Time for our last Clock of the Long Now installment. (Next up: What Will Change Everything?)
The clock’s progenitor Danny Hillis hasn’t been letting time stand still. Lately he’s been concerned with developments in cancer research and proteomics. A good reminder that long-term thinking is no substitute for problem-solving in the present.
The present. What else do we have? The past is dead, the future’s not yet living. Right? Not quite. Past and future are virtually alive in us, for those of us who think there’s something in them we can use. Something we must respond to, and connect with.
Like ancient footprints. When we walk a mile in their ash we extend their range and deepen our connection to cosmic time, “ancient and vast.” We speak for the earth of things.
We humans have set foot on another world in a place called the Sea of Tranquility, an astonishing achievement for creatures such as we, whose earliest footsteps three and one-half million years old are preserved in the volcanic ash of east Africa. We have walked far.
It’s important to recall and retain the past. George Santayana‘s famous “01905” warning about the hazards of forgetting is still right, though overquoted. Churchill was right too, to lump the reading and writing of history with its creation.
I’m with Brand on this point: if we wait to solve our planet’s problems before looking beyond it & them (as ’60s environmentalists used to urge), we’ll never look again. And we’ll probably never solve them, either. Boldly going shouldn’t mean giving up on the homeworld. Not going, though, just might.
We can learn from those traditional native Americans who defined “now” as seven generations in each direction: 175 years. That may not be now enough, but it’s way better than the CNN news cycle.
So should we be packing for Mars, then? Maybe. But is it really true that “we can’t undo our power” – or at least temporize our will to power? We’d better, if we’re coming in peace for all humankind.
And is it true that “better technology and more affluence leads to less environmental harm”? Is the burgeoning infosphere really no threat to the biosphere?
As for nanotech: we do need to hear more about the potential good effects. Gray goo is a real downer.
Inconvenient Truth wasn’t the first to publicize Keeling and Revelle’s long-term studies of global warming. But Stewart Brand is not nearly so charismatic a speaker as Al Gore.
I definitely vote for more time-lapse film, to stretch the frame of the present. And for more slow art. That’s one way to frame the clock project: a big “Hi there” from us to whomever. But I still think the clock should be useful from the moment it begins to run. The ADD of our time is getting worse with every new gadget rollout, and “looking to the mountain” may be good medicine. (And more solid indigenous wisdom.)
Brand asks a question we all ought to ask ourselves: “Reader, what was the occasion of your longest view?” I’m thinking…
He also notes the “sudden overwhelm in the last seconds” of spiking population. Is that problem on your radar?
How about the institutional relevance of universities, in transmitting an intellectual heritage to the “ever-new generations passing through”? Does Lt. Gov. Ramsey get that, do you think?
“The long view looks right through death.” The trans-end-dance, again. Do you know the steps? Have you read your Plato Papers? Or do you take false comfort from the paradoxical Zeno, “always never more than halfway to death”? Will technology buy us some kairos-time? If we start living much longer lives, will we be that much more responsible? Will we think like John Adams, freeing our “sons” for philosphy and poetry? Would you be disappointed to think that your great-great…grandchildren may share none of your interest in the meaning of life? Would you still want to keep their options open?
I hope you would. We’re playing an infinite game here, and though the main point of such games is not to win, losing would be very sad. Forget about waiting ’til next year.
As for the clock: I’m with that tough old rancher. “Why not?” Who knows? It just might change everything.
On an unrelated matter: will the real John Shook please stand up? He has atheists all riled up with his Huffington Post essay (“For Atheists and Believers, Ignorance Is No Excuse”) calling out strident Know Nothing (about theology) atheists. But his latest Center For Inquiry post (“God Fails a Simple Rationality Test”) will strike some as plenty strident.
I know John, have dined pleasantly with him, and know him to be a straight shooter who more often than not targets Know Nothing theists. (He did it again in August at the James centenary symposium, at my “Will to Believe” session in New Hampshire.) His larger point, I’m sure, is that there’s ignorance and smugness all around. We should decry it all. He’s right.