Temporary Becomes Permanent

Most permanent things begin as a temporary fix. A footpath becomes a road becomes a highway. A quick hut becomes a house becomes a hotel. A doodle becomes a logo becomes a brand. A patch becomes an operating keystone. A camp becomes a city.

Very few infrastructure details begin with the idea that they will last 1,000 years. Strange as it sounds it is very likely that some basic software running inside computers  today will be running in computers 500 years from now. We see that conservation in cells, where very primitive metabolic cycles present in archaic cells are still operating in cells today. All the fancy “recent” improvements run upon them. One could imagine that in 5 centuries, parts of unix will be found operating in servers.  But it is clear that no one would be more surprised than the creators of unix. Most creations, including software, are written in less than optimal conditions. Creators always have the idea that they will go back later to fix the many known imperfections. Of course they are never fixed because the shipped rev is “good enough” — and so the temporary good enough becomes a permanent good enough.

This inevitable progression from temporary to permanent was brought to mind on my vacation visit to Washington DC this summer. While touring the large gaudy WWII memorial on the Mall, I noticed a cute bit of popular culture hidden in the back of the stone monument. There in an obscure corner of a staircase on both sides of the oval memorial, a popular graffiti from World War II has been carved into stone. (Not a prank; this is Official Art.)


The unmistakable cartoon Kilroy Was Here began in the US as a temporary chalk marker on ships. It later morphed into a more weatherproof cartoon painted on walls in many countries all over the world. And now it has moved to a lined relief deeply etched into stone, to endure for the ages.

A really lovely art piece would be a long stone wall carved with other popular world graffiti designs. For future enjoyment.

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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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