Steven Levy has an excellent piece on Neal Stephenson’s Anathem in the September Wired. The article includes in depth back story on the Long Now related inspirations for the book. If you are going to be in San Francisco on September 9th 02008, we will be hosting the launch event for the book with a reading and concert. You can sign up here for updates.
You can also see a reading and interview with Neal on Amazon.
Stephenson says the story was inspired by the real-life Millennium Clock, a project thought up by inventor Danny Hillis and developed by the Long Now Foundation. The nub of the endeavor is the construction of a clock that has the mother of all warranties: It’s built to last 10,000 years. Hillis conceived it to mitigate the mega-rapidity of the digital world. He was working on a massively parallel supercomputer, the Connection Machine, designed to scale to a million processors, and found himself obsessed with speed, slicing seconds into billions of pieces. “I was going for faster, faster, faster. But something in me was rejecting that,” Hillis explained to me back in 1999, when he launched the project. “It wasn’t clear that the world needed faster, faster, faster. So I began thinking about the opposite. Working on the fastest machine in the world got me thinking about the slowest.” How slow? Hillis’ timepiece would tick once a year, its insides would bong once a century, and the cuckoo would appear once a millennium.
Building the clock, it turns out, has been an antidote to the toxic fixation on short-term thinking that permeates our culture. Hillis and the friends who joined him—like fellow Long Now cofounders Stewart Brand (who wrote a book about the project) and Brian Eno (who composed a CD of chimes inspired by the clock)—found that its design and construction required recalibrating one’s own mental clock to envision what things would be like in the distant future. Ideally, that mindset encourages behavior that tends to preserve the environment for clock customers in the year 12000, instead of gobbling up resources and leaving behind trash that tends to mess things up for those folks. Or so goes the thinking of the project’s goofily optimistic supporters. Back at the launch, Brand marveled at the notion of looking so far beyond the temporal horizon. “It’s the only 10,000-year-forward thing I know of,” he said, “outside of science fiction, where it’s fairly common.”
Enter Neal Stephenson. He first heard about the clock from Hillis and Brand at the annual Hackers Conference, and in 1999 the Long Now asked him and a few others to share some thoughts for its Web site. “In my little back-of-the-napkin sketch, I drew a picture showing a clock with concentric walls around it,” he says over lunch in downtown Seattle the day after the book club meeting. “I proposed that you could have a system of gates where it was open for a while at a certain time of year, or decade, or whatever, when you could go in and out freely. But if you were inside it when the gate closed, you’d be making a commitment to stay in until it opened again. And I talked about clock monks who would tend the clock. I put that idea in cold storage because I was working on the Baroque Cycle. When I recovered, I decided, what the hell, I’m just going to try writing this.”
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