Whole Earth Review WINTER 1999 - by Peter Warshall


Stewart has written an important book. He asks: "How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare? How do we make the taking of long-term responsibility inevitable?" He has in mind ten thousand years, a future period equal to our lives on Earth since the last glaciation.

Always the superb cultural navigator, Stewart spots, points to, and aligns myriad paths in this time-terrain. His two tools are "notional" (thought) experiments and a specific project to build a shrine to time (a mechanical clock that will operate for ten thousand years). Stewart envisions an intentional time-shrine that would incessantly bring people back to the long view, a clock interacting with us for many generations, harmonic with slower biospheric and cultural continuities, honing and sanctifying our wisdom.

We once talked about the time-shrine. It might become one stopping place on tourist itineraries. Tourism might just be an embryological predecessor to a new, post-modern sacredness; tourism might turn to pilgrimage as in older cultures like India and Jerusalem. To natural ancient wonders (Yellowstone, Grand Canyon), and to the future speedo-techno-wonders (Disneyland, the Space Museum), the Long Now Foundation would add a VERY SLOW-PACED clock wonder, a wonder dedicated to responsibility.

Stewart's writing is a pleasure. He has taken his exemplary condensed, spare, and clean "book review" prose, so familiar to readers of Whole Earth Catalogs, and extended it to twenty-five essays averaging about seven pages each. One essay takes the form of a talk; another a letter. Craft is everywhere, gracious and at ease.

In a unique essay design, his friends and colleagues (Esther Dyson, Brian Eno, Danny Hillis, Kevin Kelly, to name a few) appear momentarily in one essay, then another, giving the book a town-hall or pow-wow musicality, almost a short-novel texture of many voices.

Personally, I am unsure how considering ten thousand years (rather than twenty or two thousand) engenders more responsibility here and now. I do remain hopeful that, after reading this book, many Holocene geologists and Silicon Valley software engineers might join, for instance, the task of saving California's last redwoods from Maxxam Corporation. After all, did Microsoft's Paul Allen have to think ten thousand years years before purchasing Loomis State Forest? If Bill Gates thinks the Long Now, might he too decide to donate one day's income and stop the Headwaters controversy, preserving thousands of years of information neatly stored in tree rings and many species' DNA? For thousands of future years? For millions of people? A Microsoft time-shrine to sequoias? Is this a maniacal naturalist's tragic optimism?

Stewart coined the "Big Here," giving out free images of the Earth taken from outer space. He now offers what no other book or tool kit has for decades: a gift of liberty to think and act with more clarity, fun, and imagination about the Long Us.

"Fiction has to be plausible; reality doesn't.

"The Clock/Library aims for the mythic depth to become, as Brian Eno puts it, "one of those system-level ideas which sets in motion all sorts of behavior without ever having to be referred to directly again. This is what dominant myths do: they make some sorts of behavior ring with recognition and familiarity and value and a sense of goodness, and thus lay deep templates for social cohesion about what would otherwise be very hard-to-discuss topics.

"...It is not so much a conversion experience as a deep pause, like coming upon the Grand Canyon by surprise, where you simply want to sit and watch for a while and let your life adjust to two million years visible in one glance.

"Who tends the Clock and the Library for the ongoing millennia? The clearest model of how to run a charismatic site is the central Shinto complex in Japan known as the Ise Shrine.

"...Every twenty years for well over a thousand years the all-wood shrine has been totally reconstructed?a perfect replica built next to the previous building. The sixty-first rebuilding took place in 1993. Ise is the world's greatest monument to continuity?an unbroken lineage of structure, records, and tradition on a humid, earthquake-prone, volcanic island. Its ancient rites are alive and meaningful. Materials dismantled from the replaced building are recycled to other shrines throughout Japan.

"Suppose we wanted to improve the quality of decisions that have long-term consequences. What would make decision makers feel accountable to posterity as well as to their present constituents? What would shift the terms of debate from the immediate consequences to the delayed consequences, where the real impact is?...

"One side of such a debate could file (for a fee) its arguments, facts, media reports, major players, and predictions with the Library's Responsibility Record, along with desired times in the future for the records to "wake up" for review. The Library would then of course contact the opposition to see if they would like to do the same...

"Years later, at the wake-up times, those living with the consequences of the decision will be able to see what both sides registered... whether the terms of the original debate had anything whatever to do with what actually happened. This is where the real payoff lies... The Library can accumulate detailed records of countless sequences of debate-decision-consequence... A well-managed Responsibility Record would be both trove and warning.

"The core fallacy of futurismo is: Desire always misreads fate".