(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

At a time when a human generation—in terms of cultural interests—has shrunk from thirty-three years to three or four, when a computer generation—the technological symbol of the end of the twentieth century—is only a few months, when corporations worry no further than the next quarterly report, when the dominant clarion call appears to be “the future is now,” when the human race is in such a hurry to celebrate the start of a new millennium that it insists—in the face of all mathematical and historical logic—in doing it a year early, Stewart Brand pleads for the human race to begin thinking in terms of years, centuries, and even millennia. Brand, an inventor, designer, multimedia artist, and the editor of The Whole Earth Catalogue (1986), is also cochair of the Long Now Foundation, an organization established in 1996 “to foster long-term responsibility.” The foundation’s members include futurists and computer experts such as Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Esther Dyson, and Brian Eno. This book is an explanation of what the Long Now Foundation is trying to achieve, a justification of that effort, and an appeal for support—both financial and intellectual.

The intellectual underpinning of the book is Brand’s theory of civilization. According to him, civilizations can be envisioned as operating on six layers, each layer functioning at its own pace. The faster layers provide the innovation for a civilization, while the slower layers provide stability. From fastest to slowest (and top to bottom), the layers are fashion/art, commerce, infrastructure (education and science are part of the intellectual infrastructure), governance, culture, and nature. A healthy civilization maintains a balance, with each layer interacting with those above and below it. He provides various examples of healthy interaction among the layers during the twentieth century and the problems that arise when the necessary interactions do not occur.

Brand is concerned with culture, the layer which includes “the work of whole peoples.” Culture is the realm of religion and of language. It has the greatest stability of any of the human aspects of civilization. Only nature is more stable. To envision the rate of change of culture, think of changes at the pace of villages in remote parts of Asia which have not been exposed to modern communication. In other words, it changes over centuries, if not millennia. Traditions are preserved. It is within the layer of culture that the Long Now Foundation wishes to operate.

The centerpiece of the Long Now Foundation program is the Millennium Clock. On one level, the Clock (it is always capitalized in the book) is only a symbol—an attempt to remind humans to cherish time more and to think beyond their own lives. It need not have a physical reality to have an impact. Yet on another level, Brand is writing about a real clock (or the world’s slowest computer) keeping perfect time for ten thousand years. Unlike most clocks, which mark every second and chime the quarter hour and the hour, the Millennium Clock might only mark the passing of a year and chime the century, or even the millennium. Such a timekeeping instrument would have to be monumental in size—perhaps the dimensions of Stonehenge. A desert location would be the best site for the Clock because such a location would provide the most stable physical environment. To ensure the continuing delivery of the message, however, Brand envisions the construction of smaller urban versions as well to remind everyone of the need to think in terms of the long term. A prototype has been designed, incorporating design principles developed by Daniel Hillis of the Long Now Foundation: longevity (keeps time correctly for ten thousand years), maintainability (can be kept running with tools involving fairly low technology), transparency (the operational principles are obvious), evolvability (it can be improved), and scalability (the same design could be used for both the monumental Clock and for smaller versions).

The period of ten thousand years was chosen carefully. It corresponds approximately with the number of years since the end of the last ice age and the beginning of agricultural life. It is “the size of civilization thus far.” Admittedly short compared with the time periods used in geology or cosmology, nonetheless it is a...

(The entire section is 1770 words.)