The 10,000-year clock and the importance of durable design

Published 14th December 2018
The 10,000-year clock and the importance of durable design
Written by Ben Parker
You couldn't have a conversation about the future in the second half of the 20th century without someone mentioning the year 2000. The prospect of a new millennium was the kind of cultural epoch that made futurists drool.
No self-respecting designer would turn out a piece of work without wondering if it would stand up to the test of time, come the dawning of the brave new world of the 21st century. The looming horizon of the year 2000 provided the kind of fertile creative landscape that inspired into action everyone from technologists to politicians.
In 1986, Danny Hillis, an American inventor and entrepreneur not long out of graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had grown tired with the arbitrary mental barrier created by the year 2000. All around him, supposed visionaries seemed incapable of considering what the world might look like come 2100, 2050 or even 2010.
The dawning of the millennium had become code for the end of the future, with the Millennium Bug further underlining 2000 as a kind of cultural tipping point from which no one could return. In despair, Hillis set his sights on a much longer-term horizon.
He set about creating the "Clock of the Long Now." Designed to keep time for the next 10,000 years, such a timepiece would provoke a profound rethink of our relationship with the future. Hillis wanted to rip up the rulebook on time and start from scratch. So he began constructing a mechanical clock engineered to tick once a year for ten millennia.
A model of the 10,000 year clock. Credit: Rolfe Horn
The clock's century hand advances once every hundred years, while a cuckoo will emerge every 1,000 years. Hillis wanted to embody a sense of "deep time," creating a cultural reference point that would champion a sense of long-termism. He hoped the clock would do for time perception what the photographs of Earth from space have done for the environment.
More than three decades after having the original idea, the clock is still under construction, deep within a Texan mountain owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It represents a cathartic release from the short-termism of the here and now.
In an attention economy all around us the once sacred tenets of visual culture are being challenged. Creatives choose voguish fads over timeless style. Politicians bribe voters with illusory giveaways that damage us all in the long-run. Voters use referendums to back short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term prosperity. CEOs are given months to turn around companies that have been failing for years. Spooked by daily market falls, investors rush to sell stocks that have delivered returns for decades. Engrossed in the tedium of the endless emails, texts and social media alerts of the present, we deprive ourselves of the time and space to sit down and plan. The pressures of the present leave us with little time to creatively look towards the horizon.
A view of the West Texas landscape that will house the clock.
Hardwiring long-termism into the DNA of design is no small task. We don't make time to think about how the consumers of the future will interact with the world around them, with culture, society and the environment. We fail to study how the material realities of future generations might be different to the ones of our own. The zeitgeist is one of the immediate, but it doesn't have to be this way.
Creating things that will sustain us as much in fifty years' time as they do now represents the most pressing entrepreneurial opportunity of our age. We are crying out for a new way of thinking that is built to last, taking decisions that nourish our existence today that we can live with tomorrow. Our collective crisis of thinking has left us with time-agnostic design that pollutes our environment, fuels our anxieties and leaves us trapped in the miserable world of swipes and likes. Designers and public policy makers alike are never going to fix these problems on 4-year terms.
Long_now_Site Construction 2
Construction of the clock is in progress.
Now more than ever before we must look beyond the aesthetic and put time at the heart of the brief. Design must embrace deep time, reframing the way people think now and decades into the future. Creatives must find new value in "long" ideas rather than "big" ideas. We must go beyond the miserable confines of now. Real foresight means envisioning the world 100 years from now, being unafraid to ask searching questions about what visual culture will mean to the societies of the 2100s and beyond.
Being able to visualize the future is good for us all as individuals and as humans. But as we don't do this now as individuals how can we do this as a society? The answer lies in the power of the collective. We must reject the curse of silo-thinking, instead recognizing the limits of the individual, being unafraid to collaborate with the greater good in mind.
Great design is about having the courage to envision a world unfathomably different to that of the present. It's about looking long into the horizon in a bid to understand the human experience of societies to come. Visionary design leads not follows. Many in design pay lip service to the future, but few dare to shape it.