The Long Now
[ Issue 37 ]

Emily Bronto clearly approves of The Long Now

Bikwil salutes The Long Now

The Long Now

In The Long Now Tony Rogers examines the work of a group of thinkers who are dedicated to long-term responsibility.  They have big plans for a "millennial Clock and Library".

Ageing hippies among our readers may remember the name Stewart Brand from the 1960s and 70s. And if the name isn’t familiar, what he created will be. For it was Brand who in 1968, at the ripe old age of 30, conceived and brought into existence that superlative "access to tools" known as The Whole Earth Catalog.

[ Print This Issue ]  

[ Help with Printing ]

 Music Player 


The Long Now — Tony Rogers


Ageing hippies among our readers may remember the name Stewart Brand from the 1960s and 70s. And if the name isn’t familiar, what he created will be. For it was Brand who in 1968, at the ripe old age of 30, conceived and brought into existence that superlative “access to tools” known as The Whole Earth Catalog. I myself nearly missed it, myopically discovering it only in its “final” incarnation — The Last Whole Earth Catalog (1971; ISBN 0 394 70459 2). For me it was an exhilarating experience, akin to that when I first read Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. To this day I still find compelling bits and pieces in the Last WEC’s 450 tabloid-format pages. (For one thing, how intriguing it is to re-read Walter/Wendy Carlos’ prophetic article on music synthesizers after 30 years.)
For younger or non-hippie readers, perhaps I should explain the purpose of The Whole Earth Catalog. Better yet, let it speak for itself:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory — as via government, big business, formal education, church — has succeeded to [the] point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing — power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

A sort of pre-home-computer Internet, if you wish, but certainly a directory of “what to get and where and how to do the getting”. Importantly, almost every item listed is accompanied by editorial comment based on careful evaluation.

The title, The Whole Earth Catalog, derives from the famous 1967 NASA photograph of the full Earth taken from a satellite — an emblematic image which also gave rise to WEC catchphrase “We can’t put it together. It is together”. In 1966 Brand had thought up and sold buttons reading, “Why Haven't We Seen A Photograph of the Whole Earth Yet?” The story goes that this prompted NASA to hurry up and make acceptable colour photos of Earth from distant space. Another legend has it that the ecology movement took shape in 1968-9 partially as a result of those photos. Certainly the first Earth Day was in 1970.

But whatever happened to Stewart Brand since the Last WEC? Did he just fade away into bohemian obscurity? Far from it.

In 1972, he received the U.S. National Book Award for The Last Whole Earth Catalog, which by then had sold 1.5 million copies. For the next twenty years he was involved in instigating, editing or authoring numerous books. Here are the highlights of his career in that period.

One of his own works was Two Cybernetic Frontiers (1974) on the subject of cutting-edge computer science. It had the first use of the term “personal computer” in print and was the first book to report on computer hackers. That same year he edited and published The Whole Earth Epilog — a nice title (even the pagination continues on from the Last WEC). In 1981-2 he edited and published The Next Whole Earth Catalog.

By the following year he was into a very new idea: online conferencing. This led to The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), a computer teleconference system for the San Francisco Bay Area — a sort of forerunner of the Internet. According to his friend John Brockman (literary agent, writer on high-tech culture and editor of The Edge), “Stewart is the king of initially obscure, ultimately compelling conceptual art. Call it reality”.

For the rest of the 80s and the early 90s he researched and wrote and lectured (e.g. at the School of Management and Strategic Studies, Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, La Jolla, California).

In 1994 he wrote the Foreword to The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, “Access to Tools and Ideas for the Twenty-First Century”, edited by Howard Rheingold. This book was printed on recycled paper and the publisher HarperCollins undertook in addition to plant two trees for each tree used in the book’s manufacture.

Nineteen ninety-four was far more significant, however, for the publication of Brand’s How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. This was a book that received so much acclaim that in 1996-1997 the BBC produced a 6-part TV series with that title which Brand wrote and presented.

In essence the book consists of insights about the nature of change in buildings we imagine as permanent. Brand argues that any building is actually a hierarchy of system modules, each of which inherently changes at different rates.

One reviewer summed up the idea this way: “Age plus adaptivity is what makes a building come to be loved. The building learns from its occupants, and they learn from it”.

During this period Brand was featured on the cover of The Los Angeles Times Magazine, which described him in these words: “Always two steps ahead of others . . . [he] is the least recognized, most influential thinker in America.”

His background is an interesting one.

Dipping into a book like How Buildings Learn, say, or the space given in the Last WEC to things like Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, you might be forgiven for guessing that he might have been an architect before he took up his writing/inventing/inspirer/gadfly career. No, it’s just that he is an intelligent and well-read feller. (Actually he was educated originally as a biologist and later trained in the military.)

I suppose you could call Stewart Brand an ecologist at heart — a man who passionately believes in preservation in its widest sense. It is a characterisation that delivers us at last to the main business of this essay.

In 1995, with supercomputer designer Dr. Danny Hillis, Stewart Brand co-founded The Long Now Foundation, an organisation whose mission is to foster long-term responsibility. Long-term responsibility, note, not long-term planning, which is futile. The original concept was Hillis’, who in 1993 had been contemplating

. . . 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.

The Board of The Long Now Foundation consists of some very interesting people:

The co-founder of Broderbund Software, Douglas Carlston;
Esther Dyson (the person responsible for Release 1.0, a leading computer industry newsletter);
musician Brian Eno;
Mitchell Kapor (the founder of Lotus and co-founder of The Electronic Frontier Foundation);
Kevin Kelly (the executive director of Wired magazine);
Paul Saffo (spokesman for The Institute for the Future) and
the chairman of Global Business Network, Peter Schwartz.

Brand serves as president. He and Hillis are co-chairmen.

In that list some of you will have certainly recognised the name of Brian Eno. An innovator through and through, he is. I know him above all as the “ambient music” recording artist, particularly for such albums as Discreet Music (1975), Music for Films (1978), Music for Airports (1979), The Plateaux of Mirror [sic] (1980), and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). “A music which was sort of suspended in an eternal present tense,” he called it.

It was Eno, too, who had supplied the music for Brand’s BBC How Buildings Learn series. And it was he who gave the Foundation its name.

As far back as 1979, when he was visiting some people who lived in a chic loft apartment in the more derelict neighbourhoods of New York, he had been struck by how many arty New Yorkers had such a narrow view of “here” and “now” — nothing beyond their individual front door or either side of this week. He later wrote in his notebook, “More and more I find I want to be living in a Big Here and a Long Now”.
Then, fifteen years later in 1994, when email discussions arose about Hillis’ millennial clock, Eno suggested the name “The Clock of the Long Now”.

The core project of the Foundation is known as “Clock/Library” — the building of a 10,000-year Clock designed by Hillis together with an information service.
A 10,000-year Clock? Indeed yes. Brand explained it in an interview in this way:

. . . [Danny] was noticing that the year 2000 was acting like a wall for people, that the future was always the year 2000 and — when he was a young man, and then older, the future was getting shorter — shorter by a year every year of his life — which is probably a bad sign. So he wanted something that would pop through the millennium . . . Danny wanted to make an instrument that was not participating in those rapid exponential curves of population and technology growth and megabytes per dollar and so on, but something that just plugs along at the same pace as seasons — spring, summer, fall, winter, spring, summer, fall, winter — it's the same 10000 years from now, probably as 10000 years ago.

There is an obvious irony here. Although the Clock of the Long Now is being designed by an expert in the fastest supercomputers, it is going to need the world’s slowest computer driving its mechanism. Such an extraordinary undertaking must therefore be underpinned by farsighted principles, such as longevity, maintainability, transparency, evolvability and scalability.

Several prototypes have already been built.

As for the Library part of the vision, Hillis looks on the Library as “the Clock’s evolutionary companion”. By this he means that each embodies a different aspect of time. The Clock is physical time, the Library informational time. The Clock is all about past and future time, but it contains no content — unlike the Library, which is all about content. Manifold are the uses already suggested for the Library, but its fundamental characteristic is, as Brand puts it, that it will

. . . specialize in trends too slow to notice but that gradually dominate everything as they accumulate . . . Culture is where the Long Now operates. Culture’s vast slow-motion dance keeps century and millennium time. Slower than political and economic history, it moves at the pace of language and religion . . . The slow stuff is the serious stuff.

But in this age of the “pathologically short attention span”, how and by whom is the Clock/Library to be tended? While it must not be allowed to become a religion, a Clock/Library created in the spirit of the Long Now must be taken care of and renewed according to certain guidelines, such as

1. Serve the long view (and the long viewer)
2. Foster responsibility
3. Reward patience
4. Mind mythic depth
5. Ally with competition
6. Take no sides
7. Leverage longevity.

All these ideas, and more, are explained and expanded in Brand’s 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now (ISBN 0 297 64299 5). I found it well researched and quite motivating. When you get the chance, make sure you read its chapters on libraries. Chapter 12, Burning Libraries, could well disturb you, but Chapter 15, 10,000-Year Library, should offer an encouraging antidote. Other chapters that appealed to me include Chapter 14, Ending the Digital Dark Age and Chapter 19, Uses of the Past — not forgetting Chapter 10, Ben is Big, which describes Brand’s and Eno’s visit to the London clock in the mid 1990s.

Overall, Brand succeeds in blending technicalities and insight into an eminently readable whole. I was particularly exhilarated by the wealth of allusions and quotations he provides, from such a variety of fields — ideas from people from domains and periods as disparate as clockmaker Su Sung (late 11th century), novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, archaeologist Mary Leakey, Yale School of Art dean Richard Benson, nanotechnology futurist Eric Drexler, plus of course the board members of the Long Now Foundation.

More recently the Foundation has initiated two spin-off projects.

The first of these is called The Rosetta Project. This is a global collaboration to survey and maintain an archive of 1,000 languages:

Our intention is to create a unique platform for comparative linguistic research and education as well as a functional linguistic tool that might help in the recovery of lost languages in unknown futures.

The second project is the Long Bets Foundation, in which anyone laying a wager must designate a non-profit organisation as the ultimate recipient of the proceeds of the winning bet:

Long Bets is a public arena for enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake. The foundation furnishes the continuity to see even the longest bets through to public resolution.

In all its endeavours the Long Now group encourages your involvement and mine, whether it be in the Clock/Library itself, the Rosetta Project or Long Bets. Visit their Web sites if you can, but at least read Brand’s book. The germane Internet sites are:

To conclude, here is one of the more inspirational quotations in Brand’s book. It’s John Quincy Adams, lawyer, political philosopher, revolutionary and second President of the U.S.A., writing to his wife Abigail in 1780:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

Contents  Read Next Item  Read Previous Item
Top of Page

Home | Visitors' Guide | Random Read | Current Issue | Essays & Poems | Catalogues
Site Search
| Likeable Links | Subscriptions | About Us | FAQ | Testimonials | Site Map