I haven’t been watching very much television these days; I prefer to play chess or stumble around the internet. But I was at loose ends after picking my son up from his volunteer stage hand gig last night and happened to catch the last 5 minutes or so of Boston Legal. The Shatner character was talking about the importance of being in the now, especially in this age of crumbling ice caps, and Osama sitting in a cave somewhere planning his next attack, impending cancer, fuel shortages, etc., etc. In the face of all that staying in the ‘now’ becomes just that much more important. Be here, now; don’t spend time worrying about the future; enjoy what you’ve got. I liked the idea. It even seemed comforting.
Thinking about it today I was reminded of the ‘long now’, the Long Now Foundation (LNF) and in particular Brian Eno’s essay, ‘The Big Here and Long Now‘. Eno begins by describing a visit to ‘a multi-million dollar palace’ situated in a dilapidated building in a run down neighborhood somewhere in New York. Inside, surrounded by opulence, the resident was very good at living in the now, blocking out or ignoring what lay outside the walls of her ‘palace’. An extremely short term view of life to be sure. But it’s a perspective that seems very popular and, as seen on Boston Legal, even encouraged in our present day culture.
Eno: “‘Now’ is never just a moment. The Long Now is the recognition that the precise moment you’re in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes.”
In 1995, or in LNF parlance, 01995, Danny Hillis wrote an essay on the ‘millennium clock‘ which Eno has dubbed the ‘Clock of the Long Now’. In his piece Hillis gives a great example of long term thinking.
“I think of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford. Last century, when the beams needed replacing, carpenters used oak trees that had been planted in 1386 when the dining hall was first built. The 14th-century builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need replacing.”
This is amazing to me. It is this way of thinking that needs to be reawakened and become part of our everyday thinking, well, now. Enough with the short term gain already. Try the long now, it looks 10,000 years ahead. Hard to fathom for sure. Maybe seven generations into the future like the Ojibway in the Rainy Lake tribal area is a little easier to grasp. How can we start planning for the future like those carpenters at College Hall?
Hillis ends his essay with this:
“I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.”
I’d like to think that we can do this. That we can imagine a more ‘desirable world’. Eno thinks this can be encouraged through art where the ‘imaginative process can be seeded and nurtured by artists and designers’.
Like Hillis I have hope for the future. How about you?