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A Tale of Two Clocks

Doomsday vs. the Long Now.

Y2K @ 20 - The New York Times

This is quite remarkable. On the surface, it’s a short article about the Y2K bug, but the hypertextual footnotes go deeper and deeper into memory, loss, grief …I’m very moved by the rawness and honesty nested within.

Bound in Shallows: Space Exploration and Institutional Drift

If a human civilization beyond Earth ever comes into being, this will be unprecedented in any historical context we might care to invoke—unprecedented in recorded history, unprecedented in human history, unprecedented in terrestrial history, and so on. There have been many human civilizations, but all of these civilizations have arisen and developed on the surface of Earth, so that a civilization that arises or develops away from the surface of Earth would be unprecedented and in this sense absolutely novel even if the institutional structure of a spacefaring civilization were the same as the institutional structure of every civilization that has existed on Earth. For this civilizational novelty, some human novelty is a prerequisite, and this human novelty will be expressed in the mythology that motivates and sustains a spacefaring civilization.

A deep dive into deep time:

Record-keeping technologies introduce an asymmetry into history. First language, then written language, then printed books, and so and so forth. Should human history extend as far into the deep future as it now extends into the deep past, the documentary evidence of past beliefs will be a daunting archive, but in an archive so vast there would be a superfluity of resources to trace the development of human mythologies in a way that we cannot now trace them in our past. We are today creating that archive by inventing the technologies that allow us to preserve an ever-greater proportion of our activities in a way that can be transmitted to our posterity.

The GitHub Archive Program will safely store every public GitHub repo for 1,000 years in the Arctic World Archive in Svalbard, Norway.

This is a fascinating project from Github, the Long Now Foundation, the Internet Archive, the Bodleian Library and others. All of the public code on Github on February 2nd, 2020 will be archived for 1000 years in a vault in Svalbard.

Mind you, given the amount of dependencies that most “modern” code projects rely on, I can’t foresee the code working after 1000 days.

The Arrogance of the Anthropocene - The Atlantic

If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell.

A nice steaming cup of perspective.

If there were a nuclear holocaust in the Triassic, among warring prosauropods, we wouldn’t know about it.

The Hiding Place: Inside the World’s First Long-Term Storage Facility for Highly Radioactive Nuclear Waste - Pacific Standard

Robert McFarlane’s new book is an exploration of deep time. In this extract, he visits the Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility in Finland.

Sometimes we bury materials in order that they may be preserved for the future. Sometimes we bury materials in order to preserve the future from them.

BBC - Future - How to build something that lasts 10,000 years

As part of the BBC’s ongoing series on deep time, Alexander Rose describes the research he’s been doing for the clock of the long now—materials, locations, ideas …all the pieces that have historically combined to allow artifacts to survive.

The 500-Year-Long Science Experiment - The Atlantic

Running an experiment for 500 years is hard enough. Then there’s the documentation…

The hard part is ensuring someone will continue doing this on schedule well into the future. The team left a USB stick with instructions, which Möller realizes is far from adequate, given how quickly digital technology becomes obsolete. They also left a hard copy, on paper. “But think about 500-year-old paper,” he says, how it would yellow and crumble. “Should we carve it in stone? Do we have to carve it in a metal plate?” But what if someone who cannot read the writing comes along and decides to take the metal plate as a cool, shiny relic, as tomb raiders once did when looting ancient tombs?

No strategy is likely to be completely foolproof 500 years later. So the team asks that researchers at each 25-year time point copy the instructions so that they remain linguistically and technologically up to date.

The 100 Year Web (In Praise of XML)

I don’t agree with Steven Pemberton on a lot of things—I’m not a fan of many of the Semantic Web technologies he likes, and I think that the Robustness Principle is well-suited to the web—but I always pay attention to what he has to say. I certainly share his concern that migrating everything to JavaScript is not good for interoperability:

This is why there are so few new elements in HTML5: they haven’t done any design, and instead said “if you need anything, you can always do it in Javascript”.

And they all have.

And they are all different.

Read this talk transcript, and even if you don’t agree with everything in it today, you may end up coming back to it in the future. He’s playing the long game:

The web is the way now that we distribute information. We will need the web pages we create now to be readable in 100 years time, just as we can still read 100-year-old books.

Requiring a webpage to depend on a particular 100-year-old implementation of Javascript is not exactly evidence of future-thinking.

How Warren Buffett Won His Multi-Million Dollar Long Bet

The story of Long Bets, specifically that one.

Given the nature of the long bet I’ve got running, I’m surprised that the Long Now Foundation are publishing on Medium. Wanna bet how long this particular URL will last?

Home - Memory of Mankind

A time capsule for the long now. Laser-etched ceramic tablets in an Austrian salt mine carry memories of our civilisation in three categories: news editorials, scientific works, and personal stories.

You can contribute a personal story, your favorite poem, or newspaper articles which describe our problems, visions or our daily life.

Tokens that mark the location of the site are also being distributed across the planet.

Tweeting for 10,000 Years: An Experiment in Autonomous Software — Brandur Leach

Taking the idea of the Clock of the Long Now and applying it to a twitterbot:

Software may not be as well suited as a finely engineered clock to operate on these sorts of geological scales, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to put some of the 10,000 year clock’s design principles to work.

The bot will almost certainly fall foul of Twitter’s API changes long before the next tweet-chime is due, but it’s still fascinating to see the clock’s principles applied to software: longevity, maintainability, transparency, evolvability, and scalability.

Software tends to stay in operation longer than we think it will when we first wrote it, and the wearing effects of entropy within it and its ecosystem often take their toll more quickly and more destructively than we could imagine. You don’t need to be thinking on a scale of 10,000 years to make applying these principles a good idea.

the Origins of Opera and the Future of Programming – The Composition

An interesting piece by Jessica Kerr that draws lessons from the histories of art and science and applies them to software development.

This was an interesting point about the cognitive load of getting your head around an existing system compared to creating your own:

Why are there a thousand JavaScript frameworks out there? because it’s easier to build your own than to gain an understanding of React. Even with hundreds of people contributing to documentation, it’s still more mental effort to form a mental model of an existing system than to construct your own. (I didn’t say it was faster, but less cognitively strenuous.)

And just because I’ve spent most of last year thinking about how to effectively communicate—in book form—relatively complex ideas clearly and simply, this part really stood out for me:

When you do have a decent mental model of a system, sharing that with others is hard. You don’t know how much you know.

Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans? - The Atlantic

So, could researchers find clear evidence that an ancient species built a relatively short-lived industrial civilization long before our own? Perhaps, for example, some early mammal rose briefly to civilization building during the Paleocene epoch about 60 million years ago. There are fossils, of course. But the fraction of life that gets fossilized is always minuscule and varies a lot depending on time and habitat. It would be easy, therefore, to miss an industrial civilization that only lasted 100,000 years—which would be 500 times longer than our industrial civilization has made it so far.

Putting Civilization in a Box Means Choosing Our Legacy

A run-down of digital preservation technologies for very, very long-term storage …in space.

The Technium: Protopia

I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.

Kevin Kelly’s thoughts at the time of coining of this term seven years ago:

No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously. So we don’t take a generational perspective. We’re stuck in the short now. We also adopt the Singularity perspective: that imagining the future in 100 years is technically impossible. So there is no protopia we are reaching for.

The Future Will Have to Wait — Blog of the Long Now

As installation begins, it feels like a good time to revisit this twelve year old essay by Michael Chabon on The Clock Of The Long Now. It’s a remarkable piece of writing about our relationship to the very idea of The Future, and how that relationship has changed in just one lifetime.

Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the Future” is going to happen? If the Clock works the way that it’s supposed to do—if it lasts—do you believe there will be a human being around to witness, let alone mourn its passing, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?

Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning

There’s a running joke at just about any gathering at Clearleft where we measure TTPL—Time To Pace Layers—a measurement of how long we can discuss anything before making an inevitable reference to Stewart Brand’s framing.

It’s one of those concepts that, once your brain has been exposed, you start seeing everywhere. Like bad kerning or sexism.