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

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Mon Jan 15 2001 - 21:34:22 MST

At 12:17 PM 15/01/01 -0600, Barbara Lamar wrote:

>One of my favorite of Brand's stories
>beams supporting the roof of the New College at Oxford began to show signs
>of rotting
>Research into the history of the trees revealed that they had been
>planted at the same time the building was constructed in the 1300's--for
>the express purpose of providing new beams 500 or more years in the future

This is surely a wonderful and moving story. In THE CLOCK, Brand cites
something similar: a mature oak forest in Sweden, planted in 1869 at the
order of Parliament to deal with the needs of the navy in the 1990s.

But this story has two contrasted implications: planning for the
comparatively deep future on the basis of continuity can create and sustain
that very continuity, even when the express purpose of the plans is
superseded; but the goal of the plans is indeed very likely to be
superseded if exponentiating technology is part of the prospect. Oxford
Colleges and ancient cathedrals and great forests are among the few human
artifacts in some measure immune from what one might dub teleological

>I'm not so sure Brand wouldn't
>understand the idea of qualitative change.

Now that I've finished reading the book, I'm very much more sympathetic to
his position, although I regard it as probably misguided, if anything as
discontinuous as a Spike really *is* in the offing. He does not deny that
drastic charge is likely; he just avoids looking it squarely in the eye.
For example, I waited for many pages for any hint that he knew human
longevity was almost certainly going to increase (assuming humans persist);
the heading isn't in the index. Finally, yes, theres a chapter that toys
diffidently with the subject. He sees one implication: `If long life leads
to greater responsibility, because you hang around long enough to suffer
the consequences of your short-sighted actions, then immortality logically
leads to infinite responsibility' (p. 151). Just so - and such
considerations, once grasped, ought strictly to have made him go back to
the start of the book and rewrite it completely. But of course he couldn't
do that, and if he had nobody would have taken it seriously. Not for a
couple of generations, anyway.

But Brand has some wonderfully deep meditations on the nature of time
scale, and I'd urge everyone here to read at least chapter seven, `The
Order of Civilization', where he sketches the interplay between six
temporal scales: fashion-art/ commerce / infrastructure / governance /
culture / nature. His consideration of these different time scales and how
they interpenetrate (and go wrong when one or another hypertrophies at the
expense of the rest) is profound and important. Certainly it confirms my
own doubts about the alleged ubiquitous benefits of the market's Invisible
Hand. (See, for example, his brief description of the Californian timber
clear-felled for immediate profit by Maxxam despite long-term ruin.)

He makes an important point of salience to some on this list:

`The very old will have experienced enough past to believe in the reality
of consequences, while the young will not have been wrong about enough
future yet to doubt their own puerile notions. It's an old dialogue, but
with a new balance of power when the old out-number the young' (p. 152).

I just wish he'd taken more notice of how everything, including the
validity of his august project, changes with the arrival of indefinite
longevity, human genomic engineering, and especially self-rewriting AIs.

Damien Broderick

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