Future Tense

A Tale of Two Clocks

Doomsday vs. the Long Now.

Diptych of the Doomsday Clock reading 100 seconds to midnight and the 10,000 Year Clock prototype.
On the left, the Doomsday Clock, updated on Thursday. On the right, the first prototype of the 10,000 Year Clock, completed on Dec. 31, 1999. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images and Rolfe Horn/The Long Now Foundation.

In 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists turned on the Doomsday Clock. First set at “seven minutes to midnight,” the metaphorical clock reminds us of the extinction-level peril all around us: the threat of global thermonuclear conflict, now along with climate disaster and various other technological threats. This week, the Bulletin updated the clock to 100 seconds to midnight—the closest it has ever been. “In so doing,” the group wrote in a statement, “board members are explicitly warning leaders and citizens around the world that the international security situation is now more dangerous than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War.”

As a grandchild of the Cold War, I learned about the Doomsday Clock not in real life but by reading Alan Moore’s popular 1987 graphic novel Watchmen, upon which Damon Lindelof’s recent HBO adaptation is based. The Watchmen canon dramatizes what can happen when society takes the Doomsday Clock too seriously. In the story, a self-styled superhero named Ozymandias secretly orchestrates an attack on New York City, devised to shock humanity out of the nuclear arms race. The Doomsday Clock ticks forward throughout the novel, and just before it reaches midnight, Ozymandias arranges for the murder of 3 million people by a mysterious villain to unify the world’s nations against a known villain: mutually assured destruction.

Time and clocks are a central motif in the novel and in Lindelof’s new series, which takes place in an alternate history’s 2019. But while the Doomsday Clock itself is nowhere to be found in the show, I was surprised to encounter a different, fictional one called the Millennium Clock. In the new story, a trillionaire (with a T) named Lady Trieu is building an enormous clock outside Tulsa, Oklahoma. To write more would be to spoil the show’s plot and themes, but suffice it to say, Lady Trieu intends the Millennium Clock to transcend the very notion of time.

Whether I was meant to or not, I immediately saw the Millennium Clock as a facsimile for the Clock of the Long Now, a real machine that is currently being constructed in a remote Texas mountainside. The brainchild of Danny Hillis and Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, that clock is designed to tick for 10,000 years. It will be, quite simply, the best clock ever constructed: built to withstand eons of material wear and tear, geologic disturbance, and social, political, and technological change.

The two clocks struck me as each other’s true opposites: one engineered to actually function for generations, the other designed to metaphorically tick toward a frightening endpoint. But the more I’ve thought about them, the more I’ve come to consider their similarities. Each clock is meant to reorient humanity’s conception of time—no easy task. Each turns our gaze toward some imagined future, and as my colleague Ted Nordhaus recently paraphrased from the original Orwell, “who controls the future controls the present.” If doomsday really lurks around the corner, that demands an emergency footing today. If, instead, we’re planning for the Long Now, we need to hunker down (or, for the more optimistic among us, to simply relax).

Your mileage may vary. The clocks’ creators and caretakers have their own intentions, of course. But if these time-telling symbols are to have any meaning at all, then they do have to exist—and keep existing. That is elemental to the construction of the Clock of the Long Now, which is designed to withstand all manner of human and natural catastrophe. But it is also true, I submit, of the Doomsday Clock, which has not actually moved ever closer to zero but oscillated, ticking from seven minutes to midnight to two minutes to 17 minutes and back and forth for decades.

I confess myself a Clock of the Long Now partisan. I find it hopeful and generative. “The message that we hope is conveyed is ‘the people before us cared,’ ” as the clock’s designer, Alexander Rose, phrased it.

Doomsday, on the other hand … well, scour my Twitter feed and you’ll find more than a few ungenerous descriptions of the Doomsday Clock. I find it not merely catastrophist but fatalistic, communicating that humanity can at best merely teeter slightly toward and away from its own extinction.

When the Doomsday Clock was created, elites and the general public alike considered nuclear doomsday a real possibility. But since the finger-on-the-button fears of the Cold War have passed into history, the Bulletin has had to add more prosaic risks to the clock’s portfolio. Climate change. Biotechnology. Cyberwarfare. Geoengineering. Say what you will about the very real risks posed by these, but it’s hard to argue their threats are as immediate as nuclear holocaust. As Will Boisvert wrote in the Breakthrough Journal (which is published by my organization, the Breakthrough Institute),

The Doomsday Clock reduces risk to a single simplistic dimension of danger; that’s what makes it such a brilliantly compelling meme. But the technologies it spotlights form multidimensional landscapes of risk and benefit that cannot be intelligibly parsed in such a way.

In the meantime, while the Doomsday Clock has tocked back and forth over the decades, humanity has not only averted apocalypse but, in many ways, thrived. Contrast the visualization of the Doomsday Clock with the visualizations at Our World in Data, which show substantial improvements in human life expectancy, literacy, health, wealth, and other measures of well-being.

This progress must, of course, be measured against the very real and persistent challenges posed by inequality, violence, political and cultural polarization, and ecological devastation. But to the ticking of the Doomsday Clock, it’s precautionary principle and panic all the way down. Flavors of a depressing Hegelian eschatology put me off the thing for years.

More recently, though, as I have shed some of my confidence in what the future holds, I’ve made a practice to sit with uncomfortable knowledge. And buoyed by that practice, soaking in Lindelof’s Watchmen over the past few months, I felt obligated to reconsider Doomsday.

I have my own vision, after all, of what a bright future might look like. We all unavoidably imagine our own utopias. And what are doomsdays and dystopias but inverted utopias? If we can create useful utopias, making progress toward them if never quite reaching providence, then surely we can create useful doomsdays, cautioning against our worst impulses but, hopefully, stopping short of outright paralysis.

Now you might, as I do, find the messaging around doomsday distasteful and demoralizing. But there may also be danger too in thinking too long-term. As Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner show in their book Superforecasting, in a theme seen throughout Tetlock’s work, humans routinely fail at predicting the future even a few years out. Fixating on a future long beyond the lives of our great-great-great-grandchildren might be as defeatist as worrying about apocalypse with every little advance made by human societies.

Besides, it is an established sociological and economic phenomenon that humans discount the future substantially. It is all well and good to make philosophical arguments for flattening the moral weight of living humans and their descendants. Scholars across the political spectrum have done so, from environmental economist Nicholas Stern to libertarian sage Tyler Cowen. But actual decisions made by consumers, businesses, and governments are, almost necessarily, made with some immediate future in mind.

And while long-term planning, forecasting, and maintenance are all wise, making decisions based on short-term dynamics may not be the worst thing in the world. As anyone who lived through 2016 can tell you, society changes faster than some long-term planners might like to believe. Operating in the now, as well as the Long Now, makes at least some sense.

But whether it’s against myopia, utopia, or doomsday, someone must think of the children. While in the long run, as they say, we’re all dead, society spins along. “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.” So says Dr. Manhattan, an immortal stand-in for Superman in the Watchmen story. Manhattan, Moore’s obvious critique of the Nietzschean übermensch, is admonishing Ozymandias’ Hegelian ambitions of a permanent peace. The genocide Ozymandias orchestrated to avert nuclear doomsday had merely restarted the cycle under a new regime of fear.

The lesson is clear: Neither history repeating nor the End of History is really an end state. As the creators of the Clock of the Long Now will be the first to tell you, even 10,000 years is the blink of an eye in the history of existence. And while a few radicals might fear a literal doomsday—think the doomsday preppers, or the Extinction Rebellion climate activists—the abstract, unrealized concept of doomsday will remain with us forever, whether there’s a clock or not.

Perhaps the path forward lies in rejecting the maximalist interpretation of both clocks. Robust planning and informed caution are, hopefully, the answers to myopia and catastrophism.

I predict both impulses will be with us for a while. The Clock of the Long Now was created to tick forever, after all. And in its own way, so was the Doomsday Clock.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.