Prototype image of the 10,000 Year Clock. The final structure will be over 200 feet (60 meters) tall.
Image: Long Now Foundation
It’s easy to see why we humans think in terms of years. After all, we base our thinking on the world around us, and the world around us travels around its star in what we call a year. If we lived on Jupiter, we might still think in terms of years, I suppose, but each year would last almost 12 of our current years. Assuming we had similar lifespans (and could actually survive on Jupiter, etc.), we would reach adolescence at age 1, be adult by age 2, and middle-aged at 4. How would that change our expectations?
For most people living in modern society, life is a quick-flowing, mercurial thing, and this is encouraged even further by modern technologies. Meanwhile, our world continues to orbit the Sun at its more or less stately pace and the cycles of the planet are mostly far longer than we comprehend or choose to reflect in our actions.
How welcome, then, is the project of the 10,000 Year Clock! A project that shows how we humans think: how we keep time, how we design, our limitations and our potential. An actual clock, a massive device with gears and chimes built into a mountain, meant to keep time on a centennial and millennial scale, an attempt to think long and speak to ourselves in the future.
The undertaking is supported by the Long Now Foundation. Its president is Stewart Brand, who is quoted as saying, “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.”
While I think short-sightedness is a built-in feature of human life – after all, we get hungry every single day and often our horizons don’t extend much beyond fulfilling our various hungers – it does seem that our intelligence should lead us to take a longer view of our place in vast natural cycles. If for no other reason than self-preservation.
The clock itself, designed by Danny Hillis, is funded by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. There is a fine irony in the founder of a company based on the rapid satisfaction of consumer needs investing his wealth in a project meant to instruct on the importance of the long term. Still, there have always been those who invest in the future even as they reap the wealth of the present.
And maybe that’s one of the lessons.
The Mechanical Chimes play music designed by Brian Eno. Using a progressive algorithm, large star-shaped plates, called Geneva Wheels, running down the center of the clock will generate a different bell ringing order for each day of the next 10,000 years.
Photo/Text: James Martin/CNET