Some of Stewart Brand's ideas seem like a tough sell, but the 75-year-old writer has no trouble pitching them. Lingering on the sidelines during a kickoff event for his "long-term" cultural institution, The Long Now, he expounded on the possibility of resuscitating wooly mammoths and passenger pigeons from scraps of DNA, of creating a "Manual of Civilization" with all the world's most important books, of archiving 1,500 different languages on a disc small enough to hold in your hand. Some of these projects have already come to fruition, Brand says, and others are well within the realm of possibility — there's plenty of habitat up north for the mammoths; there's ample space for the library. The big challenge now is to inculcate a slower, more patient line of thinking in fast-paced San Francisco.
Brand says he isn't concerned about tomorrow; he measures time in 10,000-year increments. He's part of an elder generation of Silicon Valley whose members helped facilitate the high-tech economy, but who are now using their wealth and resources as a salve against it. All over San Francisco, enlightened techies are building communes, eating locally sourced food, and trading in digital currency. Many have fixated on the idea of creating a better landscape for their grandchildren. And great-grandchildren. And generations beyond.
Contemporary San Francisco is even more extreme, perhaps best characterized by the anecdote about the man who pulled a gun on a crowded Muni train but went unnoticed — because all the other passengers were looking down at their smartphones. To people like Brand, that story encapsulates everything that's currently wrong with urban society. Their idea is to create a safe harbor of sorts, where the city's intelligentsia can recoil from the city's ascendant culture.
"Civilization is roughly 10,000 years old — so we're right in the middle of a 20,000-year cycle," Brand says, squinting as an orange beam of sunlight slats through a window on the salon's far wall. "And we have to think about the next 10,000 years the way we think about next week."
Long Now members take that adage literally. In the 1990s, they began designing what they hope will be the world's first 10,000-year clock, a giant, mechanical timepiece built into the side of a mountain in west Texas. Hundreds of feet tall, it's the foundation's version of a perpetual-motion machine — a transfixing maze of stainless steel gears and Geneva wheels, with chimes engineered to ring daily. They hope to ultimately build many such millennial clocks, including one in a mountainous region of eastern Nevada, nestled beneath a grove of 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines. If each clock lasts twice as long as the oldest pine, the Long Now will have fulfilled its purpose.
It's perhaps no surprise that a vast swath of the city's elite — and several newly minted tech-sphere billionaires — have signed on. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who has earned a reputation of late for throwing money into quaint, anachronistic ventures like newspapers, donated $42 million for the 10,000-year clock. Social media entrepreneur Matt Mullenweg is one of the foundation's principal donors. Tech pundit and forecaster Paul Saffer sits on the board. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, digital media mogul Tim O'Reilly, foodie intellectual Michael Pollan, and "open source sex" columnist Violet Blue have all delivered Long Now seminars. So many have been seduced by the concept of slower, protracted time that they've rendered it a social cause. In many senses, it's older Silicon Valley's rejection of younger Silicon Valley jingoism, a dogma that favors conservation over disruption, and urges people to tread carefully, rather than move fast and break things.
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."
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.