Asking The Last Question
After twenty years, John Brockman of Edge ends his annual tradition as only he can — with a question about questions
For the last twenty years, literary agent John Brockman has presented the members of his online salon Edge with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time.(Previous prompts include “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” or “What should we be worried about?”).
The essay responses — in excess of a hundred each year — offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.
Brockman’s interest in asking questions traces back to the late 01960s and the work of his friend, the late conceptual artist/philosopher James Lee Byars. In 01968, Byars launched a one-hour Belgian television program called the “World Question Center.” He explained the thinking behind the program as follows:
“To arrive at an axiology of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”
This year’s question will be Edge’s last. And this time, Brockman’s doing something a little different.
“After twenty years, I’ve run out of questions,” Brockman writes. “So, for the finale to a noteworthy Edge project, can you ask ‘The Last Question’? Your last question, the question for which you’ll be remembered.”
That’s right: instead of answering Brockman’s annual question, Edge Salon contributors are providing their own questions as answers.
This year’s extensive collection of “answers” includes contributions by several Long Now Board members, fellows, and past and future speakers from our Seminars About Long-Term Thinking speaker series:
What is the Last Question?
Chris Anderson,¹ author, entrepreneur and Emeritus Member of the Long Now Board of Directors, asks:
How can we put rational prices on human lives without becoming inhuman?
Complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman² asks:
How do we best build a civilization that is galvanized by long-term thinking?
Writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson³ asks:
Will the process of discovery be completed in any of the natural sciences?
Can wild animals that are large and dangerous be made averse to threatening humans?
Is the unipolar future of a “singleton” the inevitable destiny of intelligent life?
The geneticist George Church, who is working with Revive & Restore on reviving extinct species, asks:
What will we do as an encore once we manage to develop technological solutions to infection, aging, poverty, asteroids, and heat death of the universe?
Jared Diamond,⁶ author of Guns, Germs and Steel, asks:
Why is there such widespread public opposition to science and scientific reasoning in the United States, the world leader in every major branch of science?
Physicist Freeman Dyson⁷ asks:
Is it ultimately possible for life to bend the shape of the universe to fit life’s purposes, as we are now bending the shape of our environment here on earth?
Science historian George Dyson⁸ asks:
Why are there no trees in the ocean?
Can we create new senses for humans — not just touch, taste, vision, hearing, smell, but totally novel qualia for which we don’t yet have words?
Musician and Long Now Co-Founder Brian Eno¹⁰ asks:
Have we left the Age of Reason, never to return?
Academic, businessman and author Juan Enriquez¹¹ asks:
So, before The Singularity…?
Linguist Daniel L. Everett¹² asks:
Will humans ever embrace their own diversity?
Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris¹³ asks:
Is the actual all that is possible?
Inventor and Long Now Co-Founder W. Daniel Hillis¹⁴ asks:
What is the principle that causes complex adaptive systems (life, organisms, minds, societies) to spontaneously emerge from the interaction of simpler elements (chemicals, cells, neurons, individual humans)?
How can the process of science be improved?
Are humans capable of building a moral economy?
Technology reporter John Markoff¹⁷ asks:
How will the world be changed when battery storage technology improves at the same exponential rate seen in computer chips in recent decades?
Theoretical astrophysicist Priyamvada Natarajan¹⁸ asks:
Are there limits to what we can know about the universe?
Futurist Tim O'Reilly¹⁹ asks:
How can AI and other digital technologies help us create global institutions that we can trust?
Religious historian Elaine Pagels²⁰ asks:
Why is religion still around in the twenty-first century?
Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker²¹ asks:
How can we empower the better angels of our nature?
Planetary scientist Carolyn Porco²² asks:
What will it take for us to be fully confident that we have found life elsewhere in the cosmos?
Royal Astronomer Martin Rees²³ asks:
Will post-humans be organic or electronic?
Futurist and Long Now Board Member Paul Saffo²⁴ asks:
Will we ever be able to predict earthquakes?
Businessman and Long Now Board Member Peter Schwartz²⁵ asks:
Is the universe relatively simple and comprehensible by the human brain, or is it so complex, higher dimensional and multiversal that it remains forever illusive to humans?
Science writer Michael Shermer²⁶ asks:
Would you like to live 1,000 years?
Science fiction author Bruce Sterling²⁷ asks:
Do the laws of physics change with the passage of time?
Biotechnologist and geneticist J. Craig Venter²⁸ asks:
Will the creation of a super-human class from a combination of genome editing and direct biological-machine interfaces lead to the collapse of civilization?
Theoretical physicist Geoffrey B. West²⁹ asks:
How and when will it end or will it persist indefinitely?
Science writer Carl Zimmer³⁰ asks:
How does the past give rise to the future?
These are just a few of this year’s thought-provoking answers; you can read the full collection here.
Long Now Foundation talks by this year’s Edge contributors (Most are available to watch for free online):
 Samuel Arbesman spoke at The Interval about “Technology at the Limits of Comprehension” (02016). Note: video not yet available.
 Mary Catherine Bateson gave a Long Now talk titled “Live Longer, Think Longer” (02011).
 Stewart Brand has spoken at Long Now on several occasions: “Pace Layers Thinking” (02015), “Reviving Extinct Species” (02013), “Long Finance” (02010, with Alexander Rose and Brian Eno), “Rethinking Green” (02009), and “Cities and Time” (02005).
 Brian Christian spoke at Long Now on “Algorithms To Live By” (02016).
 Jared Diamond spoke at Long Now on “How Societies Fail — And Sometimes Succeed” (02005).
 Freeman Dyson spoke at Long Now with his children Esther and George Dyson on “The Difficulty in Looking Far Ahead” (02005).
 In addition to speaking with his father and sister in 02005 (see footnote 7), George Dyson spoke at Long Now about “The Digital Universe and Why Things Appear to Be Speeding Up” (02013) and “Long-term Thinking About Large-scale Computing” (02004).
 David Eagleman spoke at Long Now on “The Brain and the Now” (02016) and “Six Easy Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization” (02010).
 Brian Eno has spoken at Long Now on several occasions: “The Long Now, now” (02014, with Danny Hillis), “Long Finance” (02010, with Stewart Brand and Alexander Rose), “Playing with Time” (02006, with Will Wright), and “The Long Now” (02003).
 Juan Enriquez spoke at Long Now about “Mapping the Frontier of Knowledge” (02007).
 Daniel L. Everett spoke at Long Now about “Endangered Languages, Lost Knowledge, and the Future” (02009).
 Sam Harris spoke at Long Now about “The View from the End of the World” (02005).
 Margaret Levi spoke at The Interval about “The Organized Pursuit of Knowledge” (02017).
 John Markoff spoke at The Interval about “The Quest for Common Ground between Humans and Robots” (02015). Note: video not yet available.
 Priyamvada Natarajan spoke at Long Now about “Solving Dark Matter and Dark Energy” (02016).
 Elaine Pagels spoke at Long Now about “The Truth About The Book of Revelations” (02012).
 Carolyn Porco spoke at Long Now about “Searching for Life in the Solar System” (02017).
 Martin Rees spoke at Long Now about “Life’s Future in the Cosmos” (02010).
 Peter Schwartz has spoken at Long Now on several occasions: “The Starships ARE Coming” (02013), “Historian vs. Futurist on Human Progress” (02008, with Niall Ferguson), “Nuclear Power, Climate Change, and the Next 10,000 Years” (02006, with Ralph Cavanagh), and “The Art of the Really Long View” (02003).
 Michael Shermer spoke at Long Now about “The Long Arc of Moral Progress” (02015).
 Bruce Sterling spoke at Long Now about “The Singularity” (02004).
 Craig Venter spoke at Long Now about “Joining 3.5 Billion Years of Microbial Invention” (02008).
 Geoffrey West spoke at Long Now about “The Universal Laws of Growth and Pace” (02017) and “Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster” (02011).
 Carl Zimmer spoke at Long Now about “Viral Time” (02011).