Big Here and Long Now
A monolith of rotating dials, gears, chimes and metal rods is being constructed inside a mountain in West Texas. It is a watch and it will keep time for the next 10.000 years.
The brain behind the idea is that of Danny Hillis. He was the golden boy of MIT, and built some of the fastest supercomputers in the world when he was young. While everybody was wanting to do things faster and faster, he wanted to slow down, stretch out and think on a different time scale than he was trained to do. That is what he wants to manifest with the clock.
Futurist Stewart Brand who is partaking in the project says, that there is a problem of people not believing in the future, and that the long term clock is challenging those short term civilisational stories. It is a symbol of the future, something we pass on to coming generations, something that asks us the question, are we being good ancestors?
Hillis, Steward and the rest of the organisation - Long Now Foundation - believe their work is an investment in generational thinking, giving a sense of connection across an unimaginable time scale. They are optimistic about the future, not because our challenges are small, they say, but because our capacity to deal with challenges are great.
Another member of the Long Now Foundation, musician Brian Eno, composed the never-repeating melody generator that rings the clock’s chimes. Ten bells ring in a different sequence each day for 10.000 years. The clock is synchronised with the sun through a huge lens hanging above at the peak of the mountain, and at solar noon every day the chimes begin to play.
When Brian Eno was taking a break from pop stardom in the winter of 1979, he moved to New York and started to discover that people around him understood the here and now in a very local manner. He wrote down in his notebook:
“More and more I find I want to be living in a Big Here and a Long Now.”
Part of the reason why the long now attracted him, he says, was that it offered a justification for the type of music he was experimenting with at the time. A type of music that was suspended in an eternal present tense.
Composing a 10.000-year long piece for the dark inside of a mountain, is to write the music composition into the Big Here, and think beyond that music only gives value to humans. How does music affect mineral or bacterial behaviour over a very long time? It is beyond our imagination, but by naming it, we are challenged to think ahead and outward further than we are programmed to.
Cassandra was a princess of Troy in Greek mythology. The most common version of the story says that she was admired by the god Apollo, and that to win her heart, he offered her the gift of seeing the future. In return for the gift, Cassandra promised to be his lover, but after receiving it she broke her promise and refused him. In his rage Apollo placed with her a counter curse: Even though she would see the future and her prophecies would be accurate, nobody would believe her.
Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy, but she was regarded as a madwoman by the Trojan people, and she was locked up. The cursed gift from Apollo became a source of endless pain to Cassandra. She was stranded in the present with the truth about the future.
The painter Evelyn De Morgan finished a picture of Cassandra standing in front of the burning city of Troy in 1898. As the title implies, Cassandra is present at the moment in time where Troy is in flames. Before that point in time, it was already true to her, because she had already seen it, but it was only when it became visible to the people of Troy, they could believe it.
The blockbuster movie Interstellar made the pages of science magazines in 2015 with its portrait of a black hole. A phenomena well described but unobserved at the time. Director Christopher Nolan, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and computer graphics supervisor Eugénie von Tunzelmann collaborated to visualise a black hole by feeding 3D-animation software with theoretical mathematics. What emerged was a paradoxical moving picture of a black circle bending light, but according to the laws of physics it was visually accurate. This type of computer graphics is what artist Alan Warburton calls theoretical photorealism. The visualisation of the fictional black hole suggested new information to the science world such as how distorted space-time looks to an observer. It became a tool just like the 10.000-year clock to point beyond what is visible to the eye. And as for the destruction of Troy, the black hole becomes understandable when it becomes visible. The difference is that the black hole was actively made visible, and that sped up the process of understanding the phenomena.
Donna Haraway begins her book Staying with the Trouble, with this radiant passage:
“Trouble is an interesting word. It derives from a thirteenth-century French verb meaning “to stir up,” “to make cloudy,” “to disturb.” We — all of us on Terra — live in disturbing times, mixed-up times, troubling and turbid times. The task is to become capable, with each other in all of our bumptious kinds, of response. Mixed-up times are overflowing with both pain and joy — with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present. Our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places. In urgent times, many of us are tempted to address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening that looms in the future, of clearing away the present and the past in order to make futures for coming generations. Staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future. In fact, staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.”
When slowing down the pace and acknowledging that humans are visitors of Terra, that time behind and ahead of us stretches so inconceivably far, the now and here becomes longer and bigger. A long or thick now, is a fragile now. A big here is suggesting we discover our relation to Terra and what Donna Haraway calls our companion species - anything and everything around us at any time. Responsibility resides in that way of being. Responsibility for the planet and the people that can shape the intention behind stirring up the present.
Can humans only understand Troy is burning when Troy is burning? Are we only able to understand things through the limitation of our bodies? If so, how can we respond to our present and coming companion species? It could be composing for mountains. It could be by joining forces across fields to approach an understanding of our challenges. It could be looking outward, to deal with these challenges in an appropriate and sustainable manner. It could be to approach that which we do not yet understand, and thereby potentially open a portal to the unimaginable.