One Billion Seconds from Now

by Michael Szul on

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One billion seconds is a phrase that has accumulated usage over the course of our most recent evolution of memes. Representing a little over 31.5 years (which isn't nearly as fancy as saying one billion seconds), the phrase is meant to trigger an emotional and temporal reaction to progress (or detriment). The prevalence of the billion seconds thought virus is a mounting reaction to short-term thinking. As the pace of technology and progress has resulted in a faster pace of evolution, capitalism has transitioned to corporatism even quicker. This corporatist mindset is besieged by an obsession with growth above all else and that growth is measured with the quarterly reports to shareholders. This means that our modern economic society is reading the tea leaves only to see three months from now. This quarter-by-quarter planning coupled with exponential growth and financial extraction treats labor as "resources" instead of people and treats land through "ownership" instead of "stewardship."

This very thinking is what has led us to our current climate crisis… among other less than savory cultural and planetary outcomes.

The billion seconds virus is a result of multiple strands of contemplation colliding at the right time to establish a paradigm of thought—a media virus. It isn't enough to view it merely as a turn towards long-term thinking because that isn't what it is. The business class has been pushing "exponential" as the primary phrase for the modern era to describe not just the advances in technology, but the speed with which the application of technology and research has shaped advancement in other areas of capital. The billion seconds is not simply a call to action on thought, but a sticky note for the speed (seconds seem fast) of technological advancement. Get prepared for the next billion seconds of progress. This is different from long-term thought because it establishes the "timely" parameter of a SMART goal to measure progress. Although we're talking about 30+ years from now—and anything can happen in that time frame—it sounds faster and seems more urgent—like a true deadline.

There's a personal perspective to this too. A billion seconds into your life is the beginning of your thirties where you can no longer pretend that you're not an adult with responsibilities that stretch beyond the immediacy of yourself—a maturation of worldview:

Living one billion seconds occurs about two-thirds of the way between your 31st and 32nd birthdays. Specifically, one billion seconds is 31.69 years or a little more than 11,574 days.

When is the future?

Marina Gorbis from Wikimedia

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) (spun out of the RAND Corporation in 1968) teachers in its forecasting workshops that the future is 10 years from now. According to them, 10 years is about the furthest one can think into the future to determine a viable scenario without struggling with the mental gymnastics of mid-term fiction. Although one could argue that a near term future of 10-50 years is possible (plenty of fiction writers can go this route), and fiction unbridled can give us far future stories, the truth is that there is a vagueness between that near term and long term future that is clouded in a lack of knowledge that puts guardrails against imagination. The further you get from the "now" the less you rely on logical, pragmatic assumptions in imagining the future. To the IFTF, 10 years is a sweet spot for imaginative exploration grounded in the possible and the plausible.

From 10 to a billion seconds

10 years is practical, but not emotional. Ten billion? That has an evocative quality. By specifying it in seconds, it really only takes us to about 30 years and a 10-30 year period is flexible enough to represent a range of when the future arrives.

I was once told by a former director in IT to stop giving deadlines as dates and instead give them as ranges in order to mitigate low-end variables with a potential to disrupt. As such, I think a future "range" of 10-30 years is likely more accessible and flexible when predicting and/or enacting change.

The Shorter Here versus the Longer Now

Brian Eno once remarked that New York City seemed to exist on a different timescale. "Here" and "now" were measured differently in New York than in England, which seemed to have a much longer now. Eno—a musician by trade—was a founding board member of the Long Now Foundation—an organization dedicated to fostering long-term thinking. With the Long Now, the future isn't measured at a pace of 10 years, but ideas are fostered to promote thinking on the far future of civilization (different than the future of technology or space travel).

Forgetting our thoughts on when the future begins, what the Long Now Foundation brought to the table was an investigation of technology, biotechnology, and other sciences through the lens of culture, society, and history. With that last bit, Long Now seminars often take listeners into the past in order to see the future. This "long" view of subject matter informs the decision-making process for today's short-term fixes, hoping to transform them into sustainable, thought-provoking, and inclusive remedies to societal ailments.

Clock of the Long Now from Wikimedia

The Long Now Foundation includes early technology pioneers like Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly, and the organization comes with enough long-term clout to influence not just the Generation X'ers who seem to be at a crossroads about the world they've brought about (or forever shaking their fists against the world that the Boomers left them), but also have been influencing up-and-coming organizational leaders. The Long Now Foundation has laid a framework or philosophy for long-term projects that benefit humanity, so when industry leaders begin looking for ways to transform their companies into benevolent businesses, that framework is already established.

A good example of this is the GitHub Arctic Code Vault which I wrote at length about previously (and forgive me for quoting myself):

The GitHub Arctic Code Vault is more than an archiving initiative. There is an aesthetic appeal to it that fits more in line with the lofty philosophy of the San Francisco-area non-profit it's partnered with: The Long Now Foundation. The code vault's home page is plastered with a beautiful arctic backdrop, while a countdown clock ticks away the seconds until the first code deposit—an emphasis on time. This is more than a Big Tech initiative.

Of course, the home page has since changed now that code has actually made it to the vault, but the site is still appealing.

The very language that GitHub uses is not one indicative of short-term thought nor is it one indicative of a 10 year future. It's not a statement of 5, 10, 20, or even 100 years from now. It's on a timescale that is almost beyond reach of human imaginative engagement.

The Long Now Foundation has attempted to foster said long-term thinking through an analysis of perceived time. Long Now founder Stewart Brand has pushed pace layers as a framework for understanding this perceived time. In a previous post on pace layers, I quoted Brand's original paper:

The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales.  To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales.  But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales.  On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales. That is why conflicting loyalties are deep in our nature. In order to survive, we have needed to be loyal to ourselves, to our families, to our tribes, to our cultures, to our species, to our planet. If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.

These timescales are ones designed by Freeman Dyson and adapted by Brand to his pace layers in order to show how different speeds of time interrelate and produce difference perspectives.

The important thing is that each perspective counts because each action has a potential repercussion in a different way on each of the scales. Seeing things from more perspectives details these alternative repercussions allowing for a holistic approach to long-term decision-making and futures studies.

Back to a future

I've been following two trend lines in both my reading and writing recently. The first is noting an overwhelming desire of people my age (late-stage Gen X'ers) to revisit older technology from a retro-computing perspective. Many of us are experimenting with older protocols, revisiting older ideas, listening to synthwave music, and generally yelling at kids to get off our collective lawns. In Codepunk's Apotheosis podcast, I seem to be running head-first into a midlife crisis, but also, I could be onto something… Many from my collective Gen X group are in their 40's. We didn't grow up with the Internet (remembering what it was like pre-Web, but also pre-Internet in general), but we certainly matured with the Internet—getting exposure and becoming obsessed during middle school and high school.

There is a slightly older crowd, however, (early to mid-50's) that are also Gen X, but didn't mature with the Internet. Instead their career's matured with the Internet. This group is responsible for much of the original thought and technology developed that caused the maturation that those of a lesser decade were able to explore.

This is an important distinction because the second trend line deals with the philosophical analysis of technology. I've found that there are two pathways: Those that look at technology through the lens of business analysis and those that look at technology through the lens of cultural affect. The former can be seen in the works of Ben Evans, Azeem Azhar, Ben Thompson, and others. The focus of their work is primarily on the impact of technological innovation as it relates to financial markets and capitalism—although their work does (more so with Azhar's) occasionally cross the bridge to societal impact.

But those that look at technology through the lens of cultural affect see technology as a fast moving catalyst in the primordial soup of cultural progress, societal change, and philosophical evolution. Timothy Leary believed that computers would have the same consciousness altering effect exhibited by psychedelics. Those whose careers matured along with the Internet were well-read on Leary, which included people like Douglas Rushkoff and Mark Pesce. People a part of that 50's age crowd that preceded my own collective.

Whereas my age bracket is looking towards the past to re-purpose technology in order to regain that promise, people of Rushkoff's age bracket are re-evaluating the importance of technology in societal decision-making. Not all people in Rushkoff's generation. Just those who were a part of the early "promise" of technology. There are other people like Peter Diamandis and the cult of the singularity—these tech billionaires—seemingly wishing for an Elysium-esque future.

I mentioned on Apotheosis that my early 00's had a lot to do with cultural exploration and some of that intermingled with Douglas Rushkoff's research during that era. After seeing him speak a few times, I was invited to visit one of his college classes on interaction—even getting him to sign my copy of Cyberia. From Cyberia to Get Back in the Box to Life, Inc. I've read as Rushkoff's views evolved on technology, business, and social structures. His ultimate—and not wrong—conclusion was that big business and wealthy modern aristocrats—these plutocrats and oligarchs—were using technology and the Internet to undermine social contracts, while hiding behind algorithms.

With Team Human, Doug takes a skeptical—bordering on anti-tech—approach to societal issues, but in a way that is holistic and refreshing, and although I disagree with Doug's assessment in a few areas, he's been successfully cobbling together an eclectic mix of early cultural pioneers and their modern counterparts to explore the very liminal spaces of humanity that he professes that modern algorithms leave out:

Autonomous technologies, runaway markets and weaponized media seem to have overturned civil society, paralyzing our ability to think constructively, connect meaningfully, or act purposefully. It feels as if civilization itself were on the brink, and that we lack the collective willpower and coordination necessary to address issues of vital importance to the very survival of our species.

The simplest way to understand and change our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.

Complimentary to Doug's exploration of the technovirus on human interaction is Mark Pesce's straight-up information podcast entitled The Next Billion Seconds.:

We live in a world where every day brings dramatic changes. The world is growing smarter – not just us, but everything we touch. That's changing what we can do – and it's changing the shape of the future.

The coming 'next billion seconds' are the most important in human history, as technology transforms the way we live and work. We talk to some of the brightest minds shaping our world, charting our path as we voyage into an incredible future.

Why would I consider this complimentary? Not because of the podcast itself (although informative and occasionally exploring cultural issues), but for the man. Pesce and Rushkoff are long-time acquaintances with a history that weaves into and out at different moments. Both wrote articles for the Disinformation Company when it was being accelerated by music journalist and entrepreneur Richard Metzger, who took advantage of the dotcom boom to turn investor cash into a counterculture publication company and Digg-style web community.

Pesce—very much someone whose career evolved with advancing technology—was one of the very pioneers inventing early technology—most famous for his virtual reality markup language (VRML). But he continues to be a kid in a candy store by exploring how technology is altering children's toys, spatial awareness, and our own ideas on community and culture. Most recently he did a deep dive into the components of augmented reality to explain how the proverbial game is changing.

In Pesce, we see what it's like to have the cultural clout, but technological empowerment in exploring the future—a more pragmatic version of Jason Silva's Wonderjunkie, while Rushkoff takes that wonder and grounds it in the reality of our current financially extractive economy, pointing out all the ways that automated algorithms are enabling the wealth gap and oppression that keeps progress from moving forward for everyone and not just the one percent.

If you still don't believe me about Pesce, just take a look at his original web site.

As the younger Gen X'ers struggle with the prospects of a real dystopia—we all loved to read about cyberpunk dystopia, but nobody wanted to actually live in one—and come to terms with our place in the creation of that future, we look to our elder Gen X'ers for a course correction. That very self and generational reflection along with hearing out people like Douglas Rushkoff is what influences us today and drives us to explore and re-purpose. It's why conversational software pioneer Ben Brown is toying with legacy protocols for communication. It's where tech/culture synthesis like Sentiers comes from. And as the influence trickles down into younger generations, it spawns empowered thinking for initiatives like Logic Magazine or Cybr Magazine.

And of course, Pesce brings us back to the billion seconds.

We are Internet

I recently backed a Kickstarter for the founding of the Billion Seconds Institute—an initiative by I Am Internet. Reviewing the pitch reminded me of the Long Now Foundation only on a universal scale. Again, we see the emergence of the billion seconds virus to give us a time scale for the evolving future. The Billion Seconds Institute wants to ask the question:

What if we unite to reimagine the internet(s) as sustainable networks of knowledge, solidarity and care?

It describes itself as:

[A] lifelong learning initiative to organise a network of specialists, advisors and communities of practice to reimagine the ways we understand and shape the mental, social and environmental impacts of the digital economy.

Our aim is to help you expand and activate holistic ways of thinking for today, tomorrow and the next billion seconds.

I'm reminded of the Timothy Leary quote "Find the others" when I read that, but at the same time "Find the others" was used as an homage by both the Disinformation Company and Team Human. For decades those looking to escape the time-trap of modern capitalism and cultural oppression have had difficulty organizing, and when we finally do and produce a media virus worthy of shifting thought on a topic, it seems that marketing and advertising successfully co-op that message and twist it for commercial revenue, taking what was once the "counterculture," hollowing it out, and reselling it like a mortgage backed security. MTV is a great example of this.

It's a constant revolution as we battle against our baser instincts of dominance to evolve towards a post-scarcity society and more inclusive culture. Each moment we think the counterculture has won, we find out that only our tools and not our ideals have been assimilated—another abstraction for financial gain.

But maybe this time can be different. Maybe we can learn from our naivete of the early Internet years. With more organizations like the Billion Seconds Institute and more indie technology publications like Logic Magazine, we can continued to influence the answer of the most important question of the next billion seconds:

What can the future look like and who do we allow to shape it?