Long-Term Thinking

There’s an organization called The Long Now Foundation that focuses on planting seeds for long-term thinking.

Their most well-known project is the 10,000 Year Clock, which is a mechanical clock conceived back in 1986, a full-scale version of which is being built on private land in Texas—at a cost of about $42 million—leading up to the final version which will be built in rural Nevada. The clock will tick exactly once per year, for ten-thousand years.

The difficulty of building something mechanical meant to last that long and to operate with the requisite precision is immense; hence the cost, and the amount of time it’s taken to get to where the project is now, and the time left before the publicly accessible final version in Nevada will be completed.

But the project is considered to be worthwhile because of what it represents, rather than the service it provides.

A physical, mechanical clock of immense accuracy isn’t terribly valuable in a world filled with atomic-clock calibrated smartphones and other devices, all of which provide the same service for free.

A complex device that requires the most clever and precise construction currently feasible, built in such a way that it will survive for thousands of years, though—that’s not something we’ve done before. Which is strange when you think about it.

I suspect many of us would like to assume that the human species will still be around in ten-thousands years; though we’ll hopefully be way better off, and almost certainly changed in some fundamental ways. I personally like to imagine that we will have moved beyond scarcity at that point, and will be spread around the galaxy, living well and doing interesting, beneficent things because we can.

But our planning, our building, the things we make and do, operate within the confines of a far more finite timeframe.

Long-lasting contemporary buildings are designed to last around 50-years, or 100-years at the extremes.

Our digital storage systems, where much of our modern artwork, research, and documentation lives, is predicated on hard drives that typically last somewhere between two and five years.

Even high-quality old-school methods of storing knowledge, like archival paper-based books, generally only last 40- to 100-years, on the high-end, unless dramatic preservation actions are taken; which isn’t something we can typically do, on scale.

None of this implies that we don’t care about the future, but we do seem to be prone to short-term thinking, even though humans seem to be unique amongst the lifeforms we know about, in that we’re able to plan ahead.

Some animals can instinctually stockpile acorns for the winter, or figure out how to move a box, stand on it, and grab out-of-reach bananas. But humans seem to be the only creatures on Earth cognitively capable of thinking about what might happen a year from now, or ten years, or ten-thousand years.

We have that capability, but we tend not to use it very often, because day-to-day concerns have priority, and moment-to-moment concerns even more so.

This makes sense: a focus on immediate threats and opportunities has obvious survival benefits, and it’s arguably more important to worry about the poisonous snake at your feet rather than fixating on the problems your grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren might face, someday, in some vague, far-off, not-immediately-applicable future.

But it’s important to maintain a sense of chronological place, I think, lest we find ourselves endlessly responding to disasters that arise seemingly out of nowhere, failing to benefit from the wisdom and knowledge gained from the last, close-match disaster our species survived.

The power of recording information and thinking long-term is that we can inoculate ourselves against some types of mistakes that we would otherwise make over and over again, due to our default tendencies and the patterns that emerge from humans engaging with each other on scale.

This is true, notably, not just with large-scale events across vast timeframes—like recalling how to defuse an impending international conflict, or how to stave off a potential pandemic—but also on a personal level, like remembering which politicians and businesses behaved in a socially positive, moral manner during a disease-related lock-down, and which grabbed for power at the public’s expense.

It’s unintuitive to take note of such things in a manner that benefits our future selves and societies for the same reason the building of a ten-thousand year clock of unintuitive: it’s not useful to us right now, and doesn’t help use solve the great many important problems we currently face.

So we take fail to take proper notes and make suitable plans, we don’t imagine possible distant futures, and we choose to focus, instead, on the endless procession of new, shocking, frightening snakes at our feet—forever blind to other, larger-scale concerns.

Maintaining a sense of self place within broader swathes of time, in addition to helping us think beyond what’s right in front of us, can also imbue in us a sort of overview effect, where that larger context provides us with resources from the past, incentivizes us to produce and share resources with the future, and helps us consider where things are going across eons, rather than limiting our time-horizon to today, the next major disaster, or the end of our personal time as living, thinking beings.

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