Thinking About “The Long Now”

Does our society have a short attention span?  Or desire for immediacy?  Even though I don’t feel comfortable making temporally comparative claims about societal culture, I think most people believe that our society has adopted a culture of immediacy.  This could be reflected in our tendency to obsess over news stories in the moment, which become far removed from our collective consciousness within a few short weeks.  More generally, we seem to be mostly concerned with our own psychological present and our own geographical corner of the planet.  To be honest, I think that this has probably been true of all humans, in all cultures, in all times.  So I don’t view this cultural manifestation in our society as a degradation of any kind.  This is important because I believe narratives of societal degradation are all too often being formed from anecdotal and personal experience, and very rarely reflect our actual progress as a species.  Either way, I often wish that we embraced a culture that incorporated deeper scales of time and larger scales of geography into our perspective on a day-to-day basis.

But I am not the only one.  The Long Now Foundation is an organization established in 1996 that seeks to become very long-term institution, and provide humanity with a slower/better way of thinking.  In order to do this they engage in activities like the Rosetta Project and the Long Bet Project.  The Rosetta Project attempts to preserve all the world’s languages so that we have records of them in the distant future.  The Long Bet Project is focused on making competitive predictions with interest to society that will get people thinking more about future development.  For example, Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, has proposed the human population in 2060 will be less than it is today. You can challenge him if you disagree.  All the money at stake is philanthropic.  However, their most ambitious project is building The Clock of the Long Now.

Danny Hillis, co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, first proposed the Clock of the Long Now in 1986.  At the moment there is 2m prototype at the Science Museum in London.  He wants the clock to be able to embody deep time for our species.  As Hillis explained: “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year.  The century hand advanced once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium.  I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years.” (Brand, 1999).  Such a clock would be designed to embody deep time for all humans.  The people working on this project believe the Clock of the Long Now can embed the idea of long-term thinking in the popular consciousness because it would invite people to engage with deep time personally.  The founders compare the experience to contemplating the crushing scale of time one encounters when looking at the Grand Canyon.  However, we have become accustomed to thinking of geologic and/or astronomical structures to contemplate deep time, the Long Now Clock could change that.  The clock would embody four hundred generations on a human scale (Brand, 1999).  If the clock achieved its goal, long-term thinking would become more automatic and common in human culture.

For me, this is an interesting project.  It is one of the first examples of a human institution that is actively striving for relevance on more of a geologic time scale, as opposed to a human time scale.  This type of thinking could inspire a different culture, as Kevin Kelly said: “If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest?”  Will it force everyone to ask: “Are we being good ancestors?” (Brand, 1999).  However, this might only be the beginning of human institutions inspired by scientific concepts and ways of thinking that force us to reconsider our long-term relationship to the planet in real ways.  I think that as our species continues to lengthen human lifespan, our traditional concepts of the human ageing process will deteriorate, and long-term thinking should become more and more pervasive.  This perspective stems from my own personal attempt to exercise long-term thinking.  What happens if technological futurists are right and we experience a technological singularity?  How will our species think in the year 2100 when human consciousness can exist for centuries, as opposed to decades?

Overall, the Clock of the Long Now represents an important idea, and could help human cultures adapt notions of long-term thinking more easily.  As opposed to thinking about our species on the scale of our own personal lifetime, let’s start thinking about our species on the scale of civilization’s lifetime.  Human civilization has been around for roughly 10,000 years.  Can civilization endure another 10,000 years?  What have the trends of the past 10,000 years taught us about the way civilization rises and falls?  What have we learned about technological evolution?  Can past trends be extrapolated to accurately estimate future realities?  Hopefully these are questions that the Clock of the Long Now can inspire in all of us.

References

Brand, S.  1999.  The Clock of the Long Now.  New York: Basic Books.

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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