The Clock of the Long Now

by Stewart Brand
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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1770

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.

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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 period in which much has happened. By choosing it, Brand places himself and the Long Now Foundation right in the middle of history, with ten thousand years behind and ten thousand more to worry about.

Brand and his associates are not, however, contemplating building only the Clock (or Clocks). Accompanying the Clock would be a 10,000-Year Library. Safeguarding the cultural treasures of the human race is of primary concern to Brand. He reminds readers that to burn books “is a profound form of murder. . . . It does to cultural continuity . . . what destroying species and habitats does to nature’s continuity.” So he dreams of a great underground structure, relatively safe from both natural and human damage, preserving those essential creations of humans necessary for civilization to continue and, if necessary, to renew itself after disaster. What the library would contain specifically is still a matter of discussion. Brand himself favors including history, archaeology, paleontology, and other science and technology books, but does not mention fiction, with the exception of science fiction. The role of science fiction is to remind the future of how their ancestors thought about the future. He also argues for the importance of preserving important science textbooks. Some readers might find the absence of literature and philosophy from Brand’s list disturbing. Does Brand believe that an understanding of human nature, as evident in literature and philosophy, is unnecessary to preserve? Is the future better off without Faust? However, as he makes clear, the holdings of the 10,000-Year Library have yet to be determined. Brand’s suggestions are just recommendations, still to be debated.

Brand also holds out the prospect that the 10,000-Year Library might not even be a library, at least in the limited sense of that word as a depository of books. Rather, it would be a depository of knowledge in various media. For example, it would have to contemplate how to handle electronic information. It might also be a museum, with its holdings consisting of artifacts rather than books. Among the other possibilities suggested by Brand, the more unusual are “time mail,” and the “Responsibility Record.” The former is a way for contemporaries to write letters to the future. The 10,000-Year Library would serve as the depository and delivery service. The latter would ensure greater historical accountability when decisions have long-term consequences by maintaining a record of the debate over the decision, the alternatives weighed, and the predicted consequences.

The dream of the Long Now Foundation is the construction of the Millennium Clock/10,000-Year Library. How is the foundation going to convert that dream into a reality? Appropriately for an organization thinking in the long term, slowly. This book is an early step in the process of that conversion—and only an early step. Part advertising tool, part development tool, part first-draft articulation of the project, The Clock of the Long Now is a collection of twenty-five essays, bound by the themes of memory, time, and responsibility to the future. The essays range in length from two to eleven pages. In theme, form, and content, they form an imaginary speech on “tragic optimism,” a descriptive account of a visit to Big Ben, and a consideration of why there are so few long-term scientific studies. They describe and justify the program of the Long Now Foundation. More important, however, they open up a dialogue between the foundation and the reader. The essays make the point time and again that the foundation has agreed upon certain guidelines, but not the ultimate mechanisms to bring about its aims. The door is open, and the reader is invited to come in and join in the process of refining the program. There is also an address where one may send financial support. Checks and credit cards are accepted.

How likely is it that the reader will accept the invitation? In part, that will be determined by whether the reader is convinced of the truth of Brand’s assertions in spite of the disjointed collection of essays and the sometimes informal tone used. As Brand acknowledges, the chapters “do not attempt a sequential and conclusive argument.” To a large extent, he seems to believe that the truth of his position is self-evident and does not require supportive arguments. Some readers may disagree. For example, Brand’s theory of the six levels of civilization is extremely important, but it remains an assertion. Moreover, some of the essays in The Clock of the Long Now are not intellectually engaging.

Also, in making the link between the objectives of his foundation and the layer of culture, Brand does not sufficiently confront the problem that the layer of culture where the Millennium Clock is to be situated has not always been the proudest segment of human civilization. Culture, as Brand explicitly recognizes, has been the underlying cause of “Europe’s most intractable wars” and, implicitly, the worst forms of human bigotry. An example is the chronic fighting in southeastern Europe—ethnic conflict of the worst type, with rape as a weapon—the latest outbreak of which happened coincidentally to have occurred simultaneously with the birth and early development of the Long Now Foundation. Sometimes history teaches that to move on, to stop allowing the past to control the present, and in particular, to forget (or at least forgive) past grievances and focus on the future is necessary for peace. One challenge facing the Long Now Foundation is how to ensure that the future will not be torn apart by repeated reminders of hurts. Knowing as one does that humans can celebrate military victories over their neighbors three centuries later as if the battles had occurred yesterday, are “time mail,” and the “Responsibility Record” good ideas?

Will this book have any long-term relevance? If the program of the Long Now Foundation survives beyond the enthusiasm of its cofounders, to continue to remind future generations of the need to think in terms of the Long Now, then this book will be remembered as an important early step in the process and consecrated as a classic. However, if the program peters out and dies, then the book will be remembered, if at all, as nothing more than a failed promotional device. Only the Long Now will tell.

Sources for Further Study

American Scientist 87 (September/October, 1999): 464.

Library Journal 124 (June 1, 1999): 168.

Publishers Weekly 246 (May 17, 1999): 67.

Science News 156 (July 31, 1999): 66.

Utne Reader 94 (July, 1999): 103.

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