Attention Conservation Notice: Whimsical dinner speech to multimillennial activists in Palo Alto. Contains "cosmically-aware gab." Almost 5,000 words.
"The Ten-Thousand-Year Clock and Library"
by Bruce Sterling
Stanford University, July 1, 02000
Thanks for having me in to join your think-tank.
glad to be here. I've been looking forward to this Long
Now event, in my placid, harmless, literary, garage-
futurist way. Why, just last week, I was on Amazon.com,
browsing around, and dawdling, and hitting the back button
on my browser, and refusing to buy various tempting
things, and generally wasting my time.... Us Long Now
devotees consider that sort of random, bucolic, grazing
activity a positive virtue, really... It's a kind of
carbon safety rod in the nuclear pile of the digital
So I go and I look up this CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW
on Amazon.... Presciently figuring that I'm going to have
to do some painful brainstorming in public about this
thing.... As you may know, Amazon keeps remarkably
meticulous and slightly sinister archives of user
consumption habits. So, what else do people buy when they
buy books like CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW by Stewart Brand?
Well, it turns out they buy books by Chris Alexander, the
architect and design theorist. Fine. That makes sense,
Chris Alexander's in Berkeley, he's practically in Stewart
Brand's zipcode. But they also buy JOHN RUSKIN!
I was stupefied by this. John Ruskin! Wow! You
and look at the Bruce Sterling pages on Amazon. People
who buy my books buy Nine Inch Nails albums. No John
Ruskin there, boyo. We get William Gibson and Neal
Stephenson, two other science fiction writers who share
huge chunks of my genetic code. But people who read the
CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW buy books by a Victorian art critic
who's been dead for a hundred years!
I would be hugely impressed with myself if people
bought my sci-fi novels went and bought some John Ruskin.
I happen to be quite the Ruskin devotee, personally. I
haven't read the entire 75-foot shelf of Ruskin, but I've
read Ruskin in suspiciously large amounts. Seven Lamps
of Architecture... The Stones of Venice... Why is a
science fiction writer such an ardent antiquarian?
Because it's really exciting and inspirational when you
read the work of someone who is much more intelligent and
perceptive than you are, and yet horribly, terribly wrong.
To have the benefit of hindsight on a cultural critic of
genius is like walking on stilts. It really gives one
some fantastic sense of giddy, mind-expanding exaltation.
Now, you can't be a sincere Ruskin follower unless
you are passionately interested in nobility, virtue, and
Christian exegesis. I have absolutely no interest in any
of those things. I consider them radically
counterproductive. The main benefit I derive from
reading Ruskin is the spectacle of someone very bright,
very dedicated, very perceptive, very historically aware,
a prophet really, a futurist seer == who is mired armpit
deep in his own parochiality.
And so are we. Really. We are. The great benefit
we have is that we have records, so we can see what
happened to John Ruskin. So I want to suggest some ways
in which the 10,000-Year Library and the Clock projects
might benefit by this historical, archival experience.
I think we can plausibly compare the Long Now group
John Ruskin's activist foundation, the Guild of Saint
George. These were his dragon-slaying knights of cultural
preservationism. Ruskin was earning quite a good living
in his later years, so despite his series of tragic and
shattering nervous breakdowns, he kept endowing these
ambitious, real-world, nonprofit efforts. This was his
attempt to move from mere moralizing to good works, or, in
Silicon Valley's vocabulary, from Ruskin vaporware to a
Ruskin product launch.
For instance, John Ruskin established an "ethical
house" in London. He also got some willing volunteers to
roll up their sleeves and build roads in the English
countryside. One of these volunteer laborers was Oscar
Wilde, if you can imagine Oscar Wilde as a kind of
Victorian navvy. Oscar Wilde out there in the sticks with
a sledge and a barrow, Oscar Wilde out there just crackin'
those rocks.... Ruskin also bought up some farmland for
a future Arts and Crafts Christian-socialist commune. In
real life, though, the Guild of Saint George spent most of
its time running high-minded meetings like this one, and
publishing a small journal, at a big loss. So finally,
John Ruskin died, and the Guild petered along for a few
years, and then it just perished from lack of conviction
So today we're in a rather analogous position, because we have a scheme based in a profound cultural insight, and we're trying to incarnate it physically, so that it survives the will of its founders. I want to describe how we might succeed where John Ruskin failed.
I think that the long-term prospects look good. John
Ruskin was painfully frustrated in many of his own
efforts, in his own time. But as a 181-year-old cultural
antique, John Ruskin is doing just fine. Ruskin's house
is a museum, it's a tourist draw in the British museum
economy. There's a guy in Britain right now who wanders
around doing public John Ruskin impersonations. Believe
it or not, people will pay good money to see a fake Ruskin
deliver a fake Ruskin lecture nowadays. I suppose it's
not much stranger than buying modern replicas of Tiffany
lamps and Mission furniture. Ruskin doesn't mean to us
what he meant to his contemporaries, but Ruskin does mean
something, and his reputation is, if anything, on the
upswing. If the Long Now project is ever 181 years old,
we also won't have to worry about its safety.
I feel quite sure that the greatest risk this
project faces is Ruskin's problem with his own good works:
infant mortality. If the Clock lasts even one hundred
years, so that everyone in this room is dead and it's
still running, then its chances of making a thousand years
are good. Any hundred-year-old mechanism in working,
functional order will have real presence and value. It
will become mythic.
Our gravest concern is getting there from here,
vaporware to antique. Our gravest concern is for the
five-year-old mechanism, and the seven-year-old mechanism,
maybe the twenty-two-year-old mechanism. There is a
deadly trough of interest and support between the cool
status of a technical novelty and the warm status of a
cherished heirloom. Even the Eiffel Tower, that
tremendous monument of Western civilization, barely made
it through this lukewarm period. There was a very
dangerous set of years in Paris in which the Eiffel Tower
was no longer Eiffel's high-tech achievement. It was
rusty and taken-for-granted, and it got no press. It was
a leftover fairground attraction that had lost all its
novelty pull. It was not yet a treasured period piece ==
it was just old news. Serious people wanted it torn down
Just because we talk a lot about timelessness,
doesn't mean that we ourselves will never look dated.
Making a grand gesture doesn't free you from historical
judgement. High tech quickly becomes very corny. It's
like our unhappy realization that Richard Nixon's
signature is on the moon. Is that what we in the American
Republic really wanted to leave as our message to all
mankind? That Nixon signature will probably be quite
legible in ten thousand years. If we Americans had a
chance to quietly flush that moon plaque down the
political correctness hole, don't you think we might do
it? Think how much better we'd feel.
John Ruskin died in January 1900. When the
architect Henry Wilson heard the news, he said, "Is Ruskin
dead? Thank God! Give me a cigarette!"
That was an expression of sheer psychic relief, you
see. This is what that reaction would sound like in our
own context: "Hey man == the Long Now clock is dead."
"What happened to it?" "I guess it got too popular. No
one went there any more. They had to shut it down."
So, "Thank God, give me a cigarette," you know?
Thank God that this strange scheme of these dated New Age
elders, these obsolete Silicon Valley digital
Californians, is not going to be there any more, ticking,
ticking, spinning, spinning, all through our own twenty-
first century, like some kind of terrible reproach! If
I'd known it would feel this good to have old Ruskin die,
I'd have killed him myself!
So this is a serious threat, and if our beloved
is going to survive it, it's going to require some
cultural realpolitik. This is not a monument or library
== yet. If it comes into being, it will be generally
perceived as a bizarre novelty built by a cabal of gizmo-
obsessives. Visionary people, the kind of people who put
up with science fiction writers as dinner entertainment.
I'm optimistic about this part. This is much to
secret benefit == the strange reason why it's coming into
being. Pop gurus and pop stars and pop fiction people,
getting together with librarians and archivists and
thinking seriously about ten millennia. There is
considerable oxymoronic cultural power there. A good
contradiction gives a social idea great strength. We
might yet succeed in doing something useful and practical,
if we keep our heads about it, and don't get all carried
away by our own press. Disposable, trendy, pop culture
people are a hundred times lot more likely to get away
with a thousand-year project than Albert Speer was.
It's a good thing to do; I'm an enthusiast about
I think it's good for us whether it works out in ten
thousand years or not. I think it's well worth doing even
if it fails swiftly and completely in some deeply
humiliating way. As members of a virtual intelligentsia,
we are trying to recognize and heal some of our own clear
inadequacies as thinkers and culturati, and that is the
proper spirit in which to do something like this. It's an
act of Emersonian self-improvement, a giving-back, almost
a penance. It's a good project, a worthy gesture. It's
not senseless or cranky, it's responsible and wise.
The problem is that pop-culture really does date
quickly and badly. This project can never be allowed to
smell rancid. To survive, it needs mythic proportions and
great seriousness. It needs profundity and sublimity. It
can't be too cute, too neat, too sexy, too well-
engineered. It has to be born with a beard.
Now I want to suggest some design tactics by which this trough area, this span of campiness and corniness, might be successfully bridged.
mystification. The public should be infected with the
creeping suspicion that there is something in this project
which has not been publicly revealed. That there is a
secret, higher project behind the public project. This is
a psychological operation, intended to keep people off-
balance and waiting on tenterhooks. Waiting for the other
shoe to drop == a shoe which will never drop.
There are any number of ways to accomplish this.
simplest is to say nothing, and wait for rumors to build
up on their own, because they certainly will. Certain
terms have already come up in our discussion which have
the proper kind of Gothic resonance for this. A term like
"Dark Archive," for encrypted files time-stamped and
hidden away for centuries, is very suggestive. So is "The
Dracula Room for Undead Media."
The second simplest way is to boldly invent some
fake rumors. Simply make up a dramatic, archaic-looking,
Masonic myth, with a mystic eye in the pyramid, and some
impressive Latin mumbo-jumbo slogans: Novus Ordo
Seclorum, E Pluribus Unum. You've all seen it done.
The most effective method, however, would be to
two clocks. First, the obvious public clock, on display.
Second, the secret mystified clock. The two of them
keep time in perfect harmony, but the first one is exposed
to all the winds and gales of public enthusiasm and
disdain, whereas the second clock is never revealed.
Blurry pictures of it are periodically let slip. It might
even have a live webcam. But no one can approach the
mystic clock. No one can harm it. It is beyond mortal
touch. It is never subject to public judgement. No one
knows where it's kept.
Why do this? Because this shadow clock makes it
impossible to derive any psychic relief from the death of
the public clock. You can't enjoy a cigarette after
Ruskin dies == because there's ANOTHER RUSKIN, still going
strong! This also has great morale benefits for the
keepers of the public clock. If it's broken by a vandal
or hacked by a hardware hacker eager for publicity == the
common kind of lunatic who wants to set fire to the temple
== then there is no break in the cycle of timekeeping. A
backup heartbeat is still going on in a secret location.
You don't necessarily need a secret location. It
would be almost as mystically glamorous to have a public
yet physically inaccessible location, like, for instance,
the depths of the Marianas trench. Drop a self-winding
Long Now clock down there, sealed in some kind of thermos
bottle. You could wire the clock to run untouched by
human hands, powered by, let's say, the renewable voltage
in ocean slime. In this condition, even the organizers
can't shut it down. It's an autonomous shadow clock. A
kind of temporal doppleganger. An ahistorical, remote-
control timebomb, divorced from all human influence.
These Gothic aspects are deliberately played up in public
It might not be necessary to build this second
The myth of a second clock might work almost as well.
If the second clock really does exist == then it might be
wise to promulgate the myth of a shadowy Third Clock.
I know this sounds like a cheap trick. But it's
likely to work. In Isaac Asimov's FOUNDATION trilogy of
classic science fiction novels, there's a Foundation of
cultural archivists, established to protect human
knowledge from a cultural breakdown. There's also a
secret, Second Foundation. When it comes to human
psychology, the old tricks are the good ones. The Aum
Shinri Kyo cult, the guys with the nerve gas in the Tokyo
subway == they were major fans of those Asimov FOUNDATION
novels. The whole set-up really preyed on their minds,
There are other methods of achieving some timeless
gravitas for this project's infancy. Something to break
it out of that constricting realm of the nine-days wonder
and the theme-park attraction.
One extremely effective method of cheap, lasting
timelessness comes immediately to mind. We might call this
the "Now He Belongs to the Ages" syndrome. In other
words, some dead people. Live people are very unhappy and
uneasy about disturbing graveyards. A newly established
cathedral becomes accepted by the public when it begins
burying the community. Cathedrals also make do with the
relics of saints: holy shinbones and skulls, and so on.
So I can suggest some fertile approaches here.
First, obtain someone who is both extremely dead and
extremely old. Inter him on the site of the Clock, or in
the archive. A perfect candidate would be Kennewick Man.
Lucy the Australopithecene might be better yet, but she's
pretty booked-up, under intense study. Kennewick Man is a
really special case: they dug him up out of the Pacific
Northwest, and the guy's bones have been radiocarbon-dated
to 9,000 years ago. Kennewick Man exists in a very
unhappy shadow area between laboratory specimen and a
politically violated Native American ancestor. So with
Kennewick Man entombed on the Long Now site, we're going
9,000 years into our heritage, while also looking 9,000
years ahead. We should build that Clock right on top of
Granted, this scheme may not be entirely practical
== costs too much, too politically touchy. So let me
offer another strikingly morbid alternative: the tontine.
What is a tontine? Well, the tontine was invented
an Italian banker named Lorenzo Tonti, as a kind of
seventeenth-century New Economy investment scheme. A
group of investors starts a mutual fund. They get
dividends from the investments. Every time someone in the
tontine dies, their share gets split up among the
surviving members. Until finally, the last guy standing
inherits everything. Interestingly, this tontine
process was often used in France to fund public buildings.
In our case, of course, the Long Now Clock is
the last guy standing. Always. So a Long Now Clock tontine
survives by measuring out people's lifespans. When they
perish, their chunk of the money is given to maintain the
clock. I would strongly urge that the members of the
tontine be buried on the site of the Clock. Or at least,
they should memorialized on it on some very public,
macabre, memento-mori way.
I guarantee that it would sober up trendy gawkers
immediately, if they saw this sinister device prepared to
reap its way through ten thousand years of future
humanity, scythe first. I would suggest seeding the
project with a few dead guys, already attached to the
clock at its first unveiling. The sincerity of this
gesture speaks for itself. Because after all, the future
is where we go to die. Some of us in the Long Now tontine
would be very public about our intention to be immolated
with this clock. As a further spice, there would be
secret members of the Long Now tontine.
Another stellar possibility is to make the clock
itself somehow embody a huge span of time. I think it's a
bad idea for the clock to be all brand-new, because it
cannot stay that way, and the gloss of newness is sure to
fade quickly and it will look very tacky. I would
suggest that some substantial parts of the clock be made
out of substances that are already ten thousand years old.
Mastodon bones might do it. Human-worked mastodon bones
would be even better.
The earliest form of recorded data known to man
etched bones, prehistoric bones with notches carved into
them, bones about the size of your hand. These notched
bone records have been found in archaeological sites all
over Europe and the Middle East. They seem to have been
tally sticks of some kind, maybe lunar calendars. This
practice of notching bones with tally-marks died out about
10,000 BC. If the Long Now Clock succeeds, we'll have
basically re-started this tradition. So, I'd suggest
putting some of these notched bones into the Library, or
better yet, build the bones right into the structure of
There's another good way to make the clock
embody millenial spans of time. That's to build it out of
radioactive materials. After our very interesting
presentations here from the nuclear waste stewards of the
US Department of Energy, I quite like the idea of a
extremely radioactive public clock. Maybe even a clock
that kills you if you stand too close to it. This would
certainly enforce respectful sobriety from the populace ==
if they had to wear a lead apron in the thing's vicinity.
Even a mildly radioactive clock would be almost as
exciting, thrilling and perversely attractive.
Now for a few words on the nature of the archives
themselves. I would strongly suggest that the older they
are, the better. I don't think we can go far wrong by
simply and mechanically including all the cultural loot we
ourselves have, that has survived major cultural
catastrophes. A complete Greco-Roman concordance, as a
matter of course == these would be the remnants of lost
Alexandria. All Chinese classics which were not
destroyed by the First Emperor of China in his book-
burning campaigns. The remaining Mayan codices. The
cultural histories of the oldest religious scriptures.
Anything with no commercial potential that is out
copyright. Capturing today's digital ephemera would add
commercial value to it. You will be attacked for the
revenue stream if you add money to today's frenzied
commercial net. Stay away from IPO competitors and
intellectual property attorneys, because they will rob and
kill you. Industrial capitalism beat John Ruskin, and
postindustrial capitalism will beat you, too.
Now a word in praise of dead languages. The next
hundred years is going to kill dozens and dozens of human
languages. A language is a vast archive of mental
software composed by millions of distributed users. Dead
languages are very old and newly dead, so therefore they
have great dignity and gravitas. The presence of dead
languages in the archive is also a potent defense against
a political attack that sees the Long Now clock as an act
of narrow sectarian glorification by First World
The people whose languages are dying are, of course,
the most primitive and disenfranchised members of global
society. Follow a dying language, and you'll infallibly
find somebody whose culture can no longer earn a living.
Soon, we ourselves will be similarly defunct. It's not
very likely that we'll be telling the year 3000 how to
earn a living. To be of genuine value to them, we should
be telling them something they don't already know. A
dying language is something we have that we can show to
the future, which the future does not have around.
Besides, this language project is achievable. It's not
pie in the sky. It doesn't require any handwaving about
magic universal machines or infinite storage or digital
revolutions. It just needs responsibility and patience.
If you're careless and impatient, your digital gizmos
won't save you from the consequences, I can promise you
I want to conclude with a final conundrum. That
the victory condition. When Ruskin set up his Guild of
Saint George, he described it as an attempt "to build a
raft among the wreckage." This was defeatism. It
presupposes his own condition as a victim of shipwreck. I
don't think people should engage in large projects without
some firm idea of what success might mean to them. I think
you should ask yourself about your own reactions if the
Long Now point of view gained massive acceptance, and
became a mainstream paradigm.
You need to aim to win. Aiming to lose is wicked.
It's very revealing to think that through the consequences
of winning. In one of his best books, almost
accidentally, Ruskin reveals what British architecture
might look like if he got his own way. It's an evil dream
of empire where a fascist government licenses swarms of
architecture critics like himself, who then closely
regulate all public and private dwellings, and restrict
all future construction to state-approved styles and
dimensions. When I hear archivists itching to "catalog
everything digital forever," I'm hearing a Ruskinian power
fantasy. It's utopian and coercive.
Suppose, though, that we were successful in
inculcating the habit of responsible social engagement
with really long timespans. If so, then it's extremely
unlikely that there would be only one Long Clock and one
Long archive. This one, the first effort, is hardly
likely to be the best one ever built in the next ten
So we're not going to be permitted to make a single
sublime gesture which glows like a hard gemlike flame for
the next ten millennia. There is only one Eiffel Tower,
but there are dozens of big impressive towers in the
world. There's the Tokyo Tower, the Seattle Tower, the
Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai, there's even a tower
taller than the Eiffel Tower in Uzbekistan. We shouldn't
flatter ourselves. At the very least, we need to expect a
flurry of copycat archives by nutty fringe cults, and
tasteless, pirated Long Now T-shirts, and rampant
commercialization, and porn films, and drag racers, and
wrestlers, and tattoos, and MP3s, and bad cable TV shows,
and a Senate hearing chaired by Jesse Helms.
Over the longer term, we might surmise that serious,
large-scale social resources might be devoted to long-
scale archival work. This means pulling the
informational core of society, distilling it down into
well-considered, compacted forms, and deliberately
projecting it ages into the future. Not as a lefthanded
hobbyist effort like ours, but in a sober and well-
considered effort, that has been refined by practice, and
by large, industrial-scale expertise. This would mean
genuine victory for our core values. As people, though,
this would make us look very dated and primitive and
somewhat pathetic. Like John Ruskin, basically, except
that we don't have to perish in heartbroken despair. We
win. I like this view. I really prefer to win humbly
rather than to perish romantically.
Our future equivalents in a Long Now culture would
probably be more ambitious and capable than us. That means
that 10,000 years is a sissy number. It's for pikers,
strictly for beginners. So, they would likely be
interested in communicating over geological time-spans
with entities that are not human. For instance, they might
send thoughtful, well-composed radio signals to galaxies
several million light-years off.
On a smaller scale, they could put archives into
cometary orbit, so that they would return every few
thousand years, like time capsules, to the vicinity of the
Earth. On a more earthly level, archives could use the
message-in-a-bottle method. They could be sunk into
primordial ooze to wait for a change in ancient sea
currents. A more advanced version would be vehicles of
solid diamond or fullerenes that could be dropped into
continental trenches. They would then be subducted below
the crust of the earth, to ride the currents of lava below
the continental shelves, far from any disturbing human
influence. These archives would eventually reappear in
volcanoes, hundreds of millions of years in the planet's
But these are not the subtlest methods of building
informational arks. There are quieter ones. One could
overwrite chunks of DNA in very long-lived organisms, to
embed messages inside living things. An excellent choice
would be the microorganisms that live inside rock. These
Martian-style bugs are very hardy and very slow == they
are supposedly able to survive transportation between
planets. A Long Now stellar civilization might make a
directed-panspermia effort, where living creatures carry
organic life and also carry embedded instructions of some
kind. This may have already happened on our planet. Now
that we can sequence organisms at will, embedded messages
might be worth looking for.
The ultimate subtlety, as I can conceive it in my
halting, parochial way, is to somehow inscribe an archive
into the structure of space-time. The many-worlds
hypothesis says that many universes are possible. We
live in a universe like this because we are the kind of
entity that can see a universe like this. The final
defeat of time by information would be to create a
universe in which meaningful information is embedded in
its principles of existence. This is not a new idea.
This is a very old scriptural idea. "In the beginning was
the WORD." Natural philosophers used to read divine
intention into everything: John Ruskin was of this school.
It's also happens to be the logical culmination of two
great Stewart Brand aphorisms: "Information wants to be
free" and "We are as gods and might as well get good at
it." To embed the WORD into the structure of the Cosmos
is an ultimate steganography hack. We haven't yet found
this innate meaning-in-reality, but we're not yet done
I suppose that's about as far as I want to take it tonight. Thanks a lot for your attention.