The 10,000 Year Clock: Long-Term Thinking Is Good

What is the relationship of time to ethics?

Well, for one thing if we promise to do something on Friday we ought to do it. And for another, if we did something bad last Friday, we probably ought to try to make amends for it. And for another, if what we do to achieve something good now is going to result in something bad in 10 years or 100 or 1000 years, maybe we ought to think about our action very carefully.

To focus our thoughts on this last scenario is precisely the purpose of the 10,000 year clock, being constructed in Texas, by the Long Now Foundation, located, conveniently enough and as so many good things are, in San Francisco. Here is an excellent article in Wired discussing the project, and its funder Jeff Bezos.

The founders of Long Now thought that people ought to think a bit more about the long term effects of their actions. This is a very good idea. Selling the future for the present only becomes a tradition among the doomed.

In other words, it is never tradition for long.

The USA has been doing this for a long time with its national debt, and the whole world is doing it with global warming, pollution, and environmental degradation. Long Now is trying to get people to think beyond the short term.

In some ways the construction of this clock is a religious endeavor. It has faith in humanity, not only that we can build such a thing, but that there will be anyone around to read it some day. The second involves more faith (but less hubris) than the first, I think. The builders also hope it will become something like a pilgrimage site (link to Long Now’s Clock Introduction). It is also a religious endeavor in that some religions tend to think long term (or if not long term, at least very slowly…).

Interestingly, at 10000yearclock.net the front web page quotes are both about humans becoming gods.

We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.

We are as gods and we HAVE to get good at it.

-Stewart Brand 1968 and 2009, respectively

These are odd quotes when discussing a clock, but I think I can see the point if the perspective is broadened. It is an expression not of triumph, but of worry. Gods with terrible powers and without feelings or plans of responsibility for the future are not gods. They are something vastly inferior. This dangerous future is to be strenuously avoided. And if a clock can help do that, then it should be done.

I wonder if they have any theologians in their group, because if humans are going to become gods, it would be good to know a little bit about what gods are and do.

In any case, I think Long Now and their clock are doing a good thing, as long as they can really get people thinking longer term  and acting with the future in mind.  For too long we have traded the future for the present. It’s about time we do something better.

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