Thinking for the (very) long-term

The Clock of the Long Now, by Stewart Brand (1999)

**Pages: 173**, Final verdict: Great-read

How did people live in the 21st century? How did the first computer program work? Why have they driven so many species to extinction? In a similar way we ask questions about the middle-ages, these might also very well be the questions that our descendants will ask in the year 3000.

Stewart Brand, futurist and thought leader, was the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog (where the famous "Stay hungry. Stay foolish." quote attributed to Steve Jobs was originally published). In the 1990s, Brand and a few other innovators started the Long Now Foundation and set in motion an ambitious plan to build a 10-000 year clock. The Clock of the Long Now tells their story.

Fast learns, slow remembers.

The world is moving faster and faster. Moore's law predicts that computing power is doubling every 24 months. Companies like Uber or Facebook grow to worldwide giants in a couple of years, as discussed in last week's review of the book Exponential Organizations. And, believed it or not, it was only 10 years ago that Smartphones appeared, and now we can't live without them. But is time really moving faster?

The Clock of the Long Now is all about taking a breath and looking at our our lives in the frame of the much longer time of the evolution of civilization. The Earth has been here for a few million years, human civilization started circa 10.000 years ago, and despite the accelerating technological breakthroughs, man will still be around in another 10.000 years.

"Earthquakes, war, murder, the burning of libraries... bad things happen fast. Reforestation, the growth of a child, the maturing of an adult, building a library... good things happen slow." - Stewart Brand

Brand's goal is to foster long-term thinking to make sure that we also invest in longstanding projects and that the Earth will still be here for our descendants. He sees civilization as the interaction between the following layers:

  • Fashion/art - quickly changing trends
  • Commerce - the corporate world which sustains the economy
  • Infrastructure - building new transportation routes or power stations requires a longer time view
  • Governance - government leaders need to consider an even longer time to address strategic problems
  • Culture - beyond countries and governments, the way we behave is passed on from generation to generation
  • Nature - natural ecosystems are the ultimate slow movers

Keeping the balance between these different layers is the cornerstone of the long now view. We must learn from the fast changing parts of our life, but also remember about our culture and nature. If today's leaders are only concerned about quick changes, there should be more people paying attention to the long-term balance.

A clock and a library

The Long Now foundation's plan is to build a clock which symbolizes the long view, marking the linear passage of time in a world of exponential innovation.

If the clock is to be built so it lasts at least 10.000 years, until a time when no one has any idea how humans will live, several design challenges need to be considered:

  • How do you keep the clock accurate over 10.000 years?
  • How to build it simple enough so that the people of the future will understand its workings and, if needed, repair it without a guidebook?
  • How to avoid the use of materials which might be considered rare and tempt burglars?

Inspired by the monasteries and monastic orders which preserved knowledge during the dark ages, Brand also tells us about the plan to build a library. Again, similar design concerns arise: what knowledge would be useful in 10.000 years? What's the mean on which to save the knowledge so that people in the future will be able to read it?

"In the long run, saving yourself requires saving the whole world." - Stewart Brand

In fact, Brand provides interesting insights into the problem of holding information in our age: digital information is less, not more, preserved. It is very difficult to read information typed into the first word processors and most of the early physical media is deteriorating quickly. Magnetic tapes and floppy disk readers are not easy to find.

The question comes back to us: how did the first computer program look like? Can we tell or is it written in a language no one speaks and saved on a medium today's machines can't read? One of the aims of the Long Now foundation is to end this 'digital dark age' with the clock and library.

Bottom line

The Clock of the Long Now is different from the books I usually read. Its topic is very specific - discussing about long-term thinking - but it is very broad in the way it addresses it. In circa 24 chapters in 173 pages we get to read about completely different things: the history of the Library of Alexandria, the technological developments in the late 20th century or even an imaginary conference speech of Brand discussing the importance of long-term thinking.

Nonetheless, the book helped me think about time and long-term changes in a new way. Moreover, it reminds us that we have a debt to our descendants - to give them a rich planet. At a time when man has enough power to impact Nature for the long-term (and has been doing so in a negative way...), this reminder is even more important.

I would not say that The Clock of the Long Now is a book that everyone should read. However, if you feel like being challenged by new ideas and reframe your way of thinking about the fleetingness of time, do read it. It reads fast and nicely, you will not regret doing it.

Further learning:

Looking for recent news about the Clock, I found that the plan is still in place (see an update from 2004 in the video below) and the first clock prototype is at the Science Museum of London.

Happy reading.