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<nettime> WiReD: The 10,000-Year Clock Is a Waste of Time

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The 10,000-Year Clock Is a Waste of Time

*It's less a monument to long-term thinking than a Gilded Age distraction.*

David Karpf / 01.29.2020 08:00 AM

There is a clock being constructed in a mountain in Texas. The
clock will tick once a year, marking time over the next 10,000
years. The clock is an art installation. It is intended as a
monument to long-term thinking, meant to inspire its visitors to
be mindful of their place in the long arc of history. I think it
is a monument to something else: a profound failure of the
imagination. The clock is a testament to willful blindness, as
today's tech barons whistle past the grim realities of the
oncoming catastrophe that is man-made climate destabilization.
Even worse: It is a reminder that social chaos is never evenly

The clock has a handful of names. Some call it the Millennium
Clock, others call it the Clock of the Long Now. Jeff Bezos calls
it the 10,000-Year Clock, and, since he's spent an estimated $42
million to build it inside a mountain that he owns, that name is a
real contender. It was first proposed by Danny Hillis. It is a
memento of sorts, a physical reminder of the brash, sunny-side
futurism that defined the early internet boom. "I want to build a
clock that ticks once a year," Hillis wrote in a 1995 WIRED essay.
"The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo
comes out on the millennium...If I hurry, I should finish the
clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time."

Here's how Hillis described the purpose of this project:

     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.

It's a nice sentiment. One could almost imagine it as a
counterpoint to the "move fast and break things" ethos that has
defined the past quarter-century of digitally-driven social and
economic disruption. But it is an empty challenge. The Clock of
the Long Now doesn't just invite visitors to ponder the geologic
passage of time; it also offers a pleasant distraction from the
dangerous trajectory of the world we occupy today.

In 1996 (or, as they prefer to write it, 01996), Hillis and a few
Silicon Valley friends formed the Long Now Foundation. The
Foundation got to work on the technical details of building the
clock. What sort of mechanical parts could last 10,000 years? How
would it operate? How would it be preserved? A prototype of the
clock was unveiled in January 1999 in Davos at the World Economic
Forum. It was installed in the London Museum of Science on
December 31, 1999, just in time for the millennium. (The
cuckoo-concept had been swapped for a double-gong effect, with a
clock face that resembles a revamped Starfleet logo.) WIRED
published frequent updates on the project, as the clock drew
praise from the types of futurists who routinely reassure the tech
elite, telling them they are the genius inventors of a better
tomorrow. It is art of, by, and for the ultrarich.

Hillis himself is a computer scientist and inventor, an early
pioneer in the field of parallel computing. In a 2011 WIRED
interview, Hillis was asked how he could justify focusing on the
clock instead of Applied Proteomics, a biotech startup he
cofounded that was meant to accelerate cancer research. "I think
this is the most important thing I can work on," Hillis replied.
"More than cancer. Over the long run, I think this will make more
difference to more people."

Cancer, after all, is a problem of the here and now. Like John
Maynard Keynes said, "In the long run, we are all dead."

Applied Proteomics sold off its assets in 2018, without developing
a commercially viable application. That same year, Hillis and his
colleagues began assembling the clock inside a mountain on Jeff
Bezos' West Texas ranch. Proteomics is a slow-developing field -- no
one has developed a breakthrough commercial application yet.
Construction on the clock is moving forward; cancer will have to

Kevin Kelly cofounded the Long Now Foundation with Hillis, and has
been one of the Millennium Clock's most vocal proponents. Kelly
was also WIRED's original executive editor, and still writes for
the magazine today. He is a zealous promoter of the brand of
unapologetic techno-optimism that was commonplace in early Silicon
Valley and has only recently fallen out of fashion.

In a 2011 essay for the Long Now Foundation website, an ode to the
clock and all it represents, Kelly writes:

     Why would anyone build a Clock inside a mountain with the
     hope that it will ring for 10,000 years? Part of the answer:
     just so people will ask this question, and having asked it,
     prompt themselves to conjure with notions of generations and
     millennia. If you have a Clock ticking for 10,000 years what
     kinds of generational-scale questions and projects will it

It is, once again, a lovely sentiment. But left unsaid is the
troubling matter of which people will ask this question, and who
will be doing the prompting. The pinned tweet on Kelly's Twitter
account proclaims, "Over the long term, the future is decided by
optimists." He wrote that tweet on April 25, 2014. When I asked
him whether any events in the past six years had changed his mind,
he replied, "I am now much more inclined to say that even in the
short term, the future is decided by optimists."

Kelly is likely right that the future is decided by optimists, but
not for the reason he implies. An optimistic outlook on life does
not determine who will be invited to attend the World Economic
Forum and hang out with the billionaire class. But wealth and fame
can be a mood-altering cocktail (rarely shaken, gently stirred).
Spend enough years among the "angel" investor set and you just
might start seeing halos everywhere you look. Social optimism does
not beget victory; victory begets social optimism.

The first time I corresponded with Kelly, our back and forth left
me scratching my head for weeks. While reading WIRED's back
catalog, I'd come across a bet he made in 1995 with neo-Luddite
author Kirkpatrick Sale. Sale had predicted that the digital
revolution would cause a global currency collapse, open conflict
between the rich and the poor, and environmental catastrophes "on
a significant scale" (including the possibility that Australia
would become unlivable) in the coming decades. At the conclusion
of a combative interview published in the magazine, Kelly
challenged Sale to a $1,000 bet that by the year 2020 "we're not
even close" to a confluence of those disasters. "We won't even be
close. I'll bet on my optimism," he said. This would later inspire
a series of "Long Bets" that Kelly and the Long Now Foundation
have pursued.

I reached out to Kelly in 2018 to ask if he had any thoughts on
the status of the bet. "He is obviously losing," he told me,
adding that he'd tried to find Kirk Sale a few years earlier to
see if he'd "double up" the stakes. We were in touch again earlier
this month. I wondered how the bet would be decided now that 2020
has arrived. "We did not agree on who/how the bet was to be
decided," he said. "I just recently was able to track down Kirk
Sale and asked him if he was planning to pay up if he thought he
lost. I don't think he will pay or even admit he lost. He also
noted that 2020 wasn't done yet, so I will reapproach him at the
end of the year."

Even back in 1995, this was a bet Kirkpatrick Sale never wanted to
win. The original interview concludes with Kelly boasting, "Oh,
boy, this is easy money! But you know, besides the money, I really
hope I am right." Sale ruefully replied, "I hope you are right,

In recent years, WIRED has covered the environmental devastation
of Puerto Rico and vanishing Antarctic glaciers. The magazine has
covered the rise and fall of cryptocurrency. The magazine has
covered the Occupy movement. And WIRED's 2020 coverage has already
included an article on the Australian wildfires that included the
subheading "Welcome to the hellish future of life on earth." Just
reading the coverage in this magazine, the trendlines don't appear
good for Kelly's optimism. We face greater economic inequality,
greater social instability, and worse environmental disasters than
in 1995.

What troubles me about Kelly's optimism is what it denies and what
it obscures. Focusing on the "Long Now" provides an escape from
wrestling with the dark times we are living through. Pondering the
next five millennia can be an invitation to ignore the troubles we
face today.

Another WIRED correspondent, William Gibson, describes in his 2014
novel, The Peripheral, a slow-moving apocalypse called "the
jackpot." The jackpot, the reader learns, is "no one thing â?¢
multi-causal, with no particular beginning and no end. More a
climate than an event, so not the way apocalypse stories liked to
have a big event...No comets crashing, nothing you could really
call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing
climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone
â?¢ antibiotics doing even less than they already did." The jackpot
kills 80 percent of the earth's population over a period of 40
years. Those who survive eventually come to enjoy the trappings of
radical advances in science and technology. They also have to cope
psychologically with the guilt of being the privileged few. The
ones who make it through the "deepest point of everything going to
shit" come to say that they won the jackpot. (Gibson's sequel,
Agency, released last week, dwells on the question of whether the
jackpot is still avoidable.)

Another author with deep roots in the tech scene, Doug Rushkoff,
wrote an eye-opening essay called "Survival of the Richest" in
2018. Rushkoff was flown to a private island and given the largest
speaker's fee of his life to deliver his insights on "the future
of technology" to an audience of five hedge fund billionaires.
They weren't interested in his prepared remarks. What they wanted
to discuss was "the Event." "That was their euphemism," Rushkoff
explains, "for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear
explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes
everything down." And what they really wanted to ask him was "How
do I maintain authority over my security force after the Event?"
Rushkoff did his best, recommending that they were better off
treating people well right now and working to prevent the Event.
But he says the hedge funders laughed off his suggestion. They
weren't interested in preventing the jackpot; they were interested
in winning it.

One of the grim realities of climate politics today is that the
elites bankrolling climate-denier politicians have made a simple
calculation. They aren't betting that the scientific consensus is
wrong. They are betting that the impacts of climate change won't
fall directly on them. They'll either die before the jackpot
begins or their wealth will help shield them from its impacts.

The worst thing about this calculation is that I'm not entirely
sure it is incorrect. It's catastrophically immoral, certainly.
But the impacts of climate disasters won't be evenly distributed.
Think back to Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans was devastated, but
the wealthy areas were just fine. One answer to climate change is
"just buy land on higher ground." That answer won't work for the
99.9 percent. But for the ultrawealthy, it's a viable strategy.
And that means, in the short term, that the ultrawealthy can
oppose any policy proposals that would radically reshape the
economy to prevent, or at least mitigate, climate disasters. Those
proposals will cost them money, individually. Those proposals will
leave them, individually, less secure.

I don't know who Rushkoff's hedge funders were. But I suspect they
would find the Clock of the Long Now comforting. It's an ethical
balm of sorts. After all, 10,000 years from now, who will remember
the climate disasters?

Construction of the clock is now well underway. What began as a
fanciful Web 1.0-era dream of an elaborate cuckoo clock that
outlasts the great pyramids has taken form as an ornate
underground edifice. A 500-foot shaft has been cut into a
mountain. Visitors enter through jade-paneled doors, climb a
massive staircase to reach a cupola made of sapphire glass. There
they can wind the clock mechanism and listen to one of 3.65
million unique chimes composed by musician Brian Eno. It promises
to be a unique experience.

On the same sprawling ranch, visitors can observe another Bezos
project, the Blue Origin spaceport. There's a mission control
room, a launchpad, a 60-foot rocket in a hangar: the components of
what is meant to be, at first, a venue for suborbital tourism,
later on a permanent moon settlement, and then, perhaps, "a future
where millions of people are living and working in space." The two
projects have similar intellectual lineages, despite vastly
different ambitions. Blue Origin is, ultimately, an escape plan.
If it succeeds, one day it will transport those who can afford it
beyond the bounds of our physical world. The dream of colonizing
other planets is either a source of inspiration or an ultimate
distraction, depending on how you look at it. Space flight can
affix in our minds just how small and fragile this world truly is,
creating a sense of moral clarity. But it can also offer a
deus-ex-machina solution to the hedge funders' question about the
Event. Salvation will be granted to those who can afford a seat on
the private spaceflight.

The clock is a lesser escape route, promising to intellectually
transport its visitors beyond the bounds of our terrestrial
troubles. That's its mission -- the 10,000-Year Clock is designed to
affix in our minds the impermanence of today's social ills. It's
supposed to bend our perspectives so we think beyond trivial
matters -- like curing cancer and getting carbon out of the
atmosphere and maybe, just maybe, building a society that is a
little less cruel. ("If people pay attention to the clock," Bezos
says, "they'll do more things like Blue Origin.") The clockmakers
mean well, and I don't want to fault people for drawing
inspiration from art that leaves me cold. But it is worth asking
who this art is meant for. It's worth asking whether the impulse
to abandon our responsibility to the here and now should be

There is a clock being constructed in a mountain in Texas. The
clock will tick once a year, marking time over the next 10,000
years. The clock is an art installation. It is intended as a
monument to long-term thinking, meant to inspire its visitors to
be mindful of their place in the long arc of history.

The clock was conceived by a tech millionaire. It is funded by the
world's richest man, a tech billionaire. It is being built
adjacent to his private spaceport, inside a mountain that he owns.
You can visit the clock in the mountain in Texas someday. You can
walk through its jade doors, climb the staircase up to the
sapphire dome. You can turn the clock's winding mechanism and hear
one of Brian Eno's chimes. Just ask Jeff Bezos for an invite when
you see him at Davos, or ask a board member of the Long Now
Foundation for an introduction.

If you can't get in touch with Bezos through your personal
networks, you shouldn't worry about the 10,000-Year Clock. They
wouldn't say it so bluntly, but this art installation isn't for

You have more pressing concerns in the here and now.

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