Bruce Sterling's Sharp Warning, 8 years later

 Eight years ago Long Now had a conference at Stanford on how to build a 10,000 year library.  Novelist Bruce Sterling delivered one of his signature incisive rants, at once hilarious and biting.  It holds up amazingly well, as true in 02000 as now.

——– Original Message ——–
Subject:     Bruce Sterling’s sharp warning
Date:     Tue, 4 Jul 2000 16:51:10 -0700
From:     Stewart Brand

Saturday evening at the 10K Library Conference Bruce Sterling had everyone falling about with laughter when he unleashed a very carefully thought and written speech on the all-too-likely problems facing the Clock etc. in a decade or so.  “Have you considered the victory condition?”  And he proposes some ingenious workarounds.

“The Ten-Thousand-Year Clock and Library”

by Bruce Sterling

Stanford University, July 1, 02000

Thanks for having me in to join your think-tank.  I’m glad to be here. I’ve been looking forward to this Long Now event, in my placid, harmless, literary, garage-futurist way.   Why, just last week, I was on, browsing around, and dawdling, and hitting the back button on my browser, and refusing to buy various tempting things, and generally wasting my time….  Us Long Now devotees consider that sort of random, bucolic, grazing activity a positive virtue, really… It’s a kind of carbon safety rod in the nuclear pile of the digital imperative.

So I go and I look up this CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW book on Amazon…. Presciently figuring that I’m going to have to do some painful brainstorming in public about this thing….   As you may know, Amazon keeps remarkably meticulous and slightly sinister archives of user consumption habits.  So, what else do people buy when they buy books like CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW by Stewart Brand?  Well, it turns out they buy books by Chris Alexander, the architect and design theorist. Fine.  That makes sense, Chris Alexander’s in Berkeley, he’s practically in Stewart Brand’s zipcode.  But they also buy JOHN RUSKIN!

I was stupefied by this.  John Ruskin!  Wow!  You go and look at the Bruce Sterling pages on Amazon.  People who buy my books buy Nine Inch Nails albums.  No John Ruskin there, boyo.   We get William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, two other science fiction writers who share huge chunks of my genetic code.  But people who read the CLOCK OF THE LONG NOW buy books by a Victorian art critic who’s been dead for a hundred years!

I would be hugely impressed with myself if people who bought my sci-fi novels went and bought some John Ruskin.  I happen to be quite the Ruskin devotee, personally.  I haven’t read the entire 75-foot shelf of Ruskin, but I’ve read Ruskin in suspiciously large amounts.   Seven Lamps of Architecture… The Stones of Venice… Why is a science fiction writer such an ardent antiquarian?  Because it’s really exciting and inspirational when you read the work of someone who is much more intelligent and perceptive than you are, and yet horribly, terribly wrong.  To have the benefit of hindsight on a cultural critic of genius is like walking on stilts.  It really gives one some fantastic sense of giddy, mind-expanding exaltation.

Now, you can’t be a sincere Ruskin follower unless you are passionately interested in nobility, virtue, and Christian exegesis.  I have  absolutely no interest in any of those things.  I consider them radically counterproductive.   The main benefit I derive from reading Ruskin is the spectacle of someone very bright, very dedicated, very perceptive, very historically aware, a prophet really, a futurist seer == who is mired armpit deep in his own parochiality.

And so are we.  Really.  We are.  The great benefit we have is that we have records, so we can see what happened to John Ruskin.  So I want to suggest some ways in which the 10,000-Year Library and the Clock projects might benefit by this historical, archival experience.

I think we can plausibly compare the Long Now group to John Ruskin’s activist foundation, the Guild of Saint George.  These were his dragon-slaying knights of cultural preservationism.    Ruskin was earning quite a good living in his later years, so despite his series of tragic and shattering nervous breakdowns,  he kept endowing these ambitious, real-world, nonprofit efforts.  This was his attempt to move from mere moralizing to good works, or, in Silicon Valley’s vocabulary, from Ruskin
vaporware to a Ruskin product launch.

For instance, John Ruskin established an “ethical tea house” in London. He also got some willing volunteers to roll up their sleeves and build roads in the English countryside.  One of these volunteer laborers was Oscar Wilde, if you can imagine Oscar Wilde as a kind of Victorian navvy. Oscar Wilde out there in the sticks with a sledge and a barrow, Oscar Wilde out there just crackin’ those rocks….   Ruskin also bought up some farmland for a future Arts and Crafts Christian-socialist commune.  In real life, though, the Guild of Saint George spent most of its time running high-minded meetings like this one, and publishing a small journal, at a big loss. So finally, John Ruskin died, and the Guild petered along for a few years, and then it just perished from lack of conviction and energy.

So today we’re in a rather analogous position, because we have a scheme based in a profound cultural insight, and we’re trying to incarnate it physically, so that it survives the will of its founders.  I want to describe how we might succeed where John Ruskin failed.

First:  the long-term threat is not our big problem.  I think that the long-term prospects look good.  John Ruskin was painfully frustrated in many of his own efforts, in his own time.  But as a 181-year-old cultural antique, John Ruskin is doing just fine.  Ruskin’s house is a museum, it’s a tourist draw in the British museum economy.  There’s a guy in Britain right now who wanders around doing public John Ruskin impersonations.  Believe it or not, people will pay good money to see a fake Ruskin deliver a fake Ruskin lecture nowadays.  I suppose it’s not much stranger than buying modern replicas of Tiffany lamps and Mission furniture.  Ruskin doesn’t mean to us what he meant to his contemporaries, but Ruskin does mean something, and his reputation is, if anything, on the upswing.  If the Long Now project is ever 181 years old, we also won’t have to worry about its safety.

I feel quite sure that the greatest risk this project faces is Ruskin’s problem with his own good works: infant mortality.  If the Clock lasts even one hundred years, so that everyone in this room is dead and it’s still running, then its chances of making a thousand years are good.  Any hundred-year-old mechanism in working, functional order will have real presence and value.  It will become mythic.

Our gravest concern is getting there from here, from vaporware to antique.  Our gravest concern is for the five-year-old mechanism, and the seven-year-old mechanism, maybe the twenty-two-year-old mechanism.   There is a deadly trough of interest and support between the cool status of a technical novelty and the warm status of a cherished heirloom.   Even the Eiffel Tower, that tremendous monument of Western civilization, barely made it through this lukewarm period.   There was a very dangerous set of years in Paris in which the Eiffel Tower was no longer Eiffel’s high-tech achievement.  It was rusty and taken-for-granted, and it got no press.  It was a leftover fairground attraction that had lost all its novelty pull. It was not yet a treasured period piece == it was just old news.   Serious people wanted it torn down for scrap.

Just because we talk a  lot about timelessness, doesn’t mean that we ourselves will never look dated.   Making a grand gesture doesn’t free you from historical judgement.  High tech quickly becomes very corny.  It’s like our unhappy realization that Richard Nixon’s signature is on the moon.  Is that what we in the American Republic really wanted to leave as our message to all mankind?  That Nixon signature will probably be quite legible in ten thousand years.  If we Americans had a chance to quietly flush that moon plaque down the political correctness hole, don’t you think we might do it? Think how much better we’d feel.

John Ruskin died in January 1900.  When the architect Henry Wilson heard the news, he said, “Is Ruskin dead?  Thank God!  Give me a cigarette!”

That was an expression of sheer psychic relief, you see.   This is what that reaction would sound like in our own context: “Hey man == the Long Now clock is dead.”  “What happened to it?”  “I guess it got too popular.  Noone went there any more. They had to shut it down.”

So, “Thank God, give me a cigarette,” you know?  Thank God that this strange scheme of these dated New Age elders, these obsolete Silicon Valley digital Californians, is not going to be there any more,  ticking, ticking, spinning, spinning, all through our own twenty-first century, like some kind of terrible reproach!  If I’d known it would feel this good to have old Ruskin die, I’d have killed him myself!

So this is a serious threat, and if our beloved gizmo is going to survive it, it’s going to require some cultural realpolitik.   This is not a monument or library == yet.  If it comes into being, it will be generally perceived as a bizarre novelty built by a cabal of gizmo-obsessives. Visionary people, the kind of people who put up with science fiction writers as dinner entertainment.

I’m optimistic about this part.  This is much to its secret benefit == the strange reason why it’s coming into being.  Pop gurus and pop stars and pop fiction people, getting together with librarians and archivists and thinking seriously about ten millennia.  There is considerable oxymoronic cultural power there.  A good contradiction gives a social idea great strength.  We might yet succeed in doing something useful and practical, if we keep our heads about it, and don’t get all carried away by our own press. Disposable, trendy, pop culture people are a hundred times lot more likely to get away with a thousand-year project than Albert Speer was.

It’s a good thing to do; I’m an enthusiast about it.   I think it’s good for us whether it works out in ten thousand years or not. I think it’s well worth doing even if it fails swiftly and completely in some deeply humiliating way.   As members of a virtual intelligentsia, we are trying to recognize and heal some of our own clear inadequacies as thinkers and culturati, and that is the proper spirit in which to do something like this. It’s an act of Emersonian self-improvement, a giving-back, almost a penance. It’s a good project, a worthy gesture.  It’s not senseless or cranky, it’s responsible and wise.

The problem is that pop-culture really does date quickly and badly. This project can never be allowed to smell rancid.  To survive, it needs mythic proportions and great seriousness.  It needs profundity and sublimity.  It can’t be too cute, too neat, too sexy, too well-engineered.  It has to be born with a beard.

Now I want to suggest some design tactics by which this trough area, this span of campiness and corniness, might be successfully bridged.

First of all:  this is the cheapest and easiest:  use mystification. The public should be infected with the creeping suspicion that there is something in this project which has not been publicly revealed.  That there is a secret, higher project behind the public project. This is a psychological operation, intended to keep people off-balance and waiting on tenterhooks.  Waiting for the other shoe to drop == a shoe which will never drop.

There are any number of ways to accomplish this.  The simplest is to say nothing, and wait for rumors to build up on their own,  because they certainly will.  Certain terms have already come up in our discussion which have the proper kind of Gothic resonance for this.  A term like “Dark Archive,” for encrypted files time-stamped and hidden away for centuries, is very suggestive.  So is “The Dracula Room for Undead Media.”

The second simplest way is to boldly invent some fake rumors. Simply make up a dramatic, archaic-looking, Masonic myth, with a mystic eye in the pyramid, and some impressive Latin mumbo-jumbo slogans:  Novus Ordo Seclorum,  E Pluribus Unum.  You’ve all seen it done.

The most effective method, however,  would be to have two clocks. First, the obvious public clock, on display.  Second, the secret mystified clock.    The two of them keep time in perfect harmony, but the first one is exposed to all the winds and gales of public enthusiasm and disdain, whereas the second clock is never revealed.   Blurry pictures of it are periodically let slip.  It might even have a live webcam.  But no one can  approach the mystic clock.  No one can harm it.  It is beyond mortal touch.  It is never subject to public judgement.  No one knows where it’s kept.

Why do this?  Because this shadow clock makes it impossible to derive any psychic relief from the death of the public clock.  You can’t enjoy a cigarette after Ruskin dies == because there’s ANOTHER RUSKIN, still going strong!  This also has great morale benefits for the keepers of the public clock.  If it’s broken by a vandal or hacked by a hardware hacker eager for publicity  == the common kind of lunatic who wants to set fire to the temple == then there is no break in the cycle of timekeeping.  A backup heartbeat is still going on in a secret location.

You don’t necessarily need a secret location.  It would be almost as mystically glamorous to have a public yet physically inaccessible location, like, for instance, the depths of Marianas trench.  Drop a self-winding Long Now clock down there, sealed in some kind of thermos bottle.   You could wire the clock to run untouched by human hands, powered by, let’s say, the renewable voltage in ocean slime.  In this condition, even the *organizers* can’t shut it down.  It’s an *autonomous* shadow clock.  A kind of temporal doppleganger.  An ahistorical, remote-control timebomb, divorced from all human influence.  These Gothic aspects are deliberately played up in public relations.

It might not be necessary to build this second clock.  The *myth* of a second clock might work almost as well.  If the second clock really does exist == then it might be wise to promulgate the myth of a shadowy Third Clock.

I know this sounds like a cheap trick.  But it’s likely to work. In Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION trilogy of classic science fiction novels, there’s a Foundation of cultural archivists, established to protect human knowledge from a cultural breakdown.  There’s also a secret, Second Foundation. When it comes to human psychology, the old tricks are the good ones.  The Aum Shinri Kyo cult, the guys with the nerve gas in the Tokyo subway == they were major fans of those Asimov FOUNDATION novels.  The whole set-up really preyed on their minds, somehow.

There are other methods of achieving some timeless gravitas for this project’s infancy.    Something to break it out of that constricting realm of the nine-days wonder and the theme-park attraction.

One extremely effective method of cheap, lasting timelessness comes immediately to mind. We might call this the “Now He Belongs to the Ages” syndrome.  In other words, some dead people. Live people are very unhappy and uneasy about disturbing graveyards.   A newly established cathedral becomes accepted by the public when it begins burying the community. Cathedrals also make do with the relics of saints: holy shinbones and skulls, and so on.

So I can suggest some fertile approaches here.   First, obtain someone who is both extremely dead and extremely old.  Inter him on the site of the Clock, or in the archive.  A perfect candidate would be Kennewick Man. Lucy the Australopithecene might be better yet, but she’s pretty booked-up, under intense study.  Kennewick Man is a really special case: they dug him up out of the Pacific Northwest, and the guy’s bones have been radiocarbon-dated to 9,000 years ago.  Kennewick Man exists in a very unhappy shadow area between laboratory specimen and a politically violated Native American ancestor. So with Kennewick Man entombed on the Long Now site, we’re going 9,000 years into our heritage, while also looking 9,000 years ahead.  We should build that Clock right on top of him.

Granted, this scheme may not be entirely practical == costs too much, too politically touchy.   So let me offer another strikingly morbid alternative: the tontine.

What is a tontine?  Well, the tontine was invented by an Italian banker named Lorenzo Tonti, as a kind of seventeenth-century New Economy investment scheme.  A group of investors starts a mutual fund.  They get dividends from the investments.  Every time someone in the tontine dies, their share gets split up among the surviving members.  Until finally, the last guy standing inherits everything.    Interestingly, this tontine process was often used in France to fund public buildings.

In our case, of course, the Long Now Clock is always the last guy standing. Always. So a Long Now Clock tontine survives by measuring out people’s lifespans.  When they perish, their chunk of the money is given to maintain the clock.  I would strongly urge that the members of the tontine be buried on the site of the Clock.  Or at least, they should memorialized on it on some very public, macabre, memento-mori way.

I guarantee that it would sober up trendy gawkers immediately, if they saw this sinister device prepared to reap its way through ten thousand years of future humanity, scythe first. I would suggest seeding the project with a few dead guys, already attached to the clock at its first unveiling.  The sincerity of this gesture speaks for itself.   Because after all, the future is where we go to die.  Some of us in the Long Now tontine would be very public about our intention to be immolated with this clock.  As a further spice, there would be *secret* members of the Long Now tontine.

Another stellar possibility is to make the clock itself somehow embody a huge span of time.  I think it’s a bad idea for the clock to be all brand-new, because it cannot stay that way, and the gloss of newness is sure to fade quickly and it will look very tacky.   I would suggest that some substantial parts of the clock be made out of substances that are already ten thousand years old.  Mastodon bones might do it.   Human-worked mastodon bones would be even better.

The earliest form  of recorded data known to man are etched bones, prehistoric bones with notches carved into them, bones about the size of your hand. These notched bone records have been found in archaeological sites all over Europe and the Middle East.  They seem to have been tally sticks of some kind, maybe lunar calendars.  This practice of notching bones with tally-marks died out about 10,000 BC.  If the Long Now Clock succeeds, we’ll have basically re-started this tradition.  So, I’d suggest  putting some of these notched bones into the Library, or better yet, build the bones right into the structure of the Clock.

There’s another good way to make the clock physically embody millenial spans of time.  That’s to build it out of radioactive materials.   After our very interesting presentations here from the nuclear waste stewards of the US Department of Energy,  I quite like the idea of a extremely radioactive public clock.  Maybe even a clock that kills you if you stand too close to it.   This would certainly enforce respectful sobriety from the populace == if they had to wear a lead apron in the thing’s vicinity.  Even a mildly radioactive clock would be almost as exciting, thrilling and perversely attractive.

Now for a few words on the nature of the archives themselves.  I would strongly suggest that the older they are, the better.  I don’t think we can go far wrong by simply and mechanically including all the cultural loot we ourselves have,  that has survived major cultural catastrophes.  A complete Greco-Roman concordance, as a matter of course == these would be the remnants of lost Alexandria.   All Chinese classics which were not destroyed by the First Emperor of China in his book-burning campaigns.   The remaining Mayan codices.  The cultural histories of the oldest religious scriptures.

Anything with no commercial potential that is out of copyright. Capturing today’s digital ephemera would add commercial value to it.  You will be attacked for the revenue stream if you add money to today’s frenzied commercial net.  Stay away from IPO competitors and intellectual property attorneys, because they will rob and kill you.  Industrial capitalism beat John Ruskin, and postindustrial capitalism will beat you, too.

Now a word in praise of dead languages.  The next hundred years is going to kill dozens and dozens of human languages.   A language is a vast archive of mental software composed by millions of distributed users. Dead languages are very old and newly dead, so therefore they have great dignity and gravitas.  The presence of dead languages in the archive is also a potent defense against a political attack that sees the Long Now clock as an act of narrow sectarian glorification by First World technocrats.

The people whose languages are dying are, of course, the most primitive and disenfranchised members of global society.  Follow a dying language, and you’ll infallibly find somebody whose culture can no longer earn a living. Soon, we ourselves will be similarly defunct.   It’s not very likely that we’ll be telling the year 3000 how to earn a living.  To be of genuine value to them, we should be telling them something they don’t already know.    A dying language is something we have that we can show to the future, which the future does not have around. Besides, this language project is achievable.  It’s not pie in the sky.  It doesn’t require any handwaving about magic universal machines or infinite storage or digital revolutions. It just needs responsibility and patience.  If you’re careless and impatient, your digital gizmos won’t save you from the consequences, I can promise you that.

I want to conclude  with a final conundrum.  That is, the victory condition.  When Ruskin set up his Guild of Saint George, he described it as an attempt “to build a raft among the wreckage.”  This was defeatism.  It presupposes his own condition as a victim of shipwreck.  I don’t think people should engage in large projects without some firm idea of what success might mean to them. I think you should ask yourself about your own reactions if the Long Now point of view gained massive acceptance, and became a mainstream paradigm.

You need to aim to win.  Aiming to lose is wicked.  It’s very revealing to think that through the consequences of winning.  In one of his best books, almost accidentally, Ruskin reveals what British architecture might look like if he got his own way.  It’s an evil dream of empire where a fascist government licenses swarms of architecture critics like himself, who then closely regulate all public and private dwellings, and restrict all future construction to state-approved styles and dimensions.  When I hear archivists itching to “catalog everything digital forever,” I’m hearing a Ruskinian power fantasy.  It’s utopian and coercive.

Suppose, though, that we were successful in inculcating the habit of responsible social engagement with really long timespans.   If so, then it’s extremely unlikely that there would be only one Long Clock and one Long archive.  This one, the first effort, is hardly likely to be the best one ever built in the next ten thousand years.

So we’re not going to be permitted to make a single sublime gesture which glows like a hard gemlike flame for the next ten millennia.  There is only one Eiffel Tower, but there are dozens of big impressive towers in the world.  There’s the Tokyo Tower, the Seattle Tower, the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai, there’s even a tower taller than the Eiffel Tower in Uzbekistan.  We shouldn’t flatter ourselves.  At the very least, we need to expect a flurry of copycat archives by nutty fringe cults, and tasteless, pirated Long Now T-shirts, and rampant commercialization, and porn films, and drag racers, and wrestlers, and tattoos, and MP3s, and bad cable TV shows, and a Senate hearing chaired by Jesse Helms. [this last has recently become less likely]

Over the longer term, we might surmise that serious, large-scale social resources might be devoted to long-scale archival work.  This means pulling the informational core of society, distilling it down into well-considered, compacted forms, and deliberately projecting it ages into the future.   Not as a lefthanded hobbyist effort like ours, but in a sober and well-considered effort, that has been refined by practice, and by large, industrial-scale expertise.   This would mean genuine victory for our core values.  As people, though, this would make us look very dated and primitive and somewhat pathetic. Like John Ruskin, basically, except that we don’t have to perish in heartbroken despair.  We win. I like this view.  I really prefer to win humbly rather than perish romantically.

Our future equivalents in a Long Now culture would probably be more ambitious and capable than us. That means that 10,000 years is a sissy number.  It’s for pikers, strictly for beginners.   So, they would likely be interested in communicating over geological time-spans with entities that are not human. For instance, they might send thoughtful, well-composed radio signals to galaxies several million light-years off. [SETI does have some efforts like this]

On a smaller scale, they could put archives into cometary orbit, so that they would return every few thousand years, like time capsules, to the vicinity of the Earth.  [Actually one of our language archive disks is now on its way to a Comet on the ESA Rosetta Mission] On a more earthly level, archives could use the message-in-a-bottle method.  They could be sunk into primordial ooze to wait for a change in ancient sea currents.  A more advanced version would be vehicles of solid diamond or fullerenes that could be dropped into continental trenches.  They would then be subducted below the crust of the earth, to ride the currents of lava below the continental shelves, far from any disturbing human influence.   These archives would eventually reappear in volcanoes, hundreds of millions of years in the planet’s future.

But these are not the subtlest methods of building informational arks. There are quieter ones.  One could overwrite chunks of DNA in very long-lived organisms, to embed messages inside living things.  An excellent choice would be the microorganisms that live inside rock.  These Martian-style bugs are very hardy and very slow == they are supposedly able to survive transportation between planets.   A Long Now stellar civilization might make a directed-panspermia effort, where living creatures carry organic life and also carry embedded instructions of some kind.  This may have already happened on our planet.  Now that we can sequence organisms at will, embedded messages might be worth looking for.

The ultimate subtlety, as I can conceive it in my halting, parochial way, is to somehow inscribe an archive into the structure of space-time. The many-worlds hypothesis says that many universes are possible.   We live in a universe like this because we are the kind of entity that can see a universe like this.  The final defeat of time by information would be to create a universe in which meaningful information is embedded in its principles of existence.    This is not a new idea.  This is a very old scriptural idea.  “In the beginning was the WORD.”   Natural philosophers used to read divine intention into everything: John Ruskin was of this school.   It’s also happens to be the logical culmination of two great Stewart Brand aphorisms:  “Information wants to be free” and “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  To embed the WORD into the structure of the Cosmos is an ultimate steganography hack.  We haven’t yet found this innate meaning-in-reality, but we’re not yet done looking.

I suppose that’s about as far as I want to take it tonight.  Thanks a lot for your attention.

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