Interview: In DIALOGUE // Alexander Rose & Phil Libin
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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?”