“This present moment used to be the unimaginable future.”
– Stewart Brand
A foundation called The Long Now wants to help us to learn to be responsible, long-term thinkers. They’re developing projects and offering seminars that aim to “inspire, educate, and challenge our concepts of the future.”
The decisions we make today about how we live will create the world in which our great-grandchildren exist. And isn’t it true that we’re often so busy with the minutiae of our daily routines that we don’t take the time to to assess how our actions will affect the future?
The Long Now has been around for over 20 years. It was created as a non-profit organization dedicated to becoming “the seed of a very long-term cultural institution.” And it’s here to stay, if its illustrious team of science and technology founders is any indication:
- Stewart Brand, editor of The Whole Earth Catalog and co-founder of The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL), a three-decade old online gathering place for articulate and playful thinkers from all walks of life
- Danny Hillis, who, according to TED.com, is an inventor who holds over 100 patents and is a scientist/ engineer who pioneered the concept of parallel computers. His ideas are now the basis for most supercomputers, as well as the RAID array
- Kevin Kelly, the founding executive editor of Wired
According to Alexander Rose, the executive director of The Long Now, these Silicon Valley innovators were acutely conscious that longer-term issues in society needed to be addressed, even if they did not offer a return on investment. “There wasn’t an excuse to think of certain things in long enough terms, like climate change or hunger.”
The goals of the non-profit today are lofty and important.
“Long Now Foundation hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. We hope to foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”
To examine a long view of time and existence, The Long Now Foundation uses five-digit dates. The extra zero is to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years. So we’re in the year 02017.
How does an organization that looks to the future ground itself in the contemporary? Let’s look at a couple of their projects and see.
The Long Now, Genomic Technology, and Saving Endangered Species
The painting above by Isabella Kirkland captures 63 species that have become extinct since the 1700’s. But endangered species that have lost their crucial genetic diversity may not be destined to the same fate as those lost species.
Believe it or not, The Long Now proposes that some extinct species could be brought back to life. How? Molecular and conservation biologists all over the world are drawing upon technological advances that allow full genomes to be read and analyzed. They’re extracting DNA preserved in museum specimens and some fossils. With genomic technology, which looks at variables like DNA sequence, structural variation, gene expression, and regulatory and functional element annotation at a genomic scale, species could restored species to reproductive health.
The Long Now has created “Revive & Restore” as a mechanism to coordinate genomic conservation efforts alongside the best current science, plenty of public transparency, and the overall goal of enhancing biodiversity and ecological health worldwide. For example, species threatened by invasive diseases could acquire genetic disease-resistance.
The data that emerges from the analysis of extinct species could be transferred to their distant cousins that are alive today. The ultimate aim is to restore them to their former home in the wild.
The Long Now and the 10,000 Year Clock
A real clock is being built in the west Texas mountains that is entirely mechanical and constructed of stainless steel, titanium, and ceramic. While that’s a bit different in this era of digital technology, what sets this clock apart is that it will tick just once a year and chime every thousand years. With help from a melody-generator, the chimes are programmed never to repeat.
This is the 10,000-year clock, and it was the first project of The Long Now. Stewart Brand says that the clock tells “not the short now of next quarter, next week, or the next five minutes, but the ‘long now’ of centuries.”
What is the purpose of this interesting time piece? The folks at The Long Now want to get people to ask that very question. Hopefully, that initial inquiry will lead to thinking about time as much more than “here and now.” It has the potential to move people to consider time as an enduring concept, with centuries and generations and questions about life and planet in a different temporal context. Brand’s implication is that the 10,000-year clock is a semiotic construct and invitation to long-term thinking.
When can we see the 10,000-year clock? That’s a good question, and nobody seems sure of the answer. It’s a project without a particular end date. Time will tell (ooohhh — such a really bad pun!).
How The Long Now Hopes to Influence our Linguistic Future
What happens when a language dies out? The effects can be culturally devastating, as language is a key that can unlock local knowledge about medicinal secrets, ecological wisdom, weather and climate patterns, spiritual attitudes, and artistic and mythological histories.
We have about 7,000 human languages today in a world of rich linguistic diversity. However, most of these languages face a risk of extinction. Colonization, globalization, and hegemony change linguistic patterns, often suffocating indigenous peoples and traditions.
Mass language extinction would result in a virtually uni-lingual world, where powerful states disseminate a particular language as a way of exuding nationalism. Language extinction occurs when relatively few speakers of a particular language remain, and a lack of recordings or texts that would help with language preservation becomes spare.
“[When a language dies] what is primarily lost is the expression of a unique vision of what it means to be human,” says David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales and author of the book, Language Death.
If only English, Mandarin, and Hindi survive, what would cultural legacy and experience mean for us as individuals and for the world?
As a way to influence the world’s linguistic future, The Long Now Foundation’s inventors and engineers are designing systems for communication across language boundaries. A system called PanLex has the ambitious goals of assisting expression across the thousands of today’s spoken languages, helping people to express lexical concepts such as “democracy,” “elongate,” “à la carte,” or “Africa” in any language.
The researchers behind this lofty goal consult thousands of dictionaries, seek out other linguistic knowledge sources, and slowly accumulate an open-source database. The work is self-duplicating, as a billion lexical translations spur a billion more.
Linguistic diversity like this, protected for the ages, could “promote diverse ideas, values, and local knowledge, while permitting rich global interaction,” according to The Long Now. With the eventual help of PanLex, more individuals who want to preserve their own languages will get a digital helping hand.
The Long Now is working on other projects, too, such as Long Bets, where individuals can make predictions about future events of importance, and The Interval, a venue where individuals can deliberate in ways that promote long-term thinking while grabbing a cup of coffee or cocktail by evening. Renowned artists, scientists, and authors discuss such topics as art, design, history, nature, technology, and time.
The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. As Stewart Brand has noted, the point is to explore whatever may be helpful for thinking, understanding, and acting responsibly over long periods of time. Maybe fostering responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years is exactly what it takes for us to move beyond today and to learn to cherish tomorrow.