A common theme throughout everything I have read so far regarding energy, sustainability, and the future is that the world is suffering from short-term thinking. Oil is being extracted at rapid rates and new unconventional oils are being developed to supply our growing demand. This type of short-term thinking will soon result in exhaustion of all oil reserves and leave society unprepared to live life without oil. It takes long-term thinking to realize the supply of oil is finite. It takes long-term thinking to conserve current supplies of oil. And it takes long-term thinking to start preparing for a world without oil by investing in renewable resources before the last drop of oil is pumped out of the ground. But how do we start to thinking long-term when short-term thinking creates jobs now, money now, and is easier to comprehend?
In 01996 Daniel Hillis, a computer scientist, decided to inspire long-term thinking in a dramatic way. He founded The Long Now Foundation with the intention of inspiring long-term thinking. The foundation was established with the belief that humans do not realize the true meaning of “future.” We think of the future in a personal context of a week or a year, but few realize that the future goes beyond that and could mean 1000 years. The foundation even strives to inspire this type of long-term thinking by placing a zero in front of the year (02012) to increase demonstrate that 2012 isn’t such a large number and that there is still a long future ahead. To call attention to the need for long-term thinking Hillis conceived the 10,000 year clock as a symbol that will stand the test of time.
“I think it is time for us to start a long-term project that gets people thinking past the mental barrier of an ever-shortening future. I would like to propose a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium.” — Daniel Hillis
Above is a picture of the prototype clock that resides in the London Science Museum.
Construction of the first non-prototype clock began recently in West Texas with the excavation of a mountain. That’s correct, the clock will be housed inside a 500 foot shaft excavated into the mountain, and the clock itself will stand 200 feet tall. To reach the clock once it is completed will require a two hour drive from the nearest airport and a 2,000 foot vertical climb up the mountain. Any visitor will know they have reached the location of the clock when they discover a jade door hidden behind a rock face that opens into the clock chamber.
Image of a model of the clock design used in development of the large clock.
The parts of the clock will be mainly stainless steel to prevent corrosion, and the bearings will be made of ceramic. According to a 2011 Discovery News article, “The clock will be powered by a thermoelectric generator, drawing electricity from the temperature difference between the hot exterior and the cool interior of the cave. A self-adjusting “solar synchronizer” will help the clock keep accurate time.” The synchronizer will work by tracking solar noon and adjusting the time of the clock accordingly. The clock will also include a star chart that accurately tracks the position of the stars above the clock, and a unique sequence of chimes will ring every day so that in 3.5 million days the same chime is never heard twice.
The idea behind the design of the clock is to create a mechanical clock that not only keeps time on a very long scale, but does not require electricity or extensive human maintenance. Because the clock is self-correcting it can be accurate within one day after 20,000 of operation. Even if humans do not maintain the clock by winding it, it will still function on its own and will regain accuracy once it is wound again.
The Long Now Foundation is an unfortunately rare example of forward thinking. Not only have they designed a monument to the future Earth, but they have ensured that it will operate even if our energy resources run out. The mere fact that a group of people were able to construct a clock that would be working and accurate in 10,00 years’ time is astounding and will hopefully inspire others to create sustainable technology. The clock is the perfect symbol of possibilities for the future and could inspire the long-term thinking we so desperately need.
“The Clock of the Long Now”
The clock allows us to imagine people in 10,000 years discovering the jade door in a mountain long after the clock was forgotten, climbing up the clock tower and hearing a chime that has never been heard before nor will it be heard again for centuries to come. It provides a much needed connection from the people of today to the people of tomorrow.