on long(er) term thinking

Rambling, less-than-coherent writing alert.

I’ve been wrestling with a bunch of large-scale demons for the last few years, trying to figure out why things are just so generally shitty in the world today. It feels like things are spiraling out of control into some giant, unseen cesspool. Why is that happening? Why are we letting/causing it? Why aren’t we stopping it?

I went through a stage where I blamed unchecked capitalism – the mad rush to acquire the almighty dollar. This is why our important mass media sources are pandering to the lowest common denominator – because their primary duty isn’t to gather and disseminate “news” – it’s to sell advertising space. This is why we have to question all media sources, because at a very basic level, they have to tune their “stories” to attract and retain advertisers. This is why people actually aspire to owning a pimped out Hummer H2 full of the latest bling. This is why kids need “need” the latest toy/clothes/craze. This is why citizens are called “consumers” – we are described by our most valued traits.

I went through a stage where I blamed democracy. The idea of democracy is great. The implementation, where uneducated, uncaring hordes vote (or neglect to) based on messages spewed across various mass media outlets (see above) means that government and politics must be questioned. Why did (party X) take such a stand? Was it really in line with their beliefs? Or, did they get a large contribution from somewhere so they could afford an ad campaign during an election? Did they have to cut a deal on that in order to get something else? etc… Democracy corrupts and fails spectacularly without transparency, and without a substantial base of educated and committed voters providing effective direction to their elected representatives. They work for us, but we need to stand for something other than demanding sound bites and swiftboating drama. We have the technology now to enable us to implement effective democracy at the individual level – where everyone gets a direct and immediate voice – but we fail to do so.

Now, I’m going through a stage where I blame short term thinking. This was prompted, surprisingly, by watching a demo of the gameSpore” by game/toy designer Will Wright. In demonstrating the game, he talked about his philosophy of design, and why he has designed his series of open-ended “toys” (he doesn’t call them games). It was especially clear in watching the Spore demo, that the design was specifically crafted to allow an individual to effectively see and interact with things and events across several orders of magnitude of scale and time. From nanometer sizes and real time, to parsec sizes and time scales measured in millions of years.

Why did he design such an open and wide-reaching toy? To help people perceive, and begin to think, in longer terms. Time is a difficult thing to feel viscerally. Even 50 or 100 years is too long and abstract to get a solid feel for, intuitively. But, if a person is playing/living in a world where they can see a century flash before their eyes as they craft a world and evolve a species, they start to get a feel for what long term really is.

Which brought me back to my first 2 stages of understanding the mess we find ourselves in. Although the symptoms of short term thinking can be seen in both economics and politics, they are not the cause but rather the side effects of this short term thinking, amplified over time and scale.

One of the effects of this is that the responsibility for making educated decisions evaporates. Screw up on some policy? That’s ok. There will be another government formed in 1, 2 or 4 years, and they will deal with it. Want to help reduce the effects of global warming? That’ll take longer than a government has, and they’ll have to do things that will make them look bad in the mass media, so they’ll shoot themselves in the foot by doing so. Which, in short-term-thinking-world, is worse than flooding millions of people out of their homes as a result of global warming. Someone else will deal with that…

How do we start thinking longer term, as a population? First, we need to value the longer term. We need to be patient. We need to be able to give things time to percolate before pulling the plug. We need to give our leaders (both governmental, and corporate) some breathing room. We need to stop salivating at the prospect of juicy sound bites. And we need to get involved. What does this all look like? I don’t know. I’m still chewing on it.

17 thoughts on “on long(er) term thinking”

  1. Interesting post. As an aside, while there a lot of things that our hyper-connected mode of operations, and its attendant culture, is good at… Slowing things down and thinking long-term does not appear to be one of them.

  2. exactly. maybe we need to reproduce that part of our culture, where we were OK with news taking days (or even weeks!) to reach us. Where we didn’t have the ability to hang on every word of a celebrity (or newscaster). Immediacy doesn’t foster long term or deep thought. How do we enable ourselves to slow down as a society, while maintaining connectedness? Conundrum.

  3. First of all I love the opening line, “Rambling, less-than-coherent writing alert.” I have to admit I like reading “rambles” when I comes to people’s thoughts, they somehow seem more real and less contrived. I think there is so much in our culture, especially the media and politics, that is contrived. I find sometimes I have to stop and ask myself what I really think about something because we are bombarded by so many messages.

    I think with media we often forget, if we ever knew it at all, that the true audience is the advertiser not the reader or the watcher. And this skews our thinking about media.

    For example growing up in the 70’s and early 80’s, I assumed that the United States was 50% African American. I was shocked when I found out this assumption wasn’t true. Why had I assumed that? Because the late 70’s and early 80’s were the boom time for African American sitcoms and being a kid I had assimilated what I saw on TV to the understanding of the world I lived in, even though I knew full well that what was on TV was make believe.

    And I agree media (and politics because it is driven by media) is short, very short thinking. I have 3 kids and find I am constantly “deprogramming” them.

    How do we start thinking long term? Wow, wish I knew.

    By Carolyn, “Just a Lowly homeschool Mom, blogging from Her Living Room in Surrey, BC”

  4. D’Arcy, I think you are very correct in pegging this ever shrinking time horizon as one the great maladies affecting us today. If thoughtful we seem to be able to identify the bombardment of more more information with less latency as a like a weapon which had blunted our senses. I think that it has forced the advertiser and media more generally to craft messages with even greater ‘shock value’ to penetrate the noise. We are short term because we are being driven by the pace and stepping away from it is hard, as you note. I think the other facet of this phenomenon is the bluntness of these messages causing a real ‘information anxiety’ (nod to Wurman). We can become paralyzed by the seeming immediacy of things are that far distant and well beyond our concern. We have limited bandwidth as individuals and must ration precious cycles to accomplish those things which we can and are near at hand. We have to find better filtering processes where once (as you have identified) time provided such.

  5. D’Arcy, it sounds like you have put a lot of thought into this and didn’t ramble at all. I appreciate you validating many of my recent thoughts. Sometimes I worry people will consider me a Scrooge for wanting to do Christmas differently this year. I am extremely uncomfortable when I think back to all the years where we’ve had bags and bags of trash left over after the holidays. I am disgusted thinking about the indulgence in food and the wasted leftovers. Little things are now turning into something big. I think I’m not going to be concerned about the opinion of others. I’m going to purchase gifts from local artisans and farmers, or things that won’t take up space in landfills. I think part of our short-term thinking problem centers on our dependence upon the opinion of others. Sometimes I feel guilty when I sit back and observe others discovering the latest tech tools. However, you are right, we shouldn’t be in a race for prestige. We’re going to have to find the happy medium. While long term thinking is the goal, short term tools are needed to deliver your message.

  6. I think the solutions will be in terms of systems and a change in the paradigms guiding those systems. But I think the problem is much bigger than something simple like politics or democracy or even short-term thinking. I think we have a deep philosophical malady from which all of this springs is essentially a lack of meaning and direction and instead short-term system management, of which nature isn’t a part. Saul in his (shall we say) seminal work, Voltaire’s Bastards, points out that focusing on systems and an expertism-based approach to solving problem that those very systems create is one of the major problems with the age of reason. He instead wants us humans to have a holistic view which allows common people to understand the problems and perhaps tackle them. Instead, in our world the “elites” work very hard to obfuscate the problem in complex systems (take the financial collapse in the US and how the “elites” are attempting to create an obfuscated financial vehicle (conduct) made of shit to solve the liquidity crisis) because the source of their wealth and thereby power lies in the obfuscation — if not theirs then their friends. It’s in fact true that often they don’t want to solve problems but instead if it serves their interests prolong problems so they can cash out. I don’t think the problem is with individuals, because most individuals have very little power to do anything and instead simply react to what we’re being fed through society, culture, schools, television, media, and so on. The masses are specifically taught not to think critically and if they start too thinking critically they are often labeled conspiracy nuts or something as such, when they start pointing out gaping logical holes in what everyone else is being fed… So what I am saying is that “you’re a rat in a cage”, and our leaders don’t really care what you think, they’re playing their own game and they seem to act as if you’re really not a part of it… If you try to become a part of it, they have ways to dealing with you, the Montebello incident comes to mind.

  7. .

    haha wow. big picture, IMO: humanity is better off than ever. less poverty, disease, slavery, war, etc. than ever. maybe you’re caught in a forest and trees thing. as far as i can tell, we’ve entered the age of aquarius and it’s going well. who’d have thought i’d be the one of us with the brighter attitude?

    regarding long term thinking, i think you’ve observed the phenomena correctly, but may have overlooked some things. for instance, some would say shorter term thinking is an unavoidable consequence of our accelerated state—there’s no use trying to plan farther ahead when things like technology are changing so quickly. our evolution is going through a spurt. postmodern fragmentation is breaking any number of things into smaller pieces all the while, making things quite complex. it’s easy to get caught up in details.

    .

  8. @davidcus: OTOH we’re facing a global environmental catastrophe which has the potential to plunge the entire planet into serious shit, there are mass extinctions, the oceans are threatened to run completely dry, something like 1/2 of China doesn’t have clean drinking water and the environment is complete shit, there are still people starving to death, women in the Congo are getting raped brutally, diseases are becoming more resistant to antibiotics and there is an ever growing threat of authoritarian governments making a return in a bigger way than ever, a million Iraqis killed for no good reason — the list goes on. It’s true that in our little part of the world we have it pretty damn good, but there is a lot unnecessary suffering and a huge potential for improvement… Also it’s evident to most people that what we have now is not sustainable, it’s simply a case of living beyond our means until we exhaust the sources that we’re over using. All of this with a continuously looming overpopulation problem that is still not being well addressed and globalization that in the end promises to take away this economic shelters that have kept us protected from the misery that a lot of people in the rest of the world have to put up with… everything is as well as you might want to believe. Not to even mention the purposelessness of many of today’s jobs and how socially, morally, and psychologically bankrupt they are.

  9. .

    hey Sam—a lot of what you consider de facto, many don’t; also, most of your examples were much bigger problems than they are. are current generations too self-involved to see human history more clearly?

    feel free to see the glass as half empty—i agree there’s room for improvement—but ignoring, (or worse, obfuscating), the bigger brighter picture will mire people in paranoia and paralyzing depression more often than stir them to action.

    today’s jobs are purposeless? socially, morally, psychogically bankrupt?! reeks of hot air.

    .

  10. @davidcus: i agree with what you’re saying, i do think that most people can’t handle processing problems that are that much out of their control and it wouldn’t really help them for someone to force them to do it or even made it clear for them… the only problem is that our “leaders” aren’t really willing to address those problems either as they are not profitable and do not help their approval ratings, what i am saying is that there are no jobs or positions for people who worry about such problems even if they wanted to address them. as for the jobs, well i think to some extent i said that for effect, but i do consider quite a few a few corporate jobs whether it’s working for McDonalds or working for a company whose CEO makes millions and pays employees a fraction of that in certain ways is purposeless, working as a CEO who gouges people for drugs they must have or destroys the environment for corporate greed or tests pesticides on humans is morally bankrupt,and generally working for a company whose only motivation is profit is psychologically bankrupt — but i agree it’s quite a bit better now than it has been in the past.

  11. @davidicus: I never thought I’d be the dark one, either ;-) Next, I’m growing (what’s left of) my hair long, and buying a bunch of black…

    I’ve been thinking about it, and I did lose sight of the forest for the trees. Stepping back, this is the best time in history, and it’s just getting better. It’s not evenly distributed yet, but nearly every place on earth is better off than it was even 50 years ago. The stats gathered by the UN back this up, as demonstrated so clearly by Hans Rosling.

    I think my reaction/feeling about the state of the world is clouded by my own short-term thinking. I’m working on that. Looking at things over the longer term (comparing to 50, 100, 1000 years ago) it’s clear that things are much better. As populations gain economic strength, they increase their health and wellbeing. Means to an end.

    @Sam: I agree that it’s largely an information processing problem, at a global scale. Individuals might be better equipped to deal with the torrent of information and communication, but populations and nations have difficulty – it’s harder to turn quickly at that scale – but I think we’ll develop strategies for that as we all mature in this as a society.

  12. D’Arcy- I’ve been bothered by some of the same thoughts. If there is one word we need to redefine and understand better- it’s “Investment.” We’ve changed a long term strategy to grow wealth into a nanosecond of program trading- we have to look at the big picture- and understand that we aren’t just investing in what’s right now- but what’s right years from now. The repercussions from short term thinking and instant gratification could spell the end of the human race- just as we reach our zenith in terms of knowledge, communication, arts- etc. Not much different than the fall of Rome. History does repeat itself. Thanks for your ramble.

  13. @David: I’d hope the human race would survive the downfall of whatever this civilization is ;-) Like you say, we survived stuff before, and we’ll survive it again. We will change, adapt, prune, but we’ll make it through.

  14. @Sam: but even in the dark ages, there was light. Rome wasn’t the only game in town, and its fall left room for others to flourish. Like mammals after the fall of dinosaurs. In all things there is a silver lining, even the decline of civilization as we know it ;-)

  15. ” What are we so unhappy about?

    A.. Is it that we have electricity and running water 24 hours a day, 7 Days a week?

    B.. Is our unhappiness the result of having air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter?

    C.. Could it be that 95.4 percent of these unhappy folks have a job?

    D.. Maybe it is the ability to walk into a grocery store at any time and see more food in moments than Darfur has seen in the last year?

    E.. Maybe it is the ability to drive our cars and trucks from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean without having to present identification papers as we move through each state?

    F.. Or possibly the hundreds of clean and safe motels we would find along the way that can provide temporary shelter?

    G.. I guess having thousands of restaurants with varying cuisine from around the world is just not good enough either.

    H. Or could it be that when we wreck our car, emergency workers show up and provide services to help all and even send a helicopter to take you to the hospital.

    I.. Perhaps you are one of the 70 percent of Americans who own a home.

    J.. You may be upset with knowing that in the unfortunate case of a fire, a group of trained firefighters will appear in moments and use top notch equipment to extinguish the flames, thus saving you, your family, and your belongings.

    K.. Or if, while at home watching one of your many flat screen TVs, a burglar or prowler intrudes, an officer equipped with a gun and a bullet-proof vest will come to defend you and your family against attack or loss.

    L.. This all in the backdrop of a neighborhood free of bombs or militias raping and pillaging the residents. Neighborhoods where 90% of teenagers own cell phones and computers.

    M.. How about the complete religious, social and political freedoms we enjoy that are the envy of everyone in the world?

    Maybe that is what has 67% of you folks unhappy.

    Fact is, we are the largest group of ungrateful, spoiled brats the world has ever seen. No wonder the world loves the U.S. , yet has a great disdain for its citizens. They see us for what we are. The most blessed people in the world who do nothing but complain about what we don’t have, and what we hate about the country instead of thanking the good Lord we live here.

    I know, I know. What about the president who took us into war and has no plan to get us out? The president who has a measly 31 percent approval rating? Is this the same president who guided the nation in the dark days after 9/11? The president that cut taxes to bring an economy out of recession? Could this be the same guy who has been called every name in the book for succeeding in keeping all the spoiled ungrateful brats safe from terrorist attacks? The commander in chief of an all-volunteer army that is out there defending you and me?

    Did you hear how bad the President is on the news or talk show? Did this news affect you so much, make you so unhappy you couldn’t take a look around for yourself and see all the good things and be glad? Think about it……are you upset at the President because he actually caused you personal pain OR is it because the ‘Media’ told you he was failing to kiss your sorry ungrateful behind every day. Make no mistake about it.

    The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have volunteered to serve, and in many cases may have died for your freedom. There is currently no draft in this country. They didn’t have to go. They are able to refuse to go and end up with either a ”general” discharge, an ‘other than honorable” discharge or, worst case scenario, a ”dishonorable’ ‘ discharge after a few days in the brig.

    So why then the flat-out discontentment in the minds of 69 percent of Americans?

    Say what you want but I blame it on the media. If it bleeds it leads and they specialize in bad news. Everybody will watch a car crash with blood and guts How many will watch kids selling lemonade at the corner? The media knows this and media outlets are for-profit corporations. They offer what sells, and when criticized, try to defend their actions by ‘justifying’ them in one way or another Just ask why they tried to allow a murderer like O.J. Simpson to write a book about how he didn’t kill his wife, but if he did he would have done it this way……Insane!

    Turn off the TV, burn Newsweek, and use the New York Times for the bottom of your bird cage. Then start being grateful for all we have as country. There is exponentially more good than bad. We are among the most blessed people on Earth and should thank God several times a day, or at least be thankful and appreciative.’

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