Stewart Brand and Bruce Sterling in Milan: The Long Now

For several years I have followed the Long Now Foundation‘s effort to built an artifact that would be in operation for the next 10,000 years, regardless of human intervention. I had a chance to hear an update last Friday, live from one of its founders, Stewart Brand, speaking at a rather intimate event organized in Milan by Matteo Penzo and Leandro Agrò and called a a Frontiers “Concert”.

Stewart spoke briefly and thoughtfully. I enjoyed hearing him talk about discussions with his friends Danny (Hillis), Brian (Eno), and others participating in the Foundation’s plan. My (only slightly edited) notes from his talk:

  • Most of the ways we had to think about the long term (religion, for one) are struggling to catch up with the speeding up of everything.
  • We are in the middle of the long now – assume for the long now a span of 20,000 years. We don’t know how to think of ourselves as a civilization. We do know how to think as communities, nations, and so on. But, as a civilization, we don’t have plans for the next 10,000 years.
  • “The Long Now” came from Brian EnoDanny Hillis noticed in 1992-93 that “year 2000” had been the future for years, and as such it had been getting shorter and shorter. Danny came up with the idea of the Long Now Clock.
  • Today’s media are ephemeral – you can hardly read something saved on a disk 10 years ago. With the Rosetta project, we decided to collect all the world’s languages on a disk that would be readable with a technology no more sophisticated than an 18th-century optical microscope. Nobody had tried to collect all the languages in the world. We concentrated 30,000 pages in 4,000 languages in an accessible form on a disk. (Note: the Rosetta Disk page talks about 13,000 pages in 1,500 languages). Of course Wikipedia is our Rosetta disk right now, but it goes down if the Internet goes down. We made a physical, permanent Rosetta disk.
  • For the Clock, there is a working prototype in the Science Museum in London. But it’s a dollhouse model. The real one will be underneath a mountain somewhere. Ideal mountains are out in the desert. Nevada. West Texas near Mexico. Last week we did the first blast of a tunnel in Texas.
  • Brian has designed a chime system. 10-bell set of chimes. Every day the clock will play a different combination. The pendulum is a new design, but nothing that couldn’t have been designed a couple of centuries ago, and it is driven by thermal change.
  • The clock won’t display the time all the time, because the energy required for displaying the time is greater than the energy needed for computing the time. Rather, it will tell you the time it was when the last person visited. You’ll turn a handle to impart some energy to the clock and find out what time it is now. The clock will handle neglect, but it will reward love.
  • It’s a long way to visit the clock. Look out over the desert, the view has been there for a long time. Bristlecone pines in Nevada have lived 5,000 years.
  • The clock will be like a telescope through time. The world’s slowest computer. It serves no useful purpose, unless you think that taking a long view is the responsible thing to do for us as a civilization, ore even merely intellectually engaging, or pleasant.
Bruce Sterling came into town from Turin, where he spends quite a lot of his time these days, to speak after and in homage to Steward Brand, “a gurus’ guru”: “to meet a guru whose disciples are gurus (e.g., Kevin Kelly, the author of What Technology Wants, is a disciple of Stewart’s) is rare.” Here are my notes from Bruce’s talk.
  • Stewart has hundreds of ideas. The Long Now Clock seems whimsical, but the Foundation has been working for 25 years now. I kept thinking they would get bored. Brian bores easily. Danny bores easily. Stewart is a polymath. But they won’t stop. They will find successors. They will build it.
  • Twelve years ago, I was at an event with the Long Now Cabal and told them that, when the Long Now Clock was built, someone would build a bigger one. Who would want to build a bigger one? (1) the Mormon Church. If you know about the Mormons, you also know that they have the world’s vastest trove of genealogical records buried in the desert; (2) Scientology. Scientologists have a ludicrous theology, one that would look silly in a B-movie; they are wealthy but narrow-minded people. (3) The Piedmontese. People in Piedmont like digging tunnels through rocks and are good at it. There’s even a cult that dug a private temple underground in the 1970s, the size of the Duomo.
  • Stewart recently wrote a book about saving our civilization from decline. Genetic modification is necessary. So is nuclear power. I’m willing to argue against it, but it’s worth reading Stewart’s ideas. We’re not in the 1960s or 1980s anymore. There were few moral ways in the 1960s that you could support nuclear. In the 1980s, people in Europe realized they were pawns in the end of the Cold War, Europe was gaining nothing. We have an echo now that affects our attitude towards nuclear power. But let me make at least a weak argument in favor of nuclear: coal is more dangerous than Chernobyl, in a drawn-out way. It is obvious that European weather is destabilizing. Nuclear is the mildest form of geoengineering. Climatologists have given up on public policy and are working on geoengineering. Some schemes are insane and dangerous. Desperate people will do desperate things, and nuclear power is just about the least scary technical intervention. The second least is genocide: kill about 50 per cent of people – genocide is really cheap and Europeans know very well how to do it – and you’ve solved the climate change problem, at least for a while. Compared to that, nuclear power is actually quite appealing. It takes 20 years to build nuclear plants; uranium reserves will last about 60 years, then there will be some thorium, so that’s not a permanent solution either. When the uranium and thorium have run out, we’ll be back to where we are now.
  • If I were Italian, would I trade dependance on oil for dependance on uranium? I’d probably want to go into cellulosic ethanol. Nobody knows how to make it cheaply. You need to have genetically modified bacteria. If you can figure out how to do it, you’d be a nice regional power, like Brazil.
  • These are not happy times. We don’ t have good political news in Texas and California, no answers to offer the rest of the world. It’s in the hands of Brazilians, Indians, Chinese.
  • I hope Italians will not fold their hands. You ought to behave as a wiser society.

We do, indeed, live in a very short now. Every day, yesterday’s political debate is flooded out by today’s scandal. And politicians’ mental horizon – as climate change economist Valentina Bosetti pointed out yesterday in her talk at TEDx Lake Como – is at most the next few years, until they stand for reelection. Who can take the long view and think about the next decades and centuries? It’s up to us: as members of this civilization, as parents and grandparents, as consumers, as citizens. So we ought to listen to folks like Stewart Brand and his disciples. Thanks to Frontiers of Interaction for bringing him to Milan.