Gavin Starks
Longplayer - How Will We Be Long?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gavin Starks has spent 20 years helping to make our data infrastructure useful to everyone: creating and leading businesses, bringing together the web, finance, policy, data, science, the environment, art and media. This has led to the creation of dozens of companies, the employment of 100’s of people, and £100Ms in measurable impact (including $137M in four years at the ODI) and helping to create $multi-billion markets through the development of regulated markets such as the Open Banking Standard.

Working with others Gavin has tackled complex challenges ranging from climate change to government transparency; digital supply-chains to open banking. His ambition is to create positive impact@web-scale on issues that require the coordination of multidisciplinary teams across private, public and third sectors. Harnessing the power of people and machines (‘collective intelligence’), his current Dgen Constellation projects include the internationalisation of Open Finance and making data work harder to deliver net-zero via IcebreakerOne.org (which launched at Davos in 2020).

Part of my role as a Longplayer trustee is to help us think through what our long view might be. Here I recount some of our thinking and ideas from over the years.

Longplayer helps us ask many questions about our world and our role in its future. It helps frame questions that are much bigger than us — but they are not ‘infinite’. The time-bound nature of the project leads to many different questions: what might be happening in the future? What might our role be? What might our impact be? How might we communicate across 40 generations (if a generation is 25 years)? What will be happening on its fifth thousand-year loop?

I’ve always been interested in time (I studied both Astrophysics and Electronic Music). Some years ago, when I joined Longplayer, I asked Jem about the origins of the project. We discussed how time works (and how clocks aren’t really helpful when trying to think about it). We talked about how we are all obsessed with time, yet rarely take time; or really take time to figure out our relationship with it. We have explored these ideas through many conversations over a number of years.

In these conversations, Jem has recounted childhood memories with his father; of getting a telescope, looking at the stars and learning from him that they’d been there for millions of years. Of tuning into shortwave radio in South America and wondering … what’s in-between the stations?

He reflected on our sense of time: its vastness; its intangibility; of nightmares about time; of developing an obsession about the idea of time; of playing music and this experience being, to him, “on the cusp of controlling time”; that when playing music, time seemed almost eternal; that ‘other times’ [when not playing] were just “very long presents”; and how Longplayer is still a blip.

Jem reflected on learning that stars exhibit acoustic properties and are—in effect—ringing like bells…

The singing bowls were the outcome of a long process of thinking about time, not a starting point.

Personally, I am fascinated by the ridiculous nature of time and our attempts to quantify it: from Plank time (10^-44) to the 13 billion year age of the universe in Cosmological time: from the duration of a political idea — to the length of a bad joke.  

How are we meant to relate to these ideas? What do they mean to our lives? Can we even connect them in a way that is meaningful to the way we experience our worlds?

For me, one of the attractive things about Longplayer is just this: the idea of thinking on a longer timeframe than we usually have, or make, the time or space for—beyond your life, or your children, or grandchildren. A 1,000 years is 30 to 40 generations.  

This way of thinking is itself at significant odds with the pace of life today. It’s hard to imagine how to think about making something that would last 1000 years.

The Longplayer vision not only embraces this 1000 year view. It repeats.  

So what does all this mean? How do we begin to think about it? We have many ways to engage around the concept—it’s not just a single ‘piece of music.’. We’ve held many events and live performances, shared letters and scores, set up listening posts, sold ‘sponsored days’ and generated untold conversations.  

In fact, far from a piece of music, Longplayer can be considered a combination of many things:

  • An idea
  • Sound
  • Physical presence
  • Virtual presence
  • Touch
  • Code
  • Letters and words
  • Numbers (e.g. score, angle, time, samples)
  • Algorithms
  • Long ideas
  • The story
  • Conversations
  • People
  • Places
  • Temporal, and of a time
  • Of an age

Our conversations are about the long view: how can we explore which elements might be used, and how, by whom, and when? The timeframe is big — but it is still not ‘infinite’. And this changes our perception of it.

I’m reminded of the concept Maxipok Zero, which broadly frames our emotional response to the difference between a ‘mass extinction event’ where 99% of life is destroyed and one in which 100% of life is destroyed. With climate change and other crises, this is a real and active question and one that mandates we take a longer view than we think we want to. This begs the question…why do we not feel we have agency over the long term?

With this framing, Longplayer helps us ask many questions about our world, and our role, and meaning in its future.

It helps frame questions that are much bigger than us — from culture to climate change.

And the time-bound nature of the project leads us to focus, not on the infinite, but rather to frame our questions about what might be happening in the near-far future, differently, and our impacts on that.

What might our role be in that near-yet-far horizon?

What might our impact be? How might we communicate across so many generations?

What might be happening on its fifth loop – in the year 7019?

How can we ensure it persists? What is the ‘it’ that is persisting?

Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given I ran the Open Data Institute and other organisations where everything we do is open by default, I strongly advocate that everything that Longplayer does must be open.

There are few instances in history where ‘closed’ information persists, and many examples demonstrate that being open is the best way to spread ideas. Two simple examples, separated by some centuries: the bible and the web.  Things that are open and shared tend to persist more than those that are not. (nb: by open here we mean truly unrestricted, unencumbered and free).

Further, If we want future humans to piece together the next 1000 years of our history, we might ask: would we rather them find things as archaeological artefacts,  or as the whole story, or as a curated set of outputs?

In the Netherlands, when an arts organisation –http://societeanonyme.la/ –  closed down due to lack of funding,  they encoded their entire works (video, sounds, photos, texts) in a printed book, the SKOR codex, copies of which are distributed around the world.

How do we take the long view?

Longplayer is not ideological, new age, nor does it represent emptiness. It challenges us to engage to take the long view: to question what this means to us as individuals; as communities; as societies.

We question what it means to ‘be longplayer’ / to ‘be long’ / to ‘belong’.

A sense of belonging seems to underpin the work—providing a mechanic for longitudinal thinking, discussion and social engagement. A sense of place that isn’t bound in where, but when.

How can we embody both principles of continuity and principles of change?

We consider the question: what else has lasted, or will last, for centuries? Religions, songs and other musics, empires (Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Japanese), businesses (e.g. the 1,000-year-old Japanese hotels).

Constructions, objects and things cover a staggering range: from Tibetan stupas to nuclear waste dumps; pyramids; statues; paintings; books; Knighthoods; tapestries; tiles; accountancy; war; standing stones; mathematics. We see design patterns that span ages, from Incan Quipu to Quantum Computing.

And so, looking forward for Longplayer, what do we create?

  • buildings or object in which the means to play LP awaits its players?
  • shared performances that are inherited?
  • the score engraved in a rock beside a collection of singing bowls?
  • the score and code encoded in the DNA of a cockroach?
  • stories created and told across dinners, lunches, coffees & teas?
  • nursery rhymes?
  • events formal and informal, online and offline?
  • games (eg. playing cards that contain myths)?
  • embedded/codified in other systems (e.g. encrypted into a blockchain)?
  • aboard a satellite orbiting Earth, or on a deep space mission?
  • buried at the bottom of the ocean?

I think one of the reasons we are drawn to Longplayer is the tension of time itself.

We feel drawn in with questions and answers that we can grasp, but know that—while Longplayer is itself time-bound—the questions and answers it raises are indeed timeless and infinite.

As we journey through this fantastic impossible—an unbound—we will navigate through art, connections that snap, unpack and repack the environments in which we think, explore materials and objects that are inside out, squint at prime numbers, upend writings and readings, ring bells and spin vinyl, improvise and perform, conjoin the digital and the analogue. We have a compass, let us now chart some new maps!

And, as you journey, I’d like to challenge you to join the conversation as to how you, we, all of us might be…long.

Where next?

Smith of Derby
Telling Time
So much of what we share on Taking Time is about our perception of time, but what about the literal telling of time? We spoke with Bob Betts and Jason Budd at Smith of Derby, clockmakers since 1856, to find out more about those who look after the public clocks across the country.
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Ishan Singhal
Temporal Scaffolding of Consciousness
Ishan Singhal is a PhD student working in the field of consciousness is exploring whether time may be a useful fundamental property in unifying and furthering our understanding of human experience.
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