Carving Out Foresight: Deep Time and the Long Now


D.J. MacLennan celebrates the ‘Clock of the Long Now’ a ‘monument scale, multi-millennial, all mechanical clock as an icon to long term thinking’.

The clock in the mountain: the thought of it thrills my guts. At other times, it makes me want to weep. In my imagination, its chime is like that of the TARDIS ‘cloister bell’ – deep, unearthly, a descending note, percussive like the slow-motion sound of a bullet fired into water. But it could do without the millennial cuckoo, this Clock of the Long Now.

Before 18th-century Scottish geologist James Hutton published his conclusions from detailed studies of the layering and erosion of rock, most people still believed that the Earth was biblically youthful. To Hutton, and to those who absorbed the import of his theory, looking into what became known as deep time must have felt like teetering on the edge of an unimaginable well of aeons. Paradigm shifts don’t come much more dramatic.

As humbling as this shift was, it did not, unfortunately, bring about an equivalent change of view in the opposite direction – into the deep future. Geologic time is mind-bending, but we can see its products laid out before us in our entropy-sculpted landscapes. The deep future, however, is closed to us. And because it throws up no artefacts – no stuff – it’s all too easy to ignore.

The Clock of the Long Now – a gigantic artefact of precision engineering under construction inside a Texas mountain – has been designed to help core-drill through that slab of ignorance. It is also known as the 10,000 Year Clock, as that is the duration of the ‘Long Now’ (as conceived by Brian Eno), and its intended minimum lifespan. Invented by polymath Danny Hillis, it will issue a unique chime once per day upon synchronising with the sun at noon, it will tick once per year and will ring out fully only once per millennium. Other clocks are planned, and the top of Mount Washington in the Nevada desert has already been purchased to house the first non-prototype.

Some might see the project as hubristic. Others see it as a powerful reminder of our long-term responsibility to our planet, and to its inhabitants both present and future. Painfully short time-horizons only serve to make us greedy, wasteful and reckless. Nevertheless, as Long Now Foundation president Stewart Brand freely admits, the gigantic timepiece is a folly. In an ideal world, the mountain itself would be reminder enough; in this one, however, it seems that concern for the far future must be carved into our recalcitrant minds, tick by meticulous tick.

Foresight is difficult and short-term obstacles inevitable. This is our temporal workspace; our lives are fleeting. ‘Time,’ said Hutton, ‘which measures everything in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing.’ We may look to abstractions ‘bigger’ than ourselves – community, society, nation – as we struggle to stretch that workspace, but the immediacy of another abstraction – money – keeps snapping us back to the ‘short now’. And the financial gatekeepers have hijacked our common cause with other peoples to the extent that ‘globalisation’ has come to mean the world as market, and not what it should mean, the world as community. Environmentalists look to the terrifying majesty of nature for solace and perspective, but most accept that, within reason, the aspirations of the human planet also matter.

Guardianship is a slippery concept. Conservatives may well consider themselves guardians of ‘traditional values’ and ostensibly long-standing ways of doing things; environmentalists consider themselves guardians of the natural environment; egalitarians consider themselves guardians of equal treatment and human rights. But surely guardianship must always be dynamic, otherwise it’s bound to calcify into mere conservatism. We need to be relentless in asking the questions, in building and improving promising systems, and in tearing down dysfunctional ones. That’s how we ratchet our way through this fugue (and still feudal) era in which we find ourselves.

It’s pretty steampunk style, the Clock of the Long Now. It’s all cogs and springs, gears and levers. Silicon-based tech has not yet earned its place in a mechanism designed to last 10,000 years. Could any of our current systems of organisation last that long? Probably not. If we survive, it won’t take anywhere near as long as 10,000 years for the human race to transform beyond recognition, and the entities we become will organise and communicate in ways currently beyond our ken. Many of them will leave the Earth forever, perhaps taking ‘packets’ of shared consciousness with them to seed other worlds.

That’s it, right there. This clock in a mountain, this mountain clock, this fusion of deep time artefact and long now artefact is about making us wonder, and imagine and really think about what we can do now that might be of value in the long term. Not much, perhaps, but we can at least tend towards the positive end of the spectrum of possible behaviours.

Scotland has mountains. Ladhar Bheinn, the highest peak of the remote Knoydart peninsula, is among those visible from my window here on the east coast of Skye. The Moine schists of which it is largely composed would take a lovely polish. Just saying (quickening pulse, lump in throat, giddy butterflies). Escarpments and escapements; movements and metamorphism. Just saying.

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