On existing at different speeds

“Civilisations with long nows look after things better. In those places you feel a very strong but flexible structure which is built to absorb shocks and in fact incorporate them.” 

Brian Eno

The global coronavirus pandemic is nothing if not emergent. It has shortened our time horizons and brought the here-and-now into immediate focus: respond to the crisis, find a way through. At the same time it has amplified the importance of foresight and longer-term thinking in our ability to be prepared for such shocks and therefore to respond to them. Indeed, its impact is – in the UK, at least – compounded by historical short-sightedness. The ideologically-driven dogma of austerity significantly weakened the ability of our public systems and more at-risk communities to weather the COVID19 storm. Slack in the system isn’t an inefficient use of resources. Rather, it offers a little flex in times of stress, the ability to absorb – at least to a certain extent – a shock to the system. The stripping of resources from many of our systems and the disinvestment in preventative services has in turn left many people more vulnerable to Covid19.

This idea of different time horizons and different speeds and the relationship with resilience is beautifully illustrated by Stuart Brand’s ‘pace layers’ model, set out in The Clock of the Long Now, and which is worth due reflection, as follows. “Pace layers provide many-levelled corrective, stabilizing feedback throughout the system. It is in the contradictions between these layers that civilization finds its surest health. I propose six significant levels of pace and size in a robust and adaptable civilization:

From the fastest layers to the slowest layers in the system, the relationship can be described as follows:

  • Fast learns, slow remembers.  
  • Fast proposes, slow disposes.  
  • Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous.  
  • Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution.  
  • Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy.  
  • Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.

Brand continues: “All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure.  It is what makes them adaptable and robust. In a durable society, each level is allowed to operate at its own pace, safely sustained by the slower levels below and kept invigorated by the livelier levels above.  ‘Every form of civilization is a wise equilibrium between firm substructure and soaring liberty’ wrote the historian Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. Each layer must respect the different pace of the others. If commerce, for example, is allowed by governance and culture to push nature at a commercial pace, then all-supporting natural forests, fisheries, and aquifers will be lost.” 

Society appears to be on a trajectory towards faster and shorter attention spans and sound bites, with the current tech fashions driving and fulfilling our need for the next dopamine hit of recognition, yet at the same time the imperatives for longer-term thinking are increasingly apparent. Futures and foresight offer one set of approaches to increase the salience of these debates. The pace layers model offers the nuance that this work benefits from. How we understand the often conflicting incentives that can mitigate against long-term thinking and manage these trade-offs is something I’m sure I’ll return to. 

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