The Long Now’s 10,000-year-old clock challenges us to think about the world we will leave to generations beyond
Ten centuries into the future, a band of pilgrims hikes across the frozen tundra of West Texas. Signposts along the way, made from rusty robot parts, point them to their destination. Stewards of the earth, they have come to see an ancient monument built in the 21st century: a clock that has kept perfect time over the past 400 generations like those of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid. The builders of this sacred altar to Chronos are long forgotten. But according to folklore, they were a group of forward-thinking visionaries from the port city of San Francisco in the ancient civilization of America.
This may sound like something from a science fiction novel, but part of the plot has actually been put into place. The Clock of the Long Now, which is being built to last for 10,000 years, is very much a real thing, begun in 1996 by supercomputer guru Danny Hillis, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, and musician Brian Eno. It is indeed under construction at a remote location in the Lone Star State (opening date still unknown, though “probably in our lifetimes,” according to the organization). Decades of design have ensured the clock will withstand the massive changes that will occur around it (picture the crumbling buildings and rising vegetation in the fast-forward sequences from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine), not to mention the challenge of keeping correct time across 10 millennia of leap years, the precession of the equinoxes, and the fact that Earth’s rotation is actually slowing down by 1.8 milliseconds per century.
LONG-TERM THINKING IS ITSELF THE GOAL, AND IT’S ENTIRELY WITHIN YOUR POWER RIGHT NOW.Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, the Long Now Foundation’s director of development
You’ve no doubt heard the old wisecrack that the future sure ain’t what it used to be. Hardly anything is, including what life was like 23 years ago, when the quixotic clock was envisioned, before we all booked one-way tickets to the Land of Permanent Distraction with our smartphones, social media and streaming devices of endless choice. In the era of same day drone delivery and a media cycle so momentary it makes last week’s news seem so obsolete it might as well have been written in cuneiform, not to mention the threat of an imminent environmental apocalypse, it would seem that the times, so to speak, are working against the interests of the Long Now Foundation. Not so, says Director of Development Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz: The Long Now includes 10,000 members in 60 nations, and most are optimists energized by positive possibilities.
“Long-term thinking is itself the goal, and it’s entirely within your power right now,” says Brysiewicz. “Can you imagine yourself inside a single moment that is 20,000 years across? Maybe it increases your sense of responsibility to solve big challenges. As to whether long-term thinking can become more common, we are exploring this question in hopes that the answer is yes.”
He continues, “Long-term thinking is a capacity our civilization can develop over time. There’s an ancient proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, while the second-best time is now, so there will never again be a better time for long-term thinking than right now.”
In the Land of Permanent Distraction, there’s a pandemic of presentism, in which citizens have lost all sense of connection to the past and future and live in a state of perpetual now. The Long Now is countering this mental myopia with more than just the clock project. It hosts regular sellout seminars and hosts speakers at its award-winning Fort Mason Center cocktail bar, The Interval. The Rosetta Project is collecting language information so that future historians can better understand the cultures that gave birth to these languages, and the two-thirds complete Manual for Civilization is a library of 3,000 texts that will demonstrate how to jump-start civilization in case of emergency. Finally, Revive & Restore has genomic engineers working on how to “de-extinct” the passenger pigeon and woolly mammoth, animals that disappeared not by natural selection but, rather, by human overhunting.
Unlike futurist organizations, the Long Now takes an agnostic approach, preferring not to influence humanity’s trajectory but merely to provoke questions about what that trajectory might look like. “We’re advocating an approach, not a final point of arrival,” says Brysiewicz. “But if we hope to meet the challenges that exist on multigenerational timescales, we’ll have to develop the capacity to think at those timescales. Melting glaciers. Eroding topsoil. Interstellar communication. These things are tricky. Thinking about them takes effort. But if we can develop this capacity, we can increase the realm of possibility for future generations. Perhaps this article will inspire someone to reflect on their own place in the next and last 10,000 years.”
When the Clock of the Long Now is complete, it will stand as a corrosion-resistant monument that records the passing days as civilizations rise and fall around it. All the while it will encourage those who behold it to contemplate the big picture.
It’s a provocation but can also be a symbol of hope as the world unfolds,” Brysiewicz explains.“It’s like a great piece of art that can be many things to different people: What you take away from it will be individual to you.” And while we don’t know what plot twists lie in wait for our progeny, we can arm future characters in the great human drama with as much information as we can.
Though we can’t really plan for the next 10,000 years, we can work to preserve possibilities,” Brysiewicz adds. “We think that one way to be a good ancestor is to engage in that work, and then trust the future to keep it going.”