The Clock Of The Long Now
A Talk With Stewart Brand

JB: What's happening with the clock?

STEWART BRAND: Three years we've been working on building a ten-thousand-year clock and as of this year, '98, we're building a prototype eight feet tall, probably about the size of two refrigerators back to back, and we've got an invitation to debut it at the World Economic Forum in Davos next January, '99 - perfect place to get world leaders and corporate leaders and so on thinking in ten thousand year terms. Danny's clock is I believe the world's first Year 10,000-compliant computer. There's all this ruckus about - correct ruckus - about the year 2000 problem in computers - that they can't handle 4-digit year dates. Well, 4-digit year dates also become a problem after the year 10000 - five-digits in your year dates. In the Long Now Foundation we refer to this year as 01998, and 01999, and 02000 and so on. So the clock is ready for the year 10000 and carries on in a completely accurate time-telling fashion until the year 12000.

Danny's invented what's call a serial-bit-adder, we're getting a patent for it. It's basically mechanical digital binary works, and what it does is it replaces gear ratios, which is what all clocks and watches up to now employ. The problem with gears is they wear down over centuries and their ratios change, and there's possible other problems and there's friction problems, so Danny just invented a different way. So in a sense it's a computer calculator clock, but there's no electricity in it; there's nothing electronic about it; it could be done with Bronze Age technology, or repaired with Bronze Age technology, it's a very intelligent binary digital physical mechanical device. What it measures is things like the 26000 year cycle of the procession of the equinoxes; it also tells you what day it is, one of the readouts - and it can do all the calculations on leap years, including the esoteric ones like in the year 2000. It corrects for equation of time, so that the noon on it approximates what the sun's noon is going to be. It's also corrected by the sun. When the noon sun shines on it---even as infrequently as every 200 years or so, it corrects any migration the clock might have made - not only bringing it to the right time, but also correcting whatever is causing the problem. Very ingenious clock. Also very beautiful.

Actually in the 16th-17th-18th century, clocks had a lot more of this quality. They were mostly astronomical. In many cases they had dozens of faces showing lots of different things. Ours has basically one face with about five different things on the read-out, but they're very subtle and interesting things. I suppose in that sense we're going back to the early excitement about clocks - they were big, they were monumental, they were something that a city would organize itself around - the clock in Prague, the clock in Venice, and so on. This is that kind of big clock.

JB: When you promoted the famous picture of whole Earth in 1969, showing night and day at the same time, I thought you were talking about space. Thirty years later, I realize that all along yo were thinking about time. That image of the earth on my television set - night and day at the same time, all the time - and the hands on the clock on the wall showing a local time of 3p.m. - that turned my head around and influenced the way I think about things.

BRAND: Yeah, it's a big jump for a lot of people. We know the image of earth in space set in motion the ecology movement - it was a year later, in 1970, whereas before that there was not really an ecology movement. What you say about time suggests that some of the globalization of the economy may have also gotten going increasingly when you look at an image that has night and day in it you think well, the market never closes. In a sense what we're doing with the clock is to do even more for time what the photograph of the Earth did for space. Like understanding of the earthly environment as one whole thing - we're trying to understand a period of time reaching 10000 years into the past and 10000 years into the future as one containable thought. Brian Eno, one of our board members, calls it the long now. The idea that you sort of move in the now and feel a responsibility for what happens in the now; if you can push the now out past your own lifetime in a couple of directions, that's good. If you can push it way out, then that's better. Peter Schwartz, another board member, suggested 10000 years, because that's a sort of a rough history of what you might call history - civilization. 10000 years ago the ice recedes - Jared Diamond territory - this is when Mid-Easterners do serious agriculture and domestication of animals. [not Europeans till way later], and that spreads, that permits towns, towns lead very quickly to cities, and cities is where civilization happens. So 10000 years is a - backwards is sort of the human now, and because we're looking at arithmetic time instead of exponential time, an equal 10000 years into the future seems like what should be the symmetrical perspective.

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