Hippie counterculture allowed young people to slough off the conservatism of their parents' generations, but it also paved the way for modern social media: In the 1980s, Brand converted his catalog into a primitive online community called The WELL ("Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link"). In a sense, he helped steer the very technology that accelerated our lives, and now he's reacting to it.

"There's this smooth connection from Whole Earth to The WELL," Long Now spokesman Michael McElligott says, acknowledging that the transition to decamillenial thinking is a little more elusive. Brand launched The Long Now in 1996 with computer engineer Daniel Hillis, another aspiring thought leader with a solid tech pedigree. (Hillis owns some of the key patents on "parallel processing," the use of multiple computer engines to make programs run faster.) At that time, many of their cohorts from The WELL had gone on to be editors at Wired magazine; the Internet had already supplanted brick-and-mortar libraries as an information portal; and e-mail had obviated the need for old-school telephone switchboards. The last copies of the Whole Earth Catalog were sitting, unmolested, in the San Francisco Public Library. Already, paper catalogs had become a relic of the past; Amazon.com had launched two years before.

By all appearances, the Long Now provided an escape from the "short now" created by the Internet. But McElligott insists the two phenomena aren't at cross-purposes. "I think we have a lot of folks who were involved in technology from very early on, who also appreciate having a balance by looking at the other side," he says. He adds that Bezos, the foundation's foremost benefactor and Fortune 500 CEO, "actually runs his business based on long-term thinking."

Brand, who lives in Sausalito, never really cast off the free-wheeling, earthy spirit he had as a young man sponging the cultural practices of Native Americans. He stood by serenely on a Thursday evening in September, when dozens of Long Now members gathered to create a floor plan for the new salon using cardboard. A table in the corner bore sandwich wedges, speared olives, and paper cups of wine; above it was a paper sign that applied long-term thinking to people slicing cardboard with box-cutters: "36 minutes until the Next Accident."
Curious onlookers gather around a planetary display.
The Long Now Foundation
Curious onlookers gather around a planetary display.

A prototype of the 10,000-year clock stood idly in another corner, encased in bubble wrap. According to Brand, it contains limestone excavated from the quarry on Mount Washington, where the real clock is under construction. He plans to furnish the Salon with other artifacts as well, such as the 8-foot Orrery — a planetary display made of nickel-copper alloy and stainless steel. Upstairs, the Long Now staff will install shelves for a 3,500-book library, meant to serve as their Manual of Civilization writ small. "We're evoking the whole apparatus," Brand explains, gazing at the last sliver of sun as it smears a westward window. Outside, ships bob in the ink-blue twilight, and the bay spreads ever-outward like a long, rumpled tarmac.

At present, the Long Now organizers don't have an opening date for their salon, or a definitive timeline for their 10,000-year clock, or a full index for their Manual of Civilization. Yet they seem unconcerned about deadlines.

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