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

From: Barbara Lamar (
Date: Mon Jan 15 2001 - 11:17:57 MST

At 02:22 PM 01/15/2001 +0100, Anders Sandbert wrote:

>I think he takes the long view. In the long run change has always been
>nearly smooth, disasters local and humans humans.

I haven't read THE CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW, but I'm familiar with some of
Brand's earlier work, which might shed some light on the question of his
attitude towards human life in general (IMO the world would be a more
pleasant place to live if more architects, landscape designers, and city
planners would study his book HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: WHAT HAPPENS AFTER

One of my favorite of Brand's stories is this one (I'm telling this from
memory, so if anyone else is familiar with the story & I've not got it
exactly right, please feel free to correct me): In the 1800's the oak
beams supporting the roof of the New College at Oxford began to show signs
of rotting serious enough to threaten the structural soundness of the
building. Huge oak beams were not easy to come by in that time and place,
so the men in charge of doing the repairs were happy to note a grove of oak
trees of the right size growing nearby. They used these trees to make the
repairs. 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
when they would be necessary for repairs.

This story moves me in the same way I'm moved by the most magnificent
symphonic music. It speaks to me of human love that transcends time and is
the closest thing to "god" I can imagine. The people who built the New
College were not unfamiliar with singularities. Looking back across a span
of more than 600 years, the plague epidemics appear as small blips on the
graph of steady growth of human population. But I suspect that a person
who'd lived through one of these catastrophic periods would have felt quite
at home with the idea of a singularity (using the term in a general way to
refer to a discontinuity in a function describing growth of
population/technology over time). They were on intimate terms with
uncertainty; they had seen civilization knocked to its knees by the Black
Death. And yet--they planted oak trees to be used for repairs 500 down the

> Where we differ is
>that we think that this will not hold forever. The singularity can be
>seen as a bifurcation point in the mathematical sense, where a smooth
>and incremental change of one parameter leads to a discontinous or at
>least qualitatively different behavior.
>This is not really part of
>Brand's view of how things are looking.

As I said, I haven't read the LONG NOW, but I'm not so sure Brand wouldn't
understand the idea of qualitative change. In fact, he argues for
flexibility in designing cities and buildings to accommodate change. Where
he differs from some of the Extropians is that he sees the possibility of
communicating with whoever or whatever is here long after our civilization
has become a mere blip on the graph. I don't know how much my being a
parent influences my thinking about the future--probably a lot--but I like
the Brand's faith that some form of intelligence will still exist 10,000
years from now and that it will CARE about those who came before. This is
an example of the transcendent love I was talking about earlier. The clock
is like a love letter from those who are intelligent now to those who are
intelligent later. (in a sense, it might be a love letter to ourselves, but
even if some of us manage to achieve a form of immortality, we surely will
be quite different creatures in 10,000 years from the humans we are now)

>On the truly big scale - where
>neanderthals, homo sapiens, homo excelsior and all their weird
>descendants are close neighbours - I think many of us roughly agree
>with him again that things are fairly smooth.

Yes. You can count me among those who agree with Brand in this respect.


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