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The Clock Of The Long Now: Time and Responsibility

The Clock Of The Long Now: Time and Responsibility

by Stewart Brand

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Using the designing and building of the Clock of the Long Now as a framework, this is a book about the practical use of long time perspective: how to get it, how to use it, how to keep it in and out of sight. Here are the central questions it inspires: How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? Discipline in


Using the designing and building of the Clock of the Long Now as a framework, this is a book about the practical use of long time perspective: how to get it, how to use it, how to keep it in and out of sight. Here are the central questions it inspires: How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? Discipline in thought allows freedom. One needs the space and reliability to predict continuity to have the confidence not to be afraid of revolutions Taking the time to think of the future is more essential now than ever, as culture accelerates beyond its ability to be measured Probable things are vastly outnumbered by countless near-impossible eventualities. Reality is statistically forced to be extraordinary; fiction is not allowed this freedom This is a potent book that combines the chronicling of fantastic technology with equally visionary philosophical inquiry.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The image of our planet on the cover of Brand's Whole Earth Catalog communicated a powerful symbol of the big picture. Brand's new, mind-stretching book challenges readers to get outside themselves and combat the short-term irresponsible thinking that has led to environmental destruction and social chaos. Brand also eloquently urges us to distill and preserve knowledge. Though we seem to live in an age of information overload (each new U.S. president leaves behind more papers than all the previous ones combined), Brand contends that we actually inhabit an age of rapid information loss. Because of changing storage media, as one researcher has quipped, "digital information lasts forever--or five years, whichever comes first." Time capsules don't solve the problem, for 70% of them are lost almost immediately after being sealed. Brand envisages two monuments that will incorporate the long view into our common consciousness. The first is a giant, exquisitely slow clock. It would be big enough to walk around in, and it would display the year, positions of the sun and moon, generations and millennia. The second is the "Ten-Thousand Year Library," a vast underground labyrinth of books. Here we'd preserve enormous amounts of knowledge from history and other long-perspective disciplines. These ideas deserve more than 15 minutes of fame. Quotable quotes, plentiful paradoxes and humane values make this a book to be savored and discussed--slowly. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Touted as "the least recognized most influential thinker in America," Brand, creater of The Whole Earth Catalog, wears that mantle with aplomb in his latest offering. He takes on civilization's "pathologically short attention span" with a proposal to encourage us all to assume long-term responsibility for the continuation of the human species. How to do this? By creating both a myth and a mechanism with which to counter our short focus these days, which Brand names as the core of the problem. He spends the remainder of this rumination clarifying that thought and outlining the details of the myth and mechanism that he suggests as a catalyst: a clock that ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and cuckoos but once a millennium. The Clock of the Long Now is both fascinating and, yes, maybe just a bit revolutionary and is most likely to find a suitable home in academic and larger public libraries with readers who are fervent in the desire to see us go on. [See also Brand's "Escaping the Digital Age," LJ 2/1/99, p. 46-48.--Ed.]--Geoff Rotunno, "Valley Voice" Newspaper, Goleta, CA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
A provocative book from the innovative thinker, designer, inventor, writer, editor known for , , and . Here he turns his attention to the problems of fostering the long view in an age of extremely rapid change. He ties his discussion of time and human activity to the idea of creating a very big, very slow clock and explores the many interesting avenues of thought that such a project inspires. (The subtitle continues: .) Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknew.com)
Zen master Taisen Deshimaru said that time is not a line, but a series of now-points. Stewart Brand challenges us to rethink the way we conceive of those now-points.

Brand cofounded Global Business Network, founded and edited the Whole Earth Catalog and has written several well received articles and books. His involvements in the Well and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are legendary, as is the company he keeps: Computer designer Danny Hillis, avant-garde musician Brian Eno, Institute of the Future spokesman Paul Saffo, Release 1.0 creator Esther Dyson and Lotus founder Mitch Kapor are all involved in Brand's Long Now Foundation.

The book's chapters are disconnected explorations of the book's subtitle: Time and Responsibility. Brand borrows the Greek definition of two kinds of time. Kairos, opportunity or the propitious moment, is the time of cleverness. Chronos, eternal or ongoing time, is the time of wisdom. The Long Now Foundation seeks to promote slower, better thinking of the chronos variety.

Brand argues that our kairotic lives have grown increasingly complex and hurried in this century. In the amped-up rush of "Internet time," we often fail to consider anything beyond the immediate now and think of the present in terms of today, this week, this product cycle. Brand would like to extend our thinking to the next 10,000 years, and he even adopts a new calendaring convention, in which 1999 becomes 01999. The Long Now Foundation is building a physical clock (a prototype is pictured in the book) to reflect a measure of the 10,000-year now. This clock-library is meant to be a cultural institution, but details of the mechanical clock are sketchy at best. Brand never describes exactly what the clock will be; rather, he suggests what form such a mechanical clock could take and theorizes about the societal improvements such a device could inspire. Included in his broad wish list: time capsules, digital archives, letters to the future.

Beyond these vague hypotheticals, Brand practices what he preaches. He says he doesn't want a short-term revolution but rather infinite responsibility, which requires serious reflection and careful planning. He invites readers to contribute their own clock ideas...

Thinking in terms of a 10,000-year now may pay off. Brand recounts how the Swedish Navy received a letter from the country's forestry department in 01980, informing the bureaucrats that the lumber they requested to build ships was ready. Apparently in 01829 the Swedish Parliament anticipated a future shortage of lumber, and, recognizing that it would take 150 years for oaks to mature, set about with long-range plans to deliver the wood. Although the Navy doesn't need many wooden ships these days, the new forests are good for the environment.

Of course, Brand is not alone in suggesting that we need to think about the future. But his call for sustained endeavor, long-term introspection and cultural dialogue is thought-provoking, even if his scattered musings aren't united by a common thread.

While the book's philosophical tone might not be the stuff best-sellers are made of, The Clock of the Long Now convincingly articulates the necessity of thinking about time in a new way and the importance of patience. After all, you can always improve things as long as you're prepared to wait.

– Diane Anderson Lehrer

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Basic Books
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Time and Responsibility. What a prime subject for vapid truisms and gaseous generalities adding up to the world's most boring sermon. To spare us both, let me tie this discussion to a specific device, specific responsibility mechanisms, and specific problems and cases. The main problems might be stated, How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? How do we make the taking of long-term responsibility inevitable?

    The device is a Clock, very big and very slow. For the purposes of this book it is strictly notional, a Clock of the mind, an instrument for thinking about time in a different way. As it happens, such a Clock is in fact being built. The builders are finding that the very idea of the Clock—why to build it, how to build it—forces their thinking in interesting directions; among other things, toward long-term responsibility. Since it works for them, please consider yourself one of the Clock's builders. It won't take long to catch up. Here's a project summary from late 1998, complete with preamble:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multitasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth that encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where "the long term" is measured atleast in centuries.

What we propose is both a mechanism and a myth. It began with an observation and idea by computer designer Daniel Hillis, who wrote in 1993:

When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by the year 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.

I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of the Millennium. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.

Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people. It would be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.

Hillis, who developed the "massive parallel" architecture of the current generation of supercomputers, has devised the mechanical design of the Clock and is now building the prototype. Its works consist of an ingenious binary digital-mechanical system that has precision equal to one day in twenty thousand years, and it self-corrects by phase locking to the noon sun. For the way the eventual Clock is experienced (its size, housing, etc.), we expect to keep proliferating design ideas for a while. The prototype Clock, only eight feet tall, is shaping up beautifully in Monel alloy, Invar alloy, tungsten carbide, metallic glass, and synthetic sapphire.

The Clock project became the Clock/Library with the realization of the need for content to go along with the long-term context provided by the Clock—a "library of the deep future, for the deep future." The Clock/Library could take care of kinds of information deemed especially useful over long periods of time, such as minding extremely long-term scientific studies, or accumulating a Responsibility Record of policy decisions with long-term consequences.

To deliver mythic depth, the Clock/Library needs to be a remarkable facility at a remarkable location. High deserts are attractive for their broad horizons and high-preservation climate, if the specific location is not too remote for easy access worldwide. City sites offer high visibility but are harder to protect over centuries. Our strategy is to develop a city Clock/Library first—for visibility—and then a desert Clock/Library—for longevity. Before both comes a World Wide Web site (at www.longnow.org).

In addition to its mythic core facility the Clock/Library as a cultural tool may need to be widely dispersed—on the Net, in publications and distributed services, and at various locations. The point, after all, is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time. Manifestations of the overall project could range from fortune cookies to theme parks. For now, we will build an astonishing Clock and a unique Library and see what develops from there.

Who is "we"? The Long Now Foundation was established in 1996 to foster long-term responsibility. The founding board is Daniel Hillis (co-chair), Stewart Brand (co-chair), Kevin Kelly, Douglas Carlston, Peter Schwartz, Brian Eno, Paul Saffo, Mitchell Kapor, and Esther Dyson. Hillis created Thinking Machines Inc. and its supercomputer, the Connection Machine, and is now a Fellow at Disney. Brand began the Whole Earth Catalog and co-founded Global Business Network. Kelly is executive editor of Wired magazine and author of Out of Control. Carlston co-founded Broderbund Software. Schwartz is chairman of Global Business Network and author of The Art of the Long View. Eno is a musician, music producer, and artist. Saffo is spokesman for Institute for the Future. Kapor founded Lotus and co-founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Dyson created and runs Release 1.0, the leading computer industry newsletter.

The present version of the Clock/Library scheme has grown from three years' online conversation among the board members. Brian Eno proposed "the long now" as what we are aiming to promote. Peter Schwartz suggested 10,000 years as the appropriate time envelope for the project: 10,000 years ago was the end of the Ice Age and beginning of agriculture and civilization; we should develop an equal perspective into the future. Douglas Carlston noted that the institution to maintain this project will be as much of a design challenge to last one hundred centuries as the Clock or the Library.

As of autumn 1998 The Long Now Foundation has an executive director (Alexander Rose), two staffers, an office at the San Francisco Presidio, and nonprofit status. The foundation is developing its funding, the web site, the working prototype of the Clock, small conferences on subjects such as "Managing Digital Continuity" (that one was at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, February 1998), conception of the Library and its initial services, and locations to build.

What's your advice? Where should the Clocks be located? How should they be experienced? How should the Library work? What kind of institution could maintain them for 10,000 years?

    Do wade into the conversation, if you like. There is an appendix at the back of the book spelling out how to contact the Clock/Library project directly. In this book are a number of voices beside mine, here in part to encourage your thoughts and invite your voice.

    Whether or not a grand version of the Clock eventually happens, the world continues to happen, and it happens to be in a new scale of trouble these days. Nobody can save the world, but any of us can help set in motion a self-saving world—if we are willing to engage the processes of centuries, because that is where the real power is.

    The Clock provides a framework for this book. The book in turn aims, as a by-product, to provide a framework for the actual Clock. Though the chapters are written in logical sequence, they do not attempt a sequential and conclusive argument. They are a mosaic; many are quite short, some differ in situational voice (a fictional speech, a genuine paper). Each of the chapters is a different kind of probe, a separate essay. The overall intent is exploratory rather than convergent. These are early days. Thinking in ten-thousand-year terms is new to us. We have a long way to go to comprehend even the size of the subject of very long-term responsibility.

Meet the Author

Stewart Brand is the founder of The Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly. He is the author of The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT and How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built, and is the Director of the Global Business Network in Emeryville, California. He lives on a tugboat in San Francisco Bay.

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