Where does man reside on the spectrum of time? We are conditioned to think of time as linear, with today always at the right hand margin and Homo sapiens representing evolution’s epitome. A few graphic representations show dotted lines projecting into the future, but for the most part, tomorrow is off the page. What would it mean if, instead of seeing ourselves on the cusp of evolution and time, we thought of ourselves in the middle of it? Would it change the way we think about tomorrow? Or how we think about today? What if today were not a mere 24 hours, a blip in time. What if today spanned the breadth of human civilization? What if we are dwelling in the middle of a long now?
Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalog) founded The Long Now Foundation in 1996 to ‘foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years’. Ten thousand years ago agriculture began; projecting ten thousand years hence centers us in this settlement-based period.
I was excited to meet two Long Now staffers since, in many ways; the Long Now Foundation and I are on the same journey. We are extraneous to the flow of everyday society. We are presumptuous in exploring what humans cannot control. Yet we both believe in postulating tomorrow as a means to gain a steadier hand in guiding our destiny.
A middle-aged guy pedaling the country is kind of silly, as are intelligent folks tinkering with a clock that will supposedly tick for 10,000 years. Yet those same activities are profound. People accept my question with more gravity because it’s accompanied by sweat. Contemplating how to build something to survive 500 generations invites new ways to think about design and sustainability.
What does The Long Now Foundation do? Its pursuits are as varied as the responses I receive to my question. The Long Now is measuring time by building a 10,000-year clock that will operate via air currents. The Long Now is documenting our culture for future generations: the Rosetta Project encrypts disks that contain the first book of Genesis in 2300 hundred languages that can be read with a magnifying glass; the Internet Archive project explores permanent ways to archive digital information; the 3,000 Book Project is a living manual of our civilization. The Long Now is also shaping today’s culture through seminars and workshops to encourage long-term thinking in science, economics, linguistics, and politics. I’m most fascinated by The Long Now’s scientific endeavor to genetically reconstitute extinct species. The passenger pigeon may one day fly again.
Besides Quixotic pursuits that are both economically worthless and spiritually deep, The Long Now and my adventure share a positive sensibility. According to Danielle Engelman, “Stewart Brand doesn’t have much time for pessimism.” It’s easy enough to paint disaster scenarios for our future, but more rewarding to speculate on how it can be good.
The Long Now deserves more time and attention than this short profile. Check out its website, and savor Michael Chabon’s inspiring essay on the 10,000 year clock. The Long Now’s value won’t be measured by whether it’s clock lasts 10,000 years or passenger pigeons reemerge from beyond death. Its value exists by the foundation’s very existence – now – as an aspirational platform to ponder the future and explore our role in it.
How will we live tomorrow?
“Our Mission Statement is to foster long term thinking and responsibility. If we can live outside our comfort zone, no matter where we are in our present, we will flourish. I want to see more intention with what we do. Not let efficiency govern. Slow down.” – Catherine