Forever Now

How a 10,000-year clock can help us save the future

In October 2016, the largest DoS attack to date took down major servers on the East and West coasts of the United States. Wired called it “a definite reminder of the fragility of the web, and the power of the forces that aim to disrupt it.” Also in 2016, Google’s headquarters used more electricity/power than the entire city of San Francisco; California’s epic drought raged on; 15,000 Los Angeles buildings were deemed unfit to withstand an earthquake the likes of which is expected to happen any day now; and, nearby, the Salton Sea continued to dry up, threatening the American Southwest with a dystopian Dust Bowl redux. Californians, meanwhile, carry on more or less as usual, mega-mansions drink up tens of thousands of gallons for their walled gardens, fossil fuel-powered cars crowd the highways every day, right on schedule, and now, a new government administration is hellbent on undoing what progress we have made.

The future is no longer a place to escape the bleakness of the present

In 1994, Jaron Lanier — a computer scientist who helped pioneer virtual reality technology coined the karma vertigo effect to explain the sense of responsibility bestowed those frontiersmen of computers and the internet: We have an extraordinary amount of what you could call karma in this generation,” he said in an interview, “because this generation is creating the computer network and the infrastructure of computer software that will be running for a thousand years.” Lanier also warned of a crisis of which, even today, likely very few of us are aware: We are in a digital dark age. The storage formats we use and have used since the advent of the computer age have evolved so rapidly that vast quantities of data, including the pioneer software from which everything we rely upon now was founded, are irretrievable. Brittleness (inflexibility of compatibility) is software’s fatal flaw — it’s sort of the tragic irony of our era’s explosion of access to knowledge — and though it was recognized as a serious issue as early as the ’80s, we still don’t seem to have a sustainable solution. “At first, the design of the network will seem less important than the content that is moved over it,” Lanier wrote. “This will be true only for the first generation or two of users. After that it will become apparent that the network’s design is like genetic material out of which our culture unfolds, an intimate and pervasive presence, a thing, like the structure of our spoken language, whose influence is too great to be isolated or measured.”

Karma vertigo is also a radical device, to help us understand the effects of this generation on the future, and the past, far beyond just digital infrastructure — think climate change, environmental preservation efforts, social justice and civil rights issues, sustainability and viability of producing food and clean water. Our actions today, the policy created now, the starts and stops of progress toward solving global crises, are all of daunting consequence; as Lanier wrote, “The stakes are so high that they inspire vertigo.” The future is no longer a place to escape the bleakness of the present. A reasonably predictable distant-future problem is a right-now problem. Someone can do something about it, but we are systematically procrastinating.

“Karma can impose crushing responsibility, paralyzing to contemplate,” Stewart Brand, author and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog (pre-internet Craigslist), wrote in his book The Clock of The Long Now: Time and Responsibility (1999). To curtail our society’s vertiginous procrastination on solving self-created problems would require a significant change in perspective — like the spread of a religion, or a collective acid trip. So, Brand, along with Danny Hillis — the computer scientist who developed the “massive parallel” architecture of today’s supercomputers — co-founded the Long Now Foundation in 01996. (They use a five-digit notation of time to reframe our perception of time in 10,000-year increments.) Great minds from all fields and disciplines have participated, from the writer Douglas Coupland to the musician Brian Eno, who coined the term “Long Now.” The foundation hosts ongoing efforts (including a podcast, Seminars About Long-term Thinking) to shift our perspective of the present to include thousands of years down the line. Its current mandate is to create the world’s slowest computer: the 10,000 Year Clock.

The clock is a symbolic device to encourage responsible thinking and planning (Hillis called it “a Rorschach test — of time”), as well as an exercise in both. To make a clock that keeps time accurately for as long as 10,000 years on Earth requires engineering of astounding precision and collaborative scenario-planning, not supernatural trend foresight or clever branding. To withstand the various catastrophes that can occur over 10,000 years — wars, disasters, nuclear holocaust — the foundation purchased desert mountain land adjoining the Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. The tract includes at least 180 acres on Mount Washington; the idea is to install the clock inside the mountain. It’s an expensive project. In addition to Hillis, the Long Now Foundation’s board of directors includes a few entrepreneurial software pioneers, like Ping Fu and Kim Polese. The foundation acknowledges the contradiction that some of those responsible for creating our quagmire of technological acceleration have invested in correcting for the ensuing imbalance.

The wealthy powerful bear the most direct responsibility for the future, which might be why their behavior often tilts toward nihilistic: they suffer karma vertigo to the extent that they must live in denial in order to live with themselves. Meanwhile, the institutions that guard the past and serve the interests of a progressive future — from universities and museums to government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and The Global Climate Change Initiative — are endangered by this violent wave of plutocracy. A trend of powerful, incredibly wealthy companies and financiers who appear to practice a sort of “profitable altruism” (tech companies like Google and think-tanks like Y Combinator) may be, depending how you look at it, a promising shift toward long-term responsibility. But often business models are predicated on filling the gaps left by politically motivated fund-gutting of reliable, long-term sustainable institutions. Access to preventative healthcare is limited, a con that wellness-oriented lifestyle brands capitalize on, filling a niche with unregulated merchandise that promises everything from youthful beauty to a decreased risk of cancer; energy and oil companies expect us to let them regulate themselves; Silicon Valley banks on continued exponential growth, while ignoring the fact that we are dealing with a digital Dark Age. We’ve yet to see the worst consequences of the tech boom; perhaps the greatest economic crisis currently foreseeable is the automation of jobs still held by the working class.

Both the Doomsday Clock and the Clock of the Long Now remind us that we, too, will look destructive and foolish as hell to future generations

Any initiatives on behalf of the wealthy to save the world are bound to be suspect, but they do have the means for necessary initiatives. While some of those who have become absurdly wealthy in the tech boom are investing in apocalyptic escapes to New Zealand, Danny Hillis has devoted his remaining time on earth to a gesture so huge it has to be hidden in a remote mountain range to work. It does ring true to the historical cliché of “man with more money/time than he knows what to do with builds a phallic monument to remain important forever,” but it’s also being done in good faith. Our societal values are not attuned to preserving human legacy into the deep future; they do not prioritize the care of ourselves and each other. Capitalism is ultimately self-defeating, but how do you restore sense to a system unsound to begin with? There is no tangible return to be made in one’s lifetime by investing in a parabolic monument to the deep future, but as Brand writes, “rigorous long-view thinking makes responsibility-taking inevitable because it responds to the slower, deeper feedback loops of the whole society and the natural world. How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?” A functional, egoless monument, meant to inspire, not to show power or even to take up space, and inconspicuous yet legendary enough to prompt a shift in perception that, while individualistic, would make a huge difference in how we organize ourselves and decide to live collectively on behalf of the future.

Like the Doomsday Clock, created by former Manhattan Project members and managed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947, the Clock of the Long Now is designed to frame our conversations around our relationship to time. Both draw attention to the fluctuation of our prevailing perspective, reminding us that we, too, will look destructive and foolish as hell to future generations, who will suffer the consequences of our short-term thinking. The Doomsday Clock is about scaring us into decreasing the statistical likelihood of total self-destruction: it speculates on existential threats like nuclear war, climate change, super-diseases bound to become epidemics, engineered pathogens. (As of January 26, 02017, it’s set at two minutes and 30 seconds to midnight.) It foreshortens our perception of time by reminding us of the consequences of wasting our time right now. The Clock of the Long Now uses the reverse method: The idea is to give meaning to time, and persuade us to include the next 10,000 years in our idea of now. These projects combined aim to overcome karma vertigo, encouraging efforts, even between parties in dispute, toward imaginative scenario planning.

The biggest obstacle to ensuring the 10,000 Year Clock actually lasts 10,000 years is, of course, the obstacle it seeks to overcome. “When you start thinking about building something that lasts that long, the real problem is not decay and corrosion, or even the power source. The real problem is people,” Danny Hillis wrote in Wired in 1995. “If something becomes unimportant to people, it gets scrapped for parts; if it becomes important, it turns into a symbol and must eventually be destroyed. The only way to survive over the long run is to be made of materials large and worthless, like Stonehenge and the Pyramids, or to become lost. The Dead Sea Scrolls managed to survive by remaining lost for a couple millennia. Now that they’ve been located and preserved in a museum, they’re probably doomed. I give them two centuries — tops.”

In 2015, Vice President of Google, Dr. Vincent “Vint” Cerf, warned that the amount of information lost from the first half-century or so of the computer age could amount to the dark ages after the collapse of the Roman empire, when unknowable, unfathomable amounts of human history went up in flames. Of course, there are digital archivists out there who work to preserve early code, but these things, too, are stored on physical media vulnerable to obsolescence — or intentional destruction. It took three wars, Christian conquerors, then Muslim conquerors to destroy the Library of Alexandria; different extremists selectively annihilated the canon of humanity up to 88 BCE in an effort to wrest control, ensuring their ideas were the only ones left. The data we’ve come to depend on could be lost to all history as easily as paper burns, and future civilizations would have no clue what we were up to beyond overpopulating landfills with plastic and styrofoam. Today, a minor malfunction could literally cause World War III: “the systems devised to govern the use of nuclear weapons, like all complex technological systems, are inherently flawed,” Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, wrote in a recent New Yorker article. “They are designed, built, installed, maintained, and operated by human beings … Millions of people, perhaps hundreds of millions, could be annihilated inadvertently.”

The future, though a known-unknown, exists only in the present. Like a foetus carried in perpetuity, the future is continually shaped in the ongoing present: “now” and “later” parts of a single body, inseparable as hand grenade and pin. Matters of civil liberty or environmental conservation are not partisan issues; rather, they are reframed responsibilities it serves the long view well to uphold. The 10,000 Year Clock is a monument for empowering humanity as a common cause: It says we could literally have all the time in the world to grow and to do big, incredible things, but we have to learn from our mistakes and not destroy ourselves. We have to start thinking of ourselves as one.

Time is the tension of consciousness itself, according to Augustine (circa 397 CE). That’s the discomfort we feel while sitting still in silence, without distraction from our thoughts. It’s what’s made the simple practice of meditating into a marketable enterprise for app developers like Headspace: people want their hands held through each moment of consciousness. Anything to ease the relentless tension of sentience. Pastime: to pass the time looking away from the present, procrastinating on our most basic obligations, hunting/gathering, eating, procreating, dying. Part frenzy, part denial. We are constantly looking to kill time. It is as if we can only understand something if it has an ending.

I’d always thought that to believe you are part of something bigger was mere pacification — I’m predisposed to a sensation of cosmic solitude — but the idea of a long now gives me comfort, like a light bouncing off the moon reassures us there is something familiar out there in the void. The future, like the past, is something to hold onto. Contemplating either can create an uncomfortable self-awareness, withering one’s sense of self: in the long view, the ego realizes its limitations. The Long Now encourages an opposite perspective: Our blip of existence is not inconsequential, nor is the future immune to the consequences of our ego’s pettier whims. Our actions, individually and as a generation, as important as anyone else’s.

We are constantly looking to kill time. It is as if we can only understand something if it has an ending

Bad things tend to happen fast, leaving too little time for us to correct the hasty mistakes that precipitate any disaster; good things tend to come together very slowly, gradually, and thoughtfully, as a collaborative effort, Stewart Brand observes in his book. The core problem is one of perspective; the solution, in part, is narrative. “Man is always between two times. The brief time of his mortal body … and the big-story time that his mind invents, constructs … but the same mind can also deconstruct and undo that time,” John Berger said, in a televised discussion with Susan Sontag on the program Voices. “Yes, the story distracts, takes us out of ourselves; entertains us, we say. But there is more to it than that. When once the story has begun, we listeners find ourselves in an eternal present. The time in the story goes beyond, far beyond, the time of the telling.” We select from truth and from invention, and curate our engagement with time to suit us — this comes naturally, Berger argues, as a form of reassurance. The 10,000 Year Clock provides a common thread, a unifying plot that connects those of us alive right now to everyone who will come after we’re gone; a saga that includes everyone.

The Long Now’s objective is to support the defense of the future against the finite play of selfish actors. It does this by offering a way to conceive of the future. It is a grand gesture that these things matter; if nothing else, maybe future civilizations will find the clock in the mountain and wonder at what potential we had and squandered. Expanding one’s temporal perspective may not give quite the same fix of instant gratification as sacrificing your body for a cause. But it is meaningful, far-reaching, impactful, and meditative, a sort of autotherapy that keeps your day-to-day experience in better touch with your place in the grand scheme of the universe. In the Long Now, all moments in time are created equal.

“Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated, and reimagined if it is to survive,” Zadie Smith observed. Disillusionment can be useful: it reveals the malleability of the present. We are here, now, together in this uncertain point in a 10,000-year game, at an opportune teachable moment on metacognition — and a wake-up call to what’s at stake when we procrastinate on imaginative-scenario-planning. Every generation relates over some malaise of circumstance and aspires to be the change. It’s unclear how we as individuals can manage to get through life, diminish our subjective experiences, short-term needs and whims, in the service of deep time, but maybe we start by reconceiving of the present as any moment in between decisions. As far as we know, time is propelled forward only every time a living being consciously observes its actions and decides to do something else.

Natasha Young is a writer whose essays and criticism have been published in the New Inquiry, Artforum, and Adult magazine. Her first novel, Static Flux, is coming fall 2017 via Metatron. She lives in Los Angeles.