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Essays

Pharaoh Dreamed

Published on Wednesday, January 16, 02002  •  15 years, 1 month ago
Written by Stewart Brand for The Long Now Foundation

Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat and beautiful cows and seven lean and ugly cows, and lo, the seven ugly cows ate the seven beautiful cows. Joseph explained what the dream meant---there would be seven fat years coming in Egypt, and then seven lean years, and the seven lean and ugly years would EAT the seven fat and beautiful years. That's us in 2002.

We remember fondly the pronouncements deemed appropriate to the bountiful years from 1993 to 2000. "We are extremely cool." "Greed IS good." "Government is bad." "The future is more bounteous than anybody can possibly imagine." "We expect to see the Dow at 40,000." "On Internet time the best is the enemy of the JUUUST good enough."

That's what is known as "the short now," where history is last quarter, and the very long-term future is the next doubling of Moore's Law. Time is fat and short.

The lean years offer a different perspective---tangible right here at a more modest Webbies. Time is lean and long. It might be thought of as "the long now"---say, the last 10,000 years and the next 10,000 years. In the long now, these are pretty mild lean years. Pharaoh's biblical famine was worse; America's 1929 Depression was worse; and the future is bound to hold some years whose leanness would eat our little downturn like ribeye steaks. See, you feel better already.

In the long now, this year's Webby nominees get to compete withŠ the domestication of goats; the invention of the magnetic compass (in China); the invention of the university; and "The Maltese Falcon." Who will win Webby equivalents in 2050; in 2277; and 12002? And for what? That's a proud lineage.

What pronouncements are appropriate for lean years? Fact is, pronouncements are pretty scarce in lean years. Whining is in: "I could have sold my WebMD at 107." "WHAT were we thinking?" Also in is the kind of pondering that might eventually add up to wisdom. These statements all begin with "Hmmmm" "Dot-orgs outlast dot-coms and maybe to greater aggregate benefit." "The gift economy made the Internet and is making it still." "There's time to fully bake an idea now."

Lean years are not just punctuation between periods of fat years. They are the discipline years when civilization consolidates its gains and invents its way out of trouble. In the long now, THESE are the good years. Don't waste them.

First heard as a two-minute speech by Stewart Brand for the 2002 Webby Awards, 18 June 02002.