• Jennie Dear

Thinking about the Long Now

The Interval, a quirky bar/library/meeting room, is tucked discreetly between other storefronts on the northernmost pier in San Francisco. Immediately inside stands an orrery—a mechanical model of the solar system’s planets. A collection of bottles hangs from the ceiling, a spiral staircase winds its way to bookshelves to the second floor above, and a long glass table surrounded by stools stretches down one side of the room. Clearly visible underneath are the steel gears and cogs that make up the chime generator, a mechanism designed to create a new chime every day for 10,000 years.

The effect is like something out of Harry Potter or a Jules Verne novel.

The small space is the home of the Long Now Foundation, an organization whose goal is to “help make long-term thinking more common.” The group hosts talks and seminars about long-term issues; its members have created a prototype of a 10,000-year clock; and they are working on the Rosetta Project, which plans to collect all human languages and store them on a computer disk.

Most interestingly—from a journalist’s standpoint, anyway—the organization also has a blog that covers what it calls “the long news,” defined as “stories that might still matter fifty, or a hundred, or ten thousand years from now.”

Seems a bit like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? One of the most important jobs of journalism is to relate news about what’s happening now, which usually means, before we know the long-term implications.

But future implications are still attached to what’s happening and what people are doing now, and at least thinking about them can often provide insight and inspiration for real change. What if journalists more routinely sought out stories about long-term issues, or examined long-term consequences of actions—even in spheres where the future beyond, say, the next few months, is played down?

The Atlantic magazine recently published a story about an investment company that tries to increase its profits by looking further into the future than most investors do.

The article notes that some experts are beginning to advise this kind of long-term thinking because it’s good for business:

Since the 2008 financial crisis, a growing number of economists, managers, and financiers have warned that ever shorter time horizons are destroying businesses and entire economies.

The goal of the company—Generation Investment Management—featured in The Atlantic story is to emphasize both a holistic approach and profits that match or beat market indicators. The company’s underlying assumption is that these are inseparable, as reporter James Fallows points out:

The sustainable-capitalism concept includes a long-term outlook, a search for underlying value, and an attempt to resist distraction by market ephemera. But it adds the idea that the real, dollars-and-cents, balance-sheet value of a company is best assessed by including factors deliberately left out of many business measurements. Among them are a company’s environmental effects, the culture it creates internally, and its impact on the societies in which it operates.

One of the company's chief investors is Al Gore, who's had an interest in thinking long-term at least since An Inconvenient Truth, his documentary about climate change. The company itself is attempting something new: combining profit-seeking with long-term sustainability goals. And the magazine story, by describing this attempt, brings the idea and the approach to the public’s attention. It asks readers to consider the questions together, to think past monthly and quarterly profits to profits in the future—and to consider environmentally and socially conscious investing as effective capitalism.

Just because many businesses haven’t routinely considered the future beyond the next few quarters doesn’t mean that journalists shouldn’t consider it. And, at least in this case, that consideration has significant lessons for the business community.

Journalists don’t have to try to predict the future themselves. What they can do is look around more carefully for stories about people giving serious thought to long-term issues and effects. For instance, the Long Now’s plans to create a 10,000-year clock also hopes to focus public attention on long-term thinking. The clock plans are elaborate: The organization has started building a 200-foot-tall structure inside a mountain in Texas. The clock can use changes in temperature from night to day to provide its energy, and its parts are made from long-lasting metal or stone.

And, whether or not the clock succeeds, its symbolism can redirect public attention to important issues. Below, novelist Michael Chabon describes why he believes the clock is so important:

… even if the Clock of the Long Now fails to last ten thousand years, even if it breaks down after half or a quarter or a tenth of that span, this mad contraption will already have long since fulfilled its purpose. Indeed the Clock may have accomplished its greatest task before it is ever finished, perhaps without ever being built at all.

Chabon goes on to say that the most important function of the clock is symbolic: Because people are working so hard to build a machine that can last so far into the future, the clock symbolizes hope that the future exists for humans, a future with some kind of relationship to the present:

The point of the Clock of the Long Now is not to measure out the passage, into their unknown future, of the race of creatures that built it. The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again…

Journalists don’t even have to build a clock. Our job is to include in our coverage facts and events like the attempt to build a 10,000-year clock, or that one investment group seems to be doing better than the rest of the market by taking into consideration a company’s long-term impact on the environment and society.

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