The Long Now

Here is a link to my piece in today’s issue of Time.com; and here’s the executive summary:

Deep inside a West Texas mountain, engineers are building a clock designed to click for 10,000 years. Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos has sunk $43 million into this project and that’s just a start. What’s the purpose? “To foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”, say the organizers.

Now thinking and responsibility are two different things, but it’s hard to see how this project is likely to encourage either. Re thinking: The question of what we owe to future generations is subtle and difficult and requires close attention to difficult arguments; it’s hard to see how a ticking clock will do to foster that kind of effort. And as for responsiblity — if responsibility means making a better life for our distant descendants, then Bezos’s $43 million would almost surely be better spent on lobbying for lower capital taxes. Whether the goal is thinking or responsibility, a giant clock seems like a giant waste of time.

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24 Responses to “The Long Now”


  1. 1 1 Advo

    That IS a gigantic waste of money.
    On a related note, I keep wondering why none of those billionaires, or governments, or anyone seems to be interested in the subject of mortality.
    I mean – Gates spent tons of money on the Malaria vaccine. If he’s successful, what will he accomplish? Nothing, in the long term. All those people he “saves” are still going to die. 40 years later maybe, but dead, in the end, is dead.
    Individuals and governments spend time and money (lots of money) to combat all kinds of threats to our well-being. Yet noone seems to be interested in combatting the biggest problem of all – our mortality.
    WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.
    Where, I ask, is the huge government program to save all our lives? Why is Bezos building a clock to last 10,000 years when he will be dust in 40? Why is Bill Gates so accepting of his ultimate fate?

  2. 2 2 ZacharyRD

    I’m not sure I follow your reasoning / hook of the article. I believe that anyone involved with the project would give as a secondary reason something like “because it’s really cool” or “because it’s something that will be remembered” or “because it’s something epic in scope” — those things, admittedly, hard to quantify in economic terms, but they are “real”.

    Compare it to the Statue of Liberty, or the Eiffel Towel or Mount Rushmore; monuments are hard to quantity value of.

    The clock is being built because people Bezos WANT it to be build, and have the money to spend; we could argue it’s also a (inefficient) way to create jobs with his capital.

    NOTE: This is unrelated to your position on tax reform, which was the point of the article instead of the hook.

  3. 3 3 Mike H

    Normally I look at the clock to find what the time is. Now I have to look at Time to find out what the Clock is.

  4. 4 4 Steve Landsburg

    Mike H:

    Normally I look at the clock to find what the time is. Now I have to look at Time to find out what the Clock is.

    You make me smile far more often than I acknowledge. Thanks.

  5. 5 5 blink

    Of course this is a gigantic waste of money, but isn’t that the point? This project is signaling, pure and simple; if it had practical value, it would be less effective as a signal. Perhaps you would chide old-time bankers for investing in marble facades since that money could be better spent improving operations, but the bankers who followed your advice would appear untrustworthy to customers. Let’s see what Bezos and others can do now that he has bought a very expensive signal.

  6. 6 6 Neil

    “That IS a gigantic waste of money”

    As long as it is all Bezos’ money, I don’t care.

  7. 7 7 Cjohn

    @Advo
    “On a related note, I keep wondering why none of those billionaires, or governments, or anyone seems to be interested in the subject of mortality.”

    Well, what is this project if not a stab at immortality? (And who says they’re not? Maybe, given the drawbacks of the current populace of 7 billion people living an extra 50 years, they’re keeping it to themselves.)

  8. 8 8 Ken B

    I think Zachary and blink put their fingers on the truth. They are building it because it’s cool, and because they can. The reasons they give are ex post facto.

  9. 9 9 JohnE

    Here are some choice comments from Time.com readers:

    “Investments do not stimulate a depressed economy. This much I can prove because investments don’t directly enter the monetary flow in an economy. That money is “warehoused” for lack of a better term. Businesses MAY use it (that is, spend it) to some degree, but it’s not being spent on goods and services. It’s being used to inflate profits and portfolios which are then largely reinvested.

    We need a government willing to see both sides of this issue (raising taxes AND cutting them)” – Fatesrider

    “I see no data to support your premise in the article. Makes for a nice sound bite, maybe, but as to “why” capital tax (already ridiculously low) is a disincentive to work/save/innovate, nary one piece of evidence.” – Ausinite

    “A bigger view of human problems indicates that they are largely caused by the application of traditional economic principles.

    Only total economic collapse has sufficient weight to allow the possibility of determining a new future where our survival is even possible.” – Gary McCray, Microcomputer engineer, self sufficiency advocate & critical thinker

    Makes me grateful for the great commenters on this blog.

  10. 10 10 CC

    “Makes me grateful for the great commenters on this blog.”

    Exactly. We have great comments and civil disagreement on SL’s blog. The TIME comments make me worry about humanity…

  11. 11 11 nobody.really

    I was wondering when Landsburg would finally comment on this.

    All I can say is — it’s about time.

  12. 12 12 Steve Landsburg

    John E:

    Makes me grateful for the great commenters on this blog.

    I was going to say the same thing, but you beat me to it. There is nothing like reading the comments on other sites to make one appreciate how fortunate we are here at The Big Questions.

  13. 13 13 Ken B

    re 12
    I think part of it is due to Steve. When you point out an error to Steve he thanks you. Some bloggers (you know who you are!) attack.

  14. 14 14 Ken B

    I *own* 13!

  15. 15 15 Max

    I was hoping you would attack the idea that we need more “long term thinking” (setting aside whether a giant mechanical clock stimulates any kind of thinking). Where is the evidence that such thinking is productive?

  16. 16 16 Peter Tennenbaum

    It’s a sick joke–a sick inversion. Usually the dead are buried underground and a “lasting” monument sits atop.

    Why is the monument deep underground? This is also an inversion of idealism where one usually looks “up” to the cosmos, to God and Heaven, not down into the Devil’s Hellfires. What kind of future is THAT?

    Perhaps the twisted idealistic component belies their true intention: Soon they will charge money to view the magic clock via webcams (multiple angles for the masses–”interaction”!–along with an adoring FACEBOOK page). Viewing rights will be bundled with similar “entertainment” in a premium subscription to Netflix. Capitalism and job creation… gone awry… yet again.

    Or it is part of NORAD. Cheyenne Mountain is getting crowded–more RAID arrays are required to defend the future of the “last best hope of earth”. Time has at least a countable number of digits (that change state every “moment”).

  17. 17 17 A Marchant

    Cut Bezos some slack. Given that he’s spending his own money, I’m willing to suspend my skepticism and accept that his project qualifies as an investment under Landsburg’s third category – research. Granted, he’s not developing technology per se, but rather a kind of Systems Engineering to demonstrate what it takes to make something really permanent. Will this be valuable knowledge? I don’t know. And neither do you.

  18. 18 18 Steve Landsburg

    A Marchant:

    I didn’t mean to imply that Bezos is doing something wrong, or even that he’s doing something that’s not socially useful. All I said was that this project does not seem to do much by way of furthering either of its two stated goals, which are a) to get people thinking about what we owe to the future and b) to get people to account more for future generations in their resource allocation — and that there are better ways to accomplish both those things.

  19. 19 19 Joseph Zaccardi

    From the article, “…Second, we can work harder, planting trees, building factories and writing poems that will live on after we’re gone.”

    Isn’t building a giant clock that will stand the test of time at least similar to writing poetry? Some people write, some people paint, and some people spend a ton of money to manufacture clocks…

  20. 20 20 Dave

    “a giant clock seems like a giant waste of time”

    funny – that is all

  21. 21 21 Michael L.

    I’m surprised Time let you run this piece. I recall reading one article a few years ago where they stated “most economists now don’t believe the minimum wage has a huge effect on teen employment”. Lord knows where they where able to find that

  22. 22 22 roystgnr

    This story has already been valuable to my own thinking: it reminded me that the papers I’ve been reading by people like Nick Bostrom are wild outliers, and to most people, thinking in the “long-term” about humanity still means “the next 10,000 years” rather than the next 10,000,000,000.

  23. 23 23 Rob

    Doesn’t the fact that you have written an article about his clock suggest that at least partially he has “got people thinking about what we owe to the future” ?

    A clock that lasts 10,000 years seems pretty cool to me, as mine tend to last a couple of decades at most.

  24. 24 24 martin

    steven weinberg. (not sure where to post this)

    http://worldsciencefestival.com/videos/on_the_shoulders_of_giants_a_special_address_by_steven_weinberg

    At the end he says essentially: raise taxes and we need government health care.
    Incredible how ‘intellectuals’ fail to grap basic economic realities, as pointed out by Hayek, T. Sowell and others.

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