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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The 10,000-Year Clock Is a Waste of Time

There is a clock being constructed in a mountain in Texas. The clock will tick once a year, marking time over the next 10,000 years. The clock is an art installation. It is intended as a monument to long-term thinking, meant to inspire its visitors to be mindful of their place in the long arc of history. I think it is a monument to something else: a profound failure of the imagination. The clock is a testament to willful blindness, as today’s tech barons whistle past the grim realities of the oncoming catastrophe that is man-made climate destabilization. Even worse: It is a reminder that social chaos is never evenly distributed.

The clock has a handful of names. Some call it the Millennium Clock, others call it the Clock of the Long Now. Jeff Bezos calls it the 10,000-Year Clock, and, since he’s spent an estimated $42 million to build it inside a mountain that he owns, that name is a real contender. It was first proposed by Danny Hillis. It is a memento of sorts, a physical reminder of the brash, sunny-side futurism that defined the early internet boom. “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year,” Hillis wrote in a 1995 WIRED essay. “The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium … If I hurry, I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.”

Here’s how Hillis described the purpose of this project:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks. I have hope for the future.

It’s a nice sentiment. One could almost imagine it as a counterpoint to the “move fast and break things” ethos that has defined the past quarter-century of digitally-driven social and economic disruption. But it is an empty challenge. The Clock of the Long Now doesn’t just invite visitors to ponder the geologic passage of time; it also offers a pleasant distraction from the dangerous trajectory of the world we occupy today.

In 1996 (or, as they prefer to write it, 01996), Hillis and a few Silicon Valley friends formed the Long Now Foundation. The Foundation got to work on the technical details of building the clock. What sort of mechanical parts could last 10,000 years? How would it operate? How would it be preserved? A piece of a prototype of the clock was shown in January 1999 in Davos at the World Economic Forum. It began ticking just in time for the millennium, and was installed in the London Museum of Science the following year. (The cuckoo-concept had been swapped for a double-gong effect, with a clock face that resembles a revamped Starfleet logo.) WIRED published frequent updates on the project, as the clock drew praise from the types of futurists who routinely reassure the tech elite, telling them they are the genius inventors of a better tomorrow. It is art of, by, and for the ultrarich.

Hillis himself is a computer scientist and inventor, an early pioneer in the field of parallel computing. In a 2011 WIRED interview, Hillis was asked how he could justify focusing on the clock instead of Applied Proteomics, a biotech startup he cofounded that was meant to accelerate cancer research. “I think this is the most important thing I can work on,” Hillis replied. “More than cancer. Over the long run, I think this will make more difference to more people.”

Cancer, after all, is a problem of the here and now. Like John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we are all dead.”

Kevin Kelly cofounded the Long Now Foundation with Hillis, and has been one of the Millennium Clock’s most vocal proponents. Kelly was also WIRED’s original executive editor, and still writes for the magazine today. He is a zealous promoter of the brand of unapologetic techno-optimism that was commonplace in early Silicon Valley and has only recently fallen out of fashion.

In a 2011 essay for the Long Now Foundation website, an ode to the clock and all it represents, Kelly writes:

Why would anyone build a Clock inside a mountain with the hope that it will ring for 10,000 years? Part of the answer: just so people will ask this question, and having asked it, prompt themselves to conjure with notions of generations and millennia. If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it suggest?

It is, once again, a lovely sentiment. But left unsaid is the troubling matter of which people will ask this question, and who will be doing the prompting. The pinned tweet on Kelly’s Twitter account proclaims, “Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists.” He wrote that tweet on April 25, 2014. When I asked him whether any events in the past six years had changed his mind, he replied, “I am now much more inclined to say that even in the short term, the future is decided by optimists.”

Kelly is likely right that the future is decided by optimists, but not for the reason he implies. An optimistic outlook on life does not determine who will be invited to attend the World Economic Forum and hang out with the billionaire class. But wealth and fame can be a mood-altering cocktail (rarely shaken, gently stirred). Spend enough years among the “angel” investor set and you just might start seeing halos everywhere you look. Social optimism does not beget victory; victory begets social optimism.

The first time I corresponded with Kelly, our back and forth left me scratching my head for weeks. While reading WIRED’s back catalog, I’d come across a bet he made in 1995 with neo-Luddite author Kirkpatrick Sale. Sale had predicted that the digital revolution would cause a global currency collapse, open conflict between the rich and the poor, and environmental catastrophes “on a significant scale” (including the possibility that Australia would become unlivable) in the coming decades. At the conclusion of a combative interview published in the magazine, Kelly challenged Sale to a $1,000 bet that by the year 2020 “we’re not even close” to a confluence of those disasters. “We won’t even be close. I’ll bet on my optimism,” he said. This would later inspire a series of “Long Bets” that Kelly and the Long Now Foundation have pursued.

I reached out to Kelly in 2018 to ask if he had any thoughts on the status of the bet. “He is obviously losing,” he told me, adding that he’d tried to find Kirk Sale a few years earlier to see if he’d “double up” the stakes. We were in touch again earlier this month. I wondered how the bet would be decided now that 2020 has arrived. “We did not agree on who/how the bet was to be decided,” he said. “I just recently was able to track down Kirk Sale and asked him if he was planning to pay up if he thought he lost. I don't think he will pay or even admit he lost. He also noted that 2020 wasn't done yet, so I will reapproach him at the end of the year.”

Even back in 1995, this was a bet Kirkpatrick Sale never wanted to win. The original interview concludes with Kelly boasting, “Oh, boy, this is easy money! But you know, besides the money, I really hope I am right.” Sale ruefully replied, “I hope you are right, too.

In recent years, WIRED has covered the environmental devastation of Puerto Rico and vanishing Antarctic glaciers. The magazine has covered the rise and fall of cryptocurrency. The magazine has covered the Occupy movement. And WIRED’s 2020 coverage has already included an article on the Australian wildfires that included the subheading “Welcome to the hellish future of life on earth.” Just reading the coverage in this magazine, the trendlines don’t appear good for Kelly’s optimism. We face greater economic inequality, greater social instability, and worse environmental disasters than in 1995.

What troubles me about Kelly’s optimism is what it denies and what it obscures. Focusing on the “Long Now” provides an escape from wrestling with the dark times we are living through. Pondering the next five millennia can be an invitation to ignore the troubles we face today.

Another WIRED correspondent, William Gibson, describes in his 2014 novel, The Peripheral, a slow-moving apocalypse called “the jackpot.” The jackpot, the reader learns, is “no one thing … multi-causal, with no particular beginning and no end. More a climate than an event, so not the way apocalypse stories liked to have a big event … No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone … antibiotics doing even less than they already did.” The jackpot kills 80 percent of the earth’s population over a period of 40 years. Those who survive eventually come to enjoy the trappings of radical advances in science and technology. They also have to cope psychologically with the guilt of being the privileged few. The ones who make it through the “deepest point of everything going to shit” come to say that they won the jackpot. (Gibson’s sequel, Agency, released last week, dwells on the question of whether the jackpot is still avoidable.)

Another author with deep roots in the tech scene, Doug Rushkoff, wrote an eye-opening essay called “Survival of the Richest” in 2018. Rushkoff was flown to a private island and given the largest speaker’s fee of his life to deliver his insights on “the future of technology” to an audience of five hedge fund billionaires. They weren’t interested in his prepared remarks. What they wanted to discuss was “the Event.” “That was their euphemism,” Rushkoff explains, “for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.” And what they really wanted to ask him was “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?” Rushkoff did his best, recommending that they were better off treating people well right now and working to prevent the Event. But he says the hedge funders laughed off his suggestion. They weren’t interested in preventing the jackpot; they were interested in winning it.

One of the grim realities of climate politics today is that the elites bankrolling climate-denier politicians have made a simple calculation. They aren’t betting that the scientific consensus is wrong. They are betting that the impacts of climate change won’t fall directly on them. They’ll either die before the jackpot begins or their wealth will help shield them from its impacts.

The worst thing about this calculation is that I’m not entirely sure it is incorrect. It’s catastrophically immoral, certainly. But the impacts of climate disasters won’t be evenly distributed. Think back to Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was devastated, but the wealthy areas were just fine. One answer to climate change is “just buy land on higher ground.” That answer won’t work for the 99.9 percent. But for the ultrawealthy, it’s a viable strategy. And that means, in the short term, that the ultrawealthy can oppose any policy proposals that would radically reshape the economy to prevent, or at least mitigate, climate disasters. Those proposals will cost them money, individually. Those proposals will leave them, individually, less secure.

I don’t know who Rushkoff’s hedge funders were. But I suspect they would find the Clock of the Long Now comforting. It’s an ethical balm of sorts. After all, 10,000 years from now, who will remember the climate disasters?

Construction of the clock is now well underway. What began as a fanciful Web 1.0–era dream of an elaborate cuckoo clock that outlasts the great pyramids has taken form as an ornate underground edifice. A 500-foot shaft has been cut into a mountain. Visitors enter through stainless steel doors, climb a massive staircase to reach a clock face illuminated by a window of sapphire glass. There they can wind the clock mechanism and listen to one of 3.65 million unique chimes composed by musician Brian Eno. It promises to be a unique experience.


On the same sprawling ranch, visitors can observe another Bezos project, the Blue Origin spaceport. There’s a mission control room, a launchpad, a 60-foot rocket in a hangar: the components of what is meant to be, at first, a venue for suborbital tourism, later on a permanent moon settlement, and then, perhaps, “a future where millions of people are living and working in space.” The two projects have similar intellectual lineages, despite vastly different ambitions. Blue Origin is, ultimately, an escape plan. If it succeeds, one day it will transport those who can afford it beyond the bounds of our physical world. The dream of colonizing other planets is either a source of inspiration or an ultimate distraction, depending on how you look at it. Space flight can affix in our minds just how small and fragile this world truly is, creating a sense of moral clarity. But it can also offer a deus-ex-machina solution to the hedge funders’ question about the Event. Salvation will be granted to those who can afford a seat on the private spaceflight.

The clock is a lesser escape route, promising to intellectually transport its visitors beyond the bounds of our terrestrial troubles. That’s its mission—the 10,000-Year Clock is designed to affix in our minds the impermanence of today’s social ills. It’s supposed to bend our perspectives so we think beyond trivial matters—like curing cancer and getting carbon out of the atmosphere and maybe, just maybe, building a society that is a little less cruel. (“If people pay attention to the clock,” Bezos says, “they’ll do more things like Blue Origin.”) The clockmakers mean well, and I don’t want to fault people for drawing inspiration from art that leaves me cold. But it is worth asking who this art is meant for. It’s worth asking whether the impulse to abandon our responsibility to the here and now should be celebrated.

There is a clock being constructed in a mountain in Texas. The clock will tick once a year, marking time over the next 10,000 years. The clock is an art installation. It is intended as a monument to long-term thinking, meant to inspire its visitors to be mindful of their place in the long arc of history.

The clock was conceived by a tech millionaire. It is funded by the world’s richest man, a tech billionaire. It is being built adjacent to his private spaceport, inside a mountain that he owns. You can visit the clock in the mountain in Texas someday. You can walk through its stainless steel doors, climb the staircase up to the clock face. You can turn the winding mechanism and hear one of Brian Eno’s chimes. The Long Now Foundation has a signup list—paid members get to jump the line—for tours that are scheduled to begin “many years into the future.” There’s another, quicker way to get in, though: Just ask Jeff Bezos for an invite when you see him at Davos, or ask a board member of the Long Now Foundation for an introduction.

If you can’t get in touch with Bezos through your personal networks, you shouldn’t worry about the 10,000-Year Clock. They wouldn’t say it so bluntly, but this art installation isn’t for you.

You have more pressing concerns in the here and now.

Updated, 2/6/2020, 10:18 am EST:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a complete prototype of the clock was unveiled at Davos in January 1999; that the prototype was installed at the London Museum of Science in December 1999; that the doors to the clock are jade-paneled and the cupola is made of sapphire glass; and that visitors can reach the cupola via staircase. A paragraph has been removed to further clarify the fact that Danny Hillis remains involved in cancer research. The story has been updated to clarify that the Long Now Foundation intends for the clock to be accessible to the public at some point in the future.

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