The Clock of the Long Now - Quotes and Notes

These are my notes and review for this book. For other reading notes see tag: books

Quotes and Excerpts

“Nobody can save the world, but any of us can help set in motion a self-saving world—if we are willing to engage the processes of centuries, because that is where the real power is.”

Accelerating Technological Growth

“What came to be known as Moore’s Law was a small graph and explanation buried in his Electronics paper. From 1965 Moore looked back to the beginnings of integrated circuits in 1959 and noted that the number of components (transistors) that could be fit on a chip had doubled every year for six years. He predicted that the trend would continue for another ten years, permitting an astonishing sixty-five thousand components on a chip by 1975. (The actual numbers by 1975 were around twelve thousand, so the formula was later adjusted to predict doubling every eighteen months.)”
Thirty-seven doublings, about a 137 billionfold increase of power in fifty-six years.

“If taking thought for the future was essential in steady times, how much more important is it in accelerating times, and how much harder? It becomes both crucial and seemingly impossible. There are so many new varieties of short-term opportunity, and the pace of events buffets our attention with so many surprises, it is as if the old dialogue between opportunistic kairos and durational chronos has become a monologue, just a shriek of joy into the gale of freefall.”

Thinking Long-term

“After years of working with alcoholics the anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson observed, “If the hangover preceded the binge, drunkenness would be considered a virtue and not a vice.” Drunks disbelieve in the inevitability of the hangover and the harm they cause while drunk. Their vice is dismissing the future and surrendering to the rewards of the moment, the binge. Bateson’s idea of hangover-first would reward and teach patience. The reality of binge-first annihilates both patience and memory.”

“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales. But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales. On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales. That is why conflicting loyalties are deep in our nature. In order to survive, we have needed to be loyal to ourselves, to our families, to our tribes, to our cultures, to our species, to our planet. If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.” –Freeman Dyson

“Quiet music stops people talking. It makes people aware that they may be intruding on someone else’s experience if they talk loudly. It slows them down, makes them realize they’re having an experience which exists in time, has duration, and that therefore they might want to stop shuffling around and sit still for a bit to wait for the experience to unfold.”

“The ingenuity in the Clock is late twentieth century and so are the materials. The process of constructing a prototype Millennial Clock in 1998 led the builders into direct encounters with deep time. The challenge was to build a prototype that not only worked but would keep working for ten thousand years. Exotic materials were sought for maximum longevity and minimal friction: Monel (nickel-copper alloy) and tungsten carbide for hardness, diamond coating for further hardness, Invar alloy for temperature independence, metallic glass for a potentially inexhaustible pendulum ribbon.”

The Library of Alexandria

“The legendary stature of the Library of Alexandria is justifiable. In its prime (290 B.C.E. to 88 B.C.E.) the library was the fount of the Hellenistic Greek Renaissance, and the classics it preserved helped inspire the fifteenth-century European Renaissance. Then the largest city in the world, Alexandria remained the intellectual capital of the Mediterranean for most of the duration of the Roman Empire. The famous library and museum at its peak may have held six hundred thousand scrolls—the equivalent of one hundred twenty thousand modern books. Alexandria’s library was an intensely productive community of writers, translators, editors, historians, mathematicians, astronomers, geographers, and physicians. Its librarians included Apollonius of Rhodes (poet of The Argonauts), Callimachus (the father of bibliography), Eratosthenes (who estimated the diameter of the Earth), Aristarchus of Samos (a Sun-centered Copernican eighteen centuries before Copernicus), and Hipparchus (discoverer of the precession of the equinoxes).”

“So who burned the Library of Alexandria? War did three times, inadvertently. Religious bigotry did twice, on purpose. We are right to grieve. Only one in ten of the major Greek classics survived. Nothing like Alexandria’s library was seen again for a thousand years.”

“Starting anew with a clean slate has been one of the most harmful ideas in history. It treats previous knowledge as an impediment and imagines that only present knowledge deployed in theoretical purity can make real the wondrous new vision. Thus the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 each made brave new worlds that catastrophically failed. By cutting off continuity with the slower parts of their cultures they had no fallback. The American Revolution of 1776, by contrast, was highly conservative. Its instigators studied Roman, Venetian, and even Iroquois history for precedents. There was little of the brutal rhetoric of making a total break with the past. As a result, all the leaders who started the revolution lived to see it through to completion, and its innovations in governance aged relatively well.”

Legacy Systems

“Beyond the evanescence of data formats and digital storage media is a still deeper problem. Large-scale computer systems are at the core of driving corporations, public institutions, and indeed whole sectors of the economy: financial markets, utilities, telecommunications, travel and distribution, health care, and government. Over time these gargantuan systems become dauntingly complex and unknowable as new features are added, old bugs are worked around with layers of “patches,” generations of programmers add new programming tools and styles, and portions of the system are repurposed to take on novel functions. With a mixture of respect and loathing, computer professionals call these monsters legacy systems.”

“Typically, outdated legacy systems make themselves so essential over the years that no one can contemplate the prolonged trauma of replacing them, and they cannot be fixed completely because the problems are too complexly embedded and there is no one left who understands the whole system. Teasing a new function out of a legacy system is not done by command but by conducting a series of cautious experiments that with luck might converge toward the desired outcome.”

“What we can do is convert the design of software from brittle to resilient, from heedlessly headlong to responsible, and from time corrupted to time embracing. Achieving each of these qualities is known to be an approximately intractable problem. To be sure none can be solved in a year, but all can yield to decades of focused work if we understand that the health of civilization is at stake.”

Preserving Digital Media

“The problem of the acceleration of high technology is that its headlong urgency routinely displaces what is important in the long term. Digital industries must shift from being the main source of society’s ever-shortening attention span to becoming a reliable guarantor of long-term perspective. We’ll know the shift has happened when programmers begin to anticipate the Year 10,000 problem and assign five digits instead of four to year dates. “02002,” they’ll write, at first frivolously, then seriously.”

10000 Year Library for the Future

“One canon I would like to see established is that of the great textbooks. Just knowing the current list—The Cell in microbiology, The Art of Computer Programming, Renfrew’s Archaeology—would enable anyone to pursue top-level education on their own. All the best textbooks in combination would nearly add up to Lovelock’s primer of civilization. Study of the evolution of the most influential textbooks over time would yield peerless insight into intellectual history. Comparative analysis of what makes the best contemporary textbooks so good might lead to even better textbooks being written.”

Predicting the Future

[About science fiction writers] “Too little imagination? Yes, for a structural reason almost never taken into account. At any time the several “probable” things that might occur in the future are vastly outnumbered by the countless near-impossible eventualities, which are so many and individually so unlikely that it is not worth the effort of futurists or futurismists to examine and prepare for even a fraction of them. Yet one of those innumerable near-impossibilities is what is most likely to occur. Reality is thus statistically forced always to be extraordinary. Fiction is not allowed that freedom. Fiction has to be plausible; reality doesn’t.”

“Axelrod proved that if the game continues over time—what is called iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma—a strategy called tit for tat emerges spontaneously, allowing both players to cooperate and thus get higher scores. The game automatically generates cooperation if what Axelrod calls “the shadow of the future” is allowed to lengthen. By continuing to play each other, each player develops a reputation that the other player learns to count on and work with. Even in a game that rewards distrust, time teaches the players the value of cooperation, however guarded they may be.
To produce the benefits of more cooperation in the world, Axelrod proves, all you need to do is lengthen the shadow of the future—that is, ensure more durable relationships. Thus marriage is common to every society, because trusting partners have an advantage over lone wolves. Thus Allied and German troop units in World War I who faced each other across No Man’s Land for months quietly developed a set of local live-and-let-live arrangements. Stuck with each other, they made a separate peace.”

“Time is asymmetrical for us. We can see the past but not influence it. We can influence the future but not see it. Both the invisibility and potential malleability of the future draw us to lean into it, alert to threat or opportunity, empowered by the blankness of its page (if the future is not determined, we might do anything). This is the forward-leaning Now that would be interesting to expand from next week to next millennium. The invisibility is vastly greater at millennial scale, but so is the empowerment, since things we do now might have enormous impact over the next thousand years.”

“Is it greater empowerment over the long span of time, or less? I would argue it is greater, but economists insist that value over future time goes down. The loss of value can even be measured: It is the discount rate (also called interest rate) on money, typically 10 to 15 percent a year, based on the perceived uncertainty of what may happen in the future. You are somewhat uncertain about what will happen next year, extremely uncertain about what will happen in twenty years, and infinitely uncertain about events in one hundred years.”

“Only 5% of a tree’s mass is alive—the leaves, cambium, sapwood, and root tips. All the rest is dead, yet that gradually built structure of once-living wood is what allows the leaves to reach so high and the roots to draw so deep.”

“The past is both a comfort and a warning. It has to be both. If it is just a comfort, we become tranquilized and turn away from the future. If the past is just a warning, we may overlearn its lesson and seek a discontinuous break with the past, which then is bound to fail. Embracing the warning of the past along with its comfort is the essence of tragic optimism. With sufficiently unblinking hindsight, foresight may go well.”

“When a design problem resists solution, reframe the problem in such a way that it invites solution. An example of spontaneous reframing occurred in 01969, when the Apollo program began returning color photographs of the Earth from space. Everyone saw the photographs and saw that we occupied a planet that was beautiful, all one, very finite, and possibly fragile. The environmental movement took off from that moment—the first Earth Day was in 01970. That effect of the American space program was never intended or anticipated.”

“One area in which governments and other institutions seem comfortable thinking in the long term is the realm of infrastructure, even though there is no formal economics of infrastructure benefits and costs. (There should be and could be.) We feel good about investing huge amounts in transportation systems, utility grids, and buildings.
Infrastructure thinking is directly transferable to natural systems. Lucky for us, we don’t have to build the atmosphere that sustains us, the soils, the aquifers, the wild fisheries, the forests, the rich biological complexity that keeps the whole thing resilient. All we have to do is defend these systems—from ourselves. It doesn’t take much money. It doesn’t even take much knowledge, though knowledge certainly helps.”

Slow Science

“No one has yet studied the entire life span of a termite nest, which may extend to a hundred years or more, with several queens reigning in succession.”

“So in light of their great accumulative value, why are long-term scientific studies so rare? Well, (1) they’re not about proving or disproving hypotheses, the coin of the scientific realm; (2) they don’t generate quick papers, the coin of a scientific career; (3) they bear no relation to scientific fashion, where the excitement is; (4) they’re not subject to money-making patent or copyright; (5) the few that exist usually die when their primary researcher dies; (6) they’re extremely difficult to maintain funding for; and (7) ever-growing archives are an expensive hassle to service and keep accessible (“We can’t stop the future to take care of the past!”).”

“Global warming, the dominant environmental issue of our time, might not be an issue at all but for a study measuring atmospheric carbon dioxide begun in 01958 in a Hawaiian hut by Charles Keeling and Roger Revelle. High on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano, downwind of thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean, the instruments have shown a steady forty-year increase in the human-exacerbated greenhouse gas, CO2, from 315 to 362 parts per million. Fateful numbers!”

“Enormous, inexorable power is in the long trends, but we cannot measure them or even notice them without doing extremely patient science.”

“There were once ninety-nine species of land birds in Hawaii. The arrival of Polynesians removed fifty of them, the arrival of Europeans another seventeen, with nineteen more now in great danger of extinction, which leaves only thirteen of the original ninety-nine bird species intact in the company of humans.”

Lengthening Lifespans

“Yet each person’s portion of chronos—our lifespan—in fact has been increasing dramatically. Global human life expectancy at birth was about ten years throughout most of human history. With safer childbirth and improvements in medicine, a newborn’s life expectancy reached thirty-four in 01900, forty-six in 01954, and sixty-four in 01998. Even without a medical breakthrough it is expected to be seventy-two by 02020. In one lifetime life expectancy has increased 50 percent.”

“Haste makes waste, and waste makes want, and want makes strife between the goodman and his wife”

17th century English proverb

“Humanity’s heroic goals generally have been sought through quick, spectacular action (“We will land a man on the Moon in this decade”) instead of a sustained accumulation of smaller, distributed efforts that might have overwhelming effect over time. The kinds of goals that can be reached quickly are rather limited, and work on them displaces attention and effort that might be spent on worthier, longer-term goals.”

We have not yet seriously asked ourselves what we might do with fifty years or five hundred years of sustained endeavor. What comes to your mind, thinking in that scale?”

“Freeman Dyson, a Princeton mathematician who grew up and was educated in England, once told me that the habit of long-term thinking “survives all over England. It’s one reason the country has been so amazingly well cleaned up after the Industrial Revolution. When I was a boy, I went to London, and my clothes were filthy at the end of the day. The city was covered with soot and grime, and the rivers were very polluted; it’s all been cleaned up in the past fifty years. You can always improve things as long as you’re prepared to wait.”

“Preserving and increasing options is a major component of a self-saving world. Making it a habit would be part of the answer to the question, How do we make long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare?”

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08 Sep 2022 - importance: 6