Clock Of The Long Now

Stewart Brand

Time and Responsibility. What a prime subject for vapid truisms and gaseous generalities adding up to the world’s most boring sermon.

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?

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.

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.

We owe the past humans our existence, our skills, and our not-bad world. What do we owe the future humans? Existence, skills, and a not-bad world. Maybe even a better world.

“We are the first generation that influences global climate, and the last generation to escape the consequences.”

The deer frozen in the headlights, the driver frozen at the wheel with no time to brake or swerve—both are doomed by speed and bad luck. Luck you cannot do much about; speed you can.

the ancient Greeks distinguished two kinds of time, “kairos (opportunity or the propitious moment) and chronos (eternal or ongoing time). While the first . . . offers hope, the second extends a warning.” Kairos is the time of cleverness, chronos the time of wisdom.

According to a rule of thumb among engineers, any tenfold quantitative change is a qualitative change, a fundamentally new situation rather than a simple extrapolation.

“We are moving from a world in which the big eat the small,” remarked Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum, “to a world in which the fast eat the slow.”

Metcalfe’s Law explains why 50 million people had to get on the Internet in just a few years. The aggregate value of other users was so great that they could not afford to miss the boat.

Now that we have progress so rapid that it can be observed from year to year, no one calls it progress. People call it change, and rather than yearn for it, they brace themselves against its force.

“What people mean by the word technology is the stuff that doesn’t really work yet.”

So besides having a hell of a good time skydiving, I learned three visceral-level lessons. One, never count totally on equipment. My parachute malfunction was statisically inevitable. Two, always have a backup. I remember remarking to myself as I pulled my reserve chute, “I hope this one works. I don’t have any more parachutes.”

For most of us most of the time I think Eno is right: “now” consists of this week, slightly haunted by the ghost of last week. This is the realm of immediate responsibility, one in which we feel we have volition, where the consequences of our actions are obvious and surprises limited. The weekend is a convenient boundary.

“If one is mentally out of breath all the time from dealing with the present, there is no energy left for imaging the future.”

Over time the empires and religions told larger and longer stories about themselves, many of them overlapping and referring to one another. Around 1000 B.C.E., thanks to the Jews, history emerged as another form of storytelling.

Eno’s Long Now places us where we belong, neither at the end of history nor at the beginning, but in the thick of it. We are not the culmination of history, and we are not start-over revolutionaries; we are in the middle of civilization’s story.

The trick is learning how to treat the last ten thousand years as if it were last week, and the next ten thousand as if it were next week. Such tricks confer advantage.

If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.

We can examine the array layer by layer, working down from fast and attention-getting to slow and powerful. Note that as people get older, their interests tend to migrate to the slower parts of the continuum. Culture is invisible to adolescents but a matter of great concern to elders.

Likewise, com-merce may instruct but must not control the levels below it, because commerce alone is too shortsighted.

Mechanical clocks were first invented for monasteries in the late thirteenth century and only later ordered the life of towns. The miniature clock strapped to your wrist is the direct descendent of European monastic practice. It was the monks who taught us to keep time.

Religious time is time out. Time out from personal striving or suffering, time out from the chaos of history. In the sacred place set apart, in the sacred ritual changeless and timeless, in the sacred communion with a higher order, we step out of ordinary time and thereby make life meaningful, or at least bearable.

The pharaoh’s job was to maintain eternal order, not to author or suffer unique events.

To caricature each of their stances: Judaism says, “The Messiah is going to come, and that’s the end of history”; Christianity says, “The Messiah is going to come back, and that’s the end of history”; Islam says, “The Messiah came; history is irrelevant.”

The great time-spanning precedent is the pyramids of Giza. Their massive monumentality defined when “history” began.

The pyramids also demonstrate the power of folly. You can’t argue with them because they’re not rational.

The ambition and folly of the Clock/Library is to reframe human endeavor, and to do so not with a thesis but with a thing.

“If you’re going to do something that’s meant to be interesting for ten millennia, it almost has to have been interesting for ten millennia. Clocks and other methods of measuring time have interested people for a very long time.”

Clock/Library aims for the mythic depth to become, as Brian Eno puts it, “one of those system-level ideas which sets in motion all sorts of behavior without ever having to be referred to directly again. This is what dominant myths do: they make some sorts of behavior ring with recognition and familiarity and value and a sense of goodness, and thus lay deep templates for social cohesion about what would otherwise be very hard-to-discuss topics.”

The Clock’s time frame of four hundred generations is human scale—it should invite you to engage it personally, by doing something, leaving some mark.

“There is always an alternative to my present urgency—and it’s not a vacation, it’s acknowledging deeper responsibility.”

We need some system of recording that kind of human contribution. Perhaps people have to turn little wheels to keep certain essential parts of the Clock going. If they fail to turn them, atrophy begins.” The Clock inspires responsibility by inviting some.

“Fast learns, slow remembers.

What interests me is the fact of this clock being so closely identified with our self-image. Big Ben is a sort of throbbing heart for British culture—calm, assured, implacable, accurate (and thus “just”), enduring, and big. This list represents just about all the things Britain used to think it was, and would still like to think it is.

Starting anew with a clean slate has been one of the most harmful ideas in history. It treats previous knowledge as an impediment and imagines that only present knowledge deployed in theoretical purity can make real the wondrous new vision.

The Americans severed the political bonds with the Old World but not the cultural bonds. They burned their bridges, not their libraries.

If you write something this week with Word in Windows 98 on a Dell computer, what are the chances of anybody being able to read it in 2008?

The U.S. Library of Congress is referred to as a “strategic information reserve” by its current head, James Billington.

Environmental books, for their reach into the future. Science fiction, for the same reason, organized by date rather than author, so the browser could scan the progress of the zeitgeist about the future.

According to Kevin Kelly, who studies time capsules, the most effective are opened periodically, enjoyed, then sealed again with new artifacts added each time.

Yet one of those innumerable near-impossibilities is what is most likely to occur. Reality is thus statistically forced always to be extraordinary. Fiction is not allowed that freedom. Fiction has to be plausible; reality doesn’t.

If you loan someone $10,000 to be paid back over ten years, and the uncertainty makes you charge a normal 15 percent interest, you will get back over $25,000 total over the ten years. That ten-year $25,000 was discounted to you at 15 percent a year, so you only paid $10,000 for it.

“The computer code we are offhandedly writing today could become the deeply embedded standards for centuries to come.

In the fashion and commercial domains a discounted approach to the future is necessary to maintain the customary swift turnover. An increasingly karmic and careful approach, however, is appropriate to managing the slower layers of infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature.

It would be nice to have one body of economics that embraces all the levels, but we don’t yet.

“The proper role of government in capitalistic societies in an era of man-made brain power industries,” writes the economist Lester Thurow, “is to represent the interest of the future to the present.”

Commerce has too short a time horizon to take the larger future seriously, therefore governance must do it. Governance can forcefully represent future Californians who might want a thriving redwood forest instead of Maxxam having once maximized its profits by clear-cutting the forest.

To produce the benefits of more cooperation in the world, Axelrod proves, all you need to do is lengthen the shadow of the future—that is, ensure more durable relationships. Thus marriage is common to every society, because trusting partners have an advantage over lone wolves.

Steadily engaging the future teaches us wariness about events and trust in each other. We don’t know what’s coming. We do know we’re in it together.

Only 5 percent of a mature tree’s mass is alive—the leaves, cambium, sapwood, and root tips. All the rest is dead, yet that gradually built structure of once-living wood is what allows the leaves to reach so high and the roots to draw so deep.

At one point, and you need not be an expert tracker to discern this, she stops, pauses, turns to the left to glance at some possible threat or irregularity, and then continues to the north. This motion, so intensely human, transcends time. Three million six hundred thousand years ago, a remote ancestor—just as you or I—experienced a moment of doubt.

The philosopher George Santayana voiced the sharpest version of the perennial warning in 01905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

So far as I know there is only one good text these days on how to apply history intelligently: Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (01986) by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May,

“When a manager comes to me, I don’t ask him, ‘What’s the problem?’ I say, ‘Tell me the story.’ That way I find out what the problem really is.”

This is a common practice among inventive engineers such as the late Mr. Packard. When a design problem resists solution, reframe the problem in such a way that it invites solution.

German military officers are required to eat what their troops eat and after they eat. That single tradition assures that everyone’s meals are excellent and timely, and it enhances unit morale and respect for the officers.

In similar fashion, factories, farms, and cities that pollute rivers and water tables could be required to release their outflows upstream of

In similar fashion, factories, farms, and cities that pollute rivers and water tables could be required to release their outflows upstream of their own water intake rather than downstream.

The much-lamented “tragedy of the commons” is a classic case of pathological feedback—where each individual player is rewarded rather than punished for wasting the common resource. In fact, healthy self-governing commons systems are frequent in the world and in history, as examined in Elinor Ostrum’s Governing the Commons.

Ostrum detects eight design principles that keep a wide variety of commons self-balancing. They are: clear boundaries; locally appropriate rules; collective agreement; monitoring; graduated sanctions; conflict-resolution mechanisms; rights to organize; nested enterprises.

Enormous, inexorable power is in the long trends, but we cannot measure them or even notice them without doing extremely patient science.

Maybe some works of slow art could shame science into durational ambition. Paul Saffo likes hiding Easter eggs: “a brilliant ceramic sculpture hidden within rocklike concrete which slowly weathers away to reveal a ‘Hi there!’ from another era.

One could develop the genre to where lots of people do it for a while, making the world a very slow, very amazing Advent calendar.”

Kevin Kelly reported on a visit to the Greek peninsula of monasteries known as Mount Athos. It is very remote, very stable, very conservative, very much still working. There’s maybe two dozen different monasteries, all breathtaking in their architecture and settings. I’d have to say it was the most timeless place I’ve been to. You couldn’t tell what century it was at the moment. The monasteries house and feed you (men only) if you show up—that’s their rule. Those meals, with the monks in full hooded garb, by candlelight, and in complete silence, were stories in themselves. I don’t know what drew them to that place, but they were running the best time machine I know of.

The slow stuff is the serious stuff, but it is invisible to us quick learners. Our senses and our thinking habits are tuned to what is sudden, and oblivious to anything gradual.

Kanter concludes, “People take the long view when they feel a commitment to those who come after them. . . . They care about posterity—their children and other people’s children—and therefore see the need for actions to benefit the distant future.”

The long view looks right through death.

Time will not have a stop; it won’t even slow down. That may explain why people have been speeding up, as if by cramming more and more life into each passing hour they can personally enact Zeno’s Paradox, always never more than halfway to death.

In one century elders have gone from being rare and honored to common and powerful.

Organic farmers have a bumper sticker: “Live like you’ll die tomorrow. Farm like you’ll live forever.”

Proliferating elders may have their own bumper sticker: “Never trust anyone under 50.” The very old will have experienced enough past to believe in the reality of consequences, while the young will not have been wrong about enough future yet to doubt their own puerile notions.

Danny Hillis recalls, “What my grandfather did was create options. He worked hard to allow my father to have a better education than he did, and in turn my father did the same.”

Speaking of porcelain, in The Travels of Marco Polo is an account of a generation-spanning practice

Danny Hillis points out, “There are problems that are impossible if you think about them in two-years terms—which everyone does—but they’re easy if you think in fifty-year terms.”

These are first-thought blurts. We have not yet seriously asked ourselves what we might do with fifty years or five hundred years of sustained endeavor. What comes to your mind, thinking in that scale?

It is not easy achieving such things. This is part of the attraction, that the task is impossible-seeming and bracingly hard. Herman Melville wailed during the writing of Moby Dick, “Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!” The rewards of immersion in a project, a story, reaching well beyond the span of one’s own life, however, can be enormous.

Mastering the Infinite Game, by Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars, 01997.

That bears repeating. You need the space of continuity to have the confidence not to be afraid of revolutions. You can always improve things as long as you’re prepared to wait.

James Carse is right to end his book with the words, “There is but one infinite game.”