Civilization as AI

Smart perspective on “artificial intelligence” from Brian Eno:

Global Civilisation is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us—a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralysed or terrorised by that fact—we still live in it and make use of it.

Two Isolated Americas

This makes a lot of what’s happening today make sense.

Selfishness and happiness

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe…(2) we’re separate from the universe…and (3) we’re permanent. Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving…

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit.

A lovely and probably quite surprising graduation speech by writer George Saunders. The most interesting part of becoming a parent to me was certainly how explicit the choice was between my (continued) selfishness and their happiness.

The Museum of Tomorrow

We wanted to bring to the Museum of Tomorrow a different concept of time: the idea that in the present, you prepare, you make a different path to different possible futures. It’s not a river in the sense that you have one source and one end. You have, in fact, a delta of possibilities.

I love that image: “a delta of possibilities”. A great interview with the chief curator of this new Rio de Janerio museum by Stuart Candy. A better reason to visit Rio than the Olympics!

Absentee futures

We congratulate ourselves on the accomplishment of democracy…But regardless of who votes, what is the real meaning of any such choices if the alternatives among which we are selecting are underimagined, or clichéd – or simply absent? – Stuart Candy

My most influential role these days is less “tastemaker” and “decider” than simply “option generator”.

Design and decisions

Design is just decision-making with visual aids.

Barack Obama, SF fan?

Fascinating to see that Obama is reading Seveneves this summer, by my design hero Neal Stephenson. Another example of the massive impact that fictional storytelling can have on the world, through the people who read it.

The future and presence

In a world without future, each moment is the end of the world. – Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

Of all the stories in this book, this sentence hit me hardest. How would you experience life if you believed every moment was the end of the world?

Obama on power

From the excellent “Obama Doctrine” profile in the New Yorker:

Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. – Barack Obama


Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power.

Perhaps the early Nobel award had an impact on his policy after all?

More on how the Paris climate agreement happened

The Guardian has a wonderful in-depth description of just how the world’s leaders came to an agreement on climate change action in Paris last December (previously). Lots of innovative techniques, including…

  • A headquarters with visibility across the conference:

Fabius, from his office, could be with Christiana Figueres, the UN climate change chief, for a face-to-face chat within seconds. His fellow minister, Ségolène Royal, was just along the corridor, flanked with the offices of ambassadors and high-ranking officials. Within the buzzing control room, screens relayed pictures of what was happening in each of the conference rooms scattered around the compound and 24 hour news from French and international channels.

About 60 French officials were there. In preparation for the all-night sessions that began almost immediately the conference started, a room with 20 cubicled beds was waiting for exhausted officials to refresh themselves with a few snatched moments of sleep.

  • Lots of unique meeting types, for each different type of expression and decision:

Procedurally, the French took great care. They instituted a series of talks known as “confessionals”. These were intended as confidential places where delegates could, in the words of one French official, “speak from the heart” to listening French diplomats, with no holds barred and an assurance of privacy.

There were also the absurdly named “informal informals”, in which a small group of delegates from various countries were charged with tackling a small piece of disputed text often as little as a paragraph at a time. Their task was to try to remove the infamous “square brackets” denoting areas of disagreement on the text and they met in small huddles around the conference centre, squatting on the floor in corridors or standing around a smart phone.

After these measures were still not producing enough progress, Fabius turned to “indabas” – by Zulu tradition, these are groups of elders convened to try to discuss disputes in communities. They were first tried out at the Durban climate talks in South Africa, in 2011, and under France’s plan they consisted of groups of up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to thrash out the remaining disagreements.

  • Small countries banded together to amplify their shared concerns:

While the French could draft in experienced diplomats on every side, some of the smallest countries had difficulty in keeping up with the meetings – many happened in parallel and they did not have the personnel to attend them all.

One way of getting around that was the formation of a “coalition of high ambition”, which was announced with three days to Friday’s deadline. Forged by small island states – a key figure was Tony de Brum of the Marshall Islands – and the EU, it was joined by many of the least developed countries, adding up to more than 100 nations. They could then negotiate together, with an agreed common interest. Before the end, this coalition had been joined by the US, Canada and Australia. It was hailed by Europe’s climate and energy commissioner Miguel Cañete as a key factor in the end agreement.

  • Finally, 1:1 talks between the final decisionmakers:

At this point, it was clear that further efforts were needed. There followed a rapid round of telephone diplomacy. Obama spoke personally to the Chinese leader. Hollande picked up the phone to as many of his counterparts across the world as he could manage.