0992 days ago

> the Roman Empire lasted about 200 years

I thought it lasted much longer than that in the East?

denton-scratch2 days ago

I guess about 500 years, if you include Byzantium? But Byzantium was a very different creature from Rome.

NeoTar2 days ago

According to the popular conciousness, the Roman Empire lasted from 27 BCE to 476 CE in the west (i.e. 503 years), and from 27 BCE to 1453 CE including Byzantium (i.e. 1480 years).

But that's a really bad way to think about it. A Roman in 30 BCE and 20 BC probably wouldn't notice much difference. There was still a Senate, still elections, still powerful men exerting massive influence over the lives of ordinary people. Essentially someone had just written 'Augustus' in chalk at the top of all the organization charts.

Similarly, in the west a Roman in 470 CE and 480 CE wouldn't have noticed much difference. There was still a Senate, and powerful 'barbarian' generals were still exerting massive influence over the lives of ordinary people. There even was still an Emperor who was nominally in charge - he was in Constantinople, but the Emperors hadn't lived in Rome for decades.

The fall of Constantinople was probably a bit different since a whole new political regieme was imposed, but even there I believe the Ottomans actually claimed to be the inheritors of Rome and the rightful emperors (Rome was Pagan, then Christian, why couldn't it now be Muslim?)

Realistically, there were a series of political regimes which evolved into each other time:

* Aristocratic Republic,

* 'Constitutional' Monarchy,

* Absolute Monarchy,

* Military Dictatorship,

* Theocratic Dictatorship.

crabbone2 days ago

One of the unexpected effects of learning Hebrew for me, was something I didn't realize at first. Only almost thirty years since I could confidently use the language I accidentally watched a video where someone was researching the phonetics of the language (it's more or less generally agreed that nobody really knows how ancient Hebrew sounded). So, the researcher asked people from different communities (eg. Yemenite Jews, Samaritans, etc.) to read aloud a passage from Genesis.

It was very surprising to me that I could, more or less, understand what they were saying, despite the accent. Then came the realization that I could actually understand something written thousands of years ago by someone whose mind worked in a very different way, and yet I could, sort-of, communicate with that person.


I had to move a lot in my life. So, I don't have any childhood photos, nor do I keep in touch with my classmates from wherever I studied, I had to switch the language I use in my everyday life at least twice. I always "traveled light", so, I almost don't have any objects that are more than some ten years old. Except for the razor my grandfather brought from Germany in 1945 (now, I realize that it was probably looted, but many years back I was kind-of proud to inherit that). It says on it that it was manufactured in 1939.

I've never really met my grandfather -- he died when I was one y.o. I don't know what kind of person he was in his everyday life, in fact, I've ever only seen a single photograph of him. And yet I know that in many ways, subconsciously, I continue things he was doing. We have very different perspectives on life: he was a member of the Communist party, and I'm strongly in the Humanist camp. He liked gardening, and I hate being in the country etc. But, in a more broad sense, I keep a lot of the same culture he was part of: I'm pretty sure we learned the same multiplication table, or that we both had to read War and Peace at school, we both have the same idea about alphabet or using a dinner table for, well, dinner. And in that sense, I'm distinctly farther away from someone who sits down on a mat to eat their dinner, or, like ancient Greeks, who semi-lied down on a bench for their dinner.

In fact, it's very easy to trace my and my grandfather's differences to a common ancestor. It's not hard for me to understand why would he think the way he did, even though he's in the opposite camp. It's much harder to understand those who cannot disagree with me because they don't even know what they can possibly disagree about.


We don't have an obvious structure for projects that take multiple generations to complete. Not like the cathedrals that used to be built for hundred years or more, or even the books that used to be written by generations of scribes. But we still carry out such multi-generational projects by following conventions. We read books written by the previous generation, reinterpret them and embed their discoveries in our own.

It would've been nicer if we could organize this inheritance better, but it's not fair to say that it doesn't exist.

denton-scratch2 days ago

> Except for the razor my grandfather brought from Germany in 1945

Hah - I also have an old razor. I inherited it from my Dad. He seems to have bought it in about 1935, from a cutler in Cambridge, where he went to University. It was made in Sheffield, but is engraved with the name of that Cambridge shop. He would have been about 20 when he bought it - perhaps his first razor.

I've tried to sharpen and use it; but it was pretty rough. I find that modern razors from the likes of Dovo are much better.

> I've never really met my grandfather

My paternal grandfather died before I was born. My father says he was sitting in his chair; then he just coughed and died. I hope I am lucky enough to die like that.

I knew my maternal grandfather quite well; I used to visit him when I was 13 - 15, most Sunday afternoons. He was a pacifist, an atheist, and a hero: he was head of education in Hong Kong, when the Japanese took over. The story is that he stole a truck, and drove around the rich neighbourhoods collecting mattresses, medicines and - whisky. He liked a wee dram. He drove the truck to the concentration camp, blagged his way past the guards, and delivered the truck to the camp medical centre (minus the whisky, I imagine).

I'm also an atheist, and spent most of my life as a pacifist. I'm no hero, though.

samatman1 day ago

You might consider having a professional take a crack at sharpening that razor, the result may surprise you. I sharpen my own knives, with enough practice I can put a keen edge on a kitchen knife or pocketknife, but putting a razor's edge on a straight razor is about as difficult as sharpening gets, I'm fairly sure I wouldn't do as good a job at that as a professional would. You'll want someone who specifically sharpens straight razors.

denton-scratch1 day ago

I specifically sharpen straight razors! (Or I used to - I'm a beardie-weirdie now). I'm not up to grinding out a nick, but I have a coticule and I can use it. I used to know a barber who could do a good job of razor-repair.

You're right, sharpening kitchen knives is much easier.

roenxi2 days ago

This is almost a solved problem; institutions are capable of sustaining intentions for insane periods of time. The major organised religious institutes have been pushing some basic standards for ethical living for millennia. There aren't a lot of projects that humans have considered worth a millenium of effort. Due to the limited abilities of humans that long ago they are all philosophical projects. But we can do it.

And on a smaller scale, institutions can keep grinding away far longer than makes any sense. A grant and a trust fund can last centuries. Look at the educational institutions like Oxford for interesting examples of maintaining a culture. It is pretty easy to imagine a group like that sustaining long term technical projects.

I don't think a millenium of sustained technological effort is actually that hard to achieve. We've obviously never done it before because industrial society is less than 1,000 years old. But assuming we don't self-immolate as seems likely then setting up ultra-long-term-projects isn't that hard to see.

lifeisstillgood2 days ago

Institutions sustain themselves or rather the jobs of the controlling minds of the institution. Today’s Catholic Church would be viewed by its founders as some kind of uber-hippy bunch of democratic maniacs out to destroy civilisation.

I think the difference here is we can view a company / institution as a machine to do a job, and between a company that has a controlling mind able to change its own machine “code” hence chnage its job.

Without software the two things are needed - but with software we can concieve of a programmable company that just does its tasks as assigned for as long as inputs occur. If those tasks involve say sending jobs out to gig workers the idea kind of works

It does mean you could build a Death Star using robots in place of gig workers (which is the obvious multi-generational solution)

But it does imply something about our companies - that once the whole company can be specified in code, splitting off the “controlling minds” bit (ie management, plus developers) into seperate location seems interesting

It also explicitly makes the issue of who decides what chnages and how come to the fore

js82 days ago

> Today’s Catholic Church would be viewed by its founders as some kind of uber-hippy bunch of democratic maniacs out to destroy civilisation.

Are you sure? It seems to me that Jesus would be dismayed by how establishment they've become and not nearly radical enough.

lukas0992 days ago

I don't think they were thinking of Jesus as the founder of the Catholic Church. Although I think that is what the Vatican itself would say (?)

marcosdumay2 days ago

If we go with Constantine, I guess his strong impression would be how tame and uncommitted modern politics are.

JackFr2 days ago
Loughla2 days ago

And the money in the temple thing, too.

Filligree2 days ago

These can both be true.

graemep2 days ago

Yes, but they believe in eternity, or reincarnation, of something longer than a lifespan. They also often believe in a defined obligation to future generations. Our contemporary culture does not.

> Look at the educational institutions like Oxford for interesting examples of maintaining a culture.

They have changed over the centuries though. The ethos and aims of Oxford are hardly what they were when it got its royal charter in the 13th century. True, it still values scholarship, but it has also changed in a lot of ways.

denton-scratch2 days ago

In the olden days, students at Oxford mainly studied Divinity; nowadays there are schools of Business, Islamic Studies, high-energy physics and so on. There is still a number of Oxford "halls" devoted to Divinity, but the number of students and fellows engaged in that kind of work is tiny.

So I agree: it's no longer the same institution at all.

graemep2 days ago

> Islamic Studies

Not that different a subject. A different focus traditionally, but still related to a monotheistic religion.

> Business

Definitely very different, especially in ethos.

> There is still a number of Oxford "halls" devoted to Divinity, but the number of students and fellows engaged in that kind of work is tiny.

and I believe the powers that be at the university would like to get rid of them?

5y345ywy2 days ago

Doesn't this really only hold true if you handwave away the emergence of new denominations within those religions over time?

graemep2 days ago

Not really, many old denominations have persisted for a very long time. Catholic and Orthodox churches, for example.

lukas0992 days ago

Seems like survivorship bias. A lot of projects fizzle out. Vietnam War comes to mind.

roenxi2 days ago

Now I'm not exactly sure what the Vietnam war was supposed to achieve, and insofar as it fizzled out we need to define what, exactly, the aim was. I suspect it was pointless and fizzled out due to pointlessness eventually overwhelming the ability of the Americans to fight.

However, if it was to combat communism/the USSR, which is my hazy understanding of the official justification, note communism has largely been expunged as a political ideology. All the communist states failed. The majors (USSR & China) have moved to capitalism. Well, China did. The USSR was removed from the map.

lukas0991 day ago

> Those who argue that the United States’ opponents won the war cite the United States’ overall objectives and outcomes. The United States entered Vietnam with the principal purpose of preventing a communist takeover of the region. In that respect, it failed: the two Vietnams were united under a communist banner in July 1976. Neighbouring Laos and Cambodia similarly fell to communists. Furthermore, domestic unrest and the financial cost of war made peace—and troop withdrawals—a necessity, not a choice.


In fairness, it also says that some people think the US won because it won the major battles and inflicted more casualties. That sounds like winning the battle but losing the war, to me.

roenxi23 hours ago

If your argument is that the Vietnam War failed to achieve its goals, in context I don't see how sustaining the war for a millennium would have helped. The US arguably identified (correctly) that their approach wasn't working and stopped.

They then crushed communism. I don't see an argument that communism is a credible ideology these days. We all know what will happen to any country that makes a serious go of it - the citizens will starve and the economy will collapse. Then they can't spread communist ideology any more because they're broke and humiliated. The defeat was so resounding that the options became liberal capitalism, authoritarian capitalism or irrelevance.

If I hated someone enough that I wanted to bring war to their doorstep, and then decided that wasn't enough, I'd wish communism on them to. So insofar as the US was defeated in Vietnam, they won the war so much that the battle turned out not to need sustaining. I don't think this example shows any sort of survivorship bias, I think it is just a case where the project was achieved quickly.

alexpotato2 days ago

Seeing a lot of comments about human lifespan, projects shouldn't take more than 5 years etc

The Florence Cathedral took over 140 years to build. There is clear precedent that humans can design, plan and then execute a project that spans multiple lifetimes.

Even better, they didn't have a final design when they started:

> While the main structure of the nave was completed by 1380, a solution to constructing a dome to top it was not determined until 1418. [0]

This also reminds me of a personal story when visiting Florence:

Florentine Tour Guide: "It took 140 years to build the Cathedral. How do you think they were able to do this given that it took so long?"

Me: "I would think they needed a committee since that can last longer than a lifetime if the current members add in new people as the old members die"

Tour Guide: "Yes! Exactly! So few people realize that is what happened."

0 -

fritzo1 day ago

That's a good example, but I wonder if people now have more options and are more career-mobile. 700 years ago masonry was a family profession. Now it would get brain drained by AI.

badpun2 days ago

> Me: "I would think they needed a committee since that can last longer than a lifetime if the current members add in new people as the old members die"

> Tour Guide: "Yes! Exactly! So few people realize that is what happened."

This also implies that C++ will potentially live forever...

TedHerman2 days ago

I once hosted a European researcher in my home (which is in flyover country America). He saw the utility poles and wiring stretching to houses in the neighborhood and remarked that his father had said a hallmark of undeveloped countries is that power lines are above ground. This was 20 years ago. Now, I do see that new neighborhoods have buried power and fiber. But that quality of fiber wasn't affordable decades ago. In retrospect, it might have been wise to delay putting infrastructure underground in urban settings because of high cost.

Who knows what advances in material science, computing, energy and transport will bring in coming generations? Not to mention climate changes. Therefore it can be presumptuous to think that sticking to a long term plan is the best course. To the extent that a long term plan depends on the supporting environment of the plan staying the same, a plan might be judged foolish in retrospect.

patrickmay1 day ago

"There’s an ethical dilemma around transmitting a mission into the far future. We don’t necessarily want to burden a future generation with obligations they had no choice in; we don’t want to rob them of their free will to choose their own destinations."

This is why government deficits and long term debt are evil (regardless of one's political views). Spending money today that must be paid back by people not yet born is, at the very least, a dick move.

zokier1 day ago

That only holds if you think that goverment debt will ever be paid off in full. With current economics, that seems unlikely.

Arainach1 day ago

That doesn't hold at all - particularly if spending now yields dividends over time (infrastructure), and particularly with inflation - debt is a great investment (it's why any person or business with liquid assets is usually leveraged).

imtringued13 hours ago

Is it? How else would you fund any long term project that has benefits in the future?

I mean, think about it. If you have a project that has a $1000 benefit every year, why shouldn't the recipient of this benefit pay for it? The fact that the beneficiary is in the future doesn't fundamentally change anything. What matters is that the project is a net positive for the future. Do you think it would be justified to tear up all the roads after we are done with them so that we don't leave anyone with debt?

idontpost1 day ago


sotillan2 days ago

I think the problem the author describes is a result of short-term factors that are unlikely to affect humanity forever. Right now, technology and culture are progressing extremely quickly, relatively to any other point in human history. As a result, our understanding and our capabilities are radically different from generation to generation. Also, many problems remain unsolved and present serious, short-term challenges to our survival. Understandably therefore, our priorities frequently change, reacting both to changes in our capabilities and the most immediate threats.

However, this situation will not continue indefinitely. An advanced, post-scarcity human civilisation will (hopefully) not face constant danger of war, disease and famine, Technology will still advance, but at a slower pace, and not in ways that significantly transform day-to-day lives. Human lifespan will probably also be significantly increased. The result will be a more homogenous, stable and static society. There will still be differences, bug huge disparities of economic and societal status will no longer exist.

In this environment, having no longer to deal with a constant background of threats to their survival, it's likely that humanity will have the time and space to turn to far longer term projects. Indeed, such projects will probably be the only way for a person to imbue their life with a greater meaning in such a future society.

Solvency2 days ago

This is heavily reducing the human experience. Even better technology and post-scarcity aren't magic solutions to all of the insanely weird evolutionary quirks/pitfalls/problems built into our monkey brains.

Having a planet of hyper long-lived people who never have to work hard, who are constantly fed without concern, fully dependent on advanced technology sounds like the context of a YA novel. In reality, none of us are hardwired for that kind of lifestyle. Hell, we're not even hardwired for this one. We're just messily and sloppily trying to hang on as we stumble forward. Core human conflicts and oppositions and disputes and wars and existential meltdowns and all of the other things our emergent survival consciousness deal with aren't going anywhere.

ChrisMarshallNY1 day ago

I worked for a Japanese corporation that had a ten-year planning window.

The farther out, the more abstract and fuzzy, but they had a long-term view.

Also, they kept employees forever.

The app I just released (for a small nonprofit -I no longer work for that company) was three years in the making. I also was the initial author of an infrastructure service that is doing quite well, but it took ten years to get there.

gmuslera2 days ago

One problem with long term projects is advancement on technology that would had made a faster, sturdier, cleaner or whatever the original project if it started from zero using it.

We send a mission to Alpha centauri that would take, lets say, 100 years to get there with the current propulsion technologies, and in 30 years we discover a new one that would take 20 years to get there. Or the same for big buildings (I don't know, arcologies) where new materials and techniques would turn obsolete how it started if it was long enough in the past.

And not only new ways to improve, but different priorities or things that are out of our control that happen during its development. What if the land where the The Line in Saudi Arabla is being built gets permanently flooded because sea level rise or the entire region becomes unlivabable because frequent high enough temperatures in the region? Even social trends may turn something built for the future obsolete, there are plenty of ghost megacities in China.

Both acceleration in technologies, and acceleration in changes outside what is the construction by itself (climate, society, etc) can turn into (potentially hamrful) waste decades of effort.

blurrypepe2 days ago

I agree but just wanted to point out that The Line probably will never be built!

dobin2 days ago

Many cathedrals took hundreds of years to build. The following around 500 years: Cologne Cathedral, St. Vitus Cathedral and Milan Cathedral. Sagrada Familia was started in 1882, and Gaudi is dead for 98 years. If the emperor demands, it will be built.

admp2 days ago

Cologne cathedral didn’t actually take 500 years to build — construction was restarted after a 250+ year halt.

“Construction of Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 but was halted in the years around 1560, unfinished. Attempts to complete the construction began around 1814 but the project was not properly funded until the 1840s.”

samatman1 day ago

So it took 500 years to build.

If a building took one year to build, but they didn't work on the weekends, would you object and say no, it only took 260 days?

zokier1 day ago

Lets take an example closer to home. Babbage famously started working on his Analytical Engine 1837. He never got it very far though, and the project remained dead for 150ish years. Until jgc and friends got the idea to complete the project and construct the Engine.

So would you say it took 200 years to build Analytical Engine, or would you consider the Babbages original attempt and the current day attempt two separate projects?

Timwi1 day ago

That seems to me irrelevant to the point being made.

Xelbair2 days ago

>Sagrada Familia was started in 1882, and Gaudi is dead for 98 years.

and you can clearly see which part was done by which architect, as it's style, and structure shifts. Is the same vision of Gaudi still present in more modern parts of it?

(personally i think no, after seeing on vacation)

kibwen2 days ago

Cathedrals were public works projects that guaranteed generations of employment for local craftsmen. Plenty of cathedrals were left half-finished after funding dried up.

> If the emperor demands, it will be built.

The emperor rules for 50 years at best. His descendants may have different demands.

kaycebasques1 day ago

Remembrance Of Earth's Past trilogy [1] is a good meditation on the problem of keeping humans aligned/focused across generations. (Trying not to spoil anything.)


DennisL1231 day ago

> I am asking myself, what would I need to hear and get from a past generation to convince me to complete a project they began?

„It‘s emitting lethal doses of radiation for the next 100k years.“

pfdietz2 days ago

The Death Star illustrates a problem with long term thinking: that goals become obsolete too fast. The thing in A New Hope was a gigantic waste of resources.

Freeman Dyson famously commented that no project should be planned that takes longer than five years. Anything beyond that and the ground shifts out from under the foundations of the effort. One ends up with efforts that persist not because they are useful, but because they are established, because there is an entrenched constituency for the consumption of resources the project entails.

mikhailfranco13 hours ago

World's oldest company, a Japanese temple builder, founded in 578 AD, acquired in 2006:

Those VCs were waiting a long time.

r14c1 day ago

I have trouble squaring "people can't do long term planning" and the existence of megalithic structures like the pyramids in Egypt and the Americas or even the Great Wall of China. All of which took generations to build. Especially calling that lack of long-term planning/executing ability "human nature".

I have to wonder if there's something about the current material conditions that orients us towards short term thinking?

zokier1 day ago

Wikipedia says that Great Pyramid of Giza took 27 years to build. Long time, but I wouldn't call it generations. Smaller pyramids presumably were faster to build.

Cathedrals might be more typical example of centuries long projects, although for me its not clear how expansions and renowations are delineated from initial construction

r14c1 day ago

Ok, but you get the point right?

imtringued13 hours ago

The Egyptians didn't have metallic money. They had rotting grains and their grain banks charged yearly storage fees if you deposit your "money" i.e. grains. The easiest way to avoid the storage costs is to invest in long lasting assets generating future benefits. Hence the pyramids.

In fact, liquidity preference theory is the theory of reluctance to commit resources in the present for a future cause because the future is uncertain. Only the most versatile assets have any chance of being useful in the future and the most versatile asset is money. Metal money is easy to hoard dragon style. Metal currencies therefore make people artificially short term oriented, simply because thinking about the future is irrelevant beyond a certain point, the money is perfectly versatile after all. Except, this is an illusion. You cannot hoard money in the long term without causing deflation and once trade is unprofitable it simply stops and business closes down. The value of the money becomes more volatile until there is enough scarcity in production that prices start rising again and you get boom and bust cycles.

In this way, money fools people into being short sighted and unwilling to commit to longer time frames.

Deflating currencies inherently discourage doing work in the future and actively encourage short term thinking. Being an early adopter and HODLing a cryptocurrency as soon as possible while it's value rises let's you get rich without working. As time passes, the quantity of money that an hour of labor buys keeps shrinking until it is utterly impossible. Earning money in your 20s becomes your top priority so as to maximize the total return from the deflation. Meanwhile working in your 50s and 60s is meaningless. Do you see the problem? The best time to earn money will always be in the past, but the past is already over! It's too late! I hope it is clear that an economic system that rewards the past and punishes the future is inherently counterproductive to any long term project and incompatible with the fact that the arrow of time points forwards, not backwards.

Timwi2 days ago

The article assumes, without evidence, that the human lifespan is forever constant and unalterable. In my opinion that shows a lack of long-term thinking... how ironic.

Duologic1 day ago

This reminds me of the Danish Navy oak:

keep3209092 days ago

> The chief hurdle in constructing a Death Star is not the energy, materials, or even knowledge needed.

Any proof for that? Death Star is big as a Moon, it has energy of several millions of Suns (it can blow up entire planet to pieces in seconds, just calculate energy needed to overcome gravity well). The only thing we know that could even remotely theoretically approach it, are impacts with asteroids at almost light speed.

Saying the only thing preventing us from building it, is unstable political system, is just delusional! We really need to get away from this "technology will solve anything" mentality!

lukas0992 days ago

They go hand in hand. The materiel and personnel cost make the project less popular as time passes, and the shrinking political will makes obtaining those less viable.

ofou16 hours ago

You just secure the money, and the mission will prevail.

Anotheroneagain2 days ago

There is scarcity of scarcity, which leads to this madness. People didn't use to have a particular problem thinking at least a generation ahead, but there us no demand for such things. There is no way to make too much money on any established product. Anything that has existed for more than several years is available in vast amount, and cheap. Anything that isn't completely new is good enough to the point where only an insignificant improvement can be made at monumenta costs.

What is desirable now are things like a fidget spinner, that makes some quick cash, and gets forgotten soon after.

darepublic2 days ago

> I am asking myself what would I need to hear and get from a past generation to convince me to complete a project they began?

For me a language, culture, sexual arousal.

DiggyJohnson2 days ago

For many others, especially with regards to cathedrals and religious institutions more generally: religiosity / God.

scotty792 days ago

What's scary is that at time scales of one generation or longer societies seem to forget even very important things. How pandemic looks like. That war and militarization is not such a good idea.

lukas0992 days ago

Conversely I think NATO and being the "world's policeman" was more popular in the US after WWII when we realized we could be pulled into European conflicts. After decades of relative peace a lot of people are wondering why we're spending so much on defense.

pfdietz2 days ago

Another motivation was to inhibit nuclear proliferation. Without a global policeman, everyone has a motivation to acquire nuclear weapons.

XorNot2 days ago

> That war and militarization is not such a good idea.

These are really not two sides of the same coin.

scotty791 day ago

They are the same side, just stretched over time.

wonderwonder1 day ago

Imagine being born and dying on a generation ship and when your grand children reach the destination they find a thriving society established a 100 years before by the children of the people that launched your parents. They just created a new much faster means of travel in the mean time while your ancestors were condemned to a life on a ship with nothing to do but live, breed and die.

m4632 days ago

"The wise man plants trees whose shade he will never enjoy"

syngrog661 day ago

"long term oriented thinking" is an emphasis of the education software I've been building. If anyone wants to encourage or accel its dev contact me and toss cash at me/us

webdoodle1 day ago

There are so many real life projects that have been abandoned part-way-through. One of the biggest that still irritates me is the Superconducting Super Collider they were building in Texas.

yawboakye1 day ago

because they haven’t been mentioned: stewart brand’s book, the clock of the long now[0] and the long now foundation[1] tackle the same problem. excellent exposition that doesn’t necessarily transmit despair amidst the shortening attention span. i think the thrust of the message is towards the end of the book where he talks about infinite games, and the finite games that can be played interim. it appears we need to think like game designers, after all.



justincredible1 day ago