Long Now Years: Five-digit Dates and Y10K-compliance at Home

Posted on Tuesday, December 31st, 02013 by Mikl Em
link Categories: Long Term Thinking, Technology   chat 0 Comments

Long Now 10-second Intro animation Conceived by Alexander Rose, James Anderson and Chris Baldwin | Sound by Brian Eno

The Long Now Foundation uses five-digit dates to guard against the deca-millennium bug (the “Y10K” problem) which will come into effect in about 8,000 years. As you may have noticed any reference we make to a year begins with a zero: 01977, 03012, 02000, 00521, 01215, etc.

It’s an idiosyncrasy to which we are dedicated. It’s nerdy fun, but it has a serious point, too. As our co-founder Stewart Brand points out: the present moment used to be the unimaginable future.

Long Now is fond of metaphors. Our 10,000 year Clock will begin to keep time at some point in the future, but it functions today as a viral idea carrying a long-term thinking payload. Once you are aware of the effort to build a clock that will last for 10 millennia you can’t unthink the flood of details that come to mind about that endeavor. “Big Time” becomes more tangible and hopefully you gain perspective on the small chronological units we typically give such weight to in our daily lives.

Our zero is for optimism. The notion that the externalized thoughts we write today may survive myriad years to a time when that fifth digit becomes significant. If we hope to grasp anywhere near that ambitious reach, it will require some forethought. Our five-digit dates represent that.

In the 01998 essay Written on the Wind (published in Civilization magazine) Stewart wrote this about the larger problem of digital obsolescence:

How can we invest in a future we know is structurally incapable of keeping faith with its past? The digital industries must shift from being the main source of society’s ever-shortening attention span to becoming a reliable guarantor of long-term perspective. We’ll know that shift has happened when programmers begin to anticipate the Year 10,000 Problem, and assign five digits instead of four to year dates. 01998 they’ll write, at first frivolously, then seriously.

A sense of humor can be a useful sweetener for novel ideas. We hope the five-place-date draws attention to a larger view of time. And if it inspires a grin in the process that’s perhaps even better.

Our technology has come in layers. You are able to read this sentence because generations of programming has built upon binary foundations. Today’s engineers stand on the shoulders of giants and construct protocols, operating systems, programming languages, data formats… so those who follow can continue the process. And that might suggest there’s an inherent awareness of the future. But if the long view and big picture aren’t considered this chain of code can be its own trap.

Technology has blind spots. Hard code can be brittle. The “Y2K bug” demonstrated this. While that experience may seem fresh, there are already people writing code who were too young to take that lesson first hand.

So think of the extra digit as presupposing the future with a view to realizing our best potential. And underlining the need for considered preparation at an appropriate scale: The Big Here and Long Now (Brian Eno).

We invite you to join us in using 5-digit dates, frivolously or not, to inspire yourself and others to keep thinking in the Long Now. And here’s one way you can play along at home…

10k-compliance at home
Image courtesy of Michael Hohl

At the cusp of a new year, it’s a great time to tweak your Mac’s clock display for 5-digit dates. In 02007 we first noted this post by a Long Now fan which itself dates to 02005.

There are various approaches for displaying leading 0’s on other OS’s. If you have one please post it in the comments.

The preference controls are different in different versions, but here’s the basic gist, using the naming from Mavericks version of OS X:

  • Open “Date & Time” in System Preferences
  • At the bottom of the window, click “Open Language & Text Preferences”
  • Click on “Region”
  • Under “Dates,” click “Customize”
  • From there you can follow the 02007 instructions

Whereas for Yosemite (10.10.1) you click “Language & Region” then “Advanced” then “Dates”. Then add 0’s in the white area between the blue date fields as shown below…

5-digit dates, Y10K complicance on Yosemite


You’ll notice that since we’ve originally posted this we’ve figured out a way to use 5-digit dates on our WordPress blog. Kudos to WordPress for making this easy: just add a zero to the URL pattern in the admin panel. If you’re interested here are more geeky details about how we implemented it. Feel free to fork and improve it!

Happy New Year, and here is to a wonderful 02014 02015! (etc…)

  • Ben

    Five-digit dates are interesting as a metaphor for long-term thinking, but are less so as a means of future-proofing code.

    The first issue is that the way dates are programmed today is already quite future-proof. Most programs store dates as a number of milliseconds from January 1st, 1970 and then turn that number into something pretty when it’s time to show it to the user. This method works for quite some time into the future, on the order of half a billion years with a 64 bit integer, and can be extended without ambiguity if we ever make it that far.

    The second issue is that nobody is going to write the year 10,000 as “0” or “0000” or anything else, because that refers to a year that already exists. Instead, they will simply write the full year, “10,000”. Assuming we are doing less writing by hand in 8000 years, there will be less reason to use the shorter “00”.

    So the five-digit date thing is cute, but I think it’s a distraction from focusing on what be far more difficult challenges for civilization over the next 8,000 years.

  • Jim Snyder-Grant

    The world of Unix/Linux display formats of dates is complex, and slow-changing (there’s at least two standards-processes involved) but if you simply want to make sure to get a 0 prepended to the current year for the next few thousand years to remind yourself of the long times ahead, there’s a variety of hacks available. For example, in a Ubuntu desktop, you can get the 5 digit year in the notification area with these command-lines:
    gsettings set com.canonical.indicator.datetime time-format “‘custom'”
    gsettings set com.canonical.indicator.datetime custom-time-format “‘0%Y-%m-%d %a %H:%M'”

    I’ve tossed in month & day & weekday name & time as well. More data here: http://askubuntu.com/questions/43999/how-to-change-the-date-format

    You can also be more comprehensive and create a new locale or edit your current one to get 0-prepended years. Tutorial here: http://ccollins.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/how-to-change-date-formats-on-ubuntu/

    Edges of the various Unix-like date systems are beginning to accept full 5-digit years for input and display, but it hasn’t made its way everywhere yet. In the mean time, you can use hacks like these.

  • Thanks for the comment, Ben! That’s right, from a technical perspective the five-digit dates are metaphorical. But it isn’t a distraction, in fact it’s a blatant attention-getting device to highlight the problem of a lack of long-term thinking.
    Our priority isn’t solving the Y10K bug or any other single problem. It’s promoting a mindset for better problem-solving for the long-term.
    Sometimes metaphors have a dual effect: as a subject-matter expert you’re focused on a practical solution to replace the merely symbolic one. But our bigger goal is a kind of conceptual enlightenment accessible to anyone including the casual observer.
    Like the Clock, which isn’t promoting horological longevity for its own sake, the hope is that parallels will be drawn by the observer and that the idea will spread. Ultimately that we as individuals and in society can make better decisions if we give the long and broad view more weight. Because the near and immediate are often blind to consequences that we would objectively consider as more important to us.

  • David Mark

    The real problem only ever was not using the full year but representing it with something shorter. If you don’t do that, then there’s never a problem interpreting any year.

    But just to reassure everybody, Dates on the web (in JavaScript) are already safe up to: 275760-09-13 (UTC) and back to -271821-04-20 (UTC). These dates are represented in milliseconds from 1970-01-01 UTC which are 8640000000000000 and -8640000000000000 respectively.

    But I’m sure that in the future, JavaScript or it’s successor will just use a bigger number to represent dates. The current max number in JavaScript is actually 1.7976931348623157e+308 and dates are only using 8.64e+15 of that.

    Indecently, in the article “10 millennia” have been 010 or 0010 or 00010, just like 10.0 or 010.00 or 0000010.000000. We only use the needed amount of precision.

    On a side note, I’ve always thought of time in cycles (search for “polar clock” to see what I mean), but when you cycle an amount of years, what should we choose? 25,772 years (equal to earth’s axial precession) and call it 1 axial? Or go full out and use the galactic/cosmic year?

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