Sunday, September 14, 2008

529: Tick. Tock.

The clock of the long now : time and responsibility attempts to explain the philosophy and goals behind the Long Now foundation.

The foundation is concerned about the increasingly short-term vision of modern life. The book was written in 1998, when the Internet boom was driving everything at "Internet time", but even today it is clear that long term planning is constantly discarded for short term returns in everything from corporate strategy to politics.

I was particularly struck by the author's examples of long-term scientific research. Longitudinal studies have produced some of the most valuable research in a wide range of topics from biology to genetics. Yet it's almost impossible to fund and continue such research in the paper-driven research environment today. Studying slash and burn agriculture in Africa over 9 years led to the conclusion that it did not work to stop woods from taking over open grasslands. Studying the same fields over 40 years led to the reverse conclusion. It turns out that it takes about 10 years of repeated burning to finally destroy the rootstocks.

The clock alluded to in the title is partially an engineering challenge, and partially an exercise in thinking long term. Can a clock be made that will work for 10,000 years -- as long as human civilization has existed? The clock itself runs incredibly slow. It will tick once a year, and bong once a century. It will last for entire lifetimes. It may even outlast our entire civilization. Just to conceptualize the clock is to force the mind to think long-term.

The book is an interesting and evocative read. The chapters are more like separate mini-essays, and accordingly, the book does not have a flowing narrative. In parts, the book reads like a conversation between friends, which is not surprising. Much of the content evolved out of long-running discussions on the subject. While not every chapter is successful, I found most gave me something to think about.

No comments: