Adam Stoner

Clock of the Long Now

It’s August 31st 8023 – six thousand years in the future – and you are in a mountain in Nevada.

It has taken you several days to get here. You’ve had to hike, you’ve had to endure the harsh heat – the thorns – and you’ve stumbled upon a set of metal doors. This is what you’ve been looking for. The doors are a kind of crude airlock, keeping out dust and animals.

You head into the darkness of a long tunnel. There’s the mildest hint of light ahead that you slowly find your way to.

You look up.

A faint light filtering down now through giant gears, illuminating the beginning of a spiral staircase. You start climbing. It winds up the outer rim of the tunnel, rising towards the gears and faint light overhead. The stairs are carved out of the rock.

After climbing about 100 feet you encounter a large bronze egg filled with concrete. It’s about the size of a small car and weighs 5,000 kilograms. After you pass the weights you keep climbing, pass more giant gears, some over 8 feet in diameter – and then you find it. The world’s slowest computer. And it plays a chime for you. Simple bells, but a unique combination nobody in living memory has ever heard, nor will ever hear again.

This is a clock.

I started just thinking about, just as a project for myself, the idea of building a very slow clock that would last for 10,000 years. Sometime in the 1990s, I started noticing the year 2000 was kind of a mental barrier for people. It was hard for them to think past it. And so I started just thinking about, just as a project for myself, the idea of building a very slow clock. And 10,000 years being a kind of nice number because our history is kind of 10,000 years old. So we ought to have a future that’s as big as our history.

It’s not a work of science fiction. It’s real.

Danny wanted to design a symbol of the future in the same way the Pyramids of Giza are a symbol of the past. If you go to the pyramids in Egypt and you touch those stones, I mean those are stones that human hands touched thousands of years ago. Is there anything we can put into the world where you would be touching this thing and this thing would endure and you would know that people in the year 7000 or something might also touch that same thing and think about you and does that build some kind of a connection across time?

The 10,000 Year Clock, or the Clock of the Long Now, is the work of the Long Now Foundation.

The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit here in San Francisco that’s trying to help people think about the next 10,000 years. And the way we want to do that is by also helping them think about the last 10,000 years. When we’re thinking about the future, there’s so many organisations or cultural narratives that want to convince people or talk about how we’re at the end of the civilisational narrative. That’s the idea is that you’re really looking out at a multi-thousand year time horizon. You’re thinking about how the decisions that you’re making today affect people in 400 human generations. You’re going to do things a little bit differently. And that might actually be really important.

This clock really encapsulates everything that I love.

It’s oddly obsessive about something that’s impossible to predict. It’s incredibly philosophical and I think it’s really important. It’s all about fostering long-term thinking. It’s all about projecting further into the future than the financial year or your five-year plan or dare I say it – you. It’s all about hope and about the possibility that that there might be a future and that’s so refreshing in a world where we’re constantly told that the clock is ticking…

31 Aug 2023

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