Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Micah Saul: How’s it going?
Aengus Anderson: Not bad. This morning I’m going to hop on the motorcycle and zip over to the Fort Mason Center, drop by the Long Now Foundation office.
Saul: Excellent. This is another one that I’ve been excited about.
Anderson: Yeah this’ll be Alexander Rose.
Saul: Cool. And he’s the director, and also the project manager on the Clock, correct?
Anderson: Yes. And do you want to tell people what the clock is?
Saul: Well, actually let’s go back even a step further. So, the Long Now Foundation is a organization founded by Danny Hillis and some others. Danny Hillis is sort of a rock star in the computer science world, one of the the initial developers of the concept of massive parallel computing. But anyway, their whole thing is that basically we, as humanity, tend to think of “now” in terms of this second, this minute, this hour, today. Maybe this year. And that really sort of influences how we treat ourselves, how we treat the world, how we treat the environment. And their whole thing is what happens if we extend the concept of the now to be much longer? What if now is instead on the scale of a thousand years or ten thousand years, which is where The 10,000 Year Clock comes in.
Anderson: Yeah. And that that’s right up our alley, which is one of the reasons we wanted to talk to them, because they are…in a different way, they are really concerned about the Conversation and the future.
Saul: Right. Exactly. We’re coming at it from different directions, but I think our end goals are very similar.
Anderson: And I think one of the things that I’m really curious to find out in the conversation today is if they think the particular moment we’re in now is crucial. If this is a special moment.
Saul: Yeah. It’s a good point. I wonder if he’ll agree that it is crucial, or actually I wonder if he’s going to say something along the lines that every moment is crucial to be thinking about the future.
Anderson: Right, very much the way Andrew Keen said.
Saul: Exactly. I also…you know, we we talked about this a lot. I’m wondering…for someone whose job it is to be talking about the future at all times, I’m really interested to hear what he has to say about whether or not he’s an optimist or a pessimist.
Anderson: Yes. I’m also curious to know—because he’s spent so much time discussing the future and thinking about the future—if he has specific ideas about how he wants it to look.
Anderson: Or if he’s more interested in the idea of people talking about it.
Saul: Right. Is he trying to lead the conversation or is he trying to just make sure it’s happening?
Anderson: And there are value assumptions underneath trying to make it happen, which are different from some of the other people we’ve pursued. So I’ll be curious to know why he thinks it’s important to half the Conversation.
Saul: Yeah. Absolutely.
Saul: Well, cool. Sound good. I’m looking forward to hearing what happens.
Anderson: Alright. Well, I will recap in the evening and we’ll listen to this stuff, and we’re record the outro as always.
Saul: Sounds good.
Anderson: And maybe we’ll have really witty things to say then.
Saul: Uh…I wouldn’t count on it.
Alexander Rose: I grew up in a junk yard, actually, in Sausalito, which is not far from here. So I grew up building stuff all the time. And when I went to go into formal education, I wanted some version of that. Industrial design seemed to be the best one, so I went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. And I’d known Stewart Brand, who is one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation from growing up. He also lives in the Sausolito waterfront. He told me about this project of building a 10,000-year clock. It kind of flipped a bit for me in that…you know, I’d grown up at the tail end of the Cold War where there really was no future. Our future was nuclear Armageddon. And the moment I realized we did have a future and that you even major catastrophes probably won’t take everybody out, and there is some version of our future that could last into the thousands of years, if not much further. And if that’s the case what do we…you know, we aren’t really acting that way. So the idea of working on a project that has that level of hope it it was really attractive to me. Then we increasingly found ourselves the only group in the space of long-term thinking, so other projects grew out of that.
Anderson: Can you tell me a little bit about the big project itself?
Rose: The Clock project started with a prototype that we finished in 1999. That prototype ended up in the Science Museum in London, and we learned a lot from it. And as we’ve been working on prototypes towards an eventual monument-scale version that’s being built in the desert in West Texas, underground, the things that we learned the most about are the ideas of experience design.
And if the point of making a 10,000-year clock is to get people to think longer term, how do you design that experience so that it really does that? And one of the things that we we realized is that people really need to be able to interact with it. That they need to be able to make the moment they visit it their own. So while the clock does keep time all by itself with the temperature difference from day to night, it doesn’t actually update any of the dials, none of the chimes chime, unless someone’s there to wind it. And so it’s when you arrive it shows you the time of the last people who were there. So it’s wrong, but you get this other bit of information of how long it’s been since somebody else was there. And then you wind it, and it stops when it reaches now. The clock always knows where now is and it stops, and then you also get the chimes and things like that, all the kind of human interface parts are powered by the people that visit it.
Anderson: Okay. And give me a sense of the scale for which this clock is designed to last.
Rose: Our design horizon is ten thousand years. It’s not like ten thousand years then it stops. It’s kind of always ten thousand years. So the idea is that with basic maintenance and not very high technology, you could keep the Clock running for the next ten thousand years, whenever you happen to encounter the Clock.
The other things that we do in the design is make sure that you can maintain things without having to take the entire clock apart. So you want to be able to replace a bearing or something like that very easily without having to pull the whole thing out from underground, and things like that.
Anderson: Just to to give listeners a sense, what will this look like?
Rose: The Clock that we’re building in Texas is stretched out over almost five hundred vertical feet of underground space. So we’re currently excavating that space and we’re currently building the clock mechanism that’s going to go in it. So, it’s kind of hard in a sense to give a postcard image of it because it’s actually stretched out over a lot of underground space and you’ll never see all of it at once, because you’ll be moving through this underground space.
The way it’s designed is that you start by walking by the parts that are not moving, the parts that only move when you wind them. And then you do some winding, and you arrive at the dials that show you all the astronomical cycles as well as calendric cycles that the Clock tracks. And then you get to see what time it is, in a sense, down to basically the day and date as well as the planets and stars and things like that.
Anderson: So you actually move through the clock.
Rose: Yeah. The idea of building at this scale is that it is architectural in scale and that you actually get to move through the mechanism itself. That was the other thing we learned that when we built our first prototype, that was about eight feet tall. You need a certain amount of scale to really capture people’s attention and to change the conversation, and ultimately that’s really what this is, kind of a device to change the conversation about time and responsibility towards the future.
Anderson: And that’s the perfect perfect jumping-off point to the next question I had. What sort of thinking sparked the idea of the Clock, in terms of what is it responding to?
Rose: The idea of the Clock came from a computer scientist named Danny Hillis. He had spent his whole life building some of the fastest supercomputers in the world. And the more he built faster and faster machines, the more he realized people were not paying attention to the longer-term cycles, and that there’s many problems in the world, whether they be education or environment, climate change, that are clearly only going to be solved if you look at them on a generational scale. They’re not gonna be solved in a four-year election horizon. So therefore, society was writing those problems off, because you just didn’t have the time to engage them.
But if you looked at them and said oh well, we need to solve the education system and fix that in the next fifty years, what would we do? That’s kind of a whole different way of looking at some of our larger societal issues, and it changes them from intractable to tractable.
Anderson: How do you hope people react to the actual experience of seeing the Clock? What would be an example of the sort of feelings you would hope to evoke?
Rose: The best success of the Clock is really just the physicality of doing it. It engages people in a very different way than as a thought exercise. For instance, early on in the project when we were just finishing up parts of the first prototype, I gave a tour to a bunch of the heads of different technology offices and IBM. And this one guy from India looked at and he said, “Well you know, in three thousand years they’re going to be sacrificing virgins on this thing, and blood’s going to go down into it and gum it all up, and it’s never going to work.” I was like, well that may be, but before you walked in here you weren’t thinking three thousand years ahead, so it’s already worked. And so you know, it’s as much about the skepticism as it is about the hope. But once you decide to think on those kind of time scales, it’s already achieved its goal.
One of the principles that we have learned over the years is that you want to make choices now that increase choices in the future as opposed to decrease them. So for instance, if you log in old-growth redwood forest that can’t be replaced in a thousand years, you have now taken those away from a future generation. So it’s kind of a very simple rule that if you’re closing off options for the future, you’re probably not doing it right. If you’re opening up options for the future, you probably are.
Anderson: Is this trying to encourage something that we’re not actually very good at, biologically?
Rose: Yes. I mean, I think that there’s a lot of reasons why people are not necessarily hard-wired for very long-term thought. Obviously if you’re concerned with day-to-day nutrition and having a roof over your head, you can’t think on very long-term timescales. And that’s obviously where we get our programming from.
So yeah, we’re were after something that requires a bit of a stretch, I think, for most people and even for the species. I think that we’re in a reasonable place as a society to actually start thinking about these things, especially since we’re actually affecting the world on these scales now, too. Not only do we have smaller societal based issues, ones that I mentioned like say a prison system that’s not working, or an education system that’s not working, we now have in a multi-thousand year cycles that we’re up against in terms of the climate. And one of the few threats to humanity that probably does exist is a meteor impact, and that’s that’s exactly on this scale. You know, ten thousand years it’s very likely that a very large meteor will impact the planet and might be on the scale of an extinction-level event.
And I would think that we now have the capability to work as a species to prevent such a thing. We know that it exists and it’s the first time that we have that. So these are the kind of things that I think we are able to do now that we were never able to do before. And it’s kind of our duty to think about them differently.
Anderson: Do you think that this actually is a unique moment?
Rose: Well, I think all moments are unique. And I think that we are on the upswing of a lot of curves. I think it however also bears reminding that many people have felt this way in many points in history. Will Wright, the game designer, told a great story that he had read where a person saw a another person in a café with his handheld device in their hands, and that person was completely absorbed into this handheld device. And the device he was talking about was the book.
So I think a lot of these things that we think are unique or not that unique. But clearly our levels of population and our levels of awareness of everything around the world is unique. But even things like population are coming towards a peak that’s going to start descending, too. And if you want to talk about a very unique time in history, it will be when the population starts going down. Short of the Black Plague and a few very quick blips in major world wars, we’ve never seen something on the scale of a multi-decade population decline, and all of economics and the engines of how we operate in the world are assuming more and more people all the time. And, likely within the next forty to fifty years if not sooner, we’re going to start to decline population, and the only population centers that will be inclining will be in the Global South, for the most part, which will be very different than the industrialized world version of population increase.
So, I do think that this is unique, and I think it is a crucial time to be talking about these issues, but I’m not sure that it’s unique in the ways that many people assume.
Anderson: Part of the uniqueness that I wonder about is the ability to change the environment in unknown ways, or the ability to build a society that does ultimately have a supply chain that goes down to a couple essential resources. And so that’s where I wonder if there’s a unique vulnerability where talking about the future becomes more important now in a way that maybe you can’t get away with a short-term conversation.
Rose: Well, I mean it was just at the end of the 60s that it was assumed that we were not going to have enough food to sustain a population anywhere close to the one we have now. And Lomborg created the wheat that he created, and all of a sudden the carrying capacity of the Earth fell right in sync with the population.
So there’s a lot of people who like to think that there’s always going to be a technological fix for a thing. We obviously have seen civilizations where that was not the case. There was some massive die-off and decrease of the Maya. There’s clearly times where people did not innovate their way out of their niche that they had created. And now, as a whole globe, the question is does that still hold true or is our innovation at a level that is resilient enough that we would solve these problems on the fly, even even looking at a very short term cycle?
It’s an interesting question, if that’s the case. I think that the the nice thing about being this global and this interconnected is that people can work on ideas that could solve problems in a much better way than they could. I think we have a lot more resilience in that case. I think we’re more flexible than people give credit for. So, I think if anything we’re more resilient because of our interconnectedness. And so I think we’re in a better position than we ever have been before in history because of that.
Anderson: If we’re more resilient, then does talking about the future become less important?
Rose: That’s an interesting question. I mean I guess it just depends on the levels of success that you want, right? So if you…let’s say there is massive climate change and we are only thinking short-term and we’re not able to correct the massive climate change problem, and sea levels rise twenty feet, taking out most of…basically all the cities in the world that are built near water, and changes the agricultural carrying capacity of the world. So if carrying capacity were to drop significantly because of something like that, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t resilient and we didn’t survive. But it does mean that it was a pretty rough transition from nine billion to four billion in ten or twenty years. That doesn’t mean you want to live through that time.
Rose: So, it’s a question of quality of living, how painful you want it to be. Not whether or not we will survive but how we will survive.
Anderson: And that gets to an interesting question of, if we assume resilience but also assume that there are some scenarios that are better than other ones, how do we broker a conversation about the future that also engages the idea of what’s good, when we have so many different ideas about what people want in the future?
Rose: It’s a very interesting question as to what is a good future. And obviously parts of the struggles going on all over the world are part of that conversation about what that future is. And I’m sure if you asked the Taliban what they think the future should be, or Venezuela, or our own government, you would get very very different answers as to what that future should be. And I think the first thing that you need is to have the conversation about the future, which I think is largely void from serious, certainly political, discourse, where everyone’s just kind of kicking the can fifteen minutes down the road at best at this point, instead of really looking at large problems.
So how you broker that conversation I think is a very interesting question. I think we are starting to see popular culture grab hold of some of these things. I’m encouraged by everything from TED Talks’ popularity to to seeing things like the World Economic Forum kind of turn themselves inside out as a slightly more public conversation. So we’ll see. I think those are encouraging notes, but I’m not sure if they’re everything that’s required.
Anderson: This is sort of a question of how we think about history and agency. Is the Conversation something that actually matters? When I explain the project to people, I can point out all these different moments in history that seem like the Conversation me, where in retrospect we can identify all of these people and their strands of thought. There’s a big shift in the way people think. How much does human agency and conversation matter in those shifts, and how much is just sort of random movement of social forces or environmental determinism…?
Rose: That’s a very good question. And I think the argument can often be made that while the conversation shifted at a certain critical time, it could also be that if you give it another year, all those things would have happened anyway.
But I do think that you can often tie very large effects down to very key moments. One that stuck in my head recently was someone who had been a part of the original UN charter, and they were they were trying to get it finalized before a deadline for it to be announced. And it was getting held up because the French delegates required every word of the conversation to be translated. And then they would respond, and that would be translated back, and they wouldn’t work it in English. And at some point during the night, someone sabotaged the translation system, the whole audio system in the room, and everyone had to come together in the room at like four in the morning face to face and it all just got fixed in that few hours because the system broke.
So it’s hard to say, would that never have happened? Would it just have taken a little bit longer? I don’t know.
Anderson: What do you think the most critical issue of our era is?
Rose: I’m deep into this world of trying to encourage people to think longer term. And if you look at a common denominator of many of the problems facing society or even civilization, they are a lack of ability to take the long-term seriously. A recent example in Japan, where they had what was considered an about a once in every few centuries-level tsunami that was created by a once in literally ten thousand-year earthquake. There’s now several stories of towns that were either saved or ignored to their peril these markers. There were these markers from four hundred years ago that were put up on the hillside that said things like, “High places are the savior of our towns. Do not build below this line.” It was four hundred year old marker and everything above that was saved, and everything below it was destroyed.
And there was another town that had a similar temple that was built in a place where the waters converged from a large tsunami several hundred years in the past where everyone ran thinking they were getting to high ground and were killed. Two channels of water went around the hills and came to this point and took out all these people. So they built the temple there and they told the story throughout the generations that this is where you don’t go even though it really seems like the place you should go. And it worked. And hundreds of years later people ran to the right place.
We’re often seeing these markers, whether or not we are seeing these markers. So whether it’s the polar ice melting away at a rate faster than expected, or something like that, we’re getting the signs. And just like the people who built below those markers knew that that was there and built below that marker anyway, it’s just really a question of how much we pay attention to these signs. Again, I think it’s that question no of whether or not we as a species are going to make it so much as how happy we will be as a species going forward.
Anderson: And in terms of happiness, I like to ask everyone sort of what kind of future you want, and what’s leads to that happiness.
Rose: I think ultimately there’s a kind of base level of future that everybody wants, which is a world where you are free to choose what your life is like and that the life of your children is that same way. And I think that often we look to the past as a much more idyllic time. I don’t think, myself, that the past was that idyllic. You only have to go back a hundred years before penicillin, where things were much much worse. And so I’m very much an optimist about the future, and I think that there’s no other useful way to think about the future but to be optimistic. To be pessimistic about the future and to assume that we can’t be happy is just kind of a non-starter. That doesn’t get you anywhere.
Anderson: Are you optimistic that we can actually create that sort of big conversation. I know you said you’re optimistic about our resilience in the long run. But in terms of actually bringing a lot of people together and having this this talk about the future.
Rose: I would say in general that I am. I am encouraged that we can have a larger conversation. I think one of the things that I’ve been surprised by is, we’ve been running a seminar series now since 2003 on long-term thinking. And what we realized long before that is that you can’t tell someone to think long-term. It just kind of doesn’t get you anywhere. We need a lot of different angles into it. But again, we are well-positioned for a lot of different angles to be heard at this point. And if you look at the broader arc of history, things seem to be working in favor of broader information dissemination and people hearing each other’s sides of view. We look at the near-term bits of it and it can look backwards in a certain sense, but I think the longer arc is that there is a broad conversation happening whether not we just call it that. We do have a sense of history. We do remember those moments of where mistakes were made. And those become corrections for the future.
Anderson: Has the system gotten too complex for us to actually deal with it ourselves?
Rose: Oh, I think it’s definitely to complex for us to steer it. I think that’s the more interesting question. Are there other ways to nudge it in directions that we think are good? The jury is very much still out on that, and I think different people are trying to nudge the conversation in different ways, for sure. But the larger conversation on the planet is totally unsteerable. You can maybe galvanize some people with certain events, things like 9⁄11, that clearly change the world conversation.
But you know, ten years later it doesn’t seem that even that big kind of sea change still hasn’t ultimately changed the struggles that were going on before and are still going on after it, in terms of the people that were struggling against each other’s ideologies. But it brought that conversation to the front for a bit, and maybe better things will happen because of it. It’s hard to say.
Anderson: There are a lot of people who sort of have wildly different— I mean, their whole epistemology of the world is very different. Maybe it’s more faith-based. Maybe for them, they aren’t thinking about the sort of long-term thing because for them there is an actual concluding point to history, which is the Revelation. So, they have a different way of knowing the world. Can they be brought into the Conversation?
Rose: Well, I mean, people who think that the world is going to end or that they are going to be taken off of this world to another world or plane of existence within their lifetime, it is very difficult to have a long conversation about the future with those people. Obviously their future is much shorter than ours and theoretically they should not even care about the world that they’re living for their grandchildren, because their grandchildren will be with them in some new existence.
So if they’re totally hard set on that and they know their date, then I don’t know what you can do about that. But I think that there’s plenty of people who believe ultimately in a Revelation but are sufficiently unsure about when it will be that at least you might be able to get them to care about their grandchildren. Most of the religions in the world place high value on family, and I think that’s an easy way to engage people about the future, is generationally. And you know if you’re looking at a child or grandchild, what is what is that person’s life going to be like? And that gets you to that kind of hundred-year time span between grandparent to grandchild. And that seems to be where I think some natural common ground lies for talking about the future.
Micah Saul: So, got anything witty?
Aengus Anderson: You know, it’s funny. I’ve had all day to try to think of something witty, but I’m so witless that I didn’t. Alexander’s a fascinating guy, and I think he really took our conversation in another new direction, which I think is really exciting. And it’s kind of cool now that we have two people who are project-based… You know with Peter Warren—
Saul: I was going to say, you’re thinking about Peter Warren.
Anderson: Yeah. Both of whom are sort of addressing the idea of the Conversation, but they’re also actually out there, there is a project. A defined project.
Saul: Right. Yeah, it’s an interesting distinction between the more project-based and the more just…straight conceptual thinkers. There were a couple interesting parallels I found between Peter Warren and Alexander.
The first that jumped out at me was both of them seemed much more willing to say, “I don’t know.” They didn’t feel like they needed to have the answers at all times, it seemed like.
Anderson: Right, and that was something that made this interview very different for me going into it. I wasn’t sure how much we were going to jump into specific ideas about an ideal future, or moral ideas guiding a future. But I felt that Alexander was really good about sort of talking about here are different possibilities for thinking about the future and here are some really…well he just has great anecdotes.
Saul: Totally. He had an example for everything, which I thought was really cool.
Anderson: Absolutely. Like, the temple.
Saul: The temple whose sole purpose is, “Don’t come here in times of disaster.”
Anderson: Yeah. It’s fabulous how well he illustrates the idea of historical memory.
Saul: Yes, absolutely.
Anderson: And its value, but also its sort of subjectivity at times.
Another thing that I thought was sort of interesting was his optimism in resilience. Not necessarily that things would be good, but that we’d make it through.
Anderson: Which is a real sort of aerial perspective on things. In retrospect, listening to the audio of our conversation again, I wish I’d asked him more about that, how he separates himself just as a person from this aerial perspective. It’s one thing to say, “Well yes, humanity will be resilient, but if your life is not in a particularly good time, is resilience of the species solace for you? I regret not asking the John Fife question, “Do you believe in a soul?”
Saul: I guess just one last thing. You said early on you sort of regretted not pushing back in places. Was there any place in particular you were thinking?
Anderson: Yeah, and there was one where…and I just found this so persuasive that I sort of didn’t even think to question it until I was getting on my motorcycle and leaving, but he mentions that are a good guiding principle is more choice, and giving future generations more options. The part of me that wants to really hash out every issue wants to ask why is more choice good, opposed to fewer choices that are better? And I think that would’ve opened up a conversation about the good that might have been a little deeper than the one that we had.
Saul: I think I mentioned even in the intro something that I was interested to see if he was going to offer, and he ended up saying this, that he doesn’t want to really lead the conversation. He wasn’t really trying to offer solutions, in a different sort of way than I felt Andrew Keen wasn’t willing to offer solutions. And I think that comes down to his his belief that just more choice is better, and who am I to say that this is the right way to do things or the wrong way to do things. Which I guess comes down to a personal liberty sort of thing and the underlying libertarian influence on futurist thought.
Anderson: Yeah. Absolutely. And I would’ve liked to have talked to him a little more about that just to flesh it out some. But other than that, I think we’re in a a good point to sort of jump off to our next conversation.
Saul: Awesome. Sounds good.
Anderson: That was Alexander Rose. Recorded May 21, 2012 at The Long Now Foundation offices in San Francisco, California.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.