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Future Speak 

The Long Now Foundation wants to assemble every human language on one nearly indestructible disk -- and, maybe, to last forever

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002
Jim Mason is stout and sturdily built, with a mass of dirty-blond hair that looks like it once hung to his shoulders. On a warm day he wears no shoes around the Long Now Foundation's airy Presidio office. He's an artist who assembles big sculptures out of machine parts in a Berkeley storage yard, and once a year he does pyrotechnic projects for Burning Man. (He's the one who first set up kerosene flamethrowers to spew those high columns of fire you see in pictures of the Burn between 1998 and 2001.) The Long Now Foundation hired him to design and develop a much smaller objet d'art, a nickel "Rosetta Disk" that's supposed to serve as a modern Rosetta stone.

The original Rosetta stone, a basalt slab that helped scholars crack the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics, preserved a decree by Egyptian priests in three different languages. If the Long Now Foundation has its way, by 4002 or so, Mason will be looked on as some ancient, long-dead priest of the third millennium who left behind a key to understanding some ancient, long-dead language -- say, Yiddish.

Exaggeration? Maybe, but not by much. The Long Now Foundation, a future-minded think tank, has a handful of Rosetta-like projects meant to live into what the company calls "Deep Time." There's the "Millennium Clock," designed to last 10,000 years, a prototype of which gonged on New Year's Eve 2000. (It won't chime again until 2100.) There's the "Long Bets Foundation," intended to pay out long-term prophecies with cold cash. And there's the "Long Server Project," which looks into keeping the data on Internet servers available for decades or even centuries. An outfit devoted to Deep Time projects can't very well vanish in the near future, and that poses an interesting problem. "If you look at organizations that have been able to maintain continuity for hundreds of years," says Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired and a co-founder of Long Now, who speaks in a soft voice and lately wears an Amish-style beard, "a lot of them are religions. So the question is, "What do you do to become a religion?'"

The Rosetta Disk is one small answer to the riddle of longevity. An "iconic object" designed to last about 2,000 years, the disk itself is heavy nickel, 3 inches in diameter, and decorated with the words "Languages of the World" swirling around a core of 30,000 microetched pages. The pages contain a small bit of text -- 27 pages from the biblical story of Genesis -- and some basic phonetic and grammatical details, printed in at least 1,000 languages, legible only under a 1,000x microscope.

The first prototype should be ready this fall, packed in a shotputlike metal sphere with a magnifying-glass top. Long Now's idea is to create a durable, attractive piece of art that families might keep as an heirloom. If it survives, Kelly fantasizes, it might even become the basis of a future cult, which would ensure the sphere's safety and perhaps (along with the Millennium Clock and other "icons") turn Long Now into a durable organization.

"I don't think it's an apocalyptic object," Mason says. The Disk might survive a nuclear winter, but planning for a total collapse of civilization isn't the point of Long Now. "There's a variety of purposes for the Disk, from the iconic to the actually functional."

The Disk is already an icon, in fact, for a more awesome project -- a massive effort to collect basic information about every existing language into a single online database, called the All-Language Archive. In some ways the Disk is beside the point: It has led to a practical, down-to-earth venture that may be more important than a bunch of microscopic Genesis translations. What started as a dreamy experiment by a handful of Buckminster Fuller-ish future theorists at a Presidio nonprofit has evolved into a serious effort to preserve the world's dying tongues, and Mason -- to his considerable surprise -- finds himself in charge. Maybe that's why he talks so stiffly sometimes, using a lingo one might call "visionary-bureaucrat." He's not an uptight guy, but he moves around the office with a stressed, intense concentration laid over his native bohemian looseness.

"We found ourselves in possession of a tool," he says, "and a medium" -- the Web -- "that allowed for a collaborative creation of a very broad reference work, one that we're now on the verge of recasting as an attempt to finish one of the [critical] data sets of humanity." (The human genome map would be another major data set.) The goal, he explains, is to create "a record of human languages, tending towards All."

You hear the word "All" a lot at Long Now (along with "iconic" and "data quest"). Founders and employees use it in a way that sounds capitalized -- as if it were a noun. Kelly explains the company's notion of the word: "If you ask the question about what there is on Earth -- any subject, if you ask it on a global level, the answer is, 'We don't know.' How many phones are there in the world? How many miles of road? How many board feet of lumber? How much fresh water? How many fields of corn? ... We don't know anything about our planet at this planetary scale." A census of the planet's telephones might sound to you and me like unknowable nonsense, but Kelly thinks world civilization is ready for such ultimate information. He believes a truly global economy -- when it arrives -- will need intelligence on the level of "All."

Long Now is a 6-year-old foundation devoted to this kind of unconventional thinking about the future. The name (dreamed up by Brian Eno, the former member of Roxy Music who sits on Long Now's board) refers to humanity's current place in world time -- somewhere in the middle -- and the Rosetta Project sprang from a very Long Now-ish series of "thought experiments" about how to keep information safe for centuries. Co-founder Stewart Brand explained the problem of a hypothetical "10,000-Year Library" in a 1998 article for Civilization magazine. Digital storage, he argued, wouldn't work. CD-ROMs are built to last about 15 years; software formats change even faster. "Historians will consider this a dark age," wrote Brand. "Science historians can read Galileo's technical correspondence from the 1590s but not Marvin Minsky's from the 1960s."


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