EW Dijkstra, the computer scientist, was fond of using a metric called the “Buxton Index“, which conveys the timescale on which an individual or institution makes its plans. He thought that a lot of failures to cooperate, and other kinds of conflicts, were ultimately due to different actors having different time horizons. Here are three of his short essays mentioning it:
- On the fact that the Atlantic Ocean has two sides
- On the phenomenon of scientific disciplines
- The strength of the academic enterprise
It’s interesting in the context of, e.g. the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which only an indefinite (or infinite) timescale can reliably result in cooperation (as detailed in Robert Axelrod’s book, The Evolution of Cooperation). It certainly seems like we should have some metric of this kind in mind when considering the behaviors of various institutions.
Dijkstra notes that interestingly (at least in the west) virtually all of the institutions which are more than 500 years old are universities (two churches and two governments also qualify, out of 66 total).
I think its funny that Dijkstra was essentially blogging, by fountain pen, for decades. He wrote out hundreds of these short numbered essays longhand, and sent copies of them to friends, who then copied them, and sent them on, etc. He kept doing it this way even after everyone had e-mail! I had no idea he was such an interesting guy.