The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 4 October 02001

The Clock of the Long Now

Time and Responsibility;
The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer

by Stewart Brand

In an uncertain world, growing as our thirst for better and faster technology outstrips our collective ability to assimilate it, perhaps it is time to sit down and take a long slow look at the evolution of human culture. (Meanwhile, in Italy and other places, a similar response to fast-food takes the form of the slow-food movement.) After all, any culture that looks at six months worth of new oil in Alaska as energy policy clearly has trouble thinking in the truly long term. Stewart Brand, creator of the 1960s iconic Whole Earth Catalog, and some of his cohorts have started a project that seeks to teach the art of thinking in the long view. Imagine the daunting task of building a mechanical artefact that is designed to last 10,000 years, and you might imagine The Clock of the Long Now, a remarkable slow-moving clock that ticks just once a year and bongs once a millennium. The clock itself is a fascinating task. What it represents, however, is a philosophical shift that could help guide life in the next ten millennia. This book is a loose collection of short essays and thinking out loud putting forth the ideas behind the clock and its attendant library. The project is continuously evolving, which is, in fact, one of its necessary aspects. What do we save for humanity's future? The library can be an archive of long-term thinking. It can remind us of decisions that have had long-term affects. It can be a clearing house for time capsules. It can preserve a base knowledge for re-starting civilization in the event of another dark age. Brand engagingly describes some of the theories about our advancing technology, the coming "singularity", and the dire state of long-term thinking at the turn of this millennium. He goes on to outline the optimistic vision for the clock, its immediacy, and its invitation to humanity. And he invites the reader to contribute ideas. This is not a prediction of technological apocalypse. Brand has a great appreciation of technology, but with caution and a view to what is appropriate. It is a noble endeavor to think only about people and culture that will exist long after we're dust. Readers of this book may wonder if this is at all a useful project. Others, though, like myself, will find it an engaging and eminently hopeful undertaking.

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See also: [Longitude by Dava Sobel]