Thursday, April 05, 2007

Bet on your children...

The Clock of the Long Now Prototype I

An excerpt from an essay on the future and children
by writer Michael Chabon:

I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if
we lost our ability,or our will, to envision anything
beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked
the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future
at all beyond that not-too distant date. Or maybe we
stopped talking about the Future around the time that,
with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles,
it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper
it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac
Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction
without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft,
robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control,
pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction,
US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between
their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in
the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality
television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of
the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from
which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother
with extending it. Meanwhile, the dwindling
number of items remaining on that list—interplanetary colonization,
sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through
brain-download or transplant, a global government
(fascist or enlightened)—have been represented and re-
represented so many hundreds of timesin films, novels and on
television that they have come to seem, paradoxically,
already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind.
Past, in other words. This is the paradox that lies at the heart
of our loss of belief or interest in the Future, which has in
turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future,
anyFuture, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The Future
was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and
characteristic styles of so many historical periods from, say,
Jules Verne forward, that at some point the idea of the Future
—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like
something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.
If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much
thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely
global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—
but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind
of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come.
Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now. The kid is more than
capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next
week, next vacation, his tenth birthday. It’s only the world a
hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank. My son seems to
take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation,
for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not
in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book.
If you had told me, when I was eight, that a little kid of the future
would feel that way—and that what’s more, he would see a certain
justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better
off without human beings in it—that would have been even worse
than hearing that in 2006 there are no hydroponic megafarms,
no human colonies on Mars, no personal jetpacks for everyone. That
would truly have broken my heart. When I told my son about
the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully, and
we looked at the pictures on the Long Now Foundation’s website.
“Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him
without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any
more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating
clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations.
But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in
teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting,
whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now.
They are betting on their children, and their children after them,
and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006.
If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly,
if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry
when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down,
then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children,
I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure
that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren,
and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose
perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose
imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free. And I don’t see how anybody can
force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.

Originally published in Details, January 2006

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