Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Layers of Time

Through James Michalko and Stewart Brand, I found my way to Freemon Dyson’s six time scales of survival: the individual (measured in years), the family (measured in decades), the tribe or nation (measured in centuries), the culture (measured in millennia), the species (measured in tens of millennia), and life on the planet (measured in eons).

Somewhat correlative to these time scales, Brand proposes six levels or layers of human civilization, each moving at a difference pace. Moving from the fastest layers to the slowest, these are: fashion/art, commerce, infrastructure, governance, culture, and nature. The faster layers can be more innovative; the slower layers can stabilize and make continuous progress possible (see The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility [Basic Books, 1999], 34ff.).

Michalko contends that libraries, archives, and museums operate at the “deep cultural layer … where we keep time in centuries, in millennia.” Cultural heritage institutions or “memory institutions”

collect, maintain, and provide access to the cultural record. The contents of these institutions are what permit us to reinvent, to innovate, to grow, and to progress at all the other layers of civilization. They inform us about what we know. They help us understand how we govern. They dictate and describe the nature of our infrastructure. They provide the record of our commerce and even shape the fashion and art that we create (“Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Achieving Scale and Relevance in the Digital Age,” RBM 8:1 [2007]: 76).