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Stones, Clocks, and What We Should Actually Leave Behind – carallumaactives-direct

Stones, Clocks, and What We Should Actually Leave Behind

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Are we going to be OK? I am asked this, as a cofounder, in many different ways by many people, every day. ­People have an infinite desire to hear that they are OK. It makes better content than anything on HBO. We hold an all-company videoconference and put up a slide that says “We are OK.” That slide is better than Game of Thrones.

And we, meaning our little software studio, are, so far. My cofounder is an actual war refugee from Lebanon. He guards the company as if it’s a village under siege. Now his paranoia looks more like wisdom. Because we are a village under siege. Employees get on a big videoconference, dozens of them in little panels onscreen, and share their houseplants. Kids, dogs, cats, birds, and spouses wander in and out of the frame.

When you read this, a couple of weeks after I write it, you’ll know how bad it’s going to be. You are a hundred times more knowledgeable than I, and I envy you. Right now the entire country is waiting for the hospital to call with its test results. Did we flatten? Just as worried as everyone else, I make animated GIFs that say “Remember there are good surprises!” and put them in Slack. It’s my job to be an absolute damned rainbow, a blabbering Panglossian cheesy-­uncle hope­beast. The first thing coronavirus kills is irony, at least at the level of management.

At night, in my awkward bedroom office, after Slack has gone to bed, I turn to this one Wikipedia page that lists the oldest extant companies. Some of them have made it for centuries, and a few for more than a millennium. Reading it is pure comfort. These institutions have outlasted bad leadership, wars, uprisings, ungrateful employees, and plague. They’re so resilient that their continued existence has become their defining attribute, like the very old veterans of long-ago wars. Each old company does familiar work: construction, brewing, hat making, banking. Food, shelter, clothing, money. The older the culture, the older the companies, with Japan in the lead—Kongō Gumi is a construction firm founded in the 500s (but acquired in 2006).

Back at work, a potential client—they hold big cultural events—emails that they’re pausing their project. Of course, I respond. Whoosh goes the economy. Hunched in my chair, wearing bright clothes to lighten the mood, with my voice creaking from a cold (not the ‘rona, I swear), I keep trying to close a deal.

We have this one client who did years of research into global warming and engaged us to build a platform to “share vivid representations of what’s coming.” What’s coming, as you know, is not wonderful. So in we went, clomp clomp with our big digital feet, making software, setting dates, asking for copy for the website. Demonstrating value. Finally this client, voice serious, called and asked us—and this has never happened—to stop working so hard. We need you to do this with us, they said, not for us. Which of course means I have to think—the one thing I can’t delegate.

In this case—plucked momentarily out of my world of cheerful grind and forced to contemplate the end of the world, professionally—it came as a weird relief. A welcome chance to look reality in the eye and shake its hand. (This was before the pandemic.) Because we all know it’s coming. We all know that the world is ending. It’s what makes our society different. Not even the Romans could claim that.

Still, we push ahead. Over the past few decades a number of people, including some very powerful ones, built a clock in the desert meant to run for 10,000 years. It’s a project intended to make people think about long stretches of time, about the longevity of institutions. Obviously, well, that part of the project is not working. But it’s still a big clock and I love it. Tick, tock. I think about it and about the old companies.

Perhaps you’ve seen the long-term nuclear waste warnings, which researchers developed in the 1980s, creating the field of nuclear semiotics. Our radioactive trash will last much longer than any culture, so the idea was to create pictographs and a language to warn our progeny away from atomic waste. Some future person dressed in elk fur with a spear made from a Chrysler bumper will peer at those markings and take a picture with their phone.

Over hundreds of years the people of Japan left stones to tell future builders the high-water mark of tsunamis. They’re … just stones. Some are engraved. They’re nice stones. And they just left them there.

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