Of Time And The Network
A presentation about history, networks, and digital preservation, from the Webstock conference held in Wellington, New Zealand in February 2012.
Our next speaker is Jeremy Keith. Jeremy’s one of the leading practitioners and thinkers on building stuff on the Web. He’s also one of the most humane thinkers around that subject, which is really important too. We’ve been trying to get Jeremy here for a little while to Webstock and absolutely delighted that he’s come here this year. He’s really pleased that he’s speaking early in the conference so he can kick back and relax, in his words, for the next couple of days, which I’m not sure is a threat or a promise, but I guess we’ll find out, but please give Jeremy a huge welcome.
Thank you. Kia ora. Hello. It is an absolute pleasure to be here. I’ve actually had this campaign to get myself to Webstock for years. I’ve been hearing about how awesome Webstock is from my friends who’ve spoken here before so I’ve been telling them, “If you happen to be speaking to Tash, put in a good word for me, get me out to New Zealand.” So it is an absolute thrill for me to be here.
I now have forty minutes of your time. And time is what I want to talk about today.
Well, two things: I want to talk about time and I want to talk about networks. I want to talk about our relationship with time, how we measure time, how we think of time, and how that has changed as our networks have changed, as the speed of our networks have changed. So it’s going to be a little bit of a history-filled lesson.
I’m going to dive into this big ball of timey-wimey stuff.
I’d like to begin maybe about five thousand years ago. This is when human beings first started to clump into the nodes of the civilisation network. We settled down and we started domesticating barley, probably to make bread—more likely to make beer, I think, was the real reason.
At this point we really didn’t need to be able to tell the time that accurately. Essentially all you need to know is the time of the seasons; when is it the right time to plant barley? So we needed some way of measuring that kind of time. You will find these kind of ancient ways of measuring time still to this day.
This is Newgrange in Ireland, in County Meath. It’s about five thousand years old. It’s actually the oldest free-standing structure on the face of planet Earth. This is older than the Pyramids. It’s a burial chamber primarily, but it also functions as an astronomical clock for just one day a year. Because one day a year, the sunshine comes through this lintel above the doorway and illuminates the grave passage. That one day is the winter solstice, December 21st. So you’re able to calculate the rest of the year around that one day.
Actually, the sun comes through about four minutes after sunrise, if you ever get the chance to be in Newgrange on December 21st, but they did the calculations with the precession of the equinoxes, and it turns out five thousand years ago, it would’ve come through at exactly sunrise, but the change in the wobble of planet Earth has just put it out by four minutes.
Just knowing the time of year was enough back then. We began to build our networks. Transport networks across the planet; Romans building roads. But still, the speed of travel was essentially horses, or perhaps signal fires. We didn’t really have particularly fast networks.
Now the big change in our relationship to time came with a different network, and that was the trade routes, trying to travel across sea. Travelling across land was relatively straightforward. You always had landmarks you could gauge yourself by. Trying to travel by sea and figure out where you are at sea is actually a really tough problem. This is the longitude problem.
To explain the issue, there’s three factors at work here.
You’ve got the position of objects in the sky—like the sun or the stars at night—and they have star charts for this, very valuable start charts. When they first started mapping the sky and creating star charts, that knowledge was hugely valuable. If your ship got boarded by pirates, they didn’t go for the treasure; they were going for your maps, as your star charts were valuable.
You’ve got the position of objects in the sky, what time it is, and position on the earth, and these are related.
For example, Kathy was showing the Star Walk apps. You get these apps for the iPad and iPhone that you can hold up and you can see the position of objects in the sky overlaid into the iPad. Well they work because if you know any two of these factors, you can figure out the missing third. In the case of those apps, you know the time—your phone knows the time—and your phone knows your position on the earth; it’s got your latitude and longitude. Therefore, it can display the position of objects in the sky, and overlay that onto a screen.
Okay, so if you have any two of these things, you can figure out the third; there’s a direct relationship.
For ships travelling at sea, they’re tying to figure out their position. Where am I on the earth? And to do that, all they need to know is the position of objects in the sky and what time it is.
Now, figuring out the position of objects in the sky: relatively straightforward. We have tools for that like the sextant. Figuring out what time it is: that was actually the really tough bit.
If we know the position of objects in the sky as seen from a certain point on the planet at a certain time, we’re all set. The certain point in the planet they settled on was here, in Greenwich. This is the zero meridian line. Zero degrees longitude.
And by the way, right now, I am as far from this spot as I have ever been in my life, which is amazing. I am used to being within one or two degrees of zero, and now I’m in the triple digits. It’s crazy!
If they have star charts that say at this time at Greenwich, this constellation will be in this position, and if you have a star chart at sea, and you can see that constellation in a different position, and you know the time, you can calculate how far you’ve travelled east or west, because the planet is going three hundred and sixty degrees in twenty four hours. It’s easy to calculate as long as you know the time. And that was the problem: the time. Because telling time back then relied on pendulums, the pendulum clock. A wonderful invention by Huygens, but not that practical on a ship. Very hard to keep a pendulum clock going on a ship.
So there was a prize. The longitude prize was put forward by the Board of Longitude to try and solve this issue. Some people were coming at it from the time aspect. Other people tried different things.
Edmund Halley was mapping the magnetic fields of the Earth, thinking if you knew the magnetic density of a particular plot, maybe that’s a way of figuring out where you were.
Or there were people saying, if you could see the moons of Jupiter, it effectively functions like a little clockwork clock in the sky, but you’d need really high-powered telescopes for that.
Other people thought of the idea of weaponsalve. This is the powder of sympathy. Science was in its early phase back then, but the idea was, you would take a weapon, you’d injure and animal with it, like a dog for example, and then on the hour in Greenwich, you would dip that weapon into this powder of sympathy, and you had the dog on the ship, and on the hour, the dog would yelp in sympathy as you put the weapon into the powder. It was really important you kept that wound open for the whole voyage. It was a theory. Citation needed.
But the more obvious one was just if you had a way of accurately telling the time on a ship, you could figure out where you were, and that was finally solved with John Harrison. John Harrison created these amazing time-pieces. This is the Harrison Number Five. Harrison Number Four was the clock that really clinched it, that really solved the longitude problem. Actually, Cook had a copy of H4 on his second voyage when he was circumnavigating New Zealand.
So this is a beautiful and historically interesting time-piece.
Across Britain and the Empire, these clocks were springing up to celebrate Victoria’s Jubilee. This was 1897. Here’s another example of a Jubilee Clock, and this is from Brighton, where I live. Brighton, England. The clock tower in the middle, it’s the Jubilee Clock Tower.
It’s also got this fantastic steampunky thing. It was created by this mad steampunk inventor, called Magnus Volk. He had an electric railways and all sorts of cool stuff. But you see there’s that ball, that copper ball? That would travel up that pole over the course of an hour, and then drop on the hour. There was a line linking it to Greenwich, an electrical wire that linked Brighton to Greenwich, so that on the hour, the ball would drop, and everyone would have the correct time.
It didn’t really work that well for two reasons: one, all the neighbours complained because every hour you’re dropping a metal ball, and two, they were ruining the structural integrity of the building. It was essentially like a really slow wrecking ball over time.
But the reason why it was important to know what time it is in Greenwich was because of a network, because of a new network that was emerging, and that was the railway network. Before this time, it didn’t matter if we were using slightly different times at different places. If it was one o’clock in London and ten past one in Brighton, it didn’t make any difference to anybody. But now if you’ve got a schedule of networked devices, you need to make sure that you’re all running off the same clock, so you want to make sure that the railway schedule is the same everywhere. And so time now, it needed to be much more precise. And telling the time became a really important aspect of your business.
There’s this woman, Ruth Belville. She sold time. She lived in London. Every day she would go to Greenwich and she would set her watch by the clock in Greenwich, and then she would go around to her customers—she had about two hundred customers in London—and make sure that their watches were synched up. Literally treating time as a commodity. She actually ended up doing this right up until 1940, which is kind of amazing.
But the network invention that changed the world the most, I think, would have to be the telegraph. Cooke and Wheatstone’s telegraph. It’s really hard to over-state how important this was, this ability to communicate across really vast distances pretty much instantaneously. That’s a completely new, world-changing thing.
And literally world-changing. It practically terraformed the planet, laying this transatlantic cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. It was a huge, huge engineering undertaking. It took two tries, but they eventually managed to do it. It was an incredible feat, a really incredible feat. Before long, the whole world was starting to get wired up for this network.
The difference this made was enormous. The speed of communication was so fast now. To give you an example of the difference it made, in the war of 1812 between Britain and America, there was the Battle of New Orleans, a bloody battle. Many people died. The heartbreaking aspect of this is that this battle was fought after the Treaty of Ghent was already signed. The war was technically over, but they didn’t know that down in New Orleans. The news hadn’t travelled fast enough.
You compare that to something like the Crimean War after the invention of the telegraph, and people in London were reading about what happened the day before in their newspaper because of the telegraph, an absolutely amazing invention.
Before long, we were able to get rid of the wires and turn wireless. We got radio, thanks to Tesla. Now our networks are wireless, and we’re sending signals over radio, and during wartime, those would be encrypted signals.
The Germans were using Lorenz and Shark ciphers with their Enigma machines, and the Allies are attempting to crack those ciphers. And that’s where we get to the invention of the computer. Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers, trying to crack the German code sent over Enigma, and they invent Colossus. They invent the first computer.
Or is it the first computer? Because if you go back a hundred years, there’s an entrepreneur in London who has a plan. He has a plan to build a computer. The Difference Engine. This is Charles Babbage. Actually, this is half of Charles Babbage’s brain, which you can see in the Science Museum in London.
He came up with a plan for an analytical engine. The Difference Engine. To do computing; to calculate with moving parts. It really pre-figures a lot of what we think about computers today. It effectively had a central processing unit. There was this mill that acted like the central processing unit. It could store calculations. It had memory, effectively; it had memory.
So it seems to be this direct forerunner to our modern computers. But actually, it never got built. It remained vapourware pretty much for the whole time. He kept starting and starting again, and despite Government funding, it never really got off the ground. And when Alan Turing was building Colossus in Bletchley Park, he didn’t have any knowledge of Babbage. They found out later about Babbage, but there was no direct link.
So why am I mentioning Babbage? Is it because of his sidekick, Ada Lovelace, world’s first programmer? Actually, no. Her contribution has maybe been over-estimated.
The reason I’m mentioning Babbage and the Difference Engine is because of this man: Joseph Whitworth. He was the engineer on the project. He had to actually build the damn thing. He’s the sys-admin of the Difference Engine. And his contribution to society, I think, has been greater than Babbage’s in some way.
What Joseph Whitworth gave us was standards. He standardised screw-threads. Something we completely take for granted today, but that’s the beauty of standards: we take them for granted. We only notice them when they’re not there.
Before Whitworth, if you wanted to make something, you pretty much made every screw from scratch, and he introduced a standard—British standard Whitworth—so that screws and these tools that we needed to make other tools were of a set size and we could just get on with making stuff.
Standards, as I say, are so important that you really only notice them when they’re not there.
Do we have any visitors from Australia? Yes. So you could tell us a few stories about standards with your railway system, for example. Australian history is littered with the problem of incompatible standards. Building different railway gauges in different parts of the country. Works fine until you try to link them up.
Standards help us evolve as a civilisation. They help us just get on with doing stuff, and if I look back at, say, the twentieth century, of the most important standards that we came up with, I would say there are two:
In the world of atoms, in the world of physical things, the shipping container. It’s the most important standard for physically moving stuff around the planet. It is a standard. It’s ISO 6346, the dimensions of the shipping container. There’s about seventeen million of these in the world, and about ten thousand go missing every year; they just fall off a ship.
The other set of standards I would consider the most important invention of the twentieth century doesn’t come from the world of atoms; it comes from the world of bits. And that’s the standards given to us by Tim Berners-Lee.
Because if you think about what he invented, yes he did invent the world’s first web browser called WorldWideWeb, but really what he came up with was a set of standards. A simple idea that you would have resources, identified with URLs, transmitted over HTTP—a standard, the HyperText Transfer Protocol—and those resources would probably contain HTML, another standard.
That’s all the web is. The web isn’t a physical thing. It’s built on top of a physical network which is the Internet, but the web itself is agreement. It’s a set of standards that we all agree to use.
And so we get the World Wide Web, this fantastic, fantastic network, transmitting information.
What’s interesting about the web is that, even though we use it, we aren’t its natural citizens. What the web is really good at, because it’s this world-wide network of instantaneous transmission, is it’s inhabited by algorithms, by bots, and this can be really useful, right? We build websites like Netflix and Amazon and where you’ve got recommendation engines. Algorithms, effectively, trying to help you figure out people who like this also like this. Maybe this would be the next book you’d like to buy.
But the algorithms turn out to be better than human beings at some things, because of the speed they can operate at. Human beings, we have to evaluate information, make decisions in our head, and then act on that decision, maybe clicking on a mouse. That can be way too slow for some transactions, like trading on the Stock Exchange. So now what we have is algorithmic trading. These happen much faster than any human being; in fact the speed of light becomes a factor in algorithmic trading. You’ve got bots making decisions about what to do with our money, and they’re making decisions faster than we possibly could.
This is a map of where the best loci are of the algorithmic network, where you can get the fastest connection. And there’s obvious things like, if you’re near a backbone connection to the internet, you’re going to get a faster connection, right? So you can see those big red circles are where the backbones are, coming into these countries.
What’s really interesting is that some of these places are in the middle of the ocean, and I guarantee you, you will see people building server farms on those spots in the ocean. We will have human beings working for algorithms. We have human beings working for algorithms already. If you work in the field of Search Engine Optimisation, you are a human being working for an algorithm.
People are already starting to terraform the world to get those few nanoseconds, microseconds edge over their competitors. There’s a company that’s built a straight line fibre-optic cable from New York to Chicago, just to get those few nanoseconds.
The bots are trading. And we don’t know what they’re doing. We built them, but what they then do is beyond our comprehension. They do things we don’t understand. Like on this particular day, May 6th 2010. This was the flash crash. The Stock Market crashed a thousand pounds in minutes. At the time, they didn’t know why this happened. They still don’t know why this happened. It was algorithms; algorithms that we build, but we don’t control.
At least these algorithms were made by human beings. Once we start designing algorithms for building algorithms, we’re totally screwed.
There’s a company in Boston, started analysing the patterns of behaviour from these algorithms, discovering them within the networks and giving them names. Every day on their website, they would post the Stock Market crop circle of the day, because of these interesting patterns they would see; these things we’ve created that are totally beyond our comprehension.
We get to the position where the more important the decision is, the more likely it is it’s going to be made by an algorithm. So, “will I get a new mortgage?” That’s going to be left to an algorithm to decide. Trivial things like, “would you like fries with that?” A human being will be able to answer.
So this is the present day, and I appear to have arrived at quite a dark place. But this network, the web, built on the Internet, is also good for human beings. It’s inhabited by bots, but we can use it to our own ends.
The networks that are most obviously useful to us are the social networks that we use every day. And yes, I think we all know that with Facebook and Google and Twitter, we are the product, right? They’re using us to get at our data. But I think we also know that it’s more of a symbiotic relationship; that we get to use those tools, and we get to stay in touch with people, instantaneously. I can stay in touch with people on the other side of the world thanks to these networks, and that is wonderful.
But I want to highlight a danger with these networks and that ease of access, and that danger is our focus on the real time, our focus on the here and now. And like I said, it’s wonderful. There’s a lot of talk about the real-time web, and I think it’s great. But I think we tend to neglect the other aspect of time: the longer time, that long-term view.
Robin Sloan uses an example from economics to talk about this. He talks about flow and stock—these are terms from economics—to talk about the real-time web and the long-term web. He says:
Flow is the feed. It’s the stream of daily and sub-daily updates that remind people that you exist. Stock is the durable stuff; it’s what people discover via search, it’s what spreads slowly but surely. Flow is ascendant these days, but we neglect stock at our peril.
And I also don’t think it needs to be an either-or situation. I think that all those daily updates over time are contributing to the stock of the web. My friend, Matt Ogle wrote a lovely blog post about that, about this archive we’re all collectively building with these instant updates. He says:
We’ve all been so distracted by the now, that we’ve hardly noticed the beautiful comet-tails of personal history trailing in our wake.
But one of the reasons I think why we don’t consider this is our attitude to what we put on the network. Our attitude tends to be that it’s written in stone. It’s on the network. How often have you heard the phrase, ‘the internet never forgets’ or ‘Google never forgets’, ‘Facebook never forgets’? These phrases are thrown around as truisms, and we nod our heads, oh yeah, yeah, the internet never forgets. Just like the Eskimos have fifty words for snow and everyone at the time of Columbus thought that the world was flat. These things sound logical and reasonable, but they’re all completely false.
Where do you get this data that the internet never forgets? If you actually look at the data, the internet forgets incredibly quickly.
This is a diagram that was put together a few years ago at the height of the dot-com boom of logos of all these different Web 2.0 companies that were wanting access to our data, to our updates. And I think the reason why this was put together was just to show how unimaginative our logo design was. Lots of pastel colours and nice, friendly corners and all that.
But not long after this, Meg Pickard—who spoke here at Webstock before—she took a look at all the companies that were bought up by larger companies.
She also noted down all the companies that were gone, no longer online. And any data that had been poured into those companies was also gone. The internet forgets. The internet will forget our hopes and our dreams, our information, our data that we pour into it.
Case in point: GeoCities.
It was ugly, right? We don’t care. We don’t care if GeoCities is gone. Under construction signs. Who’s going to miss that?
It was such an important part of our history. It formed us. It formed us as citizens of the web.
Phil Gyford put it well. He was writing at the time of destruction of GeoCities by Yahoo! And he said:
GeoCities is an awful, ugly, decrepit mess, and this is why it will be sorely missed. GeoCities sites showed what normal, non-design people will create if given the tools available around the turn of the millennium. As companies like Yahoo! switch off swathes of our on-line universe, little fragments of our collective history disappear. They might be ugly and neglected fragments of our history, but they’re still what got us where we are today.
All that’s gone.
The situation was summed up even better, I think, by Jason Scott. He formed Archive Team. They attempted to rescue as much of GeoCities as they could. He gave us the long-term perspective. He put it like this, and I quote:
When history takes a look at the lives of Jerry Yang and David Filo, this is what it will probably say: Two graduate students intrigued by a growing wealth of material on the internet built a huge fucking lobster trap, absorbed as much of human history and creativity as they could, and destroyed all of it.
Now, we could be fatalistic about this and say, that’s just the nature of the network. My friend Dan wrote this, that the reality of it is very little on the web will be permanent. Embrace that.
Reality: very little on the web will be permanent. Embrace that.— Dan Cederholm (@simplebits) January 13, 2011
Now I agree with the first part. Very little on the web will be permanent. But embrace that? No. No, no, no, no, no; I will not accept that.
Another friend, Mandy Brown, put it better. She said:
No civilisation has ever saved everything. Acknowledging that fact does not obviate the need to try and save as much as we can. The technological means to produce an archive are not beyond our skills. Sadly, right now at least, the will to do so is insufficient.
But, in a way, that gives me hope. The fact that the problem isn’t technological, that the problem is about us deciding to do something about it, and the first step is acknowledging that this phrase, “the internet never forgets” is complete bollocks. And if we begin with that, then maybe this task of preserving our culture won’t be beyond us.
So if all these companies are absorbing our data, then selling it out and closing down, and they really don’t give a fuck about us, what can we do?
Well you could host your own data, right? Create your own place on the web, and that’s where you keep your stuff. Your own island of your hopes and your dreams and your data and your information.
It’s still a bit geeky though, right? We’re nerds, we can do this. We can host our own, we can set up all this stuff, but for ordinary, everyday people, they’re going to need help, and that’s why these third party companies really do help them. There’s an opportunity here. I think as more people start to get burned by things like GeoCities and other destroyers of culture, they will learn that it is better to host your own.
Now I’m not saying that what you do is you host your own data and you hold onto it and you don’t let anyone at it. I think it’s more that you want the canonical copy to be under your control, and yes, you can let Facebook have a copy; I’ll let Google have a copy, but I want to host that canonical copy. I want that canonical URL.
Then you’ve got to decide what you’re going to store and what format it’s going to be in, because with a long term view, formats don’t last very long at all, especially electronic formats.
There’s a particular format I’m fond of, and it’s the one that Tim Berners-Lee gave us, which is HTML. Obviously I’m biased because I really like HTML. I work with it every day. But it is actually built into the format that it is to be a long-term format. It’s been around for twenty years now. That’s really long for an electronic format.
It’s evolved over time, but it’s always maintained its backwards compatibility. You can still go to the very first Web page ever created, and it works in web browsers, because it’s written in HTML. That’s not an accident.
Here’s a blog post from 2001, from Owen Briggs from the Noodle Incident. He was talking about validation of your code at the time, and why it mattered. But I think it speaks to a bigger picture of why HTML matters. He says:
The code has to expand its capabilities as we do, yet never in a way that blocks out earlier documents. Everything we put down now, will continue to be readable as long as it was recorded using markup valid in its time. This was an attempt to make a code that can go decades and centuries getting broader in scope, without ever shutting out its early versions.
That sounds really idealistic, but that’s a pretty accurate description of the ongoing standardisation of HTML with the HTML Working Group. In fact, Ian Hickson wrote in 2007, the very reason why he is the editor of the HTML spec was this:
I decided that for the sake of our future generations, we should document exactly how to process today’s documents so that when they look back, they can still re-implement HTML browsers and get our data back.
This isn’t a side-product of HTML; it’s a fundamental design principle of HTML.
All right. So we can host our own data, written in HTML, written in standards, at our own domain, our own URL.
There’s actually a problem with the URL part as well, and it’s with the domain aspect. Because we don’t buy domains. We rent domains, and usually on time-scales that are pretty short, right? A year, two years, maybe five years tops, you rent a domain. How many domain names have you let lapse, just in the last decade?
It’s interesting, if you look at the whole idea of domain name systems, it relies on centralisation with ICANN, whereas everything else that’s good about the web is decentralised, and all the positive sides of the web, the fact that it doesn’t have a central authority, but when it comes to domain names, we do have a central authority with ICANN. Now I’m not saying I’ve got a better solution. I’m just pointing it out, that if we’re looking for weaknesses in our network, centralisation I think is a weakness, and maybe domain names are a problem for that reason.
But again, if we acknowledge the problem, if we’re aware of this fact, then that’s the first step in taking care of our URLs.
Tim Berners-Lee wrote in 1999:
Cool URIs don’t change.
URIs, URLs, more or less interchangeable, right? So this is a fundamental principle of the web.
Oh, I also like that he had a little footnote, right, you see the little asterisk there? That was to clarify, he said:
Historical note: at the end of the twentieth century, when this was written, “cool” was an epithet of approval, particularly among young, indicating trendiness, quality or appropriateness.
I love that. That’s some long-term thinking right there.
Thinking in the long term is a great design exercise to make us really focus on what we’re building and appreciate its long-term qualities.
So confident am I with HTML and standards and long-term longevity of the web, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is.
There’s a site called LongBets.org, and you can go there and you can make a prediction, and not a short-term prediction; a long-term prediction. You have to put some money down to make the prediction. You put money on the table and you nominate a charity for that money, and if someone disagrees with your prediction, they can money down. They nominate a charity and when the time of the prediction rolls around, somebody wins, somebody loses, one charity benefits from that money.
I put money down and made this prediction at LongBets.org/601. My prediction is: in eleven years, the URL for this prediction will no longer be available.
I like to think of this as a win-win situation, because if the URL is still available, I lose the bet but it proves that the web is better than I thought. If the URL is not available, I get some money. Somebody pointed out it’s actually a lose-lose situation, because if the URL isn’t available, there’s no organisation there to hand out the money.
I made this bet last year, in February of last year, predicting that in eleven years’ time, the URL would not be available. So we’ve got ‘till February 22nd 2022. If anybody would like to take me up on that bet, you can put your money down.
The Long Bets site is great. It’s from the organisation called the Long Now Foundation. Anybody know the Long Now Foundation? Do we have any members of the Long Now Foundation? Oh, just me. Okay.
It’s this wonderful organisation where they’re dedicated to long-term thinking. It was put together by a number of people: Stewart Brand…
Stewart Brand, throughout the twentieth century, he was there. He wrote How Buildings Learn, a fantastic book about architecture. He created the Whole Earth Catalogue for communes in the 1960s. It was like the internet printed out for how to run a civilisation. He started up the Long Now Foundation, together with some other people like Brian Eno, the musician; Roxy Music, ambient music.
He was living in New York at the time and he noticed that everybody was treating time as a really short-term thing. He would ask people, “what are you doing?”, and they would tell him what they were doing that day, maybe even in the last few hours. That was their approach to time. He wanted to encourage long-term thinking.
They came together, formed the Long Now Foundation, and they have a number of different projects. One of their projects is this, the Clock of the Long Now.
The idea is that they want to build a clock that will tell time for ten thousand years. Quite a design challenge. I’m not sure they’re getting everything quite right, but just the fact that they’re thinking about this is really great. You can go to the website of the Clock of the Long Now and they have their design principles written down, and they’re some of the best design principles I’ve ever seen. There’s the idea that it should be scale-free, it should work at different scales, so there’s a working prototype in the Science Museum in London, but it’s also going to work on a very large scale.
One of the places it’s going to be is here in Nevada, I think it is, they found a mountain with some mine-works in it, and that’s where they’re going to build the clock. There’s also a site in Texas.
And this is the thing: if this remained just a thought exercise, it wouldn’t be that useful. They’re actually going to build the thing. They’re going to build it. They are building a ten thousand year clock, and to think about how it’s got to adjust for time: learn the lessons of Newgrange, right? Take the precession of the equinoxes into account. It’s got to be self-adjusting. And because Brian Eno’s working on it, every chime which will happen once ever millennium will be different, it’ll be generated sound.
I love this. I love the fact that there’s this long-term thinking going on. When the human race applies itself to long-term thinking, I think the results are always pretty fantastic.
Another example of long-term thinking would be the global seed banks. This is in Svalbard in Norway. Making back-ups of every seed, of every plant, every species of plant that we know about. That’s good, long-term thinking. Preparing for the unknown.
Really long-term thinking. What do we do with nuclear waste? We’re storing it in the ground. How do we warn future generations to stay away?
We can’t rely on signage. Iconography is very culturally specific; it has to be learned. We can’t rely on written text. We don’t know what languages will still be used, or whether writing will still be used in thousands of years’ time. It’s very difficult.
There was actually a think-tank got together to figure out how to get this message across to future generations. They condensed down the message they were trying to get across, and it was this:
This place is a message and part of a system of messages. Pay attention to it. Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honour. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here.
That’s actually a fairly complex message to try and encode without using iconography, without using writing. I think they settled on menacing earthworks as a way of trying to warn off people. There was a school of thought saying, don’t put anything there to mark it, or you’re inviting essentially the grave-robbers of the Pyramids, by drawing attention to it.
Again, long-term thinking, long-term design challenges I think are wonderful. But even this is not the most long-term design challenge there is.
This is a really long-term design challenge. The Voyager Golden Record. Like the pioneer plaques before, these were sent out on the Voyager probes, currently the furthest man-made things from our planet in the universe.
Carl Sagan put this together, and it’s a gramophone record. It contains audio, it contains pictures. Greetings from Planet Earth. How do you encode the instructions to de-code it?
It’s really interesting, that this was in 1977 and they decided to go analogue. A record, rather than digital, even though computers were definitely around back then. They decided it was easier to encode the information, “here’s how to build your own record player” than to try and code the information, “here’s how to build your own computer.”
But even then, all these standards and measurements that we take for granted in our culture and in our planet, we can’t take for granted on a universal scale. If some other civilisation were to come across this artefact—and it’s really unlikely—but how could we let them know the units of measurement that we would use? We can’t use seconds and minutes and hours. Those are just left-over Babylonian bugs.
So what they used was this diagram here. It’s the hyperfine state of a neutral hydrogen atom, the time that that takes, as being essentially universal clockwork; it’s everywhere in the world. And if you could figure this out, if a civilisation could figure this out, they could decode this and they could get greetings from planet Earth. Greetings in many languages, snippets of music: Bach, Chuck Berry, a little time capsule of our civilisation.
So what I want you to do is think about if you had to put together a Voyager Record, what would you put on it? What matters to you? Of everything that the human race has ever created, what would you put on this time capsule for different civilisations?
Think about that, think about what you’d put on there, and then the next thing I want to ask you is, what are you waiting for?
Publish it. Publish it on the network. Put it out there, using standardised formats. Care for the URLs. Make sure those URLs last.
And make lots of copies, and allow people to make lots of copies. There’s this term in digital preservation called LOCKSS: Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. So don’t hold onto this stuff. Publish it, put it out there, care for those URLs.
I really think it’s important that this network survives for the long term, not just as a real-time network, but to allow our species to go further.
I talked about lots Of copies keeping stuff safe, but as a race, we have a problem, which is that we’ve only got local back-up. All our DNA is stored on one planet. The dinosaurs died out because they didn’t have a space programme. We need to get off this planet, store our DNA elsewhere, colonise the solar system first, the galaxy second, and to do that, the network can help us. Tell each other things faster. Don’t lose things. Get more people involved in solving problems.
I hope that you will do that. I hope that you will consider what you want to put out there and just do it. Publish it. Take care of those URLs. Use standards. Contribute to the race.
Thank you very much for your time, and I’d also like to thank these people for licensing their photographs liberally and allowing me to use them so that lots of copies can keep those photographs safe, and thank you once more.
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