Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Long Now

The Long Now
The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996* 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 counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

The Name
The term was coined by one of our founding board members, Brian Eno. When Brian first moved to New York City he found that in New York 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 are trying to stretch out what people consider as now.

Below is an essay by another founding board member Stewart Brand on the need for, and the mechanism by which, The Long Now Foundation is attempting to encourage long term thinking.

The Clock and Library Projects

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where 'long-term' is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth. It began with an observation and idea by computer scientist Daniel Hillis:

"When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. For the next thirty years they kept talking about what would happen by the year 2000, 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."

Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.

Hillis, who developed the 'massive parallel' architecture of the current generation of supercomputers, devised the mechanical design of the Clock and is now building the second prototype (the first prototype is on display in London at the Science Museum). The Clock's works consist of a binary digital-mechanical system which is so accurate and revolutionary that we have patented several of its elements. (With 32 bits of accuracy it has precision equal to one day in 20,000 years, and it self-corrects by 'phase-locking' to the noon Sun.) For the way the eventual Clock is experienced (its size, structure, etc.), we expect to keep proliferating design ideas for a while. In 01999 Long Now purchased part of a mountain in eastern Nevada whose high white limestone cliffs may make an ideal site for the ultimate 10,000-year Clock. In the meantime Danny Hillis and Alexander Rose continue to experiment with ever-larger prototype Clocks.

Long Now added a "Library" dimension with the realization of the need for content to go along with the long-term context provided by the Clock - a library of the deep future, for the deep future. In a sense every library is part of the 10,000-year Library, so Long Now is developing tools (such as the Rosetta Disk, The Long Viewer the Long Server) that may provide inspiration and utility to the whole community of librarians and archivists. The Long Bets project - whose purpose is improving the quality of long-term thinking by making predictions accountable - is also Library-related.

The point is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time.

-Stewart Brand

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