How far ahead do you think and plan?

Remember the fears prior to the new millennium that we called Y2K? It turned out not to be a big deal. We imagined problems with computer systems crashing because early computer programmers used two numbers instead of four for dates to keep program file sizes small. What would happen at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000 when all those computers designed with such short sight thought it was January 1, 1900? Companies did spend millions of dollars to do fixes and Y2K came in with a whimper.

Well, some people now are thinking very far ahead. 10,000 years ahead. With a clock that will keep time for the next 10,000 years.

Danny Hillis started thinking about this in print in 2009. Hillis would add a fifth digit to our dating, so that would be 02009, but it’s about more than just the dating. It is about a clock.

The 10,000 Year Clock prototype currently operates in the Science Museum of London. Photo:Rolfe Horn/The Long Now Foundation

The official name for his project is The Clock of the Long Now. They are designing and building a functional prototype for a clock that has to be able to record time and yet transcend time. It has to be able to keep working for 10,000 years. No easy task.

The Long Now Foundation is the group Hillis co-founded to try to do it.

Talk about taking a long view.

Think about all the issues you have to consider for that clock. What keeps it running? How do you stop it from falling apart if there’s no one around to maintain it? Why should you care about a clock running if there’s no one around to use it?

I am all for long-term thinking and can see the shortcomings of short-term thinking in the world, my work, and personal life. But 10,000 years?

Then I think about the Druids and the Mayan people.

Look at Stonehenge – ancient observatory, burial site, place of celebration, a long-term marker of time’s passage. It’s certainly an example of thinking far beyond your own time.

And the example that will certainly get more media attention this year is the Mayan calendar whose 5000 year cycle ends on the solstice on December. 21, 2012.

End of the world or the start of another 5000 year cycle? I’m of the latter school. How optimistic that the Mayan people thought they (or at least “we”) would be around for 5000 years.

The chances are excellent that 12/21/12 (a nice symmetry in those numbers) will be a normal day. No asteroids hitting Earth in the forecast. No solar eruptions. There’s always the potential for humans to do something really stupid with some weapons, but that has been a threat for half a century already.

I like the optimism of thinking about the people of Earth in 10,000 years.

I like the idea that the chimes on the 10,000 Year Clock were designed by musician Brian Eno so that they will never play the same combination of sounds twice over the course of 10,000 years.

When my oldest son graduated high school, he had to select a quote for his yearbook photo. He chose one from a movie he loved at the time – Gladiator – that I thought was pretty appropriate for a kid just starting to think about his future. In the film, the protagonist, Maximus, says “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

I’d like to believe that is true for all of us.

Think ahead, people.


The chimes designed by Brian Eno. Photo by Nicholas Chatfield-Taylor - The Long Now Foundation