Book Review: Long Now, Works in Progress

Long Now: Works in Progress by Alexander Rose, executive director of the Long Now Foundation and project manager for the 10,000 Year Clock.

This small book is about a big subject: the history of a 10,000 Year clock–its concept, its sponsors, its makers, and the evolution of its design. According to Rose, the original idea was to build a clock on a monumental scale that would be completely mechanical and would track time for 10,000 years.  The clock makers’ goal in creating the clock was to inspire and encourage long-term thinking.

While many people have advocated long-term thinking as a good use of our time, no one has proposed a length of time such as this one, which would seem to require another term to handle its recondite nature. No Matter. If we want the phrase “long term” to be taken seriously, it helps to attach it to a project that is well beyond us.

Photograph by Rolfe Horne

The book details the evolution of the clock’s design in words and graphics linked to the exhibition in The Long Now Foundation’s Museum in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center. Some of the exhibition’s objects represented in the book can be activated by staff members in response to visitors’ requests. In the case of the chime generator, the experience is particularly rewarding because the Tibetan bell gongs that sound when the generator is turned on seem to echo the Pythagorian “music of the spheres.”

In addition to the book, a high quality video on an iPod available at the reception desk provides another aid to understanding what the exhibition is about. In the video Alexander Rose narrates a tour of the museum divided into brief segments that are easy to follow.

The book also profiles the clock’s sponsors and makers. Danny Hillis,  the lead designer and clock project founder, has held the position of vice president of research and development for Walt Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of the Walt Disney Company. In 1993 he made a proposal for the monumental clock, which the songwriter and composer, Brian Eno, named “The Clock of the Long Now.” An article by Hillis in Wired magazine, which suggested a clock that would last over 10,000 years, led directly to the founding of the Long Now Foundation in 1996 by Hillis and other futurists, including Stewart Brand, Brian Eno, Esther Dyson, Peter Schwartz, Kevin Kelly, Paul Saffo, and Mitch Kapor. Chris Anderson, Michael Keller, Rogerf Kennedy, Kim Polese, and David Rumsey joined the board later.

Other foundation works-in-progress described in Rose’s book include the Rosetta Project and the monthly seminars about long term thinking hosted by Stewart Brand. The series is now in its 6th year; its schedule is listed on the foundation’s web site, www.longnow.org.

Photograph courtesy of The Long Now Foundation

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the seriousness of the clock project was the purchase of a site in eastern Nevada adjacent to the Great Basin National Park. The high desert mountain site satisfies the clock sponsors’ requirement that its home be remote enough to make serious travel necessary and that the site itself be awe inspiring. T he property’s 250-some acres of private land extends vertically over a mile from the valley floor at 6,000 feet to the 11,000-foot peak of Mt. Washington. The white limestone cliffs harbor
historic mining tunnels, which may be used to house the clock in its final form.

Photograph courtesy of The Long Now Foundation

A rare stand of Bristlecone pine trees, some over 4,000 years old, testifies to the site’s potential for long-term habitation. The designers are studying the site to find the best way of providing access to it and to do the underground work of housing the clock.

Daunting as this task may seem, the clock makers are determined to carry it out. After the clock has been installed it will be maintained with, in Hillis’ words, “bronze age technology.” That is to say that the clock’s works will be so easy to understand that even untutored visitors to the clock, will be able to learn how to maintain it.

Naturally, this agenda will take time. But in the meantime interest in the project will be maintained by visiting The Long Now Foundation’s headquarters in Landmark Building A at Fort Mason Center.

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