Objects of Despair: The 10,000-Year Clock


Objects of Despair

Inspired by Roland Barthes, Meghan O’Gieblyn’s monthly column Objects of Despair examines contemporary artifacts and the mythologies we have built around them. This is her final dispatch. 

Somewhere in the desert of western Texas, in an underground chamber beneath a remote mountain range, a clock is being built that will last for ten thousand years. The clock is five hundred feet tall, and its pendulum is as large as a man. Its Geneva gears sprawl eight feet in diameter. The clock will be functional, perhaps more functional than any clock ever made, but it will not measure minutes or hours. Where the second hand should be, there will be a marker that advances once every century. The cuckoo will emerge at the dawn of each millennium. Each time the clock is wound, its bells will ring out in a different permutation of its algorithmically programmed sequences—no melody will be played twice. Reaching the clock will require something of a pilgrimage. The nearest airport is several hours by car, and to find the clock, visitors must travel through the desert, hike a rugged trail that rises up the mountain, then descend a spiral staircase that tunnels down into the earth.

The 10,000-year clock, or the Clock of the Long Now, sprang from the imagination of Danny Hillis, a supercomputer designer who proposed its creation in a 1995 article for Wired magazine. It was a response to a problem that Hillis called “the shrinking future,” or the inability to think beyond one’s own lifetime. The most ambitious and enduring projects of former civilizations, he argued—the Egyptian pyramids, the medieval cathedrals—were constructed across several generations and required a kind of long-term thinking that had become lost to us. “I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me,” he wrote. The problem was that he couldn’t visualize this story. The clock was to become a symbol of this expansive outlook, one that would by its very nature encourage people to begin thinking again about the prospect of the distant future. Over the years, he built several prototypes. The clock garnered fans among a certain type of male celebrity who regards himself as forward-thinking—Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Peter Gabriel—all of whom contributed funding and creative input. But for two decades, the clock was simply an idea in Hillis’s mind: a symbol without a referent.

Ever since I heard about the clock, about a decade ago, it has lived in my imagination as vividly as any physical monument. It is the kind of object that I myself would have conjured, I like to think, if I had a different kind of life, one that involved creating material artifacts rather than making things out of words. I have always felt, as Hillis has, that time was something I was stuck inside, that if I could somehow climb out of this particular moment, I could see the world, and history, as it really is. I credit this delusion to growing up in a culture obsessed with eternity—the Christian afterlife—an idea that held, by implication, that mortal existence was a veiled antechamber that obscured from us a more expansive, more authentic, understanding of time. But for a nonreligious person, this kind of thinking is senseless. What lies outside of time? More time. Still, when I imagine the enormity of the clock in its mountain chamber, I think not of the pyramids or the great cathedrals but of a biblical analogue: the Tower of Babel, that most ambitious of human projects. I have always read the myth as a parable about the attempt to transcend our limited human perspective. The tower builders, and whoever commissioned them—Nimrod, or some other king—were trying to climb high so that they could see beyond their own localized moment. This is why they were punished: they were trying a obtain a perspective that belonged to God alone. This is, of course, an idiosyncratic reading of the myth. Most of the Christians I know insist it’s a parable about technological hubris.

Is it true that we live in an age of the shrinking future? It’s a popular complaint among our most celebrated technological gurus—the Nimrods of our era. Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and the like love to bemoan the fact that the new millennium has failed to deliver on the promises of midcentury science fiction. Where are our flying cars and robotic maids? Where are the jet packs we were promised? Such failures, for them, are evidence of desiccated ambition, a sapping of the spiritual energy required to Think Big. The obvious response to this accusation—one that we millennials give, exhaustedly, each time we are accused of anomie and nostalgia—is ecological: if it has become impossible to plan beyond the next century, the next decade, it’s because it’s difficult to believe that our planet will sustain us for such modest lengths of time. (Hillis’s invention might be said to have an evil twin in the Doomsday Clock, another symbolic timepiece, which is counting down our days on the planet.) I suspect, though, that the tech billionaires would dismiss this defense as yet another symptom of the problem, proof of our complacency in the face of the most pressing scientific challenge of our era.

But this is all reductive and beside the point. The truth is that there are two ways in which the future can become obsolete. One is through the inability to imagine the New: in this model, the idea of building a Tower never occurs to us; we are content to stay on the ground. The other happens when the New becomes so perpetual and unrelenting, when the construction of the Tower becomes so consuming, that we no longer have the luxury or the inclination to look up. I am not speaking of the New in terms of genuinely innovative ideas but rather in terms of a more mundane, technological fixation on novelty. I am referring to the banality of newness, of neologisms and reboots and the proliferation of “innovative” platforms that are constantly reordering our lives while failing in any meaningful way to transform them. To live in this world is to exist inside a machine where change is often confused for progress, where conceptualizing the future is impossible because the cycle itself is totalizing, meaningless, and without end. Hillis seemed to have had this world in mind when he evoked the unrelenting pace of modern life. As he wrote in 1995: “Why bother making plans when everything will change?”

If the ephemerality of life was the problem, then the solution, Hillis believed, was to create something durable. He spent decades researching how a clock might be kept intact, operational, and accurate for several millennia, a radical act of imagination in a world that relies on cheap, disposable goods. Eventually, though, he realized the problem was not simply a matter of materials: its survival depended on people. If future generations no longer valued the clock or understood its importance, they would no doubt scrap it for parts. If it became important, it would get turned into a symbol and would eventually be destroyed. “The only way to survive over the long run is to be made of materials large and worthless, like Stonehenge and the Pyramids,” he wrote, “or to become lost.” This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls had survived for so long, he realized: nobody knew where they were. For a while, he considered that the only way to preserve the clock was to hide it.

To make something lasting, in other words, we must protect it not only from time but also from ourselves. We often decry the disposability of modern objects, their fleeting shelf lives, but their durability has little to do with their susceptibility to physical decay. We now live in a world where children’s car seats come with expiration dates. A friend of mine recently mentioned this to me, in passing. She tried to explain that it was to avoid the dangers of wear and tear, a rationale I found absurd. (Plastic, as the anti-straw campaigners love to remind us, takes five hundred years to decompose.) Eventually, she admitted that she didn’t know why car seats expired. Perhaps it had something to do with compliance? But she and I both knew that the logic lay elsewhere. Even objects without any physical reality now come with an expiration date. If the relentless reminders about OS and software updates are any evidence, products that exist solely in the ether are subject to the same ephemerality. Christ dreamed of a heavenly kingdom where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, but the digital, invisible realm we’ve created is every bit as impermanent as the terrestrial world we inherited.

The problem, in other words, is not material but economic—which is to say spiritual. The rapid production and retirement of goods has accustomed us to a rhythm of life that sucks everything into its vortex, such that even intellectual culture—the “economy of ideas”—is drawn into its cycle of perpetual newness and planned obsolescence. At a book festival earlier this year, I was twice told that anyone who is writing about the same thing they were writing about in 2015 is no longer relevant. This was meant as a political observation, one that hewed to the common belief that history was irrevocably breached three years ago, that we now live in a world without precedent (politics, too, is guided by the economic mandate of the New). One might point out that this kind of thinking stems more from historic myopia, but history is a continuum that extends in both directions. You cannot have a future without a sense of the past, and there is no quicker way to make both obsolete than by insisting on the urgency and the singularity of the present.

It is difficult to write about such things without feeling that one is simply rehearsing the familiar complaints of middle age. (Hillis himself, when he first told people about the clock, was accused of having a midlife crisis; the desire for permanence is often confused for nostalgia, a futile desire to “turn back the clock.”) It’s true that I have become more attuned, as I grow older, to these uncertainties about the future. I sense it in the contingency with which people increasingly speak of their jobs, or even sometimes their entire field of work. I sense it among my parents and people their age, who are dependent on the young to program their gadgets and also to navigate the tasks that were once considered the thoughtless errands of adult life: hailing a cab, booking a hotel. I sense it, too, in people my own age, who tell me they fear they will not be able to pass down to their children any of the knowledge acquired over the course of their lives, that all of it will be made irrelevant. What they mean, I always think, is not knowledge but wisdom. But wisdom has no currency in a culture where all knowledge is instrumental and technological. And the technology keeps changing.

For years, I calmed myself by thinking about the clock. When I felt overwhelmed by the maelstrom of life, I would close my eyes and imagine it deep in its limestone chamber, the way some people meditate on the Grand Canyon or the primeval void: the holy silence of Deep Time. Then came the news: after twenty-some years, the clock was finally going to be built. The plans for its construction had been bought for $42 million by none other than Jeff Bezos, who described it, in a tweet, as “a symbol of long-term thinking.” That this symbol is now owned by the founder of Amazon—a company that has done more than arguably any other enterprise to produce cheap and quickly shipped goods, to accelerate the pace of our lives, and to systematically destroy our long-standing structures of brick and mortar—might be read as a gruesome irony. The business magazines, for what it’s worth, regarded the clock as a natural symbol of Amazon’s corporate strategy, which had demonstrated an “emphasis on the long term.”

In a way, the acquisition of the clock has made it a more apt and perfect metaphor than Hillis ever intended it to be. It’s often said that the most valuable of contemporary commodities is time. If that’s true, then the rarest luxury of all is perspective, which comes from an abundance of time. To obtain it, one must live outside of technology, which is to say outside of history, and the only people who can afford do so are those who own the technologies. A couple of years ago, in the pages of Wired, where Hillis first proposed his radical invention, Bezos argued that the clock would outlast everything we have created. “Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won’t exist,” he said. “Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented.” That he did not include in this list of doomed endeavors his own corporation is telling, though it might have been a simple oversight. Who knows? He was speaking hypothetically—though it was tempting to take his words as oracular, to picture him standing at the top of a very high tower, or hovering bodiless in the clouds, looking out at the distant fate that remains obscure to those of us stuck on the ground.


Read more installments of Objects of Despair

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of the essay collection Interior States. Her work has appeared, most recently, in Harper’s Magazine,  n+1, Tin House, and The Best American Essays 2017.