The Long Now, backed by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos, are building a 10 000 year clock that will change the way we perceive time. Built deeply into the mountains of Texas, it is the story of a clock that goes around once every 10 000 years to expand our consciousness about time. We spoke to them about time, space, and humanity.
Please tell us about your vision and how our perception of time can change the world.
The pace of life appears to be accelerating, and that subjective experience biases our behavior toward the short-term. Significant challenges like climate change, education, and space exploration feel completely intractable at this velocity, so The Long Now Foundation aims to restore our sense of agency with counter forces like The Clock of the Long Now and others.
Instead of seeing ourselves as isolated agents operating within this week, this year, or this election cycle, we might choose to reorient ourselves within the next (and last) 10,000 years. This is the timescale of human civilization, a 20,000-year period we call the Long Now. This broader perspective reframes the intractable as commenceable. We can humbly begin the necessary work, trusting its completion to future generations. What cannot be solved in 5 years may yet be solved in 500. We trade our isolation and paralysis for empathy and agency. Such a world confers advantages.
What would happen if we all did the opposite of long term thinking? What are the dangers of a Short Now?
It's important to note that the threat to long-term thinking is not short-term thinking, but a lack of long-term thinking. Short-term thinking is not a danger in itself. It's the scale at which we respond to our immediate environment, and that's a good skill to possess. The Greeks had two words for time—kairos and chronos—for precisely this reason. One fast, one slow. Exclusive attention to either blinds us to challenges and opportunities that might reveal themselves under a different lens. So one danger of a Short Now is the inability to see that which might prove ultimately decisive. This is the danger of all constrained frameworks. An expanded framework mitigates this risk, but it is not cost-free. Long-term thinking is therefore an investment—short-term sacrifice for long-term benefit. A Short Now inverts that relationship such that an alluring appearance of prosperity conceals the costs to future generations. So another danger of a Short Now lies in its immediate attractiveness.
Why does time have such a power over our way of life? How can we free ourselves from it and expand our consciousness?
There's an important distinction to be made between Time and our tools for navigating Time. Freedom lies in recognizing the difference between our map and the territory, and discarding the map when it ceases to be useful.
Our units of temporal measurement—seconds, days, millennia—are very much like our units of spatial measurement. They're not features of the world itself but projections we lay upon the world for ease of understanding. We cinch the globe with an equator but would never expect to see it on a sailing trip through Indonesia. We pass from town to town without much thought for the transition. And yet these special borders still have power over our way of life.
So it is with our temporal abstractions. Hour after hour, years after year. Deadlines, anniversaries, holidays. We separate one moment from the next, but the moments themselves do not arrive so-separated. It's our doing. We can choose to do otherwise. We can schedule a lunch from 12:00 - 1:00 p.m., or we can meet someone for a bite around midday. Each comportment has advantages and tradeoffs. Our particular circumstances may constrain our choice here, but we are ultimately free to choose.
The Long Now Foundation hopes to expand our sense of freedom by offering an alternative to the default. Instead of hurry, we can choose patience. Instead of anxiety, we can choose to begin. Instead of the Short Now, we can choose the Long Now. I believe our brightest futures lie on that path.
Saint Augustine once said, "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know."
You can learn more about The Long Now on longnow.org. Thank you to Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz from the Long Now for the insights and answers