THE LONG REACH OF LONG NOW
EARTH, 02018 — Two centuries ago, a mere hiccup in history, William Wordsworth lamented, “the world is too much with us now.” It still is.
Here in 02018, what passes for the news saturates us with yesterday’s insults, tomorrow’s big game, what the president Tweeted about what someone else Tweeted about...
But in the mountains of West Texas, the future is long. And now.
Deep in a cave near West Horn, Texas, a shaft cuts through ancient rock. Sometime in the future, but not soon, this shaft will hold a clock. The clock will chime whenever anyone climbs 1500 feet to a fissure in the rocks, then follows a light through cave darkness, hefts stones to wind the clock, and checks the time. The clock will tick off not seconds but centuries, and it will last for 10,000 years. Let the Long Now begin!
Two decades ago, a mere blip in time, a group of ex-hippies and computer geeks formed the Long Now Foundation in — where else? — San Francisco. Since then, progress has been slow, as the founders prefer it. Long Bets are being won and lost. Long Now Seminars are bringing authors, scientists, and futurists to speak in person and on podcast. A space age disc has been etched with texts in a thousand languages. And then there is the clock, under construction. “If it’s finished in my lifetime we’re doing it wrong,” said project director Alexander Rose.
Once again, Stewart Brand is busy. And happy. Just pondering a 10,000 year clock has “made getting old fun,” Brand said. And having “changed the world twice,” (New York Times) Brand is used to being ahead of his time.
In 1966, after traveling and tripping with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Brand roamed America handing out buttons asking “WHY HAVEN’T WE SEEN A PICTURE OF THE WHOLE EARTH YET?”
“I saw the whole earth as an icon, mainly,” he recalled, “one that did indeed replace the mushroom cloud as the main image for understanding our world.”
Two years later, when NASA released the iconic image, Brand put it on the cover of his next brainstorm, the Whole Earth Catalog. A collection of “tools for living” ranging from geodesic dome kits to music synthesizers, with plenty of curious books, the catalog was “Google in paperback form,” said Steve Jobs.
By the early 1970s, Brand was following ex-hippies like Jobs into the emerging world of personal computers. His Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link — The WELL — was the first online chatroom. Then in 1996, seeing civilization “revving itself into a pathologically short attention span,” he wondered, “how do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?”
Brand and fellow computer geek Danny Hillis soon set up the Long Now Foundation. Their first project — a clock that “ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.” With plans for the clock set in motion, Long Now opened The Interval, a vast library and cafe in San Francisco’s Fort Mason. Weekly seminars began. The year 2000 arrived, welcomed by a prototype of the Long Now clock chiming — twice.
Since 2000, the Long Now Foundation has kept a slow, steady pace. The clock’s gears and wheels are being forged from alloys that will last 10,000 years. Musician Brian Eno composed melodies for the clock to chime, no two alike. And when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos joined the foundation, he donated the Texas site for the clock, whose shaft was drilled in 02011. (Long Now uses the five digit year to suggest how long NOW is and always will be.)
Meanwhile forward-thinkers from around the world began placing Long Bets. Anyone can make a bet, post it at longnow.org, and wait for someone to take up the challenge. Among the 765 Long Bets so far are:
— Within 1 million years humanity or its descendants will have colonized the galaxy — (now that’s a looonng now.)
— Human population will peak at or below 8 billion in the 2040s and then decline dramatically. (Brand made this bet.)
— My own bet that the Equal Rights Amendment will pass by 2023.
Rather like a photo of the whole earth, once you ponder the Long Now, your thinking changes. Tick, Tock, Tweet? Not when the future extends 10,000 years. And that, says board member Kevin Kelly, former editor of WIRED, is the point.
“Why would anyone build a clock inside a mountain with the hope that it will ring for 10,000 years?” Kelly asked. “Part of the answer: just so people will ask this question. . . If you have a clock ticking for 10,000 years, what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest? If a clock can keep going for ten millennia, shouldn’t we make sure our civilization does as well?”