In DIALOGUE // Alexander Rose & Phil Libin

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Exploring the layers of human civilization, we sat with Phil Libin, founder and CEO of All Turtles, and Alexander Rose, Executive Director at The Long Now Foundation and the 10,000 Year Clock project, to discuss the tensions between long-term planning and the role of products in shaping our future. 

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ALEXANDER ROSE & PHIL LIBIN: ON THE LAYERS OF CIVILIZATION, THE FUTURE OF PRODUCTS & THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW

 

Rimma Boshernitsan: We start all our interviews by diving into people's backgrounds — how they grew up, where they grew up, and the relationships of their past. Alexander, we’ll start with you: what was your beginning like?

Photo by Christopher Michel

Photo by Christopher Michel

Alexander Rose: I grew up on the Sausalito Waterfront. It is now a shipyard, but back then it was a junkyard left over from World War II. We were all builders, artists and people ‘in between’ that needed free living. It was an awesome place to grow up. I spent my childhood building infinite forts and finding parts to create whatever came to mind. When it came time to getting a formal education, I fundamentally knew I wanted to be an inventor. There's no inventing degree or school, so I got a degree in industrial design. I went to San Francisco State University (SFSU) for two years and took their Industrial Arts program which was a phenomenal blue-collar design program, with an amazing shop of tools like injection molding machines.

After my two years at SFSU, I got into Carnegie Mellon’s Industrial Design program and completed it after three years. When I returned to San Francisco in the mid-1990’s, I started working in virtual world design for Chrysler and Marketing for LucasArts. I eventually got very frustrated that my 20-hour workday would only turn into a CD-Rom that was about as valuable as a coaster a week after it came out. Because of my mother’s local community and political involvement as a mayor and county supervisor, she connected me to Stewart Brand, the founder of The Long Now Foundation, editor of The Whole Earth Catalogue, who lived on a tugboat in Sausalito. She introduced us and we quickly became friends. I shared my frustration with Stewart and he was able to get me a bunch of great interviews.  

As a result, I was interviewing at Blizzard Entertainment (the World of Warcraft people doing video games). I thought, "Wow, this is going be the best possible video game job I could ever have." And then Stewart told me about The Clock Project. Back then the project was just a conversation between Danny Hillis, Brian Eno, and Stewart, but I just couldn't get it out of my head when I heard about it. By strange luck, there was a Board meeting a week after where I met Danny for the first time. It was then that he told me he had a funder for the first prototype of the Clock and asked if I wanted to help build it. I immediately said, "Yes, this is what I want to do. I don't want to work on video games anymore."

Originally, the plan was to just build a prototype of the Clock. We didn't know if anything would come of it, but we slowly emerged into a future-oriented space with The Long Now Foundation, and started building more projects from the springboard of the Clock.

 

RB: Phil, you immigrated to the states at a young age, what was your childhood like?

Photo by Michael O'Donnell

Photo by Michael O'Donnell

Phil Libin: I was born in Russia. My parents are both classical musicians. My father is a violinist, my mother a pianist. I grew up without any musical talent at all. My parents, having figured it out early on, actually gave up trying to teach me music when I was about four. Russians do not teach a child music for their own good, they only do so if there is a chance that they would be a world class musician—otherwise, why bother?

 

RB: So they gave you books?  

PL: Yes, they gave me books! We moved to the U.S. when I was eight, and I grew up mostly in the Bronx in New York City. It was 1979. We were the only Russians in the neighborhood at the time. I got my first computer when I was pretty young and just hacked around on it without any particular plans. I thought I would do something involving computers but was not really specific about it. I started doing programming consulting work when I was a kid, and eventually started my first company in high school.

 

RB: Phil -- Sci-Fi has had a significant influence on your dedication to innovation and invention. How has Sci-Fi influenced your work?

PL: When I moved here I didn't speak any English. I was old enough to remember, so I remember not understanding anything and then I remember understanding it. I never took any formal classes but learned by reading comic books and watching TV. I was reading Thor, so all of my early English was influenced by how the main character speaks in comic books. I also watched TV, and since my dad used to really like Star Trek, I started watching Star Trek around that age.

The Sci-Fi that I gravitated towards was about long-term planning and thinking, but I never understood that to be my job until I read The Clock of the Long Now, by Stewart Brand. It was one of the most influential books of my life. I thought, "Wow, these people are actually doing it. It's all plausible.” There is no gap between where we are now and some point 10,000 years later. There is a continuation.

Planning for 10,000 years into the future is perceived as silly because it seems too arrogant, or conceited, or self-centered. What gives us the right to think that we can plan for 10,000 years? Yet that was the reaction that made it so important to me. People are saying that we're reaching too high, but there isn't even a bar yet. Someone has got to do it.

 

RB: What products have impacted you that embody this type of future-oriented, long-term planning?  

PL: The 10,000 Year Clock was very influential for me—practicing an understanding that we can’t assume there will be a continuity of arbitrary knowledge about what clocks are and how they work. What if there was a total collapse for a few hundred years and people reemerged without knowing about traditional clocks? Can you still have it make sense? How they tackled this dilemma was awesome.  

Another amazing product was The Rosetta Disk project, designed in an attempt to preserve language for 10,000 years into the future.

AR: We collected parallel information from several thousand languages and micro-etched the language into these disks using gallium ion beam, then cast that into metal. They used the same technology one would use for micro-circuitry, but used it to write actual text, not just 1's and 0's, not just dots and dashes. If you put it under a microscope you can actually read it. It has a data density that's in the realm of what we perceive as digital data, but it's all analog.

RB: Is it visible with the naked eye?

AR: Yes, we made a piece of jewelry out of it. You see a spiral text that says "Languages of the World," then it gets a little bit too small to read. You can see more with a magnifying glass, then with a microscope you can start to read all of it. We give people a little jeweler's magnifier so they can see the pages.

RB: Alexander -- what challenges have you faced while building the 10,000 Year Clock, and what do those challenges tell us about our society and how it might change? 

Whatever I create, what I want most is for the people of that future to think that we gave a shit.

AR: There were certainly many engineering and material science challenges, but the ones we struggle with the most are the aesthetic and experiential issues.  How do you make something visually compelling to someone 100 years from now?  How about 8,000 years from now? How do we make the whole experience transformational for the people that visit the Clock? Are we only designing the Clock for humans when we talk about these kind of time spans? In order to answer these questions for the project we had to both look into the past about what still compels us as well as take lessons we have learned from things that have failed to do so.

Ultimately we came to the conclusion that people 10,000 years ago are not actually that much different than they are today. Their hands are roughly the same size and shape, they care about beautiful and elegant things, they want the best for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.  We tried to make all our design decisions using similar assumptions about the people of the future.

 

RB: How do you reconcile the current speed of entrepreneurship and product development, particularly in Silicon Valley, with long-term planning?

PL: Well I think there's an easy answer and then there's the deep answer. The deep answer is Chapter 7 of The Clock of the Long Now. It's a chapter called "The Order of Civilizations" that describes how everything in the universe works in three pages. It's kind of amazing.

An excerpt from The Clock of the Long Now by Steward Brand

An excerpt from The Clock of the Long Now by Steward Brand

AR: It is described through a diagram. I worked with Stewart and Brian Eno on it and it eventually became the diagram in The Clock of the Long Now. It illustrates the layers of human time, starting with Fashion, Commerce, Infrastructure, Governance, Culture and Nature. The deeper layers move slowly, like Nature, but the ones on the periphery are frenetic, experimental, and wild. These are the layers that incorporate fashion, art, and information technology.

PL: Yup. They go really fast.

AR: Which isn’t bad. What ends up being dangerous is when you do something like skip a bunch of layers and end up affecting the natural world, one of the slower moving layers, without paying attention to everything in between. For instance, when Maxam liquidated all of Pacific Lumber, they wanted to chop down all the old-growth redwood groves, make a bunch of money and walk away. They just took the Commerce layer and were trying to sell something that took millions of years to create and doesn't come back.

PL: Another problematic approach is when you try to lock those layers together. In the Soviet Union they'd make a five-year plan, and they would try to make Art move at the same speed as Culture, as if they could slow it down. But they can't be locked into place. The outer layers have to go faster.

 

RB: How does the concept of these layers relate to your current work the new AI startup studio, All Turtles?

PL:  The idea with All Turtles is to support the layers, from the top all the way through the bottom. The outer layers, the ones that spin quickly, get all the attention. They innovate. Yet the slower layers have the power to move the world. Young people focus on the fast-moving stuff, but as you get older, you're more and more drawn to the slower moving layers, like infrastructure. We want art to innovate quickly, but we also want to institutionalize the best of what we've learned so can penetrate into the infrastructure layer and throughout society.

The core idea of All Turtles is disrupting the organization of innovation. We're calling bullshit on this idea that you have to make a company to make a product, which has been entrenched for the past 50 years. Right now if you are a great painter, you just paint. You don't make a painting company. If you're a great writer, you write. You don't make a writing company. Yet, if you have a great product vision, you are instructed to raise money and make a company.

We are trying an alternate way to organize the world’s most brilliant people to make products in a way that does not force them to do the very inefficient step of linking it with a company first.

 

RB: If in 10,000 years someone found what you're both building now what would you ideally want their reaction to be?

PL: Ideally there would be enough continuity where they don't “find it” — they would have simply known about it the whole time. “Finding it” assumes that either something bad has happened or that we haven't done something important enough. Ideally in 10,000 years they would know exactly what it is.

AR: We certainly need a continuation of meaning. Even today, with instructions from IKEA that don't have words, everyone assumes, "Oh, you're going to put the instructions for the clock as diagrams, right?" Which makes us ask, "How well do those Ikea instructions work for you?" It turns out words are actually a lot better than diagrams. And that's concurrent time, just between a Swedish mind and my mind!

Whatever I create, what I want most is for the people of that future to think that we gave a shit. That we cared about them. I think that's the fundamental philosophy behind the Clock, an expression that we actually care about the future. Whenever I'm making design decisions, I ask myself, “How will my design decision make the people of the future think that we cared about them?”

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No Show* // an exploration of the human condition

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With vision boards covering the walls, and the arched ceiling of The Dome atop the historic Humboldt Bank Building covering our heads, we gathered to tackle a concept central to human survival: Nourishment.

Incredibly intimate and highly marketed, we chose Nourishment for the No Show* debut to spark introspection and innovation among pioneers within the food industry. “How,” we asked chefs, food brand CEOs, writers, entrepreneurs, “how can we recalibrate the experience of nourishment for the rapidly changing 21st century? How do we define nourishment today?”

As a collaborative project with Gershoni Creative, No Show* allows us to combine our passions in designing for human connection, creating a community that drops pretense in favor of cross-pollination and genuine inquiry.

The topic of Nourishment quickly turned to the tensions and challenges within the food industry and across our society: 

// How do we ensure that nourishment is inclusive?

// Do we seek to feed, or do we seek to profit?

// Where can we work across difference to create a resurgence of human connection within the food movement?

Touching on issues of income disparities, changing agricultural practices, and industry temptations to indulge rather than feed, leaders in the food movement gathered to share personal stories and professional insights, creating a collective intelligence for the future of food. Our deliberate conversation encouraged action by illuminating the threads of connectivity across the spectrum of our experience, highlighting potential solutions to the challenges we all face in finding, and generating, true nourishment.

Photo credit: Gershoni Creative

Photo credit: Gershoni Creative

Over the course of the year, this series on the Human Condition will cover topics such as: Belonging, Attraction, Design & Power, and Legacy & Heritage. We aim to use No Show as a space to grapple with issues that are central to the challenges society, in hopes of building a more connected, caring, and innovative future. Additional insights on each topic to follow.

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In DIALOGUE // Erica Deeman

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Erica Deeman is a contemporary photographer whose current work in portraiture upturns assumptions on identity, humanity, gender, and race.  Having joined us for a recent Dialogue: On Power, we explore the importance of reframing representation, historical legacy, and the redistribution of power.

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ERICA DEEMAN: ON POWER & REPRESENTATION 

Photo credit: Anastasiia Sapon, San Francisco

Photo credit: Anastasiia Sapon, San Francisco

Ariel Cooper: To start from the very beginning, what was your childhood like?

Erica Deeman: I was born in Nottingham, UK. My mom is Jamaican, my dad is English. I went to an all-girls private school from a very early age, and wore a school uniform every day. I lived in a formal environment and though not clearly spoken, a feminist agenda was present. Since it was an all-girls school, the headmistress was, by her title, a woman, and the focus was on academic excellence. Art was not given a foremost position in terms of my education, but being an educated, intelligent woman definitely was.

AC: How do you see that experience translating into your work?

ED: A formal nature and presentation is a legacy of my education, and the concept of historical references can be seen throughout my work. Having been taught from an early age that you could do anything as a woman, the potential of women has been a theme running through my life, with my first body of work focused on the silhouettes of women.

There were very few references of African diaspora in my childhood, both historical or representational. There were maybe four other women of color in my school and that similarly reflected the society I was growing up in at the time. The history we learned was so blatantly focused on the European perspective. So the concept of historical representation is present in my work as I look back and review the visual stimulus we were given and try to articulate and place people who are not white Europeans.

Courtesy the artist and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

Courtesy the artist and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

The history we learned was so blatantly focused on the European perspective. So the concept of historical representation is present in my work as I look back and review the visual stimulus we were given and try to articulate and place people who are not white Europeans.

AC:  As if you are creating a different type of history for people to look back on?

ED: Yes, using the framework and the familiarity we have with historical visual references such as portraiture, and re-articulating that for the African diaspora and for people of color.

AC: You mentioned you gravitated towards marketing with a desire to be a creative. How do you see your education in Public Relations informing your work?

ED: Advertising is about a single, clear message that people can understand. With art, you have a little bit more room for interpretation. In some ways, the wider the interpretation, the better the art. The more concise the interpretation for advertising, the better the advert. I understand that repetitious, visual recognitions are crucial to getting your message across. Because I work in series, I create environments where the only thing I'm changing is the person within the portrait. The idea that you can create something that is instantly recognizable as belonging to a campaign or a brand — I definitely still have that within me.

The only difference is that I've given my work a bit more room for interpretation. When you create an ad campaign, the logo has to be the same size. I can see that the spacing and design of my images is very similar, it's almost like there is no real change in dimensions. In some ways, it replicates the way people look at people of color. My work builds off the idea that we group things and we generalize. The work fits into that expectation, but forces you to kind of look further.

AC: This visual recognition is evident throughout your work, with the concept of the silhouette being very prominent. What drew you to the silhouette, and how has that evolved throughout your art career thus far?

ED: The first time I invited a woman from the African diaspora into my studio, the image that I made was a silhouette. I wasn't there to make a silhouette. It's something that I saw. There is a historical importance -- the silhouette is a mass medium that people use and formulate identity from. This is important in the context of my work because women of color were never really included within the silhouette.

It [the silhouette] is strongly linked to features in character. Physiognomy and the legacy of pseudoscience is still within our psyche somewhere. The reality is that we can look at someone's face, or we can look at the shape of a feature, and think, “That person is dishonest, or honorable, or a criminal,” or all these different elements and assumptions. We still have a resting bitch face. We have people that alter their faces to be perceived as more favorable. The silhouette is a tool to enhance and open up that dialogue. With my work, I have the opportunity to give more detail and humanity to my subjects.

AC: Re-envisioning the silhouette to include all the nuances that exists, rather than just an outline or a shell.

ED: Exactly. Through my own experience of moving to the States, I felt the expectation that's placed upon you because of the color of your skin. It's been very important for me to think about how I could open up a wider visual narrative for people of color, for women from the African diaspora, so they could be perceived with more depth and with more character, and with more adjectives used to describe us.

AC: Could you share a bit about the relationship you have with the subjects you photograph and how you choose whom to photograph?

ED: Many of the women I found were strangers from the street. When I started making the work in school, I waited outside in areas of high foot traffic in search for women of color. It isn't important for me to have a deep connection with somebody before I make an image, but it turned out that many of my subjects became friends and helped me find additional people for more photographs.

It is an interesting experience to ask somebody for a formal portrait, because firstly, it is very formal, and secondly, there are so many expectations around beauty, and what it means to be in a portrait within such a formal setting. There's always going to be a problem with beauty, and how it's defined, and I enjoy challenging and asking those questions -- what does it mean to be beautiful within a photograph, and how is it measured and owned?

I realize that within portraiture, I am making the images. It is my interpretation, and a photograph or a visual representation could never really, truly supply any real information about who a person is. So, in a way, my subjects are my great vessels in which I can deliver my message.

AC: Similar themes of authority and representation were prominent in our recent Dialogue: On Power. What reflections do you have on that conversation and how these themes relate to your work?

ED: History is very important for me. As we get access to more information, it's very clear how history is articulated and how it can be re-articulated and redressed. For me, in my work, art has power. It's very important to look at who is making the work, and who is in front of, and the vision of the work, and how that has formed representation. In connection to our dialogue, we all have some measure of power. With my work, I'm trying to re-contextualize it on gallery walls.

We can look at how power has been distributed, and we can use that information as a springboard to create a wider, more sympathetic narrative. I think one of the great successes of the movie Moonlight, is not necessarily this great, dynamic storyline, but just the possibility of emotion for the characters involved. Emotions that challenge us all to think in a broader way. I think that's very powerful. There is power merely in the act of transforming a thought into a deeper emotion that could make one stop for just a second and think, "If this woman can look like this on the gallery wall, maybe she could be this in normal life,” or “maybe he could have so much more depth than what I've previously expected.”

We have people that alter their faces to be perceived as more favorable. The silhouette is a tool to enhance and open up that dialogue. With my work, I have the opportunity to give more detail and humanity to my subjects.

Within a photograph, and within visual depiction, there is power. There is the power to elevate, and there is the power to denigrate. I think that within this environment and within this body of work, it's definitely an empowering, shared moment. Using the portrait and its historical ability to elevate and position, especially within the gallery setting. Within a walled, framed environment that has always been its intention.

AC: You just mentioned creating a more sympathetic narrative. How did that desire influence your creative decisions for your new series, Brown?

ED: Brown came from the expectation about my own heritage. I am biracial, and I have always found that people expected my dad to be black and my mum to be white. It's the other way around. In this series, I wanted to explore that expectation of the black man.

An image can challenge a legacy of physiognomy, this idea of "othering," and the elevation of European features. The portrait has provided a way to understand someone and depending on the depth and environment we assume, "This person looks a particular way, which means this person is fantastic, and great, and all of those wonderful, positive characteristics." But then we've seen other photographs or depictions and assume, "This person is obviously a criminal,” or "This person is dishonest."

For the Brown series, color was incredibly important for me. The backdrop is a color that is very close to my own skin tone as a way to insert myself into the image. Obviously, I am within the image because the portrait is a shared moment, but I wanted to have some kind of physical element of myself within the image. This particular color opens up a narrative about color and definitions. I also used a very formal portrait style that we are used to seeing, but not with men of color. Not with men from the African diaspora.

Another creative decision I made was the naked torso, which speaks to the idea of removing clothing as the key identifier and class positioning for these men. I wanted the viewer to look at the faces within a repetitive environment and try to understand who they are against the beautiful color that is emanating.

When people create work, especially photography, the assumption is that the person creating the work has all of the power. I return back to that word, because the assumption is that you, behind the camera, are in the strongest position. But with this body of work, it's not always true. There is so much of me that I have to give in order to create something that we share together. The process is completely shared in terms of that power dynamic. We are definitely making something together.

Courtesy the artist and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

Courtesy the artist and Anthony Meier Fine Arts, San Francisco

AC: What are you hoping to bring to your next body of work?

ED: It's always about evaluation. I'm always asking, "How am I evaluated?" In everyday life, I'll walk into an office to look at some prints, and someone's going to say hello to me, and within that split second they are evaluating me.

My practice is centered on evaluation. That is the concept that I always bring to the work. When you look at this person, right now, what are you thinking? How am I being perceived? How am I perceiving the person that's in front of my camera? How is the person in front of a beautiful, framed piece of work in a gallery wall evaluating this person? That's where I am. That's me. I'm always there.

AC: Is there anything you want to share about your current shows at BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive) and your first show with Anthony Meier Fine Arts?

ED: Other than that I'm super excited about it? No. This will be the first time that so many of my portraits will have been placed on the wall -- over 30 of them. I feel that it's going to widen the narrative of these men and women, and I’m excited to be in both Berkeley and San Francisco!

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Edited by Brianna Colburn & Ariel Cooper

Letter from the Editor // An Exciting Year Ahead

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2017. A year of collaboration. A year of focus, determination and discovery. A year of shaping the human experience to inspire next-level thinking.

Our first collaboration is with San Francisco-based Gershoni Creative. The event series, called No Show, is a hybrid of our pop-up ThinkTank format and Gershoni Creative’s cross-disciplinary approach to building brands. No Show invites industry leaders to come together, to drop pretense in favor of cross-pollination, engagement and innovation, tackling issues central to the human experience — nourishment, belonging, attraction, design & power, and legacy & heritage. Details from each dialogue will be shared throughout the year.

No Show is a series open to the community -- if you’d like to nominate an innovative mind to take part, please be in touch.

Photo credit: Vinobosh Photography 

Photo credit: Vinobosh Photography 

Our second collaboration is with the Berlin-based DO School. The Do School is known for their unique approach to innovation strategy, bringing together leaders and young entrepreneurs to solve challenges. Complementing our cross-disciplinary critical inquiry process, together we will be working internationally with both late-stage startups and Fortune 500 companies to move the needle on the future of people, product, and purpose for organizations and brands.

More and more, our work has uncovered the need for human-to-human connection in business. We’ve worked with companies like Lyft, Google, and Kaiser to shift perspectives, inspire action, and organically script the path to results.

One topic that needs a shift in perspective is power. So much so, we felt a deep-dive is necessary. This year we will bring over 30 cross-industry thought leaders together to address how the topic of Power is articulated, contested, and informed in the 21st century. We will expand our signature pop-up ThinkTank session to extend across multiple days, employing a wide spectrum of perspectives to move the needle on the topic’s critical role in pressing business and social issues. By connecting across disciplines, the Dialogue series will use deep inquiry to form a collective intelligence that can have a cross-cultural, cross-generational, and cross-gender impact.

We’ll continue to communicate monthly -- our blog interviews with the likes of Ivy Ross, Tomas Saraceno, and Erica Deeman, among others, will go-live in the coming months.  

For those of you who have been loyal followers from the get-go, we thank you. And for our new friends - stay tuned, this year is shaping up to be the most exciting yet!

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a holiday message

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Dialogue is a practice.

 
In dialogue, we discover ourselves in relation to others.
We question, bridge difference, form a collective intelligence, and cultivate new understanding.

2017. How can we all create more of this?  

Happy Holidays.
 

 
Artwork & studio: Richard T. Walker 

Artwork & studio: Richard T. Walker 

 

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