From Visual Developer Magazine #57, September/October 1999


"Dear Sir: Your Lumber Is Ready."



What marks long-view thinking is one commandment more than any other: Keep your options open. Dead ends aren't just limitations in space. They mark an end point in time, and the premature end of progress.

In 1980 Sweden's Department of Forestry wrote a letter to the Swedish Navy, informing the Navy that its lumber was ready. One hundred fifty years earlier, in 1829 Swedish planners predicted that a shortage of oak timber suitable for building warships would arise by the year 1990. So they instructed the foresters to be proactive, and the foresters planted a new oak forest on a government-owned island, knowing that it takes ship-quality timber at least 150 years to mature. In their view, I'm sure, they felt that they had barely forestalled certain disaster.

Stewart Brand tells this wonderful story in his recent book, The Clock of the Long Now. The book is a plea for a return to the long view in human society, like the one the Swedes had in 1829. As intriguing as the book is, Brand tiptoes around the question of what exactly constitutes a long view, and while he credits the Swedes for long-term thinking, he's at a loss to suggest what they should have done. Nobody can predict technology—nor anything else, for that matter—one hundred fifty years into the future. So how do you foster a long view of anything? What the Swedes probably should have done is funded a think tank on the future of warfare. On the other hand, the oak trees were a good hedge, and I guess you can always make bookcases out of them.

To take the long view is to think and hedge, perhaps—remembering which is which. Optimism is always called for, though it should stop short of mania. It should be obvious that long-view endeavors must produce more than they consume. (This is no longer obvious to many in our society, as I learned in reading Michael Wolff's ascerbic Burn Rate.) But for my money, what marks long-view thinking is one commandment more than any other: Keep your options open. Dead ends aren't just limitations in space. They mark an end point in time, and the premature end of progress.

Long-view thinking, in technology especially, is mostly the avoidance of limits. Let me offer three points to ponder in the pursuit of a the long view:

  1. Algorithms often outlive their implementations. Don't let your implementations infect your algorithms and thereby limit them. (This is what Don Knuth was getting at when he said, "Premature optimization is the root of all evil.") Y2K is the idiot's example here, but subtler examples are lodged everywhere in our code like buckshot in a crook's behind. You'd think we'd have learned better by now…
  2. Openness is less limiting than secrecy, which, taken to an extreme, is forgetting-the destruction of information and hence of options. An open source product has many more options than a proprietary one-and will live longer.
  3. Develop a sense of wonder, and incorporate it into your planning. Doers think. Leaders think big. Earth-shakers think wild. History tells me that over the long haul, wild trumps big every time. Put your longest view into your ideas—somebody will eventually be able to come up with an implementation.

Finally, implicit in the very idea of a long view is that there is such a thing as the common good, which both outlasts and is ultimately more important than any individual, group, or nation. Adopting rather than subverting existing standards is a long-view tactic, as is the support of open markets. (The freest economy in the world—ours—is also the strongest. This is no coincidence.)

As for the Swedes, well, their lumber is ready. The dumb response would be to harvest the trees and make bookshelves out of them at 3% retail margin. The smart response would be to keep the forest. The brilliant response would be to build yachts, sell them, and then use the proceeds to plant ten times more trees, and leave the question of how best to use good oak to those who will harvest it in the year 2150.