Clocks for Deep Time

The Long Now Foundation, founded by Whole Earth Catalog editor and technoculture entrepreneur Stewart Brand, seems on its face to be a working example of Jussi Parikka’s call to conceiving of time and space more deeply. Among its archival projects and TED-Talk like seminars, the foundation has conceived of a few strategies for how to conceptualize a future that extends for 10,000 years rather than merely that of the human lifespan or a market cycle. While many of itsĀ endeavors fall blatantly short of that goal, the organization’s central public face is that of a clock, to be built inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, which will (it is supposed) endure for ten millennia producing occasional and ever-changing music.

There’s something conceptually beautiful about the idea, even though I have difficulty imagining it as anything but a eulogy for the sixth mass extinction event or an apology to whatever form of life might emerge in that timescale to apprehend it. Perhaps its something about the remoteness of the desert that primes the mind to think of dirges, or it’s the fact that the clock is designed to run with the assistance of its human visitors, or without them. More fundamentally, it might be rigidity at which the clock is set to mark time that disturbs me, the holding of the second and the hour firmly in hand far in advance of what might well be the end of these concepts’ utility. The clock thus seems to embody an optimism for the conditions of the present that implicitly limits the imagination. Deep time isn’t clock time, at least not in the sense of the steadily ticking second hand.

I wonder if a different clock, the doomsday clock that came out of the nuclear crises of the Cold War, might provide the better tool with which to think and act. Maintained since 1947 by a consortium of scientists, the clock advances and retreats relative to midnight. Time here is plastic and responsive, equally full of a vast past and a dire present. This equation seems to me to balance the tension between the unthinkable scales of human history and the decisive capacities of present action. Perhaps we need a deep time with a deadline.