Archive for September 15th, 2010

Now, at last

September 15, 2010

In “Future of Life” class (hereafter abbreviated as FoL) the Clock finally chimes today: the Clock of the Long Now, that is, so named by musician Brian Eno.

If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future, we have to reach a frame of mind where it comes to seem unacceptable – gauche, uncivilised – to act in disregard of our descendants.

We’ve got to extend our empathy far forward and gain a new appreciation for the “beautiful continuum of life.” He and his Long Now Foundation compadres (Eno came up with their name) think the best trigger for that transformation may be a new artistry and iconography of time. Stick a clock in a mountain and try to keep it ticking, they say. The trying is the beauty part, and the caring.

Danny Hillis is the earnest computer scientist behind the whole endeavor. Challenged by the late Jonas Salk to acknowledge the ego-driven angle of his passion, he confesses:

OK, Jonas, OK, people of the future, here is a part of me that I want to preserve, and maybe the clock is my way of explaining it to you: 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.

He wrote that a decade ago, and it would be easy enough to surrender to hopelessness now. But if we did, what would our descendants think of us? (Or… what descendants?) It’s important, as Woody Allen has (with perverse unintended irony) said, to be reasonably well thought-of after we’ve “thinned out.”

Ego does have its uses.

But there are practical problems to face, with this improbable clock.