Friday, July 8, 2011

How do you feel about the Long Now clock?

I'm uncertain about how I feel about the Long Now clock.

I've read Kevin Kelley's The Clock in the Mountain, and I've read Dylan Tweney's paean in Wired: How to Make a Clock Run for 10,000 Years.

At some level, it's interesting stuff: lubricants accumulate grit, so it's better to use non-lubricating ceramics; drill the hole from the bottom up, but the robotic stair-cutting machine will etch the stairs from the top down; something about stainless steel Geneva wheels; pictures of Stewart Brand in long robes like some medieval monk.

But it all just seems like rich old men indulging their egos and wasting time, with bizarre statements such as:

The foundation plans to make the designs for the clock open source, so eventually you'll be able to download plans and schematics to build your own.

What? Cast my own Geneva wheels in stainless steel? Drill a 12-foot diameter hole in my own private mountain?

Not too long ago, if some eccentric billionaire blew some of his money on a doomed obsession, we'd just shake our heads and say "another Howard Hughes." But now we toss about terms like "open source" and "download" and try to make it sound like something serious and noble and modern:

[Tweney asks] Bezos how he can justify spending so much money on a project that seems so, well, impractical.


But there's a second reason, he says: It's nonredundant. Bill Gates is funding malaria research and education, George Soros promotes human rights around the globe. Warren Buffett gives to reproductive health, family planning, and antinuclear causes. But no other billionaire is building a clock like this, for the sole purpose of changing humanity's relationship to time.

Hillis is just as daft:

[Tweney asks] how he can justify spending time on the clock instead of, say, Applied Proteomics, which is helping fight cancer.

"I think this is the most important thing I can work on. More than cancer. Over the long run, I think this will make more difference to more people," he says.

To pump up their own self-importance, they're trying desparately to cultivate a sense of exclusivity:

How do you become one of those time-conscious beings who visit and wind the Clock? Jeff Bezos has just launched a public web site, 10000-year-clock, where interested folks can register their desire to visit the Clock in the Mountain when it is finished many years from now. Bezos has said he will give some kind of preference to current members of the Long Now Foundation.

Hillis, Brand, Bezos: these men should have been my heros. They are educated, powerful, successful, interested in the potential of technology to solve the problems of humanity. They name-drop the names of other similar men (Gates, Buffett) who truly are deserving of respect and admiration. But name-dropping and being rich and eccentric doesn't make you deserving of respect in this day and age.

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