The Clock of the Long Now

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  • The Viewing Problem of Obsolete Storage

    Obsolete storage formats present two difficult challenges if they are to be preserved. While we might succeed in preserving the physical storage medium (e.g. magnetic tape decays if not stored properly), it’s much more difficult to preserve the device needed to read the information off of the storage medium. This is ‘the viewing problem’—unlike papers and stone tablets modern storage needs special machinery just to read it. While civilization has preserved tablets that are thousands of years old, our modern technology can’t even last 50 years.

  • Roman Concrete Was Self-Healing

    Roman concrete used thousands of years ago is significantly more durable than modern concrete. One of the key differences is self-healing properties—when Roman concrete cracks, it reacts with water which quickly fills in the crack with calcium carbonate.

  • Governments Are Comfortable Thinking Long Term When it Comes to Infrastructure

    While government tends to be short-term oriented (the election cycle drives decisions so officials can be re-elected), an area the do feel comfortable thinking long term is infrastructure. With regularity, they will initiate projects to build roads, telecommunications, buildings, and other infrastructure that takes many years to build (the second avenue subway line in Manhattan started in 1972).

  • Space Exploration Led to Earth Day

    The US space program led to the first color photographs of the Earth taken from the Moon in 1969. No one had ever seen it from so far away and it moved people. In fact, it resulted in a new conservation movement which eventually led to Earth Day in 1970.

  • Taking the Long View Penetrates the Illusion

    Our senses are attuned to things that change quickly (like the lottery), but this causes us to miss what is actually going on (gambling means losing). If one is to cut through this illusion to what’s real, one needs to take the long view.

  • Thinking Better Thoughts

    I remember when I first started working at Stripe I felt like the dumbest person in the room. I was amazed at how smart everyone seemed and the writing…gosh, the writing! If I wanted to be like that too, something needed to change.

  • Surprise Plus Memory Equals Learning

    Learning is composed of two elements: surprise and memory. If you go about life and nothing is surprising then you wouldn’t have anything new to learn. Similarly, if you don’t retain the lessons from being surprised then you haven’t learned it.

  • Civilization Is Composed of Fast Layers and Slow Layers to Absorb Shocks

    Resilient systems that can absorb shocks (short peaks of rapid change) have multiple layers that move at different speeds. For example, technology is a fast moving layer—it changes very quickly. In contrast, culture is a slower moving layer which, over the course of time, is nudged along over a longer time period.

  • Societies Live by Decades, Civilizations by Centuries

    Thinking in different scales of time reveals problems in our rapid rate of technological progress. Societies last decades and civilization by centuries, but modern storage mediums (tape, floppy disk, CD) last far less than that. How much useful information is now lost because old tape drives decayed or because no device can still read an obsolete storage medium?