Friday, October 24, 2003

The Long Now

The foundation called The Long Now has the goal of building a giant clock that will run for 10,000 years. At first glance that seems a rather pointless - though perhaps fascinating - thing to do, but the foundation's goal is to get people to think long term, and I guess 10,000 years is pretty long term.

In addition to promoting long-term thinking, I think it is an interesting idea for another reason, one that I doubt interests the foundation.

Alexis De Tocqueville, who wrote the best book with the most boring title ever written, Democracy in America, wrote a chapter called, "How, When Conditions are Equal and Skepticism is Rife, it is Important to Direct Human Actions to Distant Objects."

In brief (It is well worth reading the chapter in its entirety), De Tocqueville writes that as people lose their hope for eternal life, they limit their minds to the here and now, and to what they can accomplish in very brief periods of time. This focus on trivia, he argues, makes them unfit for accomplishing great, time-consuming tasks.

Therefore, he suggests that leaders and thinkers try to place the objects of their countrymen's ambitions "far beyond man's immediate range." Then, when people become accustomed to thinking into the distant future, he writes, "they can hardly confine their minds within the precise limits of life," and they will start to wonder what will become of themselves. By these means, he writes, people "would be gradually and unconsciously brought nearer to religious convictions."

If that's true, then blessings on The Long Now.

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