Deep within a mountain somewhere in west Texas, The Long Now Foundation are hard at work building a 500-foot clock that's been designed to run for 10,000 years. I know that sounds a bit like the folly of a Lone Star oil billionaire, but apparently this massive clock is going to adjust the manner in which we understand time itself, so I suppose that counts as having a purpose.
The team behind the construction – boasting names like Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine and, somewhat bizarrely, Brian Eno – want the clock to help destroy the short-term thinking they believe is plaguing society. Their aim is to engage the population so we all properly consider the ways we should be preparing for the future.
The giant clock might seem a slightly excessive way to do that, but when you've got Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos investing £27.5 million in your project, you don't really need to worry about excess.
Executive director Alexander Rose talked me through the concept.
VICE: Hey. So what's up with this gigantic clock?
Alexander Rose: The clock is an iconic project to inspire other people to get the conversation going about long-term thinking. I was once giving a tour to some IBM engineers and one gentleman said, "You know, this is never going to work. In 3,000 years, they're going to be sacrificing virgins on this thing and all the blood is going to drip into it and it's not going to work." And I said, "That may be, but before you walked in the door here, you weren't thinking 3,000 years in advance, so it's already working."
Well, what we hope to do is make something so mythic and crazy that people want to tell stories about it and it becomes a meme that can be called upon. When people tell you that you can't do long term things, there will always be the 10,000 year clock.
I guess so – at least until the 10,001th year. What inspired the clock, Alexander?
"The Millennium Clock"; a clock that ticked once a year, bonged once a century and the cuckoo would come out once a millennium. If you make it "forever" or of an astronomic time scale – of millions and billions of years – it dwarfs the human experience and it doesn't feel like there's anything you can do that's important in that time scale. So we thought, 'What is the human civilisational moment?' If you look back to the last ice age, when agriculture started, that's when large parts of the planet started having what we now call civilisation. So that was chosen. If we can look back 10,000 years, then we can look forward 10,000 years.
I kind of see what you mean. Why Texas?
The current location was one that came as part of the funding from Jeff Bezos. When Jeff offered the property in west Texas, it was all private and allowed us to get going much faster. It had the attributes of being high in the desert, which is a great preservation environment away from cities – good for something lasting, away from the churn of cities and wars. We also wanted that distance so that people would have to travel to it, and while travelling they would have some of the conversations that we're hoping they will have. Then, on their way back, they'll hopefully have changed a little bit.
You’re building a giant alarm clock, aren’t you? The future is going to be so pissed.
There are elements of the clock that we're leaving undone for future generations and anniversary events. The idea is that there will be a cool mechanical thing that happens on a year, a decade, a century, a millennium and then a tenth millennium. We'll only build the year and decade ones, then the others would be left for other people to build in the future.
How are they going to know how to program it? Is there a manual?
Over 10,000 years, the platform dependence goes all the way back to the fundamentals of language, so we started looking at ways of making a modern Rosetta Stone by micro-etching silicone and then casting that into long lasting metal, like nickel. We've created a Rosetta disk, which has thousands of languages with parallel information on them so that anyone who found the disk could hopefully understand as many of the languages on the disk as possible. The later steps may be including some of the documentation alongside the clock and other projects that have several major world languages as part of that.
With the Rosetta Project, we created the broadest language database and archive in the world. We literally had to collect stuff out of shoeboxes in Papua New Guinea, and we now have documentation of over 2,500 to 3,000 languages. We etched that into silicone using a gallium ion beam and casted that onto nickel so that it could last for a very long time.
That’s pretty amazing. So how long do you think it will be until the giant clock is finished?
I'm not sure.
Do you have an estimate?
Do you know how much it will cost overall?
Well, this interview seems to have drawn to a natural close. Thanks Alexander.
All images by Rolfe Horn.
Follow Camille on Twitter: @camstanden
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