The Pace Layers of Civilization

Derived from an idea of Freeman Dyson’s, Stewart Brand expands on the idea of the pace layers of civilization in The Clock of the Long Now:

“The fast parts learn, propose, and absorb shocks; the slow parts remember, integrate, and constrain. The fast parts get all the attention. The slow parts have all the power.

We can examine the array layer by layer, working down from fast and attention-getting to slow and powerful. Note that as people get older, their interests tend to migrate to the slower parts of the continuum. Culture is invisible to adolescents but a matter of great concern to elders. Adolescents are obsessed by fashion, elders bored by it.

The job of fashion and art is to be froth: quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this! Culture is cut free to experiment as creatively and irresponsibly as society can bear. From all this variety comes driving energy for commerce…and the occasional good idea or practice that sifts down to improve deeper levels, such as governance becoming responsive to opinion polls, or culture gradually accepting multiculturalism as structure instead of grist for entertainment.

If commerce is completely unfettered and unsupported by watchful governance and culture, it easily becomes crime…Likewise, commerce may instruct but must not control the levels below it, because commerce alone is too shortsighted.

Infrastructure, essential as it is, cannot be justified in strictly commercial terms. The payback period for such things as transportation and communication systems is too long for standard investment, so you get government-guaranteed instruments such as bonds or government-guaranteed monopolies. Governance and culture must be willing to take on the huge costs and prolonged disruptions of constructing sewer systems, roads, and communication systems, all the while bearing in mind the health of even slower “natural” infrastructure, such as water, climate and so on.
Education is intellectual infrastructure; so is science. Very high yield, but delayed payback.

Culture’s vast slow-motion dance keeps century and millennium time. Slower than political and economic history, it moves at the pace of language and religion. Culture is the work of whole peoples.

As for nature, its vast power, inexorable and implacable, continues to surprise us….When we disturb nature at its own scale, as with our “extinction engine” and greenhouse gases of recent times — we risk triggering apocalyptic forces. Like it or not, we now have to comprehend and engage the still Longer Now of nature.
The division of powers among the layers of civilization allows us to relax about a few of our worries. We should not deplore rapidly changing technology and business while government controls, cultural mores, and so-called wisdom change slowly; that’s their job….The total effect of the pace layers is that they provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”

Ursula LeGuin on Resistance and Change

Ursula LeGuin, in her acceptance speech for the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the National Book Awards, said this, in defense of writing and humanity:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximise corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship …

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

How to recruit women in tech

Etsy’s work in creating a friendly place for women in tech should be widely emulated. Don’t just sit and wait for women to apply for jobs. Make sure your company is friendly to women. Let it be known that you are interested in recruiting and retaining women. Build your own pipeline for applicants.

Also, read this interview with Maggie Nelson of Findery, about becoming a software engineer.

Links to Things I Like

  • The Death of Adulthood In American Culture. I talked about the tragic loss of American adulthood in an interview with Free Lunch Diaries a couple years ago. Oddly, people are also talking about the death of American Childhood. Maybe we’re all merging into a single, unstratified Age. Which is approximately 17.
  • Do you Speak Startup? It’s easy to agree with this article, since it builds on one of my earlier blog posts.
  • The “Ringo Starr Strategy” is a concept I came up with today, which means, if you can’t be great at something, surround yourself with people who are.
  • The Law of Jante, which is the Scandinavian tendency to put the collective before the individual, but is another way of describing Tall Poppy Syndrome (a term I didn’t realize had its origins in The Histories of Herodotus). I first learned of The Law of Jante in an interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

Memorization, Facts and Learning to Learn

“Never memorize what you can look up in books” is a quote often attributed to Einstein, though what he actually said was somewhat different. He was asked, but did not know the speed of sound as included in the Edison Test. When this was pointed out, he said, “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. He also said, “…The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.” See also Ray Bradbury, in Fahrenheit 451:

“Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change. Don’t give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”

The single thing I’ve found it valuable to memorize is poetry. As a child I learned hundreds of poems by heart, which I can recite even now. I wanted to become a writer, and felt that poetry was perfected language, so having it in my subconscious mind would make the music of language always available to me.

Startups as a Second Language

One of the issues we face here in San Francisco and Silicon Valley is a sense that the people all around us are as conversant in startup and tech culture as we are. But we need to remember, and remind ourselves repeatedly, that we’re a small minority in a larger population. We get a lot of attention, because we are new, and trendy, and fashionable, and commercial, on the outer layers of Stewart Brand’s pace layers of culture.

So I was happy to see that Kristina Lee Podesva was presenting “Startups as a Second Language” at Yerba Buena. I met Kristina when she moved from Vancouver to San Francisco, because she was the editor of Fillip, a magazine I had a small part in getting off the ground, and has consistently published significant articles about art and culture.

Here are some of the terms from her presentation, via Ceci Moss:

Learning SSL

So jargon-y! Kristina has written more about the project on her site.