How to make art that lasts 1,000 years

On creating for the Long Now

You’ve been given the greatest of gifts. Immortality. For your work, of course, not for you. We are the first generation of humans whose output: our art, our science, our ideas, our debates, our social lives, our videos and photos, all the data of our existence, will last until the digital age is dust. It really is true that nothing is lost on the internet if you look hard enough (not even these essays). As Napoleon Bonaparte said to his troops in Egypt—“Soldiers, forty centuries look down upon you.” Except the forty centuries that look down on us are the future, not the past. An incredible opportunity has been placed in our laps with barely a remark by anyone. We’re all painting on Lascaux Cave now.

Given the ear of future generations, what will you do with it? To consider a more specific question: what should storytellers and artists, like directors and screenwriters, or sculptors and poets, or fiction authors and essays like myself, do with it? First, we should seriously consider future-proofing our work. And we should do this consciously and explicitly.

Of course, to some degree artistic creators, like filmmakers and novelists, have been trying to adapt their work to fit our fast-moving times. For what precisely would someone from the 1960s make of self-driving cars, cryptocurrencies, drones, augmented reality, or even just iPhones?

The response by creators to time’s quickening flow are generally stumbles in either one of two directions. Consider novels of the 2010s: they seek to either embrace fully the latest social and technological changes (like the explicit bubbles of text messages in Jonathan Frazen’s Purity), or to try to ignore them as much as possible (like how in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch the characters send handwritten letters rather than emails). The result is that The Goldfinch comes across as fantastically ahistorical, whereas Purity seems almost too of-the-moment technologically.

In his 1988 essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” David Foster Wallace wrote:

A fine and contentious writing professor once proclaimed to our class that a serious story or novel always eschews “any feature which serves to date it,” to fix it in history, because “serious fiction is timeless.” When we finally protested that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about in electrically lit rooms, drove cars, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but postwar English, inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he impatiently amended his ruling’s application to those explicit references that would date a story in the frivolous “Now.”

Creators like filmmakers and authors try to move beyond the “Frivolous Now” by using the oldest dramatic structures: the nature of family, of men and women, of children, of death and birth, of love, of hate, of war. But outside of their safety one must engage in intuitive guesswork about what will become eternal or timeless and what will become jabberwocky in years to decades. How much social media should a writer put into their novel? How can the filmmaker craft something contemporary without also immediately dating it to what apps were popular that month?

And this problem of the Frivolous Now gets worse the further in the future one goes. Go watch a movie from the 1970s and most of the references will fly over your head. This is one reason why politics is sometimes corrosive to good art: all news cycles end, and what was once pressing drains into some forgotten episode.

Art’s meaning decays over time just as much as bricks are eroded and entropy does its work on wood. Go see any medieval triptych in a museum, or find any old church frieze. It’ll be beautiful and strange. You’ll probably have no idea what it means. You, like me, are an uneducated barbarian. At least along the axes the artists were expecting. Medieval art, richly steeped in biblical lore, is epistemologically inaccessible to most modern viewers. What was a shared language is now lost.

Almost everything you see from the past is going over your head. Their art, often knowingly surreal and thanatological, wasn’t boring or weird or strange, it’s just that we almost never understand it. And this doesn’t apply to only religious friezes, but to nearly everything from the past.

For instance, I recently reread Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and started to mark the pages where there is a clear biblical allusion that went over my head. This started with the first sentence. “Ishmael” is obviously from the Bible, but I didn’t know it means “God listens.” Nor did I remember that in the Bible Ishmael wanders the desert and is miraculously saved from dying of thirst. Melville’s Ishmael wanders the ocean and is miraculously saved from drowning. In an inversion, land becomes water. Salvation is the opposite element.

There’s still much to get out of Moby-Dick, but clearly a secular read is at some sort of lower-dimensional wavelength. Melville was relying on his readers to share his conceptual web of religious references. He likely thought his allusions would last forever, but most are lost on a majority of readers.

Thomas Kuhn, who argued that science progressed in paradigm shifts, introduced a notion called “incommensurability” in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. When a new scientific paradigm gets introduced, it’s not that old theories and empirical data are all falsified, but rather that previous research becomes incommensurate with the new paradigm. As Kuhn writes:

The normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but often actually incommensurable with that which has gone before.

Stories, art, essays, fictions—they have their own form of incommensurability as well. This often follows an artistic paradigm shift, like from modernism to postmodernism. But it also can occur via slow drift as the links of meaning are broken by too much change in society’s semantic web.

This artistic incommensurability explains why what for Melville was so explicitly not the Frivolous Now, over the long march of history, became precisely that. Back when Moby-Dick was published there was no theory of evolution by natural selection, and only eight years later would On the Origin of Species appear. How might Moby-Dick had changed, had the order been reversed?

The problem of artistic incommensurability is one that that all of us should face—or at least be aware of. I think creators, so recently immortalized on the internet, should seriously consider the perspective of the “Long Now” (a neologism coined in an essay by Brian Eno). The Long Now is the deep future of humanity, hopefully stretching out for thousands of years. For example, the Clock of the Long Now is a gigantic clock built deep in a mountain, designed to keep time for 10,000 years. One imagines architects and sculptors debating durability of materials, interpretation by the future, planning across ten millennia—but no one seems to do this for art, literature, or really any other creative output.

All our works and words become dated to some degree, obviously. But in terms of a shared language of allusions and references and metaphors, how can an artist prevent this as much as possible? How do they plan for The Long Now, how can they future-proof their work and avoid artistic incommensurability? There’s likely a number of ways, but here’s one of the most interesting:

In the past hundred years science has evolved from an occult institution of experts into a popular globe-spanning industry of entertainment, best-selling books, news, gossip, and talking heads. Pope Francis has 18.8 million Twitter followers. Neil deGrasse Tyson? 14.5 million. Neil is quickly catching up to the pontifex, but I think it’s already clear that we already live in an age where the dominant worldview is scientific. Not that we are any more rational, skeptical, or evidence-based than in times past. Obviously, we’re not. But we are scientific in that the double helix of DNA packs as much of a semiotic punch as the symbol of the Christian cross used too. For what do you hear more of these days: to trust in God or to trust in science?

This incredible shift is the result of three factors: a) unprecedented education levels, b) the progression of science such that many of the big facts about how the universe works are known and unlikely to change, and c) the opening up of science’s inherently cloistered nature. Scientific outreach is now celebrated, rather than viewed with suspicion. Even back when Carl Sagan was nominated to the National Academy of Sciences he was rejected to backroom whispers of “too much television.” Now every graduate school department has courses and credit devoted to scientific outreach. People sport science T-shirts on the subway and share photos from the Hubble telescope on social media; even if they are not scientists, their worldview itself is predominately scientific.

If you want to make art for the Long Now, the scientific worldview offers a grab bag with more than enough to fill a frieze: the uncertainty of quantum mechanics, the biblical force of the big bang, the tug-of-war between nature and nurture, that galactic millstone the law of entropy, the twinned nature of space and time, the peaks and valleys of fitness in natural selection, the platonic machinations of Turing machines, and so on. These are shared concepts that will last as long as any physical structure.1 Probably longer.

This represents an opportunity for creators, should they choose to take it. Embrace the scientific worldview. Not that writers should write scientifically, nor just about science, or only in awe of science—how boring! Authors and artists and creatives don’t have to be scientists themselves to make use of these shared references, any more than Melville was a priest or inordinately interested in the Christian tradition. He simply held the Christian worldview—that’s where he was looking out at the universe from.

As an example, let’s look at literature, where it’s arguable a number of writers have been quietly dipping their toes into this “Long Now” of the scientific worldview naturally, all without anyone noticing. Consider the novels Saturday by Ian McEwan, with its focus on biological determinism and medicine; Toward the End of Time by John Updike, thematically steeped in cosmology and physics; White Teeth by Zadie Smith, with its plays on genetics and race and inheritance; Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, exploring DNA and the biological basis of sex and gender; or The Overstory by Richard Powers, with its focus on. . . trees. These novels are not just about science, they take the scientific worldview. This doesn’t make them submissive to science, nor its handmaiden. Instead, they have a playful engagement with it—some criticism, some wonderment, a usage of its metaphors and themes—with the result that they actually end up using science as a shared language to make meaning (if you’re interested in my own attempt, check out my novel The Revelations).

All to say: the scientific worldview provides an opportunity, a set of construction tools, for creators willing to work with these concepts. Used carefully it can future-proof their work. For what in Moby-Dick across clearly after almost two centuries is Melville’s naturalist eye—not his religious one. This is because science has replaced religion as the most universal set of references. With the bonus that the concepts of science are eternal for any future functioning human civilization, since all well-functioning cultures will at least maintain scientific knowledge, even if they stop expanding it. Scientific knowledge is semantically rich, complex, structured, and deployable, just like religious knowledge was. Western civilization is already losing the impact of the cross, but from now until literacy is lost it will know the meaning of the double helix. All to say that one could pick up John Updike’s Toward the End of Time toward the literal end of time, and the quest therein for meaning in an entropic world, as well as a good number of the scientific metaphors and references, likely wouldn’t be lost. The reference of “entropy” simply isn’t going away. The reference of “Ishmael,” sadly, gladly, neutrally, might be.

In recent years I’ve seen a number of creators express dissatisfaction with contemporary culture. They find themselves in a Frivolous Now that is alienating, quicksilver in its ever-shifting mores. But may actually be good to feel this way. Perhaps even an advantage. Find a section of this new eternal cave we call the internet and a bucket of paint squeezed from berries and start making handprints. Because writers and artists not in the thrall of the moment have been given an incredible opportunity. It’s the chance to build something that will last a thousand years.

1

One might object that science is always shifting, infamously a process. This is true, but only at the local microscale of papers and debates of the day. If you zoom out in the abstract space of scientific ideas there have grown towering structures shifting only on their surfaces, like the theory of evolution by natural selection, the mountainous outline of which will hold its shape longer than the pyramids.