Archive for March 24th, 2016

Now, at last

March 24, 2016

This morning I’m revisiting an old post from 2010 when my “Future of Life” class considered the Clock of the Long Now, so named by musician Brian Eno. He said: “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.” 

Some who resist the kind of long-term thinking that professes deep regard for our distant descendants are put off by what they see as a disingenuous stance of selflessness. 
And some just agree with Philip Kitcher, who said in his 2013 Terry Lectures at Yale that became Life After Faith that it becomes increasingly difficult to muster and maintain intimate interest in the lives of people we’ll never know. Never mind people in ten millennia, those coming just a couple generations down the pike are already hard for him to think and care about. “So, as I look forward sufficiently far, regret [at dying and missing the future] declines into indifference.”
As noted here a few weeks ago, this is an attitude Samuel Scheffler finds unsustainable and in fact unsustained, when we reflect on the world without us and realize that its indefinite continuation as the natural “collective afterlife” long after we’re gone is something most of us can’t help caring about.
So, I suggest, we should work on putting our indifference to the distant future behind us. Most of us do want, as Eno said, to contribute to a tenable future. We must keep reminding ourselves that our present was the distant future for our remote ancestors, who fortunately for us did not all regard us indifferently. This is not a call for selflessness, it’s an acknowledgement that meaningful selfhood in the present entails a vital relatedness to the selves who came before and those who will come after us. 
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.

5:30/6:45, 64/67/41

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