Robert Kimmerle
executive branch in a nation of one

Thursday, August 29, 2002
Two experiments in deep time: the Long Now Project, and the warning-sign project for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump, hosted by

Other than their temporal scale (and related issues, such as how to transmit detailed information to people who will almost certainly speak a language that in no way resembles ours, and so on) the two projects don't have all too much in common, but it's nonetheless interesting to see the contrasts. I first read about Danny Hillis and the Long Now Project during my little Po Bronson phase, and while I think on some levels the concept is doomed to failure it's nonetheless pretty ennobling and a cool thing to try. The single most interesting thing about it as it's evolved is the realization that building a clock that will operate unattended for ten thousand years is not meaningfully different from the perpetual-motion machine, and that incorporating human intervention on a small scale is the only truly feasible way to go; the issue goes instantly from being primarily an engineering problem to a sociological one.

The warning designs for the YMP (and its sister, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico) are something else entirely. I believe that only the United States government could conjure up something like this. For one thing, the EPA in a rare visionary moment decided that whatever warning system was used to keep people away from the dumps would last for a hundred centuries; it's the first time I can imagine a government in any form doing something that might potentially presuppose its own nonexistence. Secondly, it takes the efforts of a truly strange and massive bureaucracy to intentionally design and build a place that is cursed. (Notwithstanding the contents of the dump, that is.) The problem of creating a hellish psychic environment that transcends culturally-defined symbols is probably unique in the history of aesthetics, as well. Gregory Benford's article on his participation in the design of such a place is wildly illuminating. This, I guess, is what happens when the modern organization becomes self-aware.

[Follow-up: Jason and I swatted the YMP thing about, and concluded that the idea's pretty much for shit because someone's bound to stumble across the site at some point, all of the government's nifty probabilistic exercises aside. What the Long Now is proposing might work instead; passing the knowledge down among a small of group of people who live near (but not too near) the site might be a better answer. I haven't read A Canticle for Leibowitz, but it's that kind of thing.]

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