How to Practice Long-term Thinking in a Distracted World

WIRED’s Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson recently interviewed Bina Venkataraman about her new book, The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. Venkataraman’s book focuses on the need for more long-term thinking in the world, and explores issues that have long been a focus for us at Long Now, including the nuclear waste storage problem (discussed in the interview).

Nicholas Thompson: So what I want to do in this conversation with Bina is start out with some personal stuff, move to some organizational stuff, and then try to get to some complicated stuff. So let’s begin with the personal: Why did you write this?

Bina Venkataraman: Well, there’s two answers to that question. The first is that I think we are part of a generation of humanity who have never faced higher stakes for thinking ahead. We’re living longer than our grandparents or their grandparents, and we’re going to need to think about our own futures and how we plan for them. If you look at problems like climate change, our knowledge of how we impact the future is far greater than previous generations of humanity. But we are in a culture that’s encouraging instant gratification. And so I started to wonder: Is it actually possible to think ahead?

The personal part of the answer is that I was working in the White House, and part of my job was to meet with executives of major corporations—like food corporations, for example—and talk about the threat of drought and heat waves to their supply chain. So how farms are going to be affected, the potential for crop failure and a warming climate. One time I sat across from an executive, and he looked at me and said, “You know, I really care about this problem. I have children. I have grandchildren, but I just can’t think ahead. You know, my board and my shareholders have me focused on the quarter. I just can’t think ahead.”

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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