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The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility

Author: Stewart Brand

Publisher: New York: Basic Books, 1999

ISBN: Centre of Bus

Summary:In The 'Clock of the Long Now', Brand tells the story about this effort to develop "the world's slowest computer." It's sort of like 'The Soul of a New Machine', except written by one of the project team, with the project still unfinished.

Seven years before the turn of the Y2K clock, Danny Hillis, the founder of Thinking Machines, had an idea: "I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of the Millennium. 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." What started as an idea became an interview in HotWired, which led to the formation of The Long Now Foundation in 1996 (with Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis as co-chairs), another article in Wired in 1998, and then the demonstration of a prototype at the Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum in 1999.

In The Clock of the Long Now, Brand tells the story about this effort to develop "the world's slowest computer." It's sort of like The Soul of a New Machine, except written by one of the project team, with the project still unfinished. There are three questions one could ask about the Clock: why would you build it, how would you build it, and what would you learn once you had built it. Let's start with the how. To build a clock that keeps time on such a patient scale, Danny Hillis suggested five design principles. Longevity, displaying accurate time for the next 10,000 years. Maintainability, with the simplest imaginable tools. Transparency, so that no owner's manual is necessary. Evolvability, so that it can be improved over time. And Scalability, so that the same design works in the prototypes shown to fundraisers and in the final, large-scale, outdoor version.

Hillis solved the accuracy problem with two brilliant insights. Instead of choosing a mechanism that is inaccurate but reliable (like a pendulum) or one that is accurate but unreliable (like a very large sundial), he linked the two together. On a daily basis, it is the pendulum that will keep time. Whenever it's high noon on a sunny day, a pulse of focused sunlight will re-set the clock. If the sun is blocked because of rain, volcanic eruptions, or nuclear winters, the pendulum clock can keep good-enough time until the sun comes out again. Hillis's second insight was to use a digital mechanical system for the clock-works. Mechanical, as opposed to electronic, for the sake of simplicity, transparency, and reparability. Digital, as opposed to analog, in how the gears of the machine work. The teeth of gears and the grooves of screws wear down with use, and over the long haul, that would make a difference. On the other hand, age and use won't erode the accuracy of the digital "program." Being digital without being electronic wasn't a paradox, it was an inspiration.

Like all good projects, the Clock of the Long Now encountered scope creep. In addition to the clock, the builders started talking about a 10,000-year library. What information would be interesting for our 400th-generation descendants? What information might be valuable along the way. In a way, this goofy idea is a very poetical one. Clocks are about the passage of time, and libraries the accumulation of time. The time that clocks keep is Newtonian - rigid, steady, reversible. The timeframe of knowledge is biological - uneven, cumulative, unpredictable. Because a library keeps a record of what was said, done, and learned in earlier times, it is a clock in its own right. The accumulated past, Brand writes, is life's best resource for innovation.

Ecosystems are able to absorb and incorporate shocks because they have components that operate on different levels, at different time scales. Some parts react quickly to intrusions, while other parts continue to operate at their own pace. A healthy political system can incorporate changes without destroying its institutions and cultures. A healthy building, according to British architect Frank Duffy, has several layers of longevity - shell, services, scenery, and set. The set, things like furniture, changes frequently, while the shell changes only once in a while. Some things happen in fast time, others in slow time. It is the combination of fast and slow components that makes a system resilient, according to Brand:

Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power. All durable dynamic systems have this sort of structure; it is what makes them adaptable and robust.

The 10,000-year Library, if it is ever built, must incorporate principles of both fast and slow time. Stone tablets are cumbersome to use, but long-lasting; books are easy to use, but they fall apart. This is a critical issue to confront, since we might well be facing an impending Digital Dark Age. "It is only slightly facetious," Brand quotes Jeff Rothenberg of the RAND Corporation as saying, "to say that digital information lasts forever - or five years, whichever comes first." Digital storage may be cheap, but it's not long-lasting. Magnetic tape and disks begin to decay in five to ten years. Optical media like CDs decay over a five to fifteen year period. And when a digital record goes bad, it usually goes all at once. It's not like the corner of a page being torn off. No, our music CDs don't last as long as vinyl LPs did, and neither lasts as long as sheet music.

We are facing the irretrievable loss of the archives of the information age, such as books, correspondence, and photographs. One of the seminal moments in the environmental movement was the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. At that time, color pictures of the whole Earth, photographed from the surface of the moon, made many people realize that Earth was a single, connected, living organism that we needed to take responsibility for. Those original photographs were historically important, but they were not preserved: "Vast archives of digitized NASA satellite imagery of the Earth in the 1960s and 1970s - priceless to scientists studying change over time - now reside in obsolete, unreadable formats on magnetic tape."

It seems we have been short-sighted. Even though it is cheap to copy and store digital information, it is not cheap to store it permanently. Maybe the web is the answer? If all important information is stored in enough places across the internet, maybe it will never be lost. MaybeÖbut that's like saying you don't need the Library of Alexandria if you have enough monasteries with copies of the really important books. As Danny Hillis asks, "Is the Net itself profoundly robust and immortal, or is it the most ephemeral digital artifact of all?" For instance, we can still read Galileo's technical correspondence from the 16th century, but we don't have readable copies of the emails of the people who created the internet. Hillis's observation is that "back when information was hard to copy, people valued the copies and took care of them. Now copies are so common as to be considered worthless, and very little attention is given to preserving them over the long term."

Doug Carlson, the co-founder of Broderbund Software, proposed a two-path strategy for ensuring that the 10,000-year Library's records don't disappear. The Library needs two copies of everything, one fast and one slow. The fast version, presumably in electronic format, can be used day to day, and will be repeatedly copied and migrated to subsequent hardware and software platforms. The slow version would be the deep archive, carved in stone and really, really permanent. The stone would be silicon disks, and the carving would be microscopic, but there would little risk of decay or functional obsolescence. Every few centuries, the working version and the archival version would be compared for variations, and the working version would be corrected.

In Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim asks "Is it always 'or'? is it never 'and'?" Carlson's approach to the Library and Hillis's approach to the Clock both harness the "and." So do healthy political systems, with their checks and balances and their different levels operating at different speeds. So do the adaptive buildings that Frank Duffy describes. So must our sense of "now." Brand articulates an "order of civilization," where the layers (from fastest to slowest) are fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature. A responsible view of "now" places us within all six of those time frames.

The subtitle of the book is "Time and Responsibility." In many ways the book and the Clock / Library project are both calls to assume more responsibility. So what do those of us who work for corporations owe our successors? More than we typically think. Those debts we can't repay our (corporate) ancestors, we can pay our descendants. Moreover, taking the long view might be, to coin a phrase, a useful fiction. When beliefs lead to better outcomes, they create their own truth. The futurist Herman Kahn writes, "I am convinced that people behave better when they think they have free will. They take responsibility more and the think about their choices more. So I believe in free will." If people in the corporate world believe that they are part of a long "now," they are more likely to make different decisions at the margins. Like planting forests that take seventy years to mature. Or putting four (or even five) digits in the dates in computer files.

There is no financial purpose to building a 10,000-year clock, any more than there is to building a museum. But building a museum makes us ask what do we want to preserve, and what do we think later generations might be able to learn from. It lets us make a statement that we are aware that the future exists, and that we want to be remembered. But the real reason to build for the future is because it makes us act differently in the present. "The trick is learning how to treat the last ten thousand years as if it were last week, and the next ten thousand as if it were next week," Brand writes. "Such tricks confer advantage." Whether the world is moving faster in the Internet Age might just be a matter our sense of time. The musician Brian Eno observed that, for most of the people he knew, "'now' meant 'this week.' Everyone had just got there, and was just going somewhere else." Maybe a slightly longer view of "now" wouldn't be such a bad thing.

©  Center for Business Innovation, Cambridge MA.