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Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer

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Using the designing and building of the Clock of the Long Now as a framework, this is a book about the practical use of long time how to get it, how to use it, how to keep it in and out of sight. Here are the central questions it How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? Discipline in thought allows freedom. One needs the space and reliability to predict continuity to have the confidence not to be afraid of revolutions Taking the time to think of the future is more essential now than ever, as culture accelerates beyond its ability to be measured Probable things are vastly outnumbered by countless near-impossible eventualities. Reality is statistically forced to be extraordinary; fiction is not allowed this freedom This is a potent book that combines the chronicling of fantastic technology with equally visionary philosophical inquiry.

208 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1999

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About the author

Stewart Brand

61 books255 followers
Stewart Brand was a pioneer in the environmental movement in the 60s – his Whole Earth Catalog became the Bible for sustainable living, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide. Brand is President of The Long Now Foundation and chairs the foundation's Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 85 reviews
Profile Image for Janet.
Author 24 books87.8k followers
December 21, 2015
The Clock of the Long Now is an attempt by a group of forward thinkers --engineers, futurists, visionaries--to create a device to stimulate people to take a longer view of time. An actual physical clock that will "time" the next 10,000 years. Why ten thousand? Because 10,000 years ago, mankind invented agriculture, and with it, civilization began. The enormous leap wherein human beings planted seed for the coming year, rather than eating it. A sense that the future will come and can be cultivated and cared for, with an improved result for the human in current time.

Though the book, a series of meditations with some lectures thrown in, was written by Stewart Brand (of the Whole Earth Catalogue), it was Brian Eno who invented the concept of the Long Now. "I want to live in the Big Here and the Long Now." Not this scrap of dirt and the next three weeks, but the big here, earth, and the long now. The understanding, to quote the book, "that we are not at the beginning or the end but in the middle of history." We are neither the culmination of creation, nor the end point before the apocalypse, nor some kind of reset revolutionaries. I loved this book. I actually took notes--so I could expand my head anew.

One of the most interesting concepts occurs early on--the tension between fast and slow thinking in human culture, an accelerating problem for us. (No one who has read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman--the Nobel prizewinning economist, will find any of this surprising.) Fast thinking innovates, slow thinking consolidates. Fast thinking is clever, slow thinking is wise. Fast thinking breaks through like a flash of lightning, slow thinking creates deep-rooted civilizations.

I thought the book's presentation of a breakdown of human life/endeavor into six time-scales of civilization--extremely potent. Brand posits six ‘speeds’ of human endeavor, all of which operate simultaneously. The fastest stream or layer is Fashion/Art. Its ‘period’ is a season. The Now of this Now. It’s all about innovation, novelty, and this particular moment. Beneath that is the layer of Commerce, or Business. This Now is a business cycle, it’s the quarterly earnings statement.

Each layer performs a slowing function on the level above it, so the whole thing doesn’t spin out into the clear blue sky—by slowing it down (changes, ideas) at least some of the changes can reach deeper and deeper levels, where greater longevity can be established.

The layer below Commerce is Infrastructure, where we’re looking at decades to build systems of transportation, energy, water storage and delivery—to build all those roads and bridges and subways and bullet trains and so on. Commerce doesn’t have the slow enough thinking to take care of human needs, social needs and so on, that need a longer term of attention. Commerce asks, “where’s my return?” and doesn’t want to hear, “fifty years.” Science is also infrastructure, as is education, and the entire social sector.

Below Infrastructure is Governance, which support life, makes sure that the important infrastructure is in place, which can think of the good of nations, and what needs to be done to insure the well being of the nation for centuries to come. It provides (should provide), the stability upon which the faster layers above it can do their jobs. (This is where we need to think seriously about people who want to run Governance the way they’ve successfully run Commerce, two levels above it.)

Beneath Governance, and even slower, is Culture—marked at the pace of language and traditional religion. It marks the deep connection to the roots of civilizations. After reading this, I became more aware of the positive aspects of traditional religion and also of the cultures who are sticklers for the purity of language—the French Academy comes to mind. At what a deep level evolved language is our bedrock. The very old stories of a culture provide the stability , without which we careen dangerously like a planet knocked from its axis by a cataclysmic collision in space. Agriculture is culture. Not fashion, not commerce. And the life rituals of religion—birth, death, marriage, provide the stability Culture needs to support the levels above it. This is the LONG Now.

Then, under culture, under everything, are the vast cycles of Nature. Which supports the whole thing. It’s measured in eons, it’s the viability of Planet Earth. The slowest of all.

The book is thick with different lenses for taking the long view, and I found it profoundly optimistic—we are so apocalyptic these days, our attention fixated on the noisy, colorful top layer, we think of everything spinning out of control, faster and faster. "How can we ever keep up?"

I found it profoundly recalibrating to think in terms of the Long Now, to think about Culture as such a deep, slow layer, to muse about ten thousand years from now. Brand writes dates with an extra zero in the front, to remind himself of the ten thousand years from now. If this is only 02015, then 03500 is possible, and 07500. It encourages responsible thought about life on earth.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book so full of ideas. I'm putting it on the shelf next to my favorite book about Time, Robert Grudin’s Time and the Art of Living.
Profile Image for Otis Chandler.
392 reviews114k followers
May 26, 2017
Giving a high rating because I heard the organizer of the Long Now Foundation speak and it was very inspiring. The Interval Cafe in San Francisco is also awesome and has The Long Library in it.

The part of the story that I liked most was the power of long thinking. How Oxford College has some gorgeous oak tree beams in their dining room, and they were crumbling, and so they wondered how to replace them. They created a search, and happened to ask the Oxford groundskeeper if any of the oak trees on campus would work, and he said yes, they should use the grove that was planted 500 years ago for that very purpose. So they did, and then planted another grove for 500 years from now. That's the power of long term thinking - how many of us are able to think that far ahead? That story is what inspired the clock, which is getting closer to completion and sounds pretty cool.

The book was published in 1999 so I found a bunch of the ideas dated and found myself skimming through them, so only partially read this.
Profile Image for Darin Stewart.
97 reviews8 followers
June 4, 2012
this is a wonderfully optimistic book. I have been sinking into severe pessimism about our society and this book helps to take a long view. With that shift in perspective, things do seem to be getting better, just very very slowly.
100 reviews2 followers
February 29, 2008
I just got this back from a friend and seeing it again reminded me how much I loved it. The author and Brian Eno (yes, THAT Brian Eno) had the idea of building an informational repository with a ten-thousand year time line in mind. This simple idea creates some large and fascinating questions. How do you store information for ten-thousand years? What media do you use? What _language_ do you use? How do you make sure that people don't forget about it? You want people to remember it is there, but you don't want them messing with it every day. So, they proposed to build a clock into the facility that would tick once per year, chime once per century, with a cuckoo that comes out once per millennium. But how to build such a clock? Out of what? How much interaction to require? 10,000 years is, after all, a very long time...

Completely fascinating, in a nerdy sort of way.
Profile Image for Chinarut.
76 reviews22 followers
December 23, 2014
I got this book back in October at the Evernote Conference in 2014. Phil Libin raved about the book and now that I've read it - I can see why. As a futurist and a strategist, the book did a fascinating job widening my perspective not only 10,000 years into the future, but also made me very conscious about what got us here. What is it going to take to preserve aspects of our civilizations for thousands of centuries to come? Many great inquiries are posed to make you realize it takes a completely different mindset to think about the consequences of our actions 10,000 years into the future.

The book reads really easy - I don't recommend blowing through the book. The chapters are extremely short, its core point well made and provides the reader for thought. Let each chapter simmer and read no more than 1 chapter a day. You'll find this book a bit of a "tour of the ages" and if you're like me, you'll want to dive into references in the book's bibliography. This is probably one of the first books I thoroughly enjoyed *all* the end notes!

For anyone who strives to leave a legacy and perhaps more importantly, realizes their life's work will not be completed in this lifetime and its fruits will be reaped by later generations - this book is for you!
Profile Image for Nick.
125 reviews9 followers
July 22, 2008
An interesting book from an interesting foundation. Lots of good ideas and things to ponder here. I probably should have taken notes throughout, but perhaps I'll just put it on my list of books to reread.

One interesting story, toward the end of the book:
"Another island, Visingso, in the Swedish lake Vattern, has a gorgeous mature oak forest whose origin came to light in 01980 when the Swedish Navy received a letter from the Forestry Department reporting that the requested ship lumber was now ready. It turned out that in 01829 the Swedish Parliament, recognizing that it takes one hundred fifty years for oaks to mature and anticipating that there would be a shortage of timbers for its navy in the 01990s, ordered twenty thousand trees to be planted and proected for the navy."
(Note: the 'extra' 0 in front of the year is because "long now" people like to think... well... long term.)

The book consists of mostly shortish (5ish page) chapters, all of which are interesting and worth spending more time on.

Profile Image for Joey.
101 reviews46 followers
June 30, 2014
Some of this book is already getting a bit dated, and much if it was not new thoughts, since I follow the Long Now lectures and have even been to their space in SF. But it was still a worthwhile read.

Particularly useful was the diagram layering Art & Fashion / Commerce / Infrastructure / Government / Culture from fast to slow. It made me think about how I have mostly skipped the commercial in my work and went straight to infrastructure, and what may lie beyond that.

Also enjoyed the detail in a chapter on the burning of the library of Alexandria, which turns out to have not been one fire in one building, but multiple disasters spanning centuries.

I was also highly amused at the standard "no copying" in the front matter of a book which was presumably published on acid-free archival quality paper and partly concerns itself with long-term information preservation. Which is best achieved by making lots of copies.
Profile Image for Philippe.
634 reviews525 followers
January 26, 2018
"We don’t know what’s coming. We do know we’re in it together."

This book muses on the thinking behind the mission and strategy of the Long Now Foundation, established in 1996 by a group including Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno and Esther Dyson. These San Francisco Bay area pundits, creatives, and entrepreneurs had already a long shared history behind them, going back to the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968 and the founding of the Global Business Network (with which I was briefly affiliated in the early 1990s). That early history is narrated by Fred Turner in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.

The idea behind the Long Now Foundation was to create a societal concern for humanity’s long-term future. 10.000 years ago was the end of the Ice Age and the beginning of agriculture. Hence the group projected an equal perspective into the future. The assumption of Brand and his colleagues was that an awareness of the long-term perspective would help to reframe humankind’s predicament and hence promote a culture of stewardship and responsibility.

The core element in the Foundation’s strategy was to design an artifact, a clock, able to physically represent that long stretch of time. That piece of 'sublime technology', ‘the slowest computer on earth’, didn’t exist. It had to be designed from scratch. Obviously, the requirement to run over a 10.000-year time horizon created a unique set of design specifications. Inventor Danny Hillis is in charge of the project.

In a motley collection of shortish essays, Brand explores the ideas behind the clock and other elements of the Foundation’s strategy: a 10.000-year library, the development of the discipline of ‘applied history’, the funding of ‘slow science’ project that stretch over decades or centuries. It makes for compelling reading that feels as fresh as when it was written down more than 25 years ago.

Meanwhile, the Long Now Foundation is still alive. It has built a prototype clock that now resides in the London Science Museum. Work is in hand to build a ‘real’ clock, about 60 meter high, somewhere inside a Texas mountain. Another site in Nevada has been identified as a potential home for another clock. You can read up on these and other initiatives on the Foundation’s website.
Profile Image for Teo 2050.
840 reviews82 followers
April 3, 2020

The Long Now Clock/Library is a project to do to our sense of time what a full photograph of the Earth ("Big Here") did to our sense of space: remind us of the bigger picture. Together they are the Long Here, which is an awesomely poetic place and way to live.

The book felt quotable in so many places that I'll just quote the ending:

[Wisdom is] “the capability of making retrospective judgments prospectively.” Wisdom decides forward as if back. Rather than make detailed, brittle plans for the future, wisdom puts its effort into expanding general, adaptive options. A fertile Corfu has more options than a barren one; veterans with a college education had more options than those without. An Earth with an intact ozone layer has more options than one without.

Preserving and increasing options is a major component of a self-saving world. Making it a habit would be part of the answer to the question, How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? Time-inclusive thinking began when the first farmers planted their seeds instead of eating them (it must have seemed a risky investment). The story of civilization is the story of ever-new forms of thinking ahead and the results of those forms. How the story will play out we have no way of knowing. The product of even the most imaginative and prudent forethought is not certainty but surprise. This is the reward for infinite-game generosity. Surprise plus memory equals learning. Endless surprise, diligent memory, endless learning.

While I was completing this book, the poet Gary Snyder sent me an epigram that had come to him:

This present moment
That lives on to become
Long ago.

I felt it was The Clock of the Long Now that responded to him:

This present moment
Used to be
The unimaginable future.


Brand S (1999) Clock of the Long Now - Time and Responsibility - The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer

01. Notional Clock
02. Kairos and Chronos
03. Moore's Wall
04. The Singularity
05. Rush
06. The Long Now
07. The Order of Civilization
08. Old-Time Religion
09. Clock/Library
10. Ben Is Big
11. The World's Slowest Computer
12. Burning Libraries
13. Dead Hand
14. Ending the Digital Dark Age
15. 10,000-Year Library
16. Tragic Optimism
17. Futurismo
18. Uses of the Future
19. Uses of the Past
20. Reframing the Problems
21. Slow Science
22. The Long View
23. Generations
24. Sustained Endeavor
25. The Infinite Game

Appendix: Engaging Clock/Library
Afterword: January 02000
Recommended Bibliography
Profile Image for Jack.
289 reviews
August 9, 2016
I read this the year it was first published. It remains one of the most important books that I have been lucky enough to read. The authors argue that it is increasingly difficult to imagine the future, in part because the technology that surrounds us is changing the world so rapidly. The work we do, the countries on the globe, and the lives we lead are all changing. How we communicate, how we travel, how we think of ourselves is unlike when our grandparents lived and it will be only vaguely like how our grandchildren live. The authors describe this culturally and cognitively unknown future by suggesting that our ability to envision the future creates it. Without some sense of a future, we have a smaller investment in the consequences of today's actions that affect it. The authors believe that the way to address the gap in our imagination and to assure the earth's survival is to build something that will run for the next 10,000 years. That is the epynomous clock.
28 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2017
I first heard about the Clock of the Long Now when listening to a radio interview with Brian Eno a few years ago. The name is resonant and stuck in my head. Someone lent me the book when it came up in conversation, and I've finally got round to reading it. Written in 1998, with an afterword from just after the millennium, it's suffused with a certain Silicon Valley optimism that these days can be rather grating, as Zuckerberg patiently tells us of Facebook's mission to make the world a better place while his business model fosters insular bubbles of thinking that are clearly making it a worse one.

But this book was written in the days of Web 1.0, and the great minds behind the Clock of the Long Now have their sights on loftier goals than creating another "social" app that attempts to monetize our attention. In fact, their goal is nothing more than to reset our attention span from very short where it is currently set, to the very long, where millenia are the counting blocks rather than weeks. Why? Because you can't build a better future by only looking at short timescales.

To this end, the minds behind the Long Now Foundation propose building a clock intended to last 10,000 years, together with a library intended to last the same length of time. The book is a set of short essays linked together by the theme of these aims, and a meditation on the different spans of viewpoint we use to experience the world. It talks a little about the engineering behind the Clock of the Long Now ("the world's slowest computer"), and a little about building the institutional structures that can survive 10 millennia.

It's also full of tricks to shift your perspective. You can look at the start of recorded human history as being 10,000 years ago, which seems impossibly long to our attention spans. Or you can think of it as 400 generations ago (25 years per generation), which makes the problems of the next 10,000 years seem more urgent.

Profile Image for Michael Huang.
844 reviews38 followers
May 3, 2021
Interesting perspectives from a founder of the Long Now foundation. They wanted to creat a clock and a library that can last 10,000 years. Thinking about that time scales is not a common exercise and you’ll see what the author considered and factoids that are unfamiliar. For instance, the library of Alexandria was burned numerous times, 3 times due to war, inadvertently; religious bigotry did twice, on purpose. Only one in 10 Greek classics survived. What to keep in the library and how to preserve them becomes an interesting problem they face.

Civilizations will crash. Starting completely anew is a most harmful idea. It treats previous knowledge as impediment and value theoretical purity. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949,each made brave new worlds that catastrophically failed. The American revolution of 1776, by contrast, was highly conservative. How to preserve civilization at the time scale of 10,000 years then?

Overall, lots of thought-provoking questions and perspectives.
Profile Image for Yates Buckley.
653 reviews26 followers
March 21, 2017
The idea itself of a clock designed to run 10,000 years is incredible: on the one hand preposterous, ridiculous, pharaonic even. My first reaction was to think that the idea was a bit crazy, and I could not see the point to such a construct. The process that took me from absurd to enthusiastic follows the words of this book.
Only if we seriously work on projects for our deep future, can we come to respect and care for it, like we would our personal descendants. And I do believe many of the most complicated problems we face today seem to transform and become less severe in the perspective of millennia ahead for our species. And new tricky classes of problems gain in importance, it is my running question whether humanity will manage to start paying attention to the threats that most endanger its long-term survival.
The clock of the long now, matters as an idea even before its real construction.
Profile Image for Kate.
1,892 reviews1 follower
February 23, 2018
"Using the Millennial Clock -- a supremely slow computer that will keep perfect time for the next 10,000 years -- as a paradigm for the Long Now. Stewart Brand, called 'the least recognized most influential thinker in America,' offers a practical manual that introduces us to the concept of long-term responsibility."
~~back cover

I adored this book! I hadn't heard of the Long Now before, although I already knew that humanity is too short-sighted and that defect will likely be our demise. So imagine how stunned & thrilled I was to discover that the 10,000 Year Clock is even now being built inside a mountain in western Texas (http://longnow.org/clock/)! This is a fascinating concept, and an immensely important one. Read the book, explore the web site, get involved!
17 reviews2 followers
July 29, 2008
I think that everyone who has a reason to think about information and everyone who has any concern at all about the environment needs to read this book. I offers an invitation at least to open up our thinking out of the economically bound timescapes that we use now.
Profile Image for Paola Quiros.
38 reviews7 followers
June 5, 2017
Love the design principles on the chapter "The world's slowest computer": Longevity, maintainability, transparency, evolvability and scalability.... They all should be our filter for our projects in life/work/love.
Profile Image for Austin Storm.
213 reviews19 followers
March 23, 2009
Good book... very skimmable collection of essays from a thoughtful, starry-eyed hippie type.
Profile Image for Jack.
10 reviews
April 7, 2019
I really enjoyed this some chapters, especially pace layers have haunted my thoughts since reading them.
Profile Image for Ameer.
38 reviews10 followers
May 16, 2017
The clock of the long now is an interesting collection of essays about an interesting art piece (that is the purpose of the clock is to send a message more than tell the time, although it does look nice and is about as cool as a mechanical computer could be). The book is sort of similar to what you might expect the commentary around such an art piece would be, philosophizing about the purpose and motivation and implications. There were some interesting bits in here, lots of interesting ideas and it's exciting to see people take on such a project. Overall I like the idea, and the book. I'm not sure what made me not absolutely fall in love with it, but I suspect the assortment of good essays together do not give a real heft to the book, metaphorically speaking. All in all felt like a "conversation starter" and a bit ephemeral. Still, I liked it.
Profile Image for Michael Dubakov.
207 reviews129 followers
March 4, 2018
This book is about slow down.

The urgent always had a louder, clearer voice than the background rumble of the important.
— But the pessimists are always right! (Applause)
— Yeah, and they love it. My worry is they love it so much they avoid any efforts that might make them wrong.
macro-myopia: “we overexpect dramatic developments early, and underexpect them in the longer term.”
Fast learners tend to track noisy signals too closely and to confuse themselves by making changes before the effects of previous actions are clear,” says decision analyst James March. Quiz shows and classroom teachers reward the quick answerer. This is not helpful in domains where the quick answer is the wrong answer.
Wisdom decides forward as if back. Rather than make detailed, brittle plans for the future, wisdom puts its effort into expanding general, adaptive options.

Profile Image for Temo (თემო).
166 reviews10 followers
January 21, 2022
Definitely worth reading, as one of the somewhat few books that not only talks about the fast-paced now-times but also potential ways to add some anchors and stability.

I would have loved to read more about the clock and previous thinking around time - the kairos/chronos distinction could be elaborated on a lot more and it would have been great.

It has drawbacks: nearly every reference to technology makes a bad bet. It quotes Jaron Lanier, one of the least likable and most unproductive voices in tech. And it often flows into a sort of 'but let's raise some more questions' type writing which is somewhat disappointing in light of the fact that authors have enough time to think and say something.
113 reviews
August 15, 2021
Provocative and thoughtful

AG interesting discussion of how to lengthen “now” and engender long term thinking. Building a block that might count 10,000 years is a surprisingly tough problem. But in many ways, the concepts for a library that conveys knowledge through 10,000 years are more interesting, broader, and a more fundamental aspect of the Long Now project.

Surprisingly, the book seems a bit anchored in the late 1990s time when it was written, and so much has happened and changed since then that renders discussion of a timeless subject feel dated already!
Profile Image for Samuel   Harris.
57 reviews2 followers
February 23, 2018
some hugely important concepts worth reading. but funnily enough book does feel dated a little in some aspects and already feels like he didn't pay enough attention to some things. and the whole clock part itself is maybe not that interesting. would have like to hear a bit more about AI and the changes in next 10,000 years and less repeated rambling on how great brian eno is...
Profile Image for Paul Groos.
Author 6 books5 followers
December 31, 2021
An interesting, optimistic, somewhat utopian and hypothetical view of the future, through the perspective of building a 10.000 year clock. The book gives a slightly disjointed feeling, being a collection of lectures, essays and stories, on subjects including philosophy, futurology, ecology, physics, computer sciences and more. Still an interesting read.
Profile Image for Rick Pastoor.
Author 1 book271 followers
October 7, 2017
I liked chapter 24 the most: sustained endavor. “There are problems that are impossible if you think about them in two-year terms—which everyone does—but they’re easy if you think in fifty-year terms”
Profile Image for Petr.
411 reviews
May 13, 2022
The style of the book seemed a little off for me at times, especially as it is filled with various quotes called for support. However, the perspective, the ideas and the vision presented are certainly worth exploring and thinking about.
Profile Image for Alicia Alibi Bella Proof.
162 reviews1 follower
September 13, 2022
Amazing! Stewart Brand Was able to edit this book down to almost all epiphanies! The 1st half is much better than the second half yet it Is filled with such material that makes your brain think And valid information That it deserves no less than 5 stars. From the truth to the facts to the what ifs!
Profile Image for Shrey.
138 reviews3 followers
November 24, 2022
Rambly thoughts - I took an appropriately long time with this. A bit dated, but some of the long term stuff ... erm ... survives the test of time. There is a vaguely meditative/cathartic quality to thinking about things super long term. Also made me think of Asimov's Foundation.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 85 reviews

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