Philosophy of thinking

What is your cathedral?

Time is a funny thing, and the perspectives that you can get if you shift time around are extraordinarily valuable. Take a simple example: not long ago it was common to engage in building things that would take more than one generation to finish – giant houses, cathedrals and organizations. Today we barely engage in projects that take longer than a year – in fact, that seems long to some people. A three month project, a three week sprint is preferable.

And there is some truth to this. Slicing time finely is a way to ensure that progress is made – even in very long projects. But the curious effect we are witnessing today where the slicing of time into finer and finer moments also shortens the horizons of our projects seems unfortunate.

Sir Martin Rees recently gave a talk at the Long Now Foundation where one of the themes he mused on was this. He offered a theory for why we find ourselves in this state, and the theory was this: the pace of change is such that it makes no sense to undertake very long projects. We can build cathedrals in a year if we want to, and the more powerful our technology becomes the faster we will be able to do so. The extreme case? Starting to build a cathedral in an age where you know that within a short time frame – years – you will be able to 3-d print one quickly and with low cost makes no sense — better then to wait for the technology to reach a stage where it can solve the problem for you.

If we dig here we find a fundamental observation:

(i) In a society where technology develops fast it always makes sense to examine if the time t(1) it takes to create something is greater than the time (t2) you have to wait for it to be done in much shorter time t(3).

If you want to construct something that it would take 5 years to build, but think you will be able to build it in two years if you wait one year – well, the rational thing to do is simply to wait and then do it – right?

That sentiment or feeling may be a driving factor, as sir Martin argues, behind the collapse of our horizons to short term windows. But it seems also to be something that potentially excludes us from the experience of being a part of something greater that will be finished not with you, but by generations to come.

The horizon of your work matters. It is fine to be “productive” in the sense that you finalize a lot of things, but maybe it would also be meaningful and interesting to have a Cathedral-project. Something you engage in that will live on beyond you, that will take a 100 or a 1000 years to complete if it is at all completed.

We have far too few such projects today. Arguably science is such a practice – but it is not a project. Think about it: if you were to start such a project or find one — what would it be? The Long Now Foundation has certainly found such a project in its clock, but that remains one of the few examples of “cathedral”-projects today (Sagrada Familia is also a good example – it is under way and is a proper cathedral, but we cannot all build cathedrals proper).

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