Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Very Long Now

Instead of planning ahead, how about planning WAY ahead?

In this age of instant gratification it is unusual for any of us to plan very far into the future. Politicians are concerned only for the date of the next election. The main concern of most businesses is the next stockholders meeting and the quarterly.conference call with Wall Street. Gas and oil companies actually brag about having plenty of product to supply us "for the next 60 years," as if that is forever. And as individuals we may start saving some money toward retirement, even give some thought to the college educations of our children and grandchildren, but beyond that all is lost in the mist.

The pace of change may be partly to blame for this situation. At the rate we're going, even trying to imagine what the world will be like a hundred years in the future makes it seem impossible to plan for it. Just take a look backwards. How could the people of 1908 have planned for the advent of nuclear diplomacy, communications satellites, the manipulation of the electorate through television and email, the moral issues of human cloning, or any one of a thousand other modern problems? So how can we possibly know what will face us in 2108, let alone 3108?

It might seem hopeless, but there is one organization that is doing what it can to promote long range planning --  really long range. The Long Now Foundation (beautifully named by musician Brian Eno) aims to construct a Ten Thousand Year Clock, a mechanical device built to last and to keep accurate time for a period of 10,000 years. The clock will chime every 1,000 years as the millennium turns. They built a prototype in time for it to bong twice for the year 2000. Now we have only 992 years to complete the real thing and keep it running till the next time. Better get started right away!

Just to put this in perspective, we are talking about looking ahead as far as we can look back in the history of human civilization, to the first shards of pottery created by our ancestors. The general idea is that if we want to last for another ten thousand years we had better start planning on it. We may not know what the long term future will look like, but we do know that it will be of our own devising. So whatever we consider doing we will have to start thinking about the long range consequences.

The Ten Thousand Year Clock, or The Clock of the Long Now,  is both a monumental reminder of this concept and also an exercise in it. Just the act of planning a project on this scale will be a new benchmark in human activity. What else compares with it?

No doubt the medieval constructors of cathedrals intended them to last forever, or at least until the Second Coming, but they are already showing their age after less than a single millennium, and in spite of predictions the apocalypse still seems a long way off. The pyramids of ancient Egypt have survived for half of the ten millennium period (or even longer according to one theory), but they are just inanimate stone.

Just imagine what it will take to keep a clock running for that amount of time. Remember that on this scale empires will rise and fall, species will evolve, languages will die, humans may be replaced by artificial or genetically engineered substitutes, and space colonization may leave the whole Earth in a dusty backwater like some abandoned Sumerian city.

Author Neal Stephenson has written a new novel, Anathem, based on the premise of "millennium clocks" in which he speculates about what kind of cultural institution may have to be created just to maintain such timepieces as the centuries toll by. He imagines a kind of monastic order, not unlike the cloistered intellectuals of Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, who are insulated from the vagaries of the civilization outside their walled enclaves. In these protected bubbles they carry on a ritualized daily routine, limiting themselves to the timeless technologies of the distant past.

Of course the point of all this is that we need to learn how to plan our long term survival as a species. It may seem an empty exercise just to run a mechanical clock for so long, but it will remind us about all the other things that need long term solutions, like food, drinkable water, raw materials, biodiversity, disease control -- not to mention the man-made problems of social stability, economic viability, and the prevention of annihilating warfare. Simply building the clock is a commitment to the future. By doing so we will be accepting the responsibility of solving whatever problems may arise.

Even if we stay on this single planet forever we will still have to find a sustainable way to live. And we will have to pay enough attention to what's happening in the space around us to prevent being extinguished by collision with a stray meteor someday.

If we fulfill the destiny that many of us have on our minds and begin to move onto worlds around other suns, just the sheer distances involved will require us to learn how to think in centuries as we do now in years. How will we feel as we wave goodbye to a ship full of colonists who may not reach their destination for a thousand years? Or when the mere reply to a radio message takes many decades?

Science fiction buffs imagine there will be solutions that will make travel much quicker and communications as instant as we are accustomed to here on Earth. But even so, the reality of the vast space just in our own galaxy is likely to humble us with what is possible. Any future civilization that hopes to span the stars will confront challenges on a scale never before imagined.

One other idea the Long Now Foundation promotes is the addition of another digit to our counting of the years. Just as we recently started writing "01/01/2008" instead of the ambiguous "01/01/08," they suggest we start calling it "January 1, 02008." After all, it's only another eight millennia until the big odometer will roll over from 09999 to 10000. We'll need some time to get used to the idea.

[For more technical details on the Clock of the Long Now, see the exhibit page for the prototype which is now at the London Science Museum.]

1 comment:

  1. It's no joke about the pyramids - not only are they still here, but the culture that created them remained intact for almost 3,000 years, right down until Cleopatra fell prey to the Romans. China is about to break the Egyptians' record - Chinese culture has been unified, cohesive and essentially intact for a period closing in on the 3k mark. The record will be broken any century now.