What Will Your City Look Like in 1,000 Years? Jonathon Keats’ Millennium Camera

Thanks to Big Think’s favorite experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will have a photographic record of how Tempe, Arizona, in 3015 ended up that way.


Will it be a smoldering cinder? A techno-utopia? Something in between? Unless you’re a self-biohacking billionaire, you may never know. But thanks to Big Think’s favorite experimental philosopher, Jonathon Keats, our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will have a photographic record of how Tempe, Arizona, in 3015 ended up that way.

Using a highly durable pinhole camera, Keats (well, his camera anyway) will document the changes in the skyline of Tempe over the next millennium. The project is sponsored by the Emerge Festival and Arizona State University Art Museum and will (we hope) culminate in an exhibition 1,000 years from now. If physical universities still exist in 3015, and if the camera is not destroyed by rampaging robots constructed by other robots that have long since acquired autonomous intelligence, it will provide our descendants a glimpse backward into “deep time.” Keats hopes that it will give them some perspective on how quickly and radically our cities change, often under our very noses and at the hands of a few ambitious developers and politicians.

Living as we do in a world that records everything, yet seems to have an increasingly limited memory, we can take Keats’ experiment as a reminder that even over massive time scales, some things endure.

Video: Director Nathan Broderick documents (the beginning of) the Millennium Camera Project.

I asked Jonathon a few questions about his farsighted experiment:

1) Do you have any expectations about what the Tempe image will show if it survives? Will it all be bad news?

Tempe is largely a product of population growth in Phoenix, and it's representative of both the promise and the perils of urban expansion throughout the United States. One of the foremost questions of our time is whether cities can make civilization sustainable, and how populations can be optimally distributed for efficient and equitable use of resources. The question is especially pressing in the American Southwest. Growth is constrained by the availability of water, and the availability of water is likely to destabilize with the climate. So I believe that Tempe provides a good vantage to scrutinize urbanization now and in a thousand years. It's a good place to examine our expectations about city life.

That said, urbanization is not the only worthy subject for a millennium-long photograph. For that reason, my deep-time photography is by no means limited to Tempe. At Amherst College next month, I'll place a second millennium camera in a spire overseen by the Mead Art Museum, providing a thousand-year view of the Holyoke Mountain Range, recording how our changing climate impacts natural habitat.

In a thousand years, these photographs may provide our great-great-grandchildren's great-great-grandchildren with evidence of our role in the decimation of the environment and the collapse of civilization. Alternately, the fact that we're being held accountable can help instill a sense of responsibility sufficient to overcome our present-day complacency. So I can't say whether it will be all bad news, all good news, or a mixture of the two. Today the image inside each of the millennium cameras is blank. Through our actions, we can decide how the pictures will develop.

2) Why 1,000 years?

Well, it started out at a hundred years. The first instantiation of my deep-time photography was in Berlin last summer. Working with a local arts organization called Team Titanic, I manufactured 100 pinhole cameras, each with a century-long exposure time. Anyone in the city could take a camera in exchange for a 10-euro deposit, refundable in a century. Berliners hid the cameras in their neighborhoods. Eventually they'll reveal the cameras' whereabouts to children, who will be the ones to retrieve the cameras for a 2114 exhibition of the city in transformation.

With my century camera, I deliberately made the duration of the exposure longer than a human lifespan: The audience will be those not yet born — the people most impacted by what we do to the world, with the least influence over our choices. The millennium camera exponentially extends the timespan to a degree that we cannot even fathom the people or the civilization at the far end. Yet, as with the century cameras, I intend the millennium camera also to be experienced by those alive today. The experience will not be visual, but conceptual. The process of seeing change will be internalized, prompted by the awareness that we're being watched.

One reason for extending the exposure time is that the camera can potentially serve as a connection across multiple generations and even civilizations, potentially fostering cooperation. Another reason for doing so is that the camera can serve as a means for us to think in deep time.

Deep time is geological time, a timeframe that's imperceptible to us because it's exponentially more expansive than the human lifespan. Yet it's highly relevant to our lives because our actions today can deeply affect the far future of our planet. (Our technology is as forceful as planetary geology.) So it's essential that we make deep time experiential — even participatory — and that we're able to see our activities in the context of the next thousand years or more: to see ourselves from the perspective of the far future.

3) What advice would you give me if I wanted to do my own personal millennium camera project in my own town or city?

If I may, allow me to start by discussing the century camera. Anyone can easily make a century camera and place it in the city or town where they live. You can make one out of an old biscuit tin or beer can. All you have to do is place a sheet of black paper opposite a pinhole puncture, seal the lid against light leaks, and remember where you hide the camera. Over time, the paper will gradually fade, preserving the image projected through the pinhole. The technology is completely open source and free for anyone to adapt.

That said, I think we can be much more ambitious. What would happen if the century camera were a birthright, and every child received one? Mass-produced in cardboard, these cameras could be made very inexpensively, perhaps for less than a tenth of a cent apiece, and they could be freely distributed by UNESCO, which could also host a rolling global exhibition of the photos. Every day, starting 100 years from now, a new worldwide deep time panorama would be revealed.

The millennium cameras could also be overseen by UNESCO. Imagine a millennium camera prominently placed in every city, town, and village, all serving as elements in a global network observing our changing environment. The structures supporting these millennium cameras could be as monumental as obelisks, each serving as a public counterpoint to the intensely personal experience of privately hiding a century camera.

-- 

If it's spatiotemporally possible for you, catch these upcoming events with Jonathon Keats:

  • 4/7/15 — a lecture about the project at the Long Now Foundation, San Francisco, CA: http://theinterval.org/events/
  • 4/15/15 — Keats unveils a similar project at Amherst College, Amherst, MA: https://www.amherst.edu/museums/mead/exhibitions/2015/-jonathon-keats-photographing-deep-time-
  • Follow Jason Gots @jgots on Twitter


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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

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    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

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    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.