BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE
BOOKS

Slow Forward


THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW
Time and Responsibility
By Stewart Brand
Basic Books 190pp $22

As the clock counts down to the turn of the millennium, it's easy to obsess about time. But few folks ponder it in the same way as Stewart Brand, the Sausalito (Calif.) inventor, writer, and environmental pundit who in the late 1960s founded the Whole Earth Catalog. Today, Brand and a few future-thinking buddies are trying to build the world's largest and slowest mechanical clock, which they hope will loom in the American desert for the next 10,000 years as a testament to the continuity of time. It might tick once a year, bong once a century, and bring out the cuckoo only once every 1,000 years. Brand's group even wants a smaller urban version and a massive library of civilization's collective knowledge. The goal? To get humans to think beyond the priorities of their own lives, explains Brand in his new book, The Clock of the Long Now.

It's a noble experiment, and Brand's volume concentrates as much on the philosophy behind cultivating a long view as on the mechanics of the project. That's one of the problems, and pleasures, of this book. Brand dishes up a series of eclectic and tiny essays--some only three pages long--that explore ideas related to time. One minute, you're mourning the horror of libraries burned by Adolph Hitler or Chinese Emperor Shih Huang-ti in the third century B.C. The next, you're examining the innards of prototype clocks. The result is that following his argument sometimes slows to a long now.

But the inspired ideas behind this project will probably be enough to keep you hooked. Brand is concerned that humankind is developing a ''pathologically short attention span'' that can't conceive of--never mind care about--the far-off future. This, he says, is due to several factors, including the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election fixation of democracies, and the distractions of personal multitasking. Meanwhile, humans are rapidly exhausting the world's resources.

Then there's the dilemma of building a massive machine that not only keeps exquisite time but can also last 10,000 years--or at least be simple enough to fix every so often. In this, the author has some high-powered help. He is one of several big names behind the Long Now Foundation. Its roster also includes supercomputer pioneer Daniel Hillis, who conceived of the clock, and British musician Brian Eno, who came up with the name. Tech pundit Esther Dyson and Lotus founder Mitchell Kapor are also in the circle.

In his proposal for the clock, Hillis compares its planned size with that of Stonehenge. The risk, of course, is Stonehenge-like: future generations staring in wonder at a hump of rusted-out metal. But even if the clock is never built, Brand proves that simply raising the idea can be a potent tool for thinking differently about time.

By DIANE BRADY

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PHOTO: Cover, ``The Clock of the Long Now''



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