Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and a clutch of like-minded folks are constructing a monumental clock that’s designed to last for 10,000 years. Its purpose, apparently, is to be an icon of “long-term thinking” and inspire people to dream far beyond the limited scope of a human lifetime.
The project is the brainchild of computer scientist Danny Hillis who first drummed up the idea in the 1980s. Writing in an essay for WIRED Magazine in 1995, Hillis explained: “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every 100 years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium… If I hurry, I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.”
His plan didn’t remain a lofty pipedream. To get the ball rolling, Hillis partnered up with Stewart Brand and founded the Long Now Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to “foster long-term thinking.” They’ve received support from Bezos, who’s reportedly injected $42 million into the construction of the giant clock.
"Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span [...] Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed,” Brand said in a post explaining the philosophy of the clock.
“Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think,” he added.
The 10,000-Year Clock will be “hundreds of feet tall,” although there’s no word yet on exact measurements, and will sit deep within a mountain in West Texas. It will feature dozens of vast dials that are built to last and a chime generator, which has been designed by ambient music wizard Brian Eno.
Installation of the clock began in 2018 (or the year 02018 as the Long Now Foundation likes to call it). However, preparation work – namely excavating the site for the clock – started long before. In 2012, Bezos released an update explaining they had just finished digging the 152-meter (500-foot) deep vertical shaft for the clock.
According to the project’s website, no completion date has been set. I guess there’s no rush if you think in millennia-long timespans. For the time being, there is a scaled-down prototype of the clock on display at the Science Museum in London.
The 10,000-Year Clock has its critics. For some, the clock is a demonstration of ivory tower thinking, Silicon Valley utopianism, and obscene wealth. WIRED, which gave the clock its first public debut, published an article in 2020 titled The 10,000-Year Clock Is a Waste of Time, which denounced the project as a "Gilded Age distraction".
But hey, let’s see who’s laughing in 10,000 years.