Brand’s first public act of cultural prescience came in 1966, when he started a button campaign pressuring the government to produce a picture of the whole earth from space. Brand’s buttons encouraged NASA to take quality color photos of the earth during the Apollo program, indirectly giving the budding ecology movement its key icon: the blue-green marble suspended in black space. The picture of the whole earth from space became one of the most culturally significant images of the twentieth century.
In addition to predicting how we will live in the future, Brand promotes his own vision of how we should live today: simply, and with the best tools available. He put forth this philosophy in his celebrated Whole Earth Catalog, which he launched in 1968, and which gave rise to the magazine Co-Evolution Quarterly (later renamed Whole Earth Review). The catalog was a formidable tour de force of alternative living, committed to curiosity, fearless exploration, and disregard for convention. Brand’s goal was to give people access to the tools and information they needed to create a sustainable and efficient way of living. Accordingly, the book presented instructions on everything from building geodesic domes to binding books by hand. The Last Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1972, won the National Book Award and sold more than 2.5 million copies. In 1998, Whole Earth Books came out with a thirtieth-anniversary edition of the original catalog.
Born in 1938, Brand grew up in Rockford, Illinois. “Our three-story house was full of books,” he says, “and the books tended to migrate toward the attic, where I slept. My father was always concerned that our house would capsize one day.” One of these books was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which inspired Brand to head for California as soon as he finished his schooling at Exeter Academy in 1956. He studied biology at Stanford, became acquainted with the beatnik artists on the waterfront in Sausalito, and befriended a professor who lived in San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach neighborhood.
A member of the ROTC in college, Brand became an officer in the U.S. Army after graduation and worked for the Pentagon as a photographer. On periodic trips back to California, he would visit North Beach and participate in the various activities of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. “I had my first mescaline trip while I was still in the army,” Brand remarks dryly. When his stint in the army was up, he took up residence in a small houseboat docked in Sausalito. Brand still works on the waterfront, now out of a landlocked fishing boat, the Mary Heartline, and lives a hundred yards away in the Mirene, a restored 1912 working tugboat that he and his wife, Ryan, take out on the bay about once a month.
After leaving the Whole Earth Review, Brand cofounded the Global Business Network, a lively alliance of consultants and businesses who work out strategies for the future. He’s also written several provocative books, including How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built and The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (both Penguin).
Brand’s interest in time and the future has led him to his latest project, an enormous clock designed to work for ten thousand years. “The idea of the clock is to encourage long-term thinking, which is in short supply these days,” Brand says. He hopes the clock will help industrialized cultures think differently about the future, much the same way the image of the whole earth encouraged us to think differently about the planet.
The Clock of the Long Now, as it’s called, is actually the brainchild of computer scientist Danny Hillis, who approached Brand and a few others almost a decade ago with the idea for a clock that would tick once a year and chime every thousand years. Brand is on the board of directors of the Long Now Foundation (www.longnow.org), which plans to build the clock, along with a “ten-thousand-year library.” A working prototype of the clock is now on display at the Science Museum in London.
The foundation also funds the Rosetta Disk Project, a time capsule of sorts that will “allow for the ‘recovery’ of lost languages in the distant future.” The project was inspired by the rapid obsolescence of digital information-storage mediums. As Brand says in his latest book, The Clock of the Long Now (Basic Books), “Behind every hot new working computer is a trail of bodies of extinct computers, extinct storage media, extinct applications, extinct files.”
I met Brand for this interview in the small garden between the Mary Heartline and a Long Now Foundation office. He showed me photos of the desert adjoining Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, where he and his colleagues hope to build the clock inside a mountain, underneath the millennia-old bristlecone pines.
Lertzman: I was born in 1968, so it’s hard for me to imagine not having seen a photo of the earth from space — it was a part of popular culture by the time I grew up. How did you conceive of the idea?
Brand: It happened on a rooftop in North Beach in March 1966. I had taken a mild dose of acid, and, as I gazed at the high-rises, I realized they were not really parallel, but diverged slightly at the top because of the curve of the earth. I started thinking that the curve of the earth must be more dramatic the higher one went. I imagined going farther and farther into orbit and soon realized that the sight of the entire planet at once would be quite dramatic and would make a point that Buckminster Fuller was always ranting about: that people act as if the earth is flat, when in reality it is spherical and extremely finite, and until we learn to treat it as a finite thing, we will never get civilization right. So I figured a photograph would help make that happen.
By the next morning, I was making a button and a poster saying, WHY HAVEN’T WE SEEN A PHOTOGRAPH OF THE WHOLE EARTH YET? We had already been in space for ten years, and at any time during that period we could have taken photographs of the earth and brought them back. I posed the question in a slightly paranoiac voice, which gave it that extra edge. I started selling the buttons, and the story got picked up by various newspapers. I also sent buttons to scientists, secretaries of state, people in the Soviet Union, and famous thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and, of course, Buckminster Fuller. Fuller wrote back, “Well, you can only see about half the earth at any given time.” [Laughs.]
I think the button campaign was probably my most effective one ever. We did get to see the photograph, of course, in 1969. By then, I had already named the catalog I was creating the Whole Earth Catalog.
I see no inherent antagonism between environmentalism and technology. . . . I am more titillated by technology than by environmentalism because there’s more news. One of my problems with the environmental movement is it gets into the ideology and punishes originality.
Lertzman: What was your initial motivation for the Whole Earth Catalog?
Brand: My father died of cancer in the spring of 1968, at the age of sixty-four. I was there with the rest of my family in Rockford, Illinois, at the time. Coming back from that visit, I was reading Spaceship Earth, by Barbara Ward. It prompted me to take the money my family had set aside for me and use it to do something important in the world. That night, I wrote up the idea for the catalog, and I began working on it the next day.
The catalog started out as a scheme to help friends who were creating and living in communes. I realized early on that I was remaking Diderot’s classic Enlightenment work the Encyclopédie, which was designed to be an accessible compendium of all accumulated knowledge and learning. The idea was: let’s just tell everybody how to do everything and see what happens. People were interested in the Encyclopédie — and in the Whole Earth Catalog — because they like to know how to do things, and they feel freer when there are instructions available and they can pick their tools as they wish. It was almost pathetically sincere. [Laughs.]
Lertzman: Over the years, the Whole Earth Review has negotiated the relationship between technology and environmental sustainability in a unique way; it’s neither Luddite in its approach, nor does it embrace technology to the point of being techno-utopian, as Wired can sometimes be.
Brand: Well, the Whole Earth Review embraces technology enough to criticize it fairly well. The useless critics of technology are ones who are so opposed to it that they want nothing to do with it on principle.
Lertzman: How has the original Whole Earth “community” shifted its focus in the past decade, with the explosion of the high-tech industries?
Brand: Well, a lot of the community went over to Wired with Kevin Kelly, who used to edit the Whole Earth Review before he became founding executive editor of Wired.
Lertzman: Really? Wired strikes me as the antithesis of the Whole Earth Review. Wired is all about gadgets, consumption, and speed — technology for its own sake. You don’t find much critical questioning of new developments in terms of social or environmental good.
Brand: That’s fair. On the other hand, Kevin Kelly is also the person who came up with the All Species Inventory concept, a project to identify and catalog all life on earth.
Lertzman: Aren’t there some inherent conflicts between an ecological point of view and a publication that is at least 50 percent advertisements encouraging people to buy electronic toys, fast cars, and Palm Pilots?
Brand: I have no criticism of Wired at all. Basically, I see no inherent antagonism between environmentalism and technology whatsoever. There are many fields where the two overlap. One example is the work of Hunter and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Amory is using technology to the limit, and they are extremely effective environmentalists. Amory is so effective because he’s such a techno wiz.
Look at someone like Kelly, who has spent more time in the bush than anybody else I know and is also kind of a fellow traveler of high tech. This summer, he took his two half-Chinese daughters, ages nine and eleven, and disappeared into the bush of southern China and Tibet, basically living off the land. That area is about as indigenous as you can get. That’s neither paradoxical nor contradictory; it’s just an expression of curiosity. Stone Age and high tech — you can be excited about both.
Generally, I am more titillated by technology than by environmentalism because there’s more news. One of my problems with the environmental movement is it gets into the ideology and punishes originality because of that. It gets boring, which is a terrible thing.
Lertzman: But you do understand the perceived antagonism between environmentalists and technologists?
Brand: Yes, and I think it’s erroneous. Environmentalists need to grab the tools and run with them. Ecology is about more than just bird-watching. It’s about science.
Lertzman: Our high-tech culture strikes me as invested in the quick turnaround of profit, consuming as much as possible as fast as possible.
Brand: True, the high-tech industries are not political; they are not environmental; they are focused on go, go, go. But I don’t think they are hurting anybody. Believe me, I caught a lot of flak in the sixties and seventies for not being “political.” The Whole Earth Catalog was eschewed by many political ideologues. But then, someone like Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman really understood what I was doing. His sense of humor kept him from being predictable.
Lertzman: So one can embrace computers, the global economy, and the rest and still retain a progressive, ecologically minded outlook?
Brand: Sure. They are completely compatible. In fact, prosperity is absolutely essential to environmentalism. It is such a luxury to be concerned about the environment. When there are enough people who are not hungry, who are not at war, who see a lot of hope and think about the future in basically optimistic ways, then the forests, and everything else, will be cared for.
Lertzman: What does your Global Business Network do?
Brand: We mostly do scenario planning for very large corporations. Scenario planning means you take seriously different ideas about how the future might play out. It’s about asking, “What will we wish we had done if the world goes this way? Or that way?” Three or four scenarios is typically the number people are comfortable planning for, and it turns out to be all you need to broaden your thinking so that you are much less surprised by events and not thrown into disarray. It’s a very intelligent way to look forward, because it lets you take actions in the present that do not bind the future.
When we started up twelve years ago, large corporations were asking us how to be green. We were sort of surprised to be getting these queries. We asked if they just wanted to know what being green is about, or whether they wanted to be green. Invariably, they said, “We want to be green.”
A lot of these companies became green because they were forced to by their employees, who would have quit otherwise. But they welcomed being forced to, because the people running the companies were often environmentalists in private. They just assumed they couldn’t be at the corporate level. Some corporations are better than others, obviously, but we were surprised at the scale and scope of what our clients wanted to do.
Lertzman: What are some examples of successes?
Brand: It’s hard to give examples of success when what we do is years ahead of the actual results. Doing the right strategic thing because of scenario planning is, and should be, unrecognizable as an outcome.
Prosperity is absolutely essential to environmentalism. It is such a luxury to be concerned about the environment. When there are enough people who are not hungry, who are not at war, who . . . think about the future in basically optimistic ways, then the forests, and everything else, will be cared for.
Lertzman: Do you teach corporate responsibility?
Brand: In scenario planning, you look up from the immediate fray and take on some very deep considerations: What will the workforce be like in fifteen years? What is the region where we have our corporate headquarters going to be like? What is the industry going to be like? Where’s the economy going? Where’s the country going? Where’s the world going? It’s a wake-up call for many people. And you start to realize that, as a corporation, you have responsibility to all aspects of the industry, including your competitors.
Lertzman: How can someone who is concerned about our environment utilize the techniques you teach through the Global Business Network?
Brand: There’s a chapter in my book The Clock of the Long Now about reframing the problems. That insight came from my work for the Packard Foundation, where I was asked what the important environmental problems of the next few decades will be. I decided to do what a good engineer does — that is, instead of posing these problems in forms that are unsolvable, I wanted to find a way to rethink the problem such that the solution suggests itself.
Among other things, you look for good news wherever you can find it. One of the problems with telling ourselves that globalization is always bad, or corporations are always bad, or technology is always bad, is that one gets blinded to potentially powerful allies and tools. For example, in the late sixties, when the Apollo space program was going to the moon, everybody on the political left eschewed it. All the environmentalists said we needed to take care of our own planet first before going into space. They looked with disdain at these crew-cut Boy Scouts, military men, jocks, and other white males going to the moon.
And one of those white males was Rusty Schweickart, who is a spiritual environmentalist if ever there was one. After he was involved in Apollo 9, he came back and got a job as head of a program they called “Applications.” Rusty went around to various scientists — biologists, geologists, geographers, physicists — and asked them how they could use images of the earth from space. Universally, they said that you couldn’t see anything useful from space.
Before Rusty, the only environmentalist who was completely in favor of getting data from space was Jacques Cousteau. He said there was no way we could monitor the degradation of the oceans except from space. He told Rusty to look for krill blooms and so on. But the majority just turned away from the most powerful environmental tool ever offered, because there was this ideological bent that said it was bad.
Lertzman: And you see this happening today?
Brand: I see it happening with genetically modified organisms [GMOs]. There’s a wonderful reversal of roles going on. In the fifties and sixties, when we were talking about fluoridating water because it was good for your teeth, the right was absolutely against it, and the left was absolutely for it. Now we have GMos, and the left is absolutely against them, and the right is pretty much for them. Why is that? The only reason, as far as I can tell, is that fluoridated water was coming from the government, and GMOs are coming from corporations. What each side is reacting to is where the technology comes from, apart from whether or not it’s any good.
Lertzman: Your latest project is the creation of a ten-thousand-year clock, which you also call “the world’s slowest computer.” Why this clock, and why now?
Brand: In the opening manifesto for the Long Now Foundation, I wrote, “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” Because of accelerating technology and global economics, the pace of change is so rapid that it’s both exciting and kind of disorienting. Because it’s exciting, we will probably keep doing it. And because it’s disorienting, we’ll have some questions about it. The Clock speaks to that disorientation.
Lertzman: How so?
Brand: The Clock is like the North Star, which means a lot to people, because, no matter where you are, if you can get a glimpse of the sky at night, you’re not as lost as you were before. That’s something we’d like to know as we’re charging off in every direction with all of this technology: where “north” is. There’s a feeling now that the things that our civilization does will have enormous impacts. Many of those impacts are cumulative, such as species loss. If you add up the loss over decades, you start to get a serious breakdown.
This increasingly intelligent, fast-moving civilization needs to be applying some of its intelligence to things that change slowly. There is so much deep, important power in that which changes slowly. If we are constantly tending to the immediate, day-to-day problems, we’ll lose that sense of the long term, and then we could be really sorry.
I think people understand this, but there’s not a lot of places where one can use that understanding. Governments and universities have very specific concerns and tend to operate in cycles of two years, four years, six years. It’s hard to make long-term infrastructural decisions in that time frame. We need a way to step outside the current economic and political issues and make important decisions about the future.
A deep bonding with the natural world seems to make one comfortable with long-term thinking. And when you go back to the place where you grew up, and the woods are gone, and there’s a development in their place, you feel terrible.
Lertzman: Why ten thousand years?
Brand: To start with, working with the Global Business Network and writing my book How Buildings Learn gave me a sense that things could be done at a time scale much longer than the usual twenty-five years. Actually, Peter Schwartz, author of The Art of the Long View, came up with the figure of ten thousand years, because it reflected the amount of time civilization has been around. So the ten-thousand-years figure came not from looking forward, but from looking backward. The human story sort of starts when the glaciers receded. Also, we currently see science and technology engaging issues that have very long-term consequences. For example, Congress has passed a law stating that we must take care of nuclear waste for ten thousand years. So this kind of number is in the air.
Lertzman: Is slowing down a necessary part of taking a long view?
Brand: Slowing down doesn’t have anything to do directly with long-term thinking. In fact, all the funding for the Long Now Foundation has come from young, fast-moving, successful dot-com and high-tech sources. One of the interesting things about high tech is that you’ve got three or four generations of inventors working simultaneously, instead of in sequence. The people who invented the PC are still around, and the Internet has brought along a whole new generation of young inventors who are interacting with the old set. Very few people in the high-tech world ever back off. They’re right in the thick of it, and they’re putting time, thought, and money into the Long Now Foundation.
Lertzman: What’s the connection between high tech and the long term?
Brand: It’s a matter of balance for these people. Their culture changes so quickly that they have to take time out to think in the long term, just to balance that. This new group of younger wealthy people are good at thinking in the long term.
Lertzman: Is long-term thinking a privilege or luxury afforded only to the wealthy? If you’re struggling to get by, you’re obviously not going to think too much about the long term.
Brand: That’s the famous problem. You can’t do environmental projects, for example, in a region stricken by poverty or civil war. How are the people here going to stop worrying about surviving day to day long enough to think about surviving century to century? I think the best shaper of environmental behavior is prosperity and peace. Once you’ve got your basic needs met, you’ve got time to look around and take a longer perspective, and look beyond your own family, your own set of genes.
Lertzman: What about nature? Doesn’t it remind us to think in the long term?
Brand: Yes, a deep bonding with the natural world seems to make one comfortable with long-term thinking. And when you go back to the place where you grew up, and the woods are gone, and there’s a development in their place, you feel terrible, and you don’t want your kids to experience that kind of disappointment. So, hopefully, you get involved in the preservation of various natural systems.
Lertzman: And then there’s the sun, of course, which is the ultimate clock!
Brand: Absolutely. And our clock sets itself by the noonday sun. It listens to the sun. We don’t have to adjust for the changing rotation period of the earth over ten thousand years, because the clock will always adjust itself to the sun. So it’s a solar clock, in that sense.
One of the things that the face of the clock shows is the cycles of the sun and the moon. It’s very much an astronomical display. The only nonastronomical part is the dial that shows the year, which, as I said, is easily swapped out. And then there’s a little clock that actually tells the time.
Lertzman: What about non-Western cultures? How do they fit into the Clock project? A gleaming clock stationed in the middle of the Nevada desert seems almost like a rallying cry for Western technology.
Brand: We have other projects that involve non-Western cultures. The Rosetta Disk — a compendium of a thousand languages — is directly taking on the loss of languages and cultures worldwide, which is drastic and fierce in some places. The All Species Project, as we speak, is getting itself established in Brazil, eastern Africa, and parts of Asia, where a surprising number of scientists are already studying biodiversity — and without any ideological bent. Frankly, a side effect of taking the long term very seriously is that you get out of the European or North American frame of reference, and once you do, you can’t go back. That’s not where the action is.
This increasingly intelligent, fast-moving civilization needs to be applying some of its intelligence to things that change slowly. . . . If we are constantly tending to the immediate, day-to-day problems, we’ll lose that sense of the long term, and then we could be really sorry.
Lertzman: You’ve also been working on what you call the Ten Thousand Year Library. What are its goals?
Brand: We’re still sorting them out. In a sense, all libraries are ten-thousand-year libraries, but not everyone takes that seriously. We want to remind people of that. We held a conference on the idea of the library at Stanford last year. Toward the end of the conference, cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson noted that a ten-thousand-year library probably needs to operate with a certain rhythm, a slow and perhaps ritualized rhythm, and that the function of the library is to remember and to remind.
The idea she proposed is that certain materials in the library “wake up” periodically. For example, I would like the library to contain a very thorough documentation of the debate on genetically modified organisms and have it wake up in five years, ten years, fifteen years, twenty-five years, so people can go back and look at the debate and see if we made the right decision — if there were ideas we should’ve paid more attention to at the time, or if fringe concerns actually turned out to be the most serious issues. If we did this for a number of debates, what might it tell us about how to have a public debate on issues with long-term consequences?
One potential “customer” for the Ten Thousand Year Library is the new Office of Long-Term Stewardship at the Department of Energy. They have a $6-billion-a-year budget with which to take care of radioactive waste. One of the problems they have is labeling waste sites. Can you imagine if we were cruising around in the distant future and came across a sign that read, WHATEVER YOU do, doN’T DIG HERE! What do you think we would do? We would dig, to find out what the big deal was! So how do you label things without arousing curiosity? One way is to have labels that “wake up” occasionally and call emissaries over to the most serious sites to check them out.
Among other things, you look for good news wherever you can find it. One of the problems with telling ourselves that globalization is always bad, or corporations are always bad, or technology is always bad, is that one gets blinded to potentially powerful allies and tools.
Lertzman: I wonder whether an object or an icon like the Clock truly can inspire or invoke a particular way of doing or thinking about things. Does the Statue of Liberty, for example, really cause us to value liberty and freedom?
Brand: It’s surprising how much icons can generate behavior. The photograph of the whole earth from space helped to generate a lot of behavior — the ecology movement, the sense of global politics, the rise of the global economy, and so on. I think all of those phenomena were, in some sense, given permission to occur by the photograph of the earth from space. Or take the bristlecone pines on top of Mount Washington in Nevada. Those trees are five thousand years old, and some of the dead trunks are up to ten thousand years old. Spending time around those trees will change your perspective, and a tree doesn’t even have any captions or labels on it. It’s just there, if to say, “Hi, I made it. How are you doing?”
In a sense, a clock that has been ticking for a few thousand years says, “Hi, I made it. How are you doing?”
Lertzman: The key difference is that the earth and the bristlecone pine trees are natural — not created by humans. Those things are humbling precisely because they put human accomplishments in perspective.
Brand: Many different types of icons, human-made or otherwise, can communicate a long-term way of thinking. The Shinto shrine at Ise, the Jingu Shrine, is rebuilt every twenty years. Unlike Stonehenge or the pyramids, it’s a structure that is alive and working.
Some things have both an iconic quality and a real purpose, such as the Library of Alexandria, which was the conduit of classical Greek civilization to African, Islamic, and European cultures. At the time, it was just a museum, but in retrospect, it turned out to have been very essential. By looking back and engaging the previous several hundred years, taking hold of the whole world as it was experienced and understood at the time, it also took hold of longevity and the future. That had an enormous effect on civilization.
Big Ben has this iconic quality; the Eiffel Tower has it; Mount Rushmore would like to have this quality.
Lertzman: In the late 1980s, Paul Ehrlich and David Ornstein wrote a book called New World, New Mind, which proposed that we are evolutionarily “wired” to think in the short term.
Brand: I think that argument is ridiculous. The human brain has extended itself so far beyond the skull.
Lertzman: What does that mean?
Brand: Again, the creation of the Library of Alexandria was not a mental event in the Ehrlich-and-Ornstein sense. It was a mental event at a societal or civilizational level; it took place outside the individual skull. A lot of quite marvelous minds were engaged in it and influenced by it, but it was not a skull event. I think that’s an unnecessarily reductionist point of view, and a delusory one.
Lertzman: The big question, it seems, is how do we learn to think and act in the long term?
Brand: Curiosity probably has a lot to do with it. One thing I think would help is throwing away or rethinking the utopian frame of mind: the sense that we can figure out the way the world should work, and then set about proving it. So we’ll create this commune, or this national socialist regime, that will carry out this wonderful new plan about how everything should proceed. In order for the plan not to be polluted, we will renounce all things connected to culture as we once knew it — we will burn all the books, and so on. But trying to set up a perfect apparatus for running a society this way is a doomed effort, because in order to think some distance into the future, we can’t cut off the past. That’s why book burning is such a terrible crime against humanity. Caring about the future involves caring about the past.
For me, religion is probably the best institution for thinking about the long term, but most religions refuse to think in a helpful way about the future. Christianity, for example, says the world’s going to end, and then things will be better. Well, that’s no help at all.
Lertzman: I think that, generally speaking, our culture has a troubled, uneasy relationship with history. The whole question of “whose story is it?” has really shaken up our ways of relating to history.
Brand: That’s a post-modern point of view, and the Long Now Project is very much an Enlightenment project. It has no irony or postmodernism about it. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution were products of the Enlightenment. They designed a self-correcting, self-teaching system that could, like the marketplace, take less-than-wonderful aspirations and turn them into a relatively wonderful result. And that system is just self-reflective enough to function, but not too self-reflective.
Buckminster Fuller had very little patience with people he described as being “preoccupied with themselves.” I think that’s a risk of postmodernism. It sort of disappears up its own asshole, reflecting upon all the hidden agendas and interpretations and so on. The Enlightenment was pretty sure that there was an objective truth, that there was objective good and bad.
Lertzman: So a strong relationship to the past is essential for thinking forward?
Brand: Yes. In my book, I quote a Buddhist precept about having “infinite gratitude for the past, infinite service to the present, and infinite responsibility to the future.”
For me, religion is probably the best institution for thinking about the long term, but most religions refuse to think in a helpful way about the future. Christianity, for example, says the world’s going to end, and then things will be better. Well, that’s no help at all. Remember when James Watt, the former secretary of the interior — and a Christian fundamentalist — asked why we should bother with saving the wilderness if the end time is approaching?
On the other hand, there are a great many Christians now who are deeply engaged in environmental, long-term-responsible activity based on the idea of protecting God’s creation.
Lertzman: When I told my mother about the Ten Thousand Year Clock, she said such a large time frame made her feel insignificant.
Brand: That’s a fair point of view. But if we can’t get ahold of ten thousand years, maybe we can get ahold of fifty. Just having that ten thousand in mind changes how you think about fifty.
At the Ten Thousand Year Library Conference, there was a man from IBM who’s working on digital preservation — the issue being that everything digital that’s not transferred to a new format is basically lost every ten years. He said that it was helpful for them to think a hundred years into the future, but ten thousand years, even a thousand years, and his mind went blank, because there’s just so much change in computer technology. And yet he came to the conference. Why? I think so that he won’t operate as if the world will end in a hundred years.
So much of our planning is for the next twenty-five years. It’s as if we think the world moves very rapidly until the year 2025 and then stops! [Laughs.] That sort of planning actually becomes part of the problem. It creates a sense that nothing will stop things from moving at this fast pace except some sort of apocalyptic event.
The Clock, however, is wonderfully evenhanded, in that each year is just like another. As it happens, the dial now shows up to the year 12000. But the dial is the most easily changeable thing on the clock — anyone can swap it for a fresh one that has many more years on it, or a completely different time scale.
Lertzman: How has working on this project broadened you?
Brand: I am studying a lot more history than I might otherwise be doing. I take history a lot more personally, because I feel my own direct continuity with it. Before, it was always someone else’s story, and I would think, So what? Now it feels like my story, our story. That is tremendously engaging and comforting. Every time I look at history now, I think, Oh, so that’s where that came from; I get it! And knowing these things means having a better shot at understanding the present. What actions will we be glad to have taken? What actions will we deeply regret?
In a way, I feel the opposite of how your mother did about the ten-thousand-year span. Rather than subsuming the value of individual histories, this project invites me to feel comfortable with the last ten-thousand-plus years of human activity.