Re: Stewart Brand's The Clock of the Long Now

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Sun Jan 14 2001 - 22:22:41 MST

At 08:12 PM 14/01/01 +0100, Anders wrote:

> > Anyone care to summarize what the book says
> > about the prospects, and likely impact for their project, of an impending
> > technological singularity?

>They have a short chapter on the singularity. Essentially they don't
>approve of it - it is exactly the kind of planning horizon they
>disapprove of

Thanks to Carol Tilley and Anders Sandberg for pointers on this topic. I've
now chased down a copy, and will quote Stewart Brand's thoughts on the
matter in a moment. Meanwhile, I found a vivid declaration by Danny Hillis,
the computer innovator who initiated the project:


Some people say that they feel the future is slipping away from them.To me,
the future is a big tractor-trailer slamming on its brakes in front of me
just as I pull into its slip stream. I am about to crash into it.

When I was a kid, three decades ago, the future was a long way off - so was
the turn of the millennium. Dates like 1984 and 2001 were comfortably
remote. But the funny thing is, that in all these years, the future that
people think about has not moved past the millennium. It's as if the future
has been shrinking one year, per year, for my entire life. 2005 is still
too far away to plan for and 2030 is too far away to even think about. Why
bother making plans when everything will change?

How we name our years is part of the problem. Those three zeros in the
millennium form a convenient barrier, a reassuring boundary by which we can
hold on to the present and isolate ourselves from whatever comes next.
Still, there is more to this shortening of the future than dates. It feels
like something big is about to happen:
graphs show us the yearly growth of populations, atmospheric concentrations
of carbon dioxide, Net addresses, and Mbytes per dollar. They all soar up
to form an asymptote just beyond the turn of the century: The singularity.
The end of everything we know. The beginning of something we may never


Yet he then goes on immediately, with no further argument, to plan the
long-now clock. Oh.

Mr Brand follows the same odd logic. He sees a tsunami on the way, but
explains, in effect, that he intends to
sit it out. Oh.


Society itself could be dismembered, as some people ride the breaking wave
of ever newer technology over the event horizon into invisibility while
others lag behind, feeling the powerful gravitational force of
still-accelerating technology yet no longer able to see it. Thus the world
would be comprehensible only to those near the leading edges of technology.

The Singularity is a frightening prospect for humanity. I assume that we
will somehow dodge it or finesse it in reality, and one way to do that is
to warn about it early and begin to build in correctives. (pp. 21-2)


Somehow, I don't think he gets it.

And yet, oddly enough, p. 22 reproduces the best graphical representation
of the Spike I've ever seen (but maybe I think that because it's very like
the one I independently drew during a couple of talks at a Foresight
gathering last year): a second order curve created by a sequence of
saturating curves, or waves, as each technology starts, takes off, hits
its limits, saturates, then declines as its successor emerges powerfully.
The graph was prepared in 1994 by Tom McKendree, then at Hughes Aircraft,
for a discussion about future military contracting... McKendree is
currently doing very impressive work in his doctoral thesis on the impact
of molecular nanotechnology (of various grades of maturity from Simple
through Complex to Advanced) upon space exploration and exploitation.

Damien Broderick

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