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 game "Spore" 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.

See Also