The Long Now

According to my watch the time is now
Past is dead and gone
Don’t try to shake it just nod your head
Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On
— “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On”
© Jimmy Buffett, Take The Weather With You (2006)

This last week of the year is a time of reflection for many of us. We look back at the events of the past twelve months and think about the possible direction of the next twelve. I tend to follow the advice of John Foster Dulles who said, “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.”

Low-angle view of the face of a neon-lighted clock at night.How many of us take a serious look beyond the approaching year? Some people may have a five year plan, or perhaps even a ten year strategy to reach a desired goal. Advancement in the workplace, the purchase of a home, and financial security for an eventual retirement are common scenarios that require long-term plans to achieve.

Lets take the idea of planning for the future to a much larger frame of reference. Danny Hillis is an inventor/computer engineer who is fond of telling a story about the oak ceiling beams in College Hall at New College, Oxford. When the beams needed to be replaced last century the carpenters used the wood from the oak trees that had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built.The builder had anticipated a time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need to be replaced and planted trees for that purpose. [Note: I don’t know if the builder planted new ones for the future carpenters to use.]

Jonas Salk asked the question, “Are we being good ancestors?” This type of long-range thinking flies in the face of our current age of selfies and short attention spans. Is it possible to do some critical thinking about the future without stirring up feelings of anxiety and remorse? Are those feelings appropriate/helpful to some degree when pondering the unknown?

Danny Hillis has spent time thinking about our relationship with the future and with the generations of people who will follow us on this Earth. Here is what he had to say:

“When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 02000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 02000, and now no one mentions a future date at all. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life. I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.”

Let’s pause a moment and address the extra zero in front of the year 02000. One of the first things that Danny did was to start using five-digit dates to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years. Consistency is only a virtue if you are not a dumb-ass and the time to be consistent starts now.

Danny Hillis joined up with Stewart Brand (of the Whole Earth Catalog fame) and others to form the Long Now Foundation in 01996. The purpose of the foundation is: “…to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long-term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. We hope to foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”

A 10,000 year clock?

Who, what, why?

Them. Because, why not?

Brian Eno is a founding board member and the person who came up with the the term, Long Now. “Upon moving to New York City, Brian found that ‘here’ and ‘now’ meant ‘this room’ and ‘this five minutes’ as opposed to the larger here and longer now that he was used to in England. We have since adopted the term as the title of our foundation as we try to stretch out what people consider as now.” (quoted from the Long Now website)

Scale models of the 10,000 year clock are on display at the London Science Museum and the Long Now headquarters in San Francisco. There are two sites currently under construction in the United States to house permanent clocks. One is in Eastern Nevada and the other is in West Texas.

Our perception of Reality comes down to our perception of Our Reality. The Clock Project is a way to inspire us to look back at the last 10,000 years of Civilization and then forward to the next 10,000. Between those two extremes we find ourselves in the Now. We are midway in a 20,000 year slice of Time.

Our Reality is Now. Are we being good ancestors?

This video will give you a look at this ambitious project.


Best wishes for the coming year(s),

Related links:

  5 comments for “The Long Now

  1. December 31, 2015 at 11:43 AM

    Totally mind bending, just like Doctor Who. Are we good ancestors a wonderful question to ponder as a new year begins. The questions are much more interesting then the answers don’t you think?
    Have a happy and safe New Years Eve.
    See you next year


    • December 31, 2015 at 1:24 PM

      Thanks, Carol. Yes, the questions are are more interesting at this point of the dialogue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 29, 2015 at 4:57 AM

    Allan, definitely food for thought. One of my husband’s wishes was to be able to plant a number of hardwood trees that could be given to our girls and even, later, their families. We’ve never gotten around to doing it, but it would have been a “good ancestor” thing to do. There are so may others.



  3. December 28, 2015 at 10:21 PM

    Very interesting point of view.


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