Long Bets: A Vegas for Wonks

I would hazard to guess that most of us have experienced a change in how we perceive time during the Pandemic Year of 2020. Generally speaking, time in the moment is perceived as stable and predictable, organized by school, work and other routine activities. Over lifetimes, our perception of time seems to accelerate — as children we enjoy the luxury of the eternal now, but as we age, our days, weeks, months and years seem to increasingly fly by. This is an actual phenomenon; scientists aren’t sure why it happens but they’re working on some theories. Here’s one.

During the pandemic, our sense of time has been distorted. It’s sped up (“Where did the day go?”) and slowed down (“Is this ever going to end”), sometimes simultaneously. Time turned elastic, to quote a Phish song (“In and out of focus/Time turns elastic”).

Over at the Long Now Foundation, they’re unbothered by any of this. They’re thinking long term. I mean, really long term.

Jeff Bezos and the 10,000 Year Clock

One of the big projects of the Long Now, founded in 1996 by Stewart Brand, Danny Hillis and a few other intellectual renegades, is the 10,000 Year Clock. Funded in large part by Jeff Bezos, the clock will be powered by mechanical energy harvested from sunlight as well as the people who visit it. It will be very large and made from marine grade 316 stainless steel, titanium and dry running ceramic ball bearings. The finished clock will be installed in an underground facility in west Texas.

Why? Good question.

The Long Now Foundation’s mission is to inculcate long-term thinking — very long-term thinking — with the goal of promoting more responsible and sustainable decision-making. There is no set completion date for the clock. It will be done when it’s done, and then run for 10,000 years. Just to give you a sense of time, about 10,000 years in the past, the Holocene geologic period was kicked off by a period of global warming. Humans were just beginning to domesticate cattle and mammoths went extinct. In other words, a lot of stuff happens in 10,000 years. But in theory, the Big Clock will be running in 12,021 — that is if we’re still around (in that respect, the 10,000 Year Clock is an exuberantly optimistic project).

In this context of big-picture, long-term thinking, the Long Now Foundation has created another project, a sort of Las Vegas for wonks. It’s a place where people can make wagers on long-term predictions — Long Bets, they’re called. If you want to expand your sense of time and amuse yourself for half-an-hour, peruse the website. Want to make a wager as to whether 50 percent of England will be vegan by 2030? You can do it there. Want to bet on whether civilization will survive to 2100? You can do it there. Wagers are relatively small. The average payout is somewhere in the three-figure range, so the cost of entry is reasonable.

Women’s World Cup hero Carli Lloyd flirted with the NFL but came up short.

There’s a catch. Some of the timelines on the bets are very long. So you’ll have to be patient. Here’s an example. In 2008, Nils Gilman challenged a prediction by Thomas Leavens, a Chicago attorney, that by the end of 2020, a professional sports team that was part of either the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the NHL or MLS would have a woman on their regular-season roster. Gilman won the $500 bet (although it was close; Lauren Silberman tried out for an NFL team in 2013 and soccer genius Carli Lloyd flirted with the NFL).

Despite the massively delayed gratification, it’s amusing to consider the Long Bets — they’re effective springboards to imagine what the future will be like. Here are some highlights, including the timeline of each wager. Note that in the interest of JEP’s mission to entertain as well as inform I’ve selected some of the more mainstream bets.

—By the end of 2035, there will be at least one human living on Earth who has walked on Mars (14 years). Or the opposite approach: No human will set his or her foot on Mars and return safety to earth before 2050 (29 years).

—By 2050, the U.S. will have passed an amendment abolishing patents and copyrights, OR there will be a patented medical product that will be considered responsible for 5 million American deaths (28 years).

—American Social Security will remain intact through 2050 (29 years).

—The first female president of the U.S. assumes the office by succession due to circumstances directly caused by a global pandemic (30 years).

—By the end of 2025, multiple major media outlets will have argued that the worldwide response to Covid-19 was the most expensive overreaction in human history (5 years).

—A godfather of one of the Duke & Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan’s children will be Barack Obama (open-ended).

—In 2029, the U.S. will consume less total energy than it did in 2019 (8 years).

—By 2030, China will lay an ownership claim to the entire moon (9 years).

—By 2036, there will be at least one man alive in the U.S. who has fathered 150 children (15 years).

—By 2032, in response to studies correlating interactive media consumption with impairment of cognitive development, the U.S. will have passed legislation restricting access by minors to digital interfaces.

And here’s a very long-term bet: By 2700, quantum computing and quantum networks will allow us to communicate with alternate timelines and dimensions (which begs the question of who would make a wager when you’re not around to collect it; and do they even honor bets in alternate dimensions).

These are all outgoing bets. Looking back, there have been plenty of clunkers.

—There will be a commercial-free, premium internet service offering by a relatively unknown company by 2015.

—By 2015, Tesla will sell an electric car for less than $30,000.

—By 2020, Iranian women will become the dominant force in Iranian politics and kick out the concept of a Supreme Leader.

—By 2011, the California state government will dissolve in default.

The Long Now’s Rosetta Disk

Besides Long Bets and the 10,000 Year Clock, Long Now has a third project to support the cataloging of human knowledge through libraries. The Foundation’s Rosetta disk, for instance, fits in the palm of your hand yet contains more than 13,000 pages of information on more than 1,500 human languages microscopically etched and then electroformed in solid nickel. You can have one of these for your very own for a modest donation of — what else — $10,000.

So the next time you feel rushed and harried, just take a breath and remember — time can be very long indeed if you just look at it right.

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