The year started with an in-real-life memes invasion of US Capitol, a brutal call to reality for the hopes that the calendar’s turn would be the salvific dawn of a new era. In War and Peace, Tolstoj wrote that a real general never finds himself “at the beginning of some event”; instead, he is perpetually situated in the middle of a series of events, each a link in an endless chain of causation. In this first issue of 2021, you find three prompts to set for the months to come with perspective. May history and interdependence be the engine of innovation.
The anthropologist Vincent Ialendi studies the worldviews of nuclear waste experts in Finland, who reckon with radioactive isotopes over extremely long-term planetary timeframes. Their challenge is to factor into nuclear waste management far-future (in the order of tens or hundreds of thousands years) events like glaciations and human population fluctuations. Since it is impossible to get accurate postcards from the far future, experts use deep time analogies, the idea that some form of future may have happened already in the past, although in a different form. For instance, in studying if copper canisters will corrode in the long-term, experts look at analogues, like a Mesozoic copper deposit preserved in mudstone in Devon, England, for 170 million years. Find your deep time observation spot. 🔮
In 1947, the Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong described the Han culture’s rural roots as marked by a different cosmology: the universe is perfect as it is; human’s duty is to maintain its harmony, starting from the present moment. In urban culture, instead, life is defined by the pleasure of overcoming future challenges. The dominant narrative sees the countryside as backwards and conservative, while freedom and progress reside in urban areas. It fuels the belief that tech will somehow save or educate rural people. Xiaowei Wang believe that our ability to confront this narrative will determine our shared future. Their book Blockchain Chicken Farms was an illuminating holiday read. I suspect many innovative ideas (hello, Green Deal) reside in embracing city and countryside interdependence and humbly seeking mutual inspiration.
The Human Genome Project, the project to map the whole of the human genome, is 30. In an interview, its director Eric Green remembers: “We had this big audacious goal of reading out the 3 billion letters of the human instruction book, but we didn’t have the technology to do it. We didn’t have the methods. We didn’t even have a functional internet. There was no playbook. I could sort of imagine that one day genomics might be part of clinical care. But I truly did not think it would happen in my lifetime.” Many readers of this newsletter focus on challenges that seem impossible to tackle in a lifetime: keep going, search for allies, don’t get stuck with the lack of an immediate solution.